A senior magistrate in Akwa Ibom has recommended ways to curb the plight of people living with disabilities (PLWD) whenever their rights are infringed upon or they are accused of committing criminal offences.
Esther Etukudo stated this in a publication during the 2019/2020 Legal Year at the Judiciary Headquarters, Wellington Bassey Way, Uyo, recently.
Etukudo noted that the educated among them often have it a lot more fairly because they can reduce their statements into writing and support it with sign language before engaging a lawyer to represent them in courts. But the illiterate and depressed ones among them "always easily crawl back into their leaky shells because of their physical disabilities or impairments, even though they are also their fellow compatriots who are supposed to enjoy equal rights and privileges as enshrined in their grundnorm, the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.
She explained that sadly, Section 222 (b) and 531 (a-f) of the Criminal Code, Cap 38, Vol 2 Laws of Akwa Ibom 2000 prescribe punishment for anyone who offends idiots, imbeciles or even animals. Section 36 (b) (a-e) of the 1999 constitution of Nigeria 1999 (Amended) provides for the steps every citizen of Nigeria should follow to be fairly heard in law courts. Section 36 (a) of the constitution (supra) says: "Every person who is charged with a criminal offence shall be entitled to be informed promptly in the language that he understands and in detail, the nature of the offence.
Section 36 (b) (d) gives everyone right to a legal practitioner. It is obvious that when a deaf-mute commits crime, he does not enjoy the fundamental right of being informed about his offence because their legal practitioners and security agents lack sign language proficiency and cannot communicate effectively with their illiterate, deaf-mute clients, let alone of taking their briefs in chambers.
Etukudo stressed that in order to ensure that the deaf-mute persons and all other PLWDs have access to justice for equal rights and fairness sign language study should be introduced in schools at all levels including law schools. Doing so will prepare lawyers ahead of their interaction with the deaf-mute litigants both at the Bench and Bar.
There should be special courts or tribunal fully equipped with all necessary facilities such as, Braille, truncated dome pad or other tactle paving stock, wheelchairs, accessible courtrooms with special entrance for those on wheelchairs, availability of language experts or sign language interpreters, Automated Teller Machines (ATM) installed closed to the court's registry. Lawyers skilled in special language should be appointed judges and clerks of this special courts which shall liase with the national commission created under Section 31 of the Discrimination against PLWD Prohibition Act 2018, to protect legal interest of the PLWD.
The magistrate said each police division across Nigeria should have at least two sign-language-skilled police officers in their employ to always record statements from aggrieved or accused deaf mute persons, and to subsequently prosecute their cases in court.
The Evidence Act (Amended), constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (Amended), Criminal Procedure Law and all other rules of court should be amended to give practice directions which would accommodate litigants with disabilities such as described in section 57 of the law mentioned above.
Moreover, courts at all levels and ministries of Justice shall have at least one clerk of court in each judicial division who is learned in sign language to interpret court proceedings and also bridge the gap between the courts and deaf-mute litigants.
Apart from English Language which is the court's official language, there are other instances where litigants only understand French or any other local dialect strange to that court's judicial division.
Etukudo explained that, for example, the clerk of court speaks English and Ibibio Language confines himself to the official language of the court: English - though he also understands Hausa and Ibibio languages. But the accused person (though a Nigerian) speaks, reads and writes only French. The police prosecutor is neither here nor there. What a confused court?, Therefore, courts cannot dispense with the presence of linguists if justice must be done.