The Police and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) have been accused of abusing their powers by dabbling in civil matters and acting as debt-collectors, most times for a fee. But, jurists, at a forum in Lagos, called for an end to that. They are worried that nearly every aspect of civil life has been criminalised. They also want lawyers who add criminal colouration to petitions on commercial/civil disputes sanctioned.
TWO brothers had a dispute over a plot of land. They went to a police station to complain about it. An officer asked them to go home and resolve the matter amicably, being a civil dispute.
But, things escalated after they left the police station. There was a fight, and one of the brothers pulled a knife and chopped off his sibling’s head. He blamed the police for not intervening and said he wanted to settle the dispute once and for all.
Should the Police be strengthened to resolve civil disputes? No, say legal experts.
Although civil disputes can result in criminal acts if not quickly resolved, the experts believe they should not be resolved at police stations.
There is also no justification for the Economic and Financial Commission (EFCC), for instance, to arrest a debtor based on a petition by a lender, they added.
Jurists said security agencies must resist being used to resolve civil disputes or as debt-recovery agents.
They want lawyers who write petitions on civil matters, and officers who act on such investigations without a preliminary investigation, to be sanctioned.
Justices of the Court of Appeal, Hellen Ogunwumiju and Biobele Georgewill are unhappy that civil matters are increasingly being criminalised.
A former Lagos State Commissioner of Police Fatai Owoseni urged the Police not to be used to settle civil matters even though there may be a justification for it sometimes.
A former Lagos Attorney-General, Mr Olasupo Shasore (SAN), believes the courts remain the right forum to resolve disputes in a civilised society.
But, Lagos Branch Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Lateef Akangbe, said Nigerians should not be blamed for going to the police to settle civil disputes, as the courts have become unreliable.
They spoke in Lagos at the 12th Annual Business Luncheon of SPA Ajibade & Co, a leading corporate and commercial law firm.
Its theme was: The forum for the resolution of civil disputes: the courts vs. law enforcement agencies.
Justice Ogunwumiju, who chaired the event on behalf of Justice Amina Augie of the Supreme Court, accused lawyers of playing into the hands of security agencies.
She said: “The main cause of a quarrel could be land. The lawyers have made the parties to abandon the civil matter that will determine the person with title to the land.
“They are fighting the case of ‘I am a bigger man than you are’ with police cases and fundamental rights cases that may get up to the Supreme Court, and this is encouraged by lawyers. If you don’t invite an intermediary to your quarrel, he will stay in his space.
“I want us to aware of a gradual institutionalisation of the criminalisation of civil obligations. The laws establishing some institutions are set up in such a way that for them to be effective, some obligations have been made criminal offences.
“They can use the instrumentality of the law, and criminal laws, to settle essentially civil disputes. There are such laws promulgated by the National Assemblies, and we’re not talking about them.”
‘Investigate before arrest’
For Justice Georgewill, civil acts must not be turned to criminal matters for personal gain.
He said: “In a country that is transforming to a proper civilian democracy, the civilians are not allowed to live their lives are civilians. Everything you do is criminalised. How can we survive in such a situation?
“In a civilised society, you don’t arrest, detain and investigate. You investigate, arrest and detain. That is the problem we have in this country. Security agencies arrest before investigation. You are supposed to investigate preliminarily before you arrest somebody.”
To him, security agencies have no business arresting debtors.
“It’s so unfortunate. The police and the EFCC: you have to stop coming from the answer to the question. That is why everything has been criminalised,” Justice Georgewill said.
The Justice asked lawyers who write petitions over civil matters to desist from doing so.
He said: “In such petitions, they embellish something they know is civil as criminal, and because the police don’t investigate before taking action, they will make an arrest.”
Owoseni said although there is a thin line between civil and criminal law, the Police must resist being used to settle personal scores.
He said: “I stood against the police being engaged in extra-judicial duties. But here we are. Is this an ideal country? No. It’s a banana republic. Nothing works when it comes to the rule of law.
“The application and enforcement of the rule of law are interpreted based on which side of the divide you are. If any of you is a governor today, the rule of law is something to you. If you become Vice President today, the rule of law is another thing to you.
“Depending on which side of the divide you belong, to some of us, the EFCC has become a monster.”
Owoseni blamed lawyers who write such petitions, saying he resisted efforts to get the police involved in civil disputes while in service.
“You cannot force me to do what is unlawful because my loyalty is to the Constitution. That’s why some of us don’t have land in Lagos because they’ll promise you 20 acres,” he said.
Owoseni, who is a security adviser to Oyo State Governor Seyi Makinde, believes there is a thin line between civil disputes and criminality.
He told the story of two brothers who quarrelled over a plot of land in Calabar, Cross River State. The crime officer asked them to resolve it between them or go to court.
