CRIMINAL LAW AND PROCEDURE – CRIMINAL TRIAL/PROCEEDINGS – Position of the law on the validity of a plea of guilt by an accused person and the consequence of same in a criminal trial and the validity of the arraignment of an accused person in the light of the absence of an interpreter during a criminal trial


“…In the instant appeal, there are two issues that are crucial for determination i.e. firstly, the validity of the appellant’s plea of guilt and the consequences thereof and secondly, the validity of the appellant’s arraignment in the light of the absence of an interpreter during trial. The Appellant at page 3 of the record of appeal pleaded guilty to the charge proffered against him. In my view, he elected the summary trial procedure under Section 33(2) of the Federal High Court Act. A summary trial is therefore a short proceeding that does away with the rigours of a full trial, hearing of witnesses or tendering of documents. It is a proceeding that settles a controversy or disposes of a case in a relatively prompt and simple manner. It entails immediate action without following the rigmarole in normal legal procedure. As a matter of procedure, summary trial allows for conviction of an accused person based on his or her admission of guilt to an indictable offence other than capital. See USAINI MOHAMMED V. COMMISSONER OF POLICE (2017) LPELR – 43837 (SC); MOHAMMED V. FRN (2018) LPELR – 43908 (SC); RALPH UWAZURUIKE V. A.G. FEDERATION (2013) LPELR – 20392; BAALO V. FRN (2016) LPELR – 40500 (SC). In the instant appeal, after the Appellant pleaded guilty to the charge, the trial Court at page 3 of the record of appeal, upon being satisfied that the Appellant understood the charge, recorded his plea as nearly as possible in the words used by him in compliance with Section 218 of the CPA, being the extant law as of the date of arraignment. The said section provides that: “If the accused pleads guilty to an offence with which he is charged, the Court shall record his plea as nearly as possible in the words used by him and if satisfied that he intended to admit the truth of all the essentials of the offence of which he pleaded guilty, the Court shall convict him of the offence and pass sentence upon or make an order against him unless there shall appear sufficient cause to the contrary.” It is imperative to state that the appellant’s plea of guilt connotes a lot of things against him. That plea of guilt is personal to him and he is bound by it. By that plea, his fundamental right to presumption of innocence and defence to the charge as enshrined in the Constitution, became legitimately scuttled. I am of the view that the plea of guilt in open Court, amounts to a voluntary oral confession and this oral confession, has more evidential value than any other evidence that may be adduced against an accused person by the prosecution. In the case of OMOJU V. FRN (2008) LPELR – 2647(SC), Tobi JSC (of blessed memory), considered the effect of an accused person’s plea of guilt on the burden placed on the prosecution where my noble Lord held thus: “The law is elementary that if an accused person pleads guilty, the burden of proof placed on the prosecution becomes light, like a feather of an ostrich. It no longer remains the superlative and compelling burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt. After all, the guilty plea has considerably shortened the distance and brought in some proximity the offence and mens rea or actus reus of the accused as the case may be. That makes it easier to locate causation or causa sine qua non.” In the case of F.R.N. v. KAYODE (2019) 6 SC (Pt.1) 165 at 188, this Court, per Galumje, JSC held as follows: “The law is settled that an Accused person who pleads guilty to a criminal charge can be convicted summarily if the Court is satisfied that he intended to admit the truth of all the essentials of the offence.” Without mincing words, I am of the view that in the light of the Appellant’s plea of guilt, all the submissions and arguments of counsel in respect of the admissibility of his confessional statements being recorded in breach of ACJA and the issue of interpretation, becomes impotent and devoid of any judicial substance. Logically, what argument can be offered challenging the admissibility of a confessional statement made ex facie curie that will take precedence over a plea of guilt made in facie curie? An extra judicial statement in accordance within the dictates of common sense cannot take credence over a judicial admission. Assuming the Appellant’s confessional statements in Exhibit PD2 and PD2a were expunged from the record, what difference does that make on the propriety of his conviction in view of his plea of guilt? None. In other words, the Appellant’s plea of guilt has superseded