Litigation, Insights

The Legality of the Use of Plea Bargain in the Nigeria Criminal Justice System

The concept and use of plea bargain in Nigeria has caused much furore in recent years. This has been because of its use by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in dealing with cases of corruption by public officials and others holding offices of public trust.
To many, the practice conflicts with their sense of justice for the betraying thieves of the public’s finances or savings; It is incomprehensible to them how highly-placed thieves of many millions and billions of naira are allowed to get away with miserably small sentences in the name of plea bargain, while thieves of smaller sums or thieves of the same millions and billions of naira but without the high-level placement or connections bag the weighty sentences generally more commensurate to their offences. Consequently, many question the justifiability and legality of the practice, saying that it is alien to Nigerian statutes on criminal matters and downright unfair.

In this article, an examination of the arguments for and against the legality of the use of plea bargain in Nigeria shall be conducted with a view to taking a position on the matter at the end.

ORIGIN OF THE CONCEPT
Plea bargaining is an invention of the American legal process, it started by convention but having been accepted by the courts; it is now entrenched in their federal and state criminal procedure rules , with the State of California even providing a seven-page form to guide the prosecution and defence in the formulation of their agreements.
The Black’s Law Dictionary, gives the definition of plea bargain as: a negotiated agreement between a prosecutor and a criminal defendant whereby the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offence or to one of multiple charges in exchange for some concession by the prosecutor usually, a more lenient sentence or a dismissal of the charges.
In what I call my working definition, plea bargain is: a device allowing accused persons- in person or by their legal counsel- to reach an accommodation with the prosecutor to enable them plead guilty in court to an offense of lesser gravity than the one (s) prosecutors wish to charge them with or with which they have already been charged or to one or more of a multiple of charges; an accused person may also agree to plead guilty to the offence with which they are charged, all in a bid for a lighter sentence than would/might have been given if the case had been prosecuted fully and conclusively (this is not the same as entering a plea of guilty at the beginning of a trial in court in hope of getting a light sentence from the C or making an allocutus at the end of a trial for mitigation of punishment).
Whatever the agreement is, the essence of a plea bargain agreement to the defendant is to get reduced punishment.

OPINIONS ON PLEA BARGAINING
As stated earlier, many people (both within and without Nigeria) are opposed to the practice of plea bargain because it conflicts with what they believe to be fair and just. They argue that it makes a mockery of the seriousness of justice; they further argue that a refusal to ‘save the time of the State and Court’ on the part of accused persons -who protest their innocence and insist on a full trial- could lead to retaliation against an accused person through the imposition of the most stringent punishments available -this could happen in jurisdictions like the United States where prosecutors are entitled to canvass or request for any sentence they want within the scope of the provided sentencing limits for a particular offence- or the filing of more serious (but true) charges than the prosecutor had initially proposed. There is also the risk of sentencing innocent people or people against whom the evidence of the State would not stand, who are constrained to plead guilty just because of the spectre of heavy sentences…

 

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