Lagos jaw-jaw with stakeholders on plea bargain

Mr Moyosore Onigbanjo

Mr Moyosore Onigbanjo (SAN), Lagos State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice

The Lagos State Ministry of Justice through the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on Friday held a stakeholder’s meeting to enhance and promote plea bargain and district prosecutor’s scheme of the state government.

This is part of its efforts in the continuous decongestation of correctional facilities across the State and ensuring quick dispensation of justice.

Addressing participants at the meeting which was an hybrid version of both physical and online, the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr. Moyosore Onigbanjo (SAN) said the meeting presented an opportunity to create more awareness about the Plea Bargain and the District Prosecutors Scheme as well as a platform to receive feedback from stakeholders on how to improve and further strengthen the Plea Bargain and District Prosecutor Scheme.

According to the Attorney General, The District Prosecutor Scheme took off in April 2020 following the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Police Prosecutors at the Magistrate Courts, chaired by Mr. Fola Arthur-Worrey (former Attorney General Ministry of Justice), to set up a review mechanism that will ensure residents are not unnecessarily detained for charges that are civil in nature.

“Based on these recommendations, Mr. Governors approval was sought and with the cooperation of the Lagos State Judiciary, the Ministry of Justice deployed District Prosecutor’s to three (3) Magistrates Courts (Ebute-Metta. lkorodu, Ogba) to vet charges prior to filing and ensure case files submitted for remand meet the evidential threshold required by law.

“Seeing the huge impact of this scheme, Lagos State Government extended the services to all Magistrate Court Houses across the State”. Onigbanjo said.

The commissioner also stated that plea bargain has served as an important tool to keep the wheel of justice moving in a timely and cost-effective manner as it has helped decongest the extremely congested correctional facilities in the State as available data reveals that the facilities exceed their capacity by 100% with inmates awaiting trial at 85%.

“To demonstrate our commitment towards the exercise, we took plea bargain a step further about four (4) months ago, when i led a team of Lawyers to the Kirikiri Maximum Correctional Facility for a Plea Bargain sensitization exercise where more than 15 plea Bargain Agreements were executed onsite and sanctioned immediately by the Judges through Virtual Hearing”.

Onigbanjo reiterated the present administration’s commitment to enhancing the administration of criminal justice in the State with the implementation of the use of video conferencing in criminal proceedings, magistrates visits to police stations monthly, prohibition of media parade of suspects, remote hearing, award of compensation to victims of crime, among others.

He, however, sought the continued cooperation and partnership of stakeholders to implement the laudable initiatives.

The Solicitor General and Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Ms. Titilayo Shitta-bey stated that the State Government has done a lot to improve on its administration of justice system with the various innovations designed by the state which has set the pace for other states.

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According to her, the Plea Bargain has also assisted in the decongestion of prisons and promotion of speedy dispensation of justice in Lagos State which is not restricted to particular persons but for everyone irrespective of the person’s status (rich or poor/illiterate or literate), race and tribe.

She also stated that the Ministry recently introduced District Prosecutor’s Scheme following the recommendation of a committee set up by the Attorney General and has created district prosecutor offices in magisterial districts in the state to screen and vet charges before cases are filed and assigned to the magistrate courts.

The Director Public Prosecution, Lagos State Ministry of Justice, Mrs Adeyinka Adeyemi noted that the essence of the workshop is to eliminate the perceived misconception on plea bargaining hence the need for the sensitisation programme of stakeholders in the legal community as well as the public.

She however reiterated that the application for plea bargaining is free while noting that over 500 applications have been reviewed and considered.

The State program coordinator of The Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption (RoLAC) program, Mrs. Ajibola Ijimakinwa noted that the body has partnered with the State’s ministry of justice on plea bargain with the training of judges, magistrates and prosecutors and also the development of a plea bargain manual to sensitise lawyers and also judicial correspondents on how to report plea bargain processes and outcomes accurately.

She commended Lagos State for being a pacesetter in the administration of criminal justice system while urging other states in the federation to emulate the giant strides achieved by the State.

Reiterating the importance of the District Prosecutor’s Scheme, a guest speaker and  former Attorney General and Permanent Secretary Ministry of Justice, Mr. Fola Arthur-Worrey stated that the District Prosecutor (DP) duty is to ensure that the Attorney General prosecutorial mandate is properly represented at the district level, and that only cases that satisfy the “reasonable suspicion” clause of the 1999 constitution and the “probable case” provision of the ACJL are allowed to pass through the vetting process and end up before the magistrate for trial or remand.

This he noted will reduce the issue of congestion of cases while abuse of prosecutorial power would be checked and matters concerning actual suspects will proceed speedily.

In his submission, an Associate Professor of Public law at the University of Lagos, Dr. Akeem Bello said that one of the strategies to decongest correctional facilities is the periodic review of case dockets to identify problematic cases that may be reconsidered for plea bargaining while noting that the negative public perception about plea bargain need to be addressed through a systematic engagement and enlightenment of the public.

Present at the meeting were representatives from the Legal unit of the Nigerian Police Force, lawyers, district prosecutors, law firms, representatives from the correctional facilities in the State, amongst others.