The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Abubakar Malami, SAN, on Tuesday, said the effective deployment of plea bargain provisions would reduce the financial cost of prosecutions and hasten the trial of corruption cases. However, the AGF, said there was a need for harmonized guidelines on plea bargaining that would be adopted by all Federal Prosecutors.
He maintained that the concept of plea bargaining, when properly applied, would eliminate the uncertainty of trials, enhance the quick return of stolen assets, and generally enhance the efficiency of the criminal justice system. In his opening remarks at the virtual stakeholders’ roundtable to review the draft guidelines on plea bargaining for federal Prosecutors, which held on Tuesday, Malami, who was represented by the Solicitor-General of the Federation, Mr Dayo Apata, SAN, noted that there are lacunas in existing statues that okayed the use of plea bargain in criminal trials. He said:
“You will recall that the purpose of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA), 2015, as detailed in section 1(1) is to guarantee that the system of administration of criminal justice in Nigeria: promotes the efficient management of criminal justice institutions; ensures speedy dispensation of justice, protects the society from crime; and protects the rights and interests of the suspect, the defendant and the victim.
“One of the major innovations of ACJA aimed at achieving these objectives is the introduction of a plea bargain which is defined in section 494(1) as: ‘the process in criminal proceedings whereby the defendant and the prosecution work out a mutually acceptable disposition of the case, including the plea of the defendant to a lesser offence than that charged in the complaint or information and in conformity with other conditions imposed by the prosecution, in return for a lighter sentence than that of the higher charge subject to the court’s approval.
“Section 270 of the ACJA (2015) provides the general legal framework for the application of Plea Bargain. “I believe that this provision can also be effectively deployed to address the compounding of offences which features in some statutes but without any procedural detail to aid its application. “This lacuna is responsible for abuses in compounding of offences which had strengthened the current public scepticism about plea bargaining in general”.
Malami stressed that inspire by the laudable provisions of section 270 of the ACJA, the provisions are still inadequate to guide the prosecutor and the defendant in reaching a plea bargain that ensures the protection of public interest, the interest of justice and prevents abuse of legal process. He said it was due to lacunas in the existing laws that informed the development of the Draft Guidelines. “The Draft was developed by the Administration of Criminal Justice Reform Department in collaboration with Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption Programme (RoLAC) and other distinguished experts.
“As you are well aware, the Justice system in our nation is presently fraught with a lot of challenges which prolong adjudication time and most times frustrate parties. “The effective deployment of Plea Bargain provisions will, therefore, reduce the financial cost of prosecutions, hasten the trial process, eliminate the uncertainty of trials, enhance the quick return of stolen assets, and generally enhance the efficiency of the criminal justice system.
“The purpose of the Draft Guidelines is to promote standardization and consistency in Plea Bargain (including the compounding of offences) by Federal Prosecutors as well as ensure that the principles of accountability, equity, integrity, and transparency are observed in reaching plea bargain agreements across board.
“The Draft provides further support to the existing Code of Conduct and Prosecutorial Guidelines for Federal Prosecutors which generally regulate the conducts and actions of Federal Prosecutors in the exercise of their prosecutorial discretion”, Malami added. He described the development of the Draft Guidelines as one of the strategic interventions by the Federal Ministry of Justice towards ensuring lasting reforms in the Criminal Justice Sector in Nigeria.