the issue of their admissibility and the consequences. This is better understood in the light of the fact that a plea of guilt is superior in evidential value to an extrajudicial statement like Exhibits PD2 and PD2a. The Appellant’s plea of guilt is as good as judicial confession, his valid admission of the offence in the charge. A plea of guilt brings the trial to an end in non-capital offences, such in the instant appeal, and what is left to be done is for the judge to convict and sentence him. In the instant appeal, what more could be the best form of evidence against the Appellant if not his plea of guilt? This plea to my mind has more credence than his confessional statement or any eye witness testimony. See AKPA V. STATE (2008) 14 NWLR (PT. 1106) 72; SUNDAY V. FRN (2018) LPELR – 46357(SC). Having pleaded guilty to the charge, the Appellant cannot be heard to be making a different case on appeal as this would only amount to approbating and reprobating, a conduct which the Court frowns at. See the case of NKIE V. FRN (2014) ALL FWLR (PT. 754) 186. The Appellant’s counsel also made heavy weather on the failure of the trial Court to avail the Appellant with the services of an interpreter ex gratia to facilitate communication between the Court and the Appellant. There is no doubt that a person charged with a criminal offence before a Court of law is entitled to be provided with the service of an interpreter where he does not understand the language of the Court, which in the trial Court, is English Language. This is what is provided in Section 36 (6) (e) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) as part of the safeguards of ensuring fair hearing to a person accused of an offence. The importance of interpreting the proceedings of the Court to the accused person in the language he understands and from the accused person to the Court in the language spoken by the Court, cannot be overemphasized. As a matter of fact, the right of an accused person in this regard goes beyond understanding the charge and the whole trial proceedings against him but for him to also be able to fully participate in the trial. On the principles relating to the right of an accused person to an interpreter, see the cases of THE STATE V. SALIHU MOHAMMED GWONTO (1983) LPELR – 3220 (SC); UMARU SUNDAY V. FRN (2013) LPELR – 21092 (CA); TANKO IKO V. THE STATE (2014) LPELR – 23488 (CA). Appellant’s counsel is vehemently holding unto the position that it was the duty of the trial Court to make available to the Appellant the services of an interpreter because he is an illiterate. It must be pointed out that where the accused does not understand the language used at his trial, it is his duty or his counsel’s duty to bring to the notice of the Court at the earliest opportunity, that he does not understand the language used at trial. I think the duty of ensuring that the right thing is done is not only on the trial Judge. It is a duty as well on a party to a case or his counsel if represented by one. In the instant appeal, there was nowhere in the record that the Appellant informed the trial Court that he does not understand the language of the Court and would be needing the services of an interpreter. The record of appeal at page 3, bears semblance of the fact that the Appellant understood the charge read to him and he pleaded guilty thereon. In the case of SAMSON NKEMJI UWAEKWEGHINYA V. THE STATE (2005) LPELR – 3442 (SC) also relied on by the Court below, this Court Per, Musdapher, JSC held that: “If the accused does not ask for an interpreter, the failure to supply one would be treated as a matter of procedure and a conviction may only be set aside if the failure to supply an interpreter had led to a miscarriage of justice and that if the accused is represented by counsel, the objection must be taken at the trial in the first instance, and not on appeal.” The fact that the accused does not understand the language in which the trial is being conducted is a fact well known to the accused and it is for him or his counsel to take the initiative of bringing it to the notice of the Court at the earliest opportunity. If he does not claim the right at the proper time before any damage is done, he may not be able to have a valid complaint afterwards, for example on appeal. Where the accused person refuses to inform the Court that he does not understand English Language, it will be too late for him to seek protection under Section 36(6)(e) of the Constitution to have his conviction set aside through the backdoor. See MALLAM MADU V. STATE (1997) 1 NWLR (Pt. 487) 386 at 401; STATE V. GWONTO (1983) 1 SCNLR 142, LOCKNAN per JAURO, J.S.C. in BALOGUN v. FRN (2021-LCER-40452-SC) (Pp 17 – 26 Paras B – B)

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