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FAIR HEARING IN A CRIMINAL TRIAL – STATE MUST ASSIGN COUNSEL TO ACCUSED IN CAPITAL OFFENCE

Dictum

A fair hearing presupposes first and foremost a hearing. We operate the “Adversary System”. The major feature of this system is the passive and inactive role of the judge in the presentation of cases in court. The judge under our system is at best an attentive listener to all that is said on both sides. He is not an investigator. He speaks mainly to deliver judgments. This passive role of the judge emphasises the active role of counsel for the prosecution and for the defence. What is a “hearing” worth to an accused person who does not understand the language of the court, who does not know the rules of procedure, and who cannot properly present his case The right to counsel is thus at the very root of, and is the necessary foundation for a fair hearing. The ordinary layman, even the intelligent and educated layman is not skilled in the science of law and he therefore needs the aid and advice of counsel. It is because of this need that, in capital offences, attracting the death penalty, the accused is not left undefended. If he cannot afford the services of counsel the State assigns one to him. It is surprising that none was assigned to the appellant in the court of first instance.

— Oputa, JSC. G. Josiah v. The State (1985) – SC.59/1984

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WHEN FAIR HEARING IS BREACHED, PROCEEDING BECOMES A NULLITY

So, is a complaint alleging the breach of the right to fair hearing as constitutionally guaranteed one of mere technicality? I think not. If not then is it one of substantial justice? I very much think so! The fulcrum of this issue therefore, is the vexed issue of when in law can a proceedings of a Court and the resultant decision be said to be in breach of the right to fair hearing as constitutionally guaranteed to the parties before the Courts in the determination of their civil rights and obligations? This is so because, the effect of a breach of the right to fair hearing, if made out, would almost invariably render such proceedings and resultant decision a nullity. See Ekpenetu V. Ofegobi (2012) 15 NWLR (Pt. 1323) 276; Amadi V. INEC (2013) 4 NWLR (Pt. 1345) 595; Ovunwo & Anor. V. Woko & Ors (2011) 17 NWLR (Pt. 1277) 522; Pan African Incorporation & Ors. V. Shoreline Lifeboat Ltd & Anor. (2010) All FWLR (Pt. 524)56; Action Congress of Nigeria v. Sule Lamido & ors (2012) 8 NWLR (Pt. 1303) 560 @ p. 593; Judicial Service Commission of Cross River State & Anor. V. Dr(Mr) Asari Young (2013) 11 NWLR (Pt. 1364) 1.

— B.A. Georgewill, JCA. UBA v. Ashimina (2018) – CA/L/1033/2014

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EFFECT OF A DENIAL OF FAIR HEARING

The term ‘fair hearing’ is in most cases synonymous with fair trial and natural justice, an issue which clearly is at the threshold of our legal system and thus once there has been a denial of fair hearing the whole proceedings automatically becomes vitiated. A denial of fair hearing can ensure from the conduct of the Court in the hearing of a case or in the judgment of the court. However, the true test of fair hearing is the impression of a reasonable person who was present at the trial whether from the observation justice has been done in the case.

– PER B.A. Georgewill, J.C.A. ZENITH BANK PLC v. WAILI (2022) – CA/A/964/2020

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FAIR HEARING IS NOT A SPARE PART

Adebayo v. AG, Ogun State (2008) LPELR – 80 (SC) 23 – 24 “I have seen in recent times that parties who have bad cases embrace and make use of the constitutional provision of fair hearing to bamboozle the adverse party and the Court, with a view to moving the Court away from the live issues in the litigation. They make so much weather and sing the familiar song that the constitutional provision is violated or contravened. They do not stop there. They rake the defence in most inappropriate cases because they have nothing to canvass in their favour in the case. The fair hearing provision in the Constitution is the machinery or locomotive of justice; not a spare part to propel or invigorate the case of the user. It is not a casual principle of law available to a party to be picked up at will in a case and force the Court to apply it to his advantage. On the contrary, it is a formidable and fundamental constitutional provision available to a party who is really denied fair hearing because he was not heard or that he was not properly heard in the case. Let litigants who have nothing useful to advocate in favour of their cases, leave the fair hearing constitutional provision alone because it is not available to them just for the asking.”

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DENIAL OF FAIR HEARING RENDERS PROCEEDINGS NULL & VOID

There is a plethora of authorities of this Court on the effect of a breach of the right to fair hearing. It is fundamental. It is a breach of one of the twin pillars of natural justice, “audi alteram partem,” meaning, “let the other side be heard”, the other being “nemo judex in causa sua” meaning “a person should not be a judge in his own cause.” A denial of fair hearing renders the affected proceedings and any order, ruling or judgment therein, null and void. See: Adigun Vs A.G. Oyo State (1987) 1 NWLR (Pt. 53) 678; Salu Vs Egeibon (1994) 6 NWLR (Pt. 348) 23 @ 44; Bamgboye Vs Unilorