By Adekunbi Bakare
Across the globe, especially in the developed world, the idea of specialized courts has proven to have enhanced the performances of their judicial processes and this has made these countries reference points for quick dispensation of justice, fairness and functional legal systems. Indonesia and Malaysia provide interesting case studies on this. They established constitutional courts, administrative courts, commercial courts, land courts, fisheries courts and tax courts.
The recent disclosure by the Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Opeyemi Oke, that over fifty percent of cases in Nigerian courts today borders on corrupt practices and sexual abuse is not only shocking but calls for a more strategic approach to reverse the status quo. While the volumes of court cases continue to increase on a daily basis, the number of available Judges to preside over these litigations remains grossly inadequate; in fact, the few Judges are sometimes confronted with the challenge of administering cases that do not fall within their core scope of jurisdiction in the absence of a specialist Jurist. The challenges posed by these developments are multifaceted, ranging from skyrocketing court cases, non-appearance by litigants, unavailability of witnesses, inadequate judges, ceaseless adjournments and many more.
Unlike other legal issues, sexual abuse is an offense that requires speedy judgment considering its vicious effect and irreparable emotional damage on its survivors and the possibility of grooming more potential abusers if stringent punishment is not meted out to the perpetrators to serve as deterrent to others in a swift and appropriate manner. In the same vein, the issue of corruption is also another monster that has left the country in a state of perpetual underdevelopment up till now. One cannot dispute the fact that if the war against corruption is won, so many other things will start falling in their rightful places for all Nigerians.
Demonstrating its resolve to signal a tougher warning to individuals and masterminds of sexual abuse and corruption, Lagos State Government recently inaugurated special Sexual Offences and Corruption Courts to solely administer corrupt cases and sexual related issues. In addition to this, core professional lawyers on issues relating to sexual abuse and corrupt practices have been designated to preside over cases in these courts.
According to statistics, there are over 500 cases of financial crime pending before the High Court, the bulk of which have now been assigned to the Special Offences Courts. The introduction of the Special Courts will make it possible for other regular courts in the State to concentrate on other legal issues. It will aid quick dispensation of justice in these courts.
In an article entitled ‘A Five Year Analysis of Police Records on Sexual Related Offences in Lagos State, a study documented the sexual offences reported at the Metropolitan Lagos State Police Commands from 1999 to 2004. It was stated that a total of 691 sexual offences were reported during the period.
Although there are legislative instruments to combat the menace of domestic/sexual violence, they have become almost ineffective in curbing the rising tide of sexual assault. In Lagos alone, the number of reported cases of sexual offences has increased significantly, at present, there are about 600 pending sexual offences cases in the High Courts and these do not include those filed in the Magistrates Courts.
Several amendments have been made under the existing Criminal Law of Lagos State, 2015 which were borne out of the understanding of the lawmakers that sexual attacks in recent times are becoming rampant and more perverse. One of such amendments is the provision of life imprisonment for sexual abuse or defilement of a child and the removal of the clause that a person could not be convicted for the offence of sexual abuse or its attempt upon uncorroborated testimony of one witness.
Another boost for the war against sexual abuse and corrupt practices in Lagos State is the already existing DNA Forensic Lab. Issues of denial or lack of scientific evidence which had in the past paralysed the efforts of the law to determine who a real sexual offender is and subsequently bring the person to book would no longer impede effective delivery of justice.
In addition to this, the Lagos State Government also operates a mobile court where some minor cases are tried swiftly. Lagos has a Special Task Force for land matters, the Citizens Mediation Centre, and the Public Advice Centre among several others. All these agencies provide different legal services in line with the prison decongestion drive of the state government such that only severe and serious cases actually get to the regular courts. The efforts of these agencies are also being complemented by the Ministry of Youth and Social Development, the Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, WAPA, as well as the Lagos State Sexual and Domestic Violence Response Team, DSVRT.
The establishment of the Lagos Special Courts further bring to the fore the renewed attention which the State Government is paying to the elimination of all forms of heinous crimes against humanity. These Special Courts will, among other functions, fast track the trial of identified special cases and encourage the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and other relevant bodies like Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) to expedite the investigation and prosecution of such cases.
Although the possibility of totally ridding the society of these vices remains a very long term vision, one way to ensure that the society follows the path of civility is by ensuring that the legal system works and is sensitive to the needs of the survivors. When a perpetrator of rape receives the sentence of life imprisonment as provided for in Lagos State, it sends a clear signal to perpetrators that such actions would not be tolerated in the society. It will also encourage more survivors to break their silence which will in turn lead to more perpetrators being prosecuted.
Bakare writes from Lagos.
It is high time we realised that sexual abuse does not only affect the individual. It affects the family and the community at large. Collectively, we need to give support to the survivors while ensuring that perpetrators are held responsible for their criminal acts according to the law.
As the journey towards a corruption and sexual abuse free Lagos has resumed, the vision of a more prosperous Lagos is not only feasible but would be swiftly accelerated with a more functional judicial system that will instill confidence in investors for a handsome return on their investments in the State.
*Adekunbi Bakare, is Public Affairs Officer, Lagos State Judiciary, Ikeja.