The Federal Ministry of Justice and the Nigeria Law Reform Commission (NLRC) have vehemently opposed the Frivolous Petition Bill 2015 currently before the Senate.
These establishments expressed their opposition to the proposed legislation at a public hearing organised by the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, on the Frivolous Petition Bill.
In his submissions to the Committee, the representative of the Nigeria Law Reform Commission, Commissioner Chibueze Okorie, pointed out that the bill was not necessary because some of the problems it sought to address had been taken care of in the Constitution and other laws of the land.
He also noted that the bill, if passed into law, would infringe on the fundamental rights of Nigerians to free speech, which would be tantamount to a breach of the nation’s Constitution.
The Commissioner further said that the section of the Frivolous Petition Bill, which requires people with petition or information to swear an affidavit in a high court, would hinder investigations, as people would be discouraged from giving out information that would assist law enforcement agencies in their investigative roles.
Okorie said that the bill would hamper whistle blowing in the country because the proposal made it unlawful to give out information without accompanying affidavit.
He maintained that the bill was unnecessary because both the Criminal Code and Penal Code had addressed most of the issues the bill sought to tackle, thereby insisting that the lawmakers should allow the existing laws to operate rather than duplication.
He said, “we are not able to support this bill. We have looked at the specific position of the bill vis-a-vis existing laws. The provisions are too wide and may interfere with investigation in Nigeria even in MDAs especially in the case of Nigeria where we have largely illiterate population.
“The requirement of going to high court is onerous. Whistle blowing will be seriously hampered by the bill and if this government is promoting anti-corruption, the people must be encouraged to report or complain about crime. It is within the discretion of enforcement agency to know if a complaint is frivolous or not.
“Law should be open to make their report and leave the agencies to use their discretion to know if the laws are frivolous or not. The position of the commission is that it inhibits the discretion of law enforcement agencies.
“If we feel the law enforcement agencies are not doing their job, we should look at making them do their job. If the existing laws are adequately implemented it will help in punishing defamation and other malicious intent”.
Okorie said that the Commission was not totally against censorship but in the case of the bill, the demerits outweighed the merits while some provisions would encroach on the privacies of citizens.
“We agree with censorship but the implication will be constant monitoring of private conversation and the disadvantage will outweigh the advantage if the bill is passed. Why do we have to go to this expensive extent to trace private conversation and huge interference on privacy of citizens”.
Also, Mr Patrick Etta Oyong, an Assistant Director Legal Drafting Department in the Federal Ministry of Justice, expressed the rejection of the bill by the ministry, saying that it was not good for a democratic system.
He equally noted that most of the problems mentioned in the bill had been captured in other laws of the land, suggesting that what the Parliament needed to do was to review existing laws to make them effective enough to tackle the problems envisaged by the Frivolous Petition Bill.
“The bill is not qualified for use in a democratically justified society. People will not want to volunteer information for law enforcement agencies, or the stress of going to get affidavit from a high court and it means offences committed before will never be investigated.
“African charter on human and people’s right which has been enacted into law has given us the freedom to disseminate information. If passed it will violate the African charter
“Section 39 of the Constitution and 157 of Nigeria Communications Act, which is closer to the bill is regulation to telephone sound etc. So, those issues sought to be checked by this bill has been taken care of
“What the bill seeks is to prohibit is being regulated by the law of defamation in 375 of the Criminal Code. If need be, as the law stands, if the penalty in the criminal code is not sufficient, there may be need for an amendment rather than pass this bill
“It is our view that there is no need for this bill to be passed in the form it is. Even if you expunge the affidavit there is some form of stress on the citizens who are mainly illiterates.
“There is need for general reforms for the laws like the electoral Act to tackle the problem. We are not saying that the problem you have highlighted should be allowed to go unpunished but should be accommodated in existing laws.
Similarly, some civil society organisations which attended the public hearing all kicked against the bill and suggested that it should been thrown into a trash can, as they echoed that the proposed legislation was undemocratic and un-progressive.
However, Justice Clara Ogunbiyi, a Justice of the Supreme Court, who represented the Chief Justice of Nigeria, supported the bill and said that the proposal was necessary to protect all and sundry from frivolous petitions by mischievous individuals.
She said,“the aim of the Bill is to ensure that the public is given the correct information, free of bias, sentiment and ill motivation and also to ensure that objective opinions should prevail always.
“The principle behind the Bill is to safeguard innocent Individuals, Corporate or Governmental bodies against false accusations that could have lasting and damaging effects on their integrity and performance.
“The menace of incessant frivolous petitions in our nation, if not addressed and nipped in the bud will constitute a very serious clog in the wheel of our Democratic process”, she stated.
Earlier in his speech while declaring the public hearing open, the President of the Senate, Senator Bukola Saraki, who was represented by the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Godswill Akpabio, said that the lawmakers and the stakeholders in the democratic process, have the responsibility to make laws that would hold people accountable for their actions, through transparent and open process.
He however, noted that the outcome of the bill would depend largely on the opinions of the stakeholders and the general public during the public hearing, assuring that the Committee would be guided in its recommendations to the Senate by the views canvassed at the public session.