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Senate empowers FCT customary courts to try criminal cases

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Senate empowers FCT customary courts to try criminal casesA bill that would empower customary court judges in the Federal Capital Territory, FCT to hear and try certain categories of criminal cases, passed second reading on Thursday in the Senate.

The proposed legislation, which was read for the first time on Thursday, February, 27, 2020, seeks to amend the Federal Capital Territory Customary Court Act, 2007 also seeks to reduce quorum of judges during court sessions from three to one.

Sponsor of the bill, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele (APC Ekiti Central), explained while presenting it that the essence of the amendments was to promote timely dispensation of justice.

Bamidele, who is the chairman, Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, added that the amendments would help to expand the jurisdiction of the court to include the trial of criminal matters.

He further stressed that the alterations would “help to de-clog the dockets of magistrate courts in the Federal Capital Territory”,

“The primary objective of this bill, is to amend the Federal Capital Territory Customary Court Act, 2007 (“the Principal Act”) No. 8 of 2007.

“It will among other things, alter the quorum of the FCT Customary Court (‘the Court’) from minimum number of three to one member. This is intended to promote timely dispensation of justice.

“Furthermore, to expand the jurisdiction of the court to include the trial of criminal matters in order to de-clog the dockets of magistrate courts in the Federal Capital Territory.

“In moving for the approval of this bill, I am particularly persuaded by the compelling need to reduce the quorum of the court from three members to one in order to avoid unnecessary postponement of trials.

“The expansion of the jurisdiction of the court to include criminal trials, as proposed in this bill is also in tandem with trends in the jurisdiction of customary courts in many ports of the country.

“It should be emphasized that customary courts in other parts of the country are now contributing immensely to criminal justice administration.

“For instance, Section 3 of the Lagos State Customary Court Law recognises the limited criminal jurisdiction of the Logos State Customary Court.

“Also, customary courts have been vested with criminal jurisdiction in Akwa-Ibom State and many others.

“To bring the FCT Customary Court at par with the Customary Courts in other parts of the country, this bill prescribes the criminal jurisdiction of the Court in Part II of the Schedule to the Bill by specifying offences and punishments cognizable by the court.

“The approval of this bill will ease the pressure on magistrate courts in the FCT and it will also strengthen the right of accused persons to be arraigned in court within a reasonable time as recognised under section 35 ( 4) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended.

“It is regrettable that while the Constitution provides that a person arrested or detained upon reasonable suspicion of committing a criminal offence should be brought before a court of law within two to three months of his arrest or detention, congestion of courts’ dockets have made compliance with this constitutional provision impracticable.

“The approval of this bill will therefore have a positive impact on the desire of law enforcement agents to comply with this constitutional requirement,” he explained.

The bill, according to Bamidele, also proposes to amend Part II of the Schedule to the Principal Act to specify categories of offences and terms of imprisonment or fines that can be imposed by the FCT Customary Court in exercise of its proposed criminal jurisdiction.

“If this bill is passed, offences that attract maximum prison term of seven years or maximum fine of N500,000 or both will now be tried by the FCT Customary Courts without prejudice to the jurisdiction of magistrate courts in the FCT.

“I wish to state here that this Bill has no additional burden on the treasury of the Federal Government if passed into law,” he further stressed.

In his remarks, the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, referred the bill to the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters for further legislative actions.

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