The Senate on Thursday commenced the amendment to the Federal Capital Territory Customary Court Act, 2007 to expand the jurisdiction of customary courts in the FCT to include criminal trials.
According to the sponsor of the piece of legislation under consideration, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele (APC-Ekiti Central), the bill proposes amendments to Sections 2, 14, 48, 49 and 50 of the Principal Act to alter the Quorum of the Court, provide for criminal jurisdiction of the court and right of appeal to aggrieved persons to appeal to the FCT High Court in the case of criminal matters.
Explaining the reason behind the introduction of the FCT Customary Court Act, 2007 (Amendment) bill, Bamidele said: “Customary Courts in other parts of the country are now contributing immensely to criminal justice administration.”
Citing Lagos and Akwa Ibom States as examples, the lawmaker explained further that “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.”
He added: “The bill 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.”
Senator Bamidele said if passed into law, 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.
He said: “The passage of this bill will erase 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.”
Contributing to the debate, the Deputy Chief Whip, Senator Sabi Abdullahi (APC-Niger North), raised concerns as to whether the bill, if passed into law, would ensure fairness in the dispensation of justice.
Abdullahi said: “When you talk about customary court, it is a court that looks at issues that bother on the customs, traditions, norms and likes of the people within the context of their tradition.
“Most of the states of the federation have peculiar traditions, customs and the likes.
“But in the FCT, it is a collection of all Nigerians in one place, and so I’m wondering, if you saddle one person with the responsibility of adjudicating, will there be justice and fairness?
“The idea behind picking one or two people within the context of the customary court for example, is different from the regular court where you have very trained professionals.”
Other lawmakers such as Enyinnaya Abaribe (PDP-Abia South), Philip Aduda (PDP-FCT), Yahaya Ibrahim Oloriegbe (APC-Kwara Central), Abbo Elisha Ishaku (APC-Adamawa North) objected to the idea of non-professionals adjudicating over customary court proceedings in criminal trials.
The lawmakers advised the sponsor of the bill to tweak the legislation in a way that provides for the inclusion of experienced legal professionals in the Quorum of Customary Courts, if it at all its jurisdiction must include the dispensation of criminal justice.
Senator James Manager (PDP-Delta South), while sharing the observation raised by lawmakers who spoke before him, appealed that the bill be allowed to scale second reading so as to give opportunity for necessary input and corrections at the stage of Public Hearing.
Senator Teslim Folarin (APC-Oyo Central), however, kicked against the bill and called for it to be stepped down to allow for further legislative input.
The bill, which eventually scaled second reading after a voice vote put forward by the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, was referred to the Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters for further work.