The Attorney-General (A-G) will soon lay a bill before Parliament for passage into law to help reduce the menace of unjustified delays in criminal trials in the country.
Among other things, the bill will seek an amendment of the rules of court to limit the number of interlocutory applications that can be filed during criminal proceedings and make it hard for parties to circumvent the rules of court to intentionally delay trials.
The A-G and Minister of Justice, Godfred Yeboah Dame, made this known in an exclusive interview with the Daily Graphic.
He said the bill was part of a series of initiatives his outfit was undertaking to reform the criminal justice system of the country.
“It is very important that we do this reform, otherwise our justice system will virtually become a mockery and people will lose confidence in the administration of justice,” he said.
Mr Dame said it was unacceptable and incomprehensible for summary trials, which normally took up to a year in other countries, to sometimes drag on for more than six years in this country.
“One of the means to ensure speedy and effective justice is to amend the rules in such a way as to compel the courts to administer justice more speedily,” he said
According to him, many instances of delays in criminal trials were not due to failure on the part of the prosecution but the non-application of the rules of court.
“Most of the cases that have dragged on for too long are not really as a result of any lack of diligence on the part of the A-G’s Department; they stem from failure to properly apply the rules to ensure the delivery of speedy, efficient and fair justice,” he said.
Interlocutory applications are filed in the course of a trial to enforce certain rights or seek the review of certain decisions of the court.
Mr Dame said parties sometimes used interlocutory applications, with their numerous appeals, to unnecessarily drag criminal trials and distract the cause of justice.
The new bill, he said, when passed into law, would allow interlocutory applications in criminal trials only at the “submission of ‘no case’” stage of a trial.
“At the submission of ‘no case’ stage, the judge has the opportunity of evaluating all that had transpired so far, and if there is any infraction it can be cured at that stage. I believe interlocutory appeals should be prohibited and permitted only at the submission of ‘no case’ stage,” he said.
The “submission of ‘no case’” stage comes after the prosecution has presented its case and the accused person convinces the court to discharge him/her on the basis that the prosecution had failed to make a prima facie case to warrant his/her defence.
The A-G mentioned the Criminal and Other Offences (Procedure) (Amendment) Act, 2021 to provide for plea bargaining as one of the legislative reforms introduced during his tenure to improve the criminal justice system.
The new law is meant to help reduce the backlog of criminal cases, as well as decongest the prisons, by allowing accused persons to admit their guilt and enter into some form of arrangement with the prosecution, without necessarily standing trial.
Elements of the law include the right of an accused person to enter into plea bargaining with the prosecutor before judgment by the court, the format of the agreement and the entity authorised to conduct plea bargaining with an accused person, which is the A-G or a prosecutor not from the A-G’s Department but authorised by the A-G.
They also include the benefits of plea bargaining for an accused person and the option for either party (the prosecution and the accused) to withdraw from plea negotiations.
However, the law exempts certain crimes, such as robbery, murder, treason and rape, from plea bargaining.
Mr Dame said his outfit was also working on the Alternative Sentencing and Community Sentencing Bill to allow convicts to serve in the communities and also serve other non-custodial sentences with regard to some petty and non-violent crimes.
“The Alternative Sentencing and Community Sentencing Bill is undergoing stakeholder consultation and will find its way to Parliament in no time. These are part of the criminal justice reforms that we are introducing,” he said.
One major issue that the Minister of Justice addressed was the non-custodial sentence granted to the Founder of the defunct Capital Bank, William Ato Essien, who was convicted for stealing GH¢90 million of liquidity support granted to the bank by the Bank of Ghana.
The convict avoided a custodial sentence when the Accra High Court accepted an agreement between him and the prosecution for him (Essien) to pay the GH¢90 million as restitution to the state.
The agreement was pursuant to Section 35 of the Courts Act, 1993 (Act 459), which allows accused persons standing trial for causing financial loss to the state to pay the money and possibly avoid custodial sentences.
The non-custodial sentence granted to Essien was criticised by many people, who were of the opinion that justice favoured the rich.
However, Mr Dame disagreed with the critics and said the state was better off with the deal.
According to him, courts all over the world had moved away from custodial sentencing in respect of financial crimes, with emphasis rather on recouping the loss occasioned.
He described the Ato Essien case as the best application of Section 35 of Act 459 in the history of the country’s judicial system, adding that the state was able to extract more money and favourable terms, compared to others.
“The amount in question was in dispute. The accused person disputed and he said he had embezzled only GH¢27 million, but I insisted that as far as our records showed, we could actually claim a maximum of GH¢90m. I insisted that he paid GH¢30m, which is one third. The court gave a relatively shorter time, a maximum of one year, for the accused to discharge his obligation.
“That showed that the state profited greatly. It is important to look at things from proper perspective and for justice to be done to the relevant issue,” he said.