“Not up to three hours thereafter, one of the brothers came to the police station with a sack. He opened the sack and brought out his elder brother’s head.
“When the crime officer asked him why he did it (killed his brother), he said: ‘But we came to you to solve this problem and you said it’s civil. I wanted to end this quarrel once and for all.’ That is how thin the line is between criminal and civil matters,” he said.
‘Simplify judgment enforcement’
Owoseni wants more to be done in enforcing court judgments to prevent self-help.
He said: “Sometimes, pronouncements are made, and remedies have been given, but you don’t have the means of enforcing those remedies, and criminals have taken advantage of that.
“We have to have a means of enforcing pronouncements of the courts; judgments that have been delivered. We need to ensure that when damages are awarded, they can be enforced.
“It’s very difficult to do business in this country because there are some serial defaulters. They collect money from several banks and default, and they do so because they believe they cannot be prosecuted.
“We need radical measures to address such situations, like taking money from their funded accounts through the BVN. We live in a jungle.”
Owoseni agreed with a recommendation by The Hague Institute for Global Justice that the capacity of the Police to resolve disputes should be strengthened.
“I agree. Strengthen the capacity of the police. Whether you like or not, it’s the policemen that citizens meet first. Our judicial system is too slow. The police are like first aid giver,” he said.
Shasore: rule of law supreme
Shasore, who was the guest speaker, disagreed with The Hague Institute’s recommendation.
To him, there is no alternative to the courts in resolving civil disputes, despite the challenges.
He said: “After a painstaking survey, the Haque Institute has suggested that we strengthen law enforcement in the skills of resolving civil disputes as a way forward. It recommended that the Police in Nigeria systematically increase its capacity for resolving the dispute that people face.
“Do we agree with that? No. We should respectfully disagree. While there might be some truth to the fact that in historical African setting, or Victorian England, there was very little distinction between the civil resolver and the law enforcer, there is no evidence that reverting to that practice or echoes of that system will have a long-term benefit for today’s Nigerian society.
“Without deepening the protection of the courts on the one hand and the sanctity of human rights and civil process on the other, we will be surrendering the enforcement of contracts to the vulgarities of naked power and its ugly caprices and utter whims.”
According to Shasore, those who take civil disputes to the Police or EFCC do so in error.
The suggestion, he said, is based on a false premise, because security agencies do not dispense justice, but favour the highest bidder or the first in time.
Shasore was of the view that the focus should be on compliance with the rule of law.
He noted that countries with the highest levels of rule of law compliance have high national productivity.
The SAN said: “In the latest World Justice Report 2019 rankings, Nigeria placed 106 of 113 countries ranked in the observance of rule of law.
“It is not unrelated, in my view, to the treatment of civil disputes and the value placed on the institutional capacity to achieve proper protection and satisfactory remedies.
“To be effective, the rule of law development requires clarity about the fundamental features that define it. This should be our goal in Nigeria. This requires the proper forum for civil disputes: the courts.”
Akangbe said Nigerians go to the police to settle civil disputes because they believe they will get quicker “result” there.
“People go to a system where they will get a quicker result. It’s because there is so much inefficiency in the court system,” he said.
He regretted that litigants can spend several years in court without dealing with the substantive matter they went to court to resolve.
He called for less emphasis on technicalities.
Akangbe said: “You can spend years arguing whether there was proper service of court processes or not.”
The NBA chairman believes there was the need to fix the slow court system as well as a regular bar and bench engagement.
Among others, he said a technology-driven court system is long overdue to speed the adjudicatory processes.
For lawyers who write petitions over civil matters, he said: “NBA needs to go tough on lawyers who delay justice and those who go to law enforcement agencies with false petitions over civil matters.
“Lawyers write these petitions to give such civil matters a colouration of criminality.”
Ajibade: fix the weak judicial system
S.P.A. Ajibade & Co Managing Partner, Dr Babatunde Ajibade (SAN), described increasing use of law enforcement agencies in dispute resolution as an anomaly, adding that the court system should be fixed.
He said: “The anomaly is extremely deep. For me, as I stated on various occasions, we develop our themes for our luncheons after internal robust discussions. Typically, the topics would come from our practical experiences.
“We have had practical experiences where even my colleagues have pushed for us to resolve client matters in a particular way and I have been resisting it on the basis that it is not a criminal matter but a civil matter.
“They will say it would be more efficient, quicker and in the interest of the client. Some feel that it is the right thing to do, but claim that the court system is not efficient and doesn’t work.
“I am of the view that if the system is not working, we should fix it. If there is a problem in our civil justice system, we need to address and fix that problem rather than going to the police, where the police will be our judge and jury. That is very fundamental.