By Tobi Soniyi
In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court has upheld the provisions of Section 306 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act and Section 40 of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (Establishment) Act, which prohibit courts in the country from granting stay of proceedings in criminal trials.
A five-man panel of the Supreme Court led by Justice Dattijo Muhammed, in a unanimous ruling delivered on Friday, held that by virtue of the provisions of both laws, no court in the country, including the Supreme Court, has the power to stay proceedings in a criminal case.
The highest court in the land took the position while dismissing an appeal on an application for stay of proceedings filed by a former National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, Olisa Metuh.
The Federal High Court in Abuja had earlier rejected his application to stop his trial pending appeal, following which Metuh appealed unsuccessfully to both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.
Metuh and his company, Destra Investments Limited, are on trial before Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court, Abuja, for laundering the sums of $2 million and N400 million, which the defendants allegedly received unjustifiably from the Office of the National Security Adviser in 2014.
The funds were allegedly used to fund the 2015 presidential campaign of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Although Metuh had pleaded not guilty to the charges, the Federal High Court dismissed his application for stay of proceedings for being â€œviolently in conflictâ€ with Section 36(4) of the constitution, Section 306 of ACJ, and Section 40 of the EFCC Act, and a number of case law authorities.
Metuh had approached the courts to grant a stay of proceeding after he had filed a no case submission in his criminal trial, which was dismissed by the Federal High Court.
Controversy has also raged as to whether the two provisions â€“ Section 306 of ACJA and Section 40 of the EFCC Act prohibiting courts from staying proceedings in a criminal trial â€“ contravene the constitutional right to appeal by persons charged with offences.
But Justice Clara Ogunbiyi, who delivered the lead ruling, held that the provisions of both laws do not contravene the constitution.
On the contrary, she held that both provisions are in agreement with Section 36(4) of the constitution, which provides that any person charged with a criminal offence â€œshall be entitled to fair hearing in public within a reasonable timeâ€.
According to her, it is only logical to interpret the spirit of the foregoing constitutional provision to translate that, where the grant of an application for stay will unnecessarily delay and prolong the proceedings, it should not be granted.
Justice Ogunbiyi held that the decision by the Supreme Court in 2016, granting a stay of proceedings in the trial of the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, a case law cited by Metuhâ€™s lawyer, Dr. Onyechi Ikpeazu (SAN), was irrelevant.
Justice Ogunbiyi held: â€œThis court (the Supreme Court) pronounced also in Olubukola Saraki V Federal Republic of Nigeria (2016) 3 NWLR (Pt. 1500) SC 531 that the Code of Conduct Tribunal is not a court of superior record of jurisdiction, but a court of quasi-criminal jurisdiction.
â€œTherefore, the application of the cases to the circumstances of this case (Metuhâ€™s case) cannot be relevant, as rightly submitted by the learned counsel to the first respondent (EFCCâ€™s lawyer).
â€œThe appellant/applicantâ€™s (Metuh) motion for stay of proceedings is violently in conflict with the provisions of Section 36(4) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), Section 306 of ACJ and section 40 of the EFCC (Establishment) Act, 2004 as well as the plethora of case law authorities cited.â€
The Supreme Court also disagreed with Metuhâ€™s lawyer on the point of whether or not Section 306 of the constitution only relates to the trial court and not the appellate courts â€“ Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.
Justice Ogunbiyi agreed with EFCCâ€™s lawyer, Mr. Sylvanus Tahir, to the effect that by virtue of Section 15 of the Court of Appeal Act, the Appeal Court could grant an interim order or any injunction, only for which the court below (the trial court) has the jurisdiction to make or grant.
She also referred to a replica of the provision of the Court of Appeal Act in the Section 22 of the Supreme Court Act.
Justice Ogunbiyi noted that Section 22 of the Supreme Court Act also restricts the Supreme Court to making an interim order or granting any injunction â€œwhich the court below (the Court of Appeal) is authorised to make or grantâ€.
She therefore held that since an order of stay of proceedings, being a form of interim order or injunction, the Federal High Court and other trial courts had by both Section 306 of ACJA and Section 40 of the EFCC Act been prohibited from granting it, it follows that neither the Court of Appeal nor the Supreme Court has the power to grant same.
â€œContrary to the submission advanced by the applicantâ€™s counsel, the consequential effect is that the Supreme Court, like the two lower courts, also lacks the powers to stay proceedings under Section 22 of the Supreme Court Act or under its inherent powers,â€ she held.
She further noted: â€œThe appellantâ€™s counsel (Metuhâ€™s lawyer) argued vehemently that Section 306 of the ACJA does not apply to the court below (the Court of Appeal) or this court (the Supreme Court).
â€œThe argument, in my view, is grossly misconceived as rightly submitted by the first respondentâ€™s counsel (EFCCâ€™s lawyer).
â€œThe conclusion, as stated earlier, is predicated squarely on the contention of Section 306 of ACJA and Section 40 of the EFCC (Establishment) Act, 2004, whereby the trial court lacks the powers to order for stay of proceedings; also the court below under Section 15 of the Court of Appeal Act as well as this court under Section 22 of the Supreme Court Act, also lacks the power to order for stay of further proceedings pending before the trial court.
â€œI wish to emphasise that this is a criminal proceeding. There are also clear constitutional and statutory provisions that enjoin and mandate the trial court not to delay criminal cases.â€
Other members of the panel â€“ Justices Muhammad, Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, Ejembi Eko and Sidi Bage â€“ agreed with the lead ruling.
Metuhâ€™s trial before the Federal High Court will now resume on June 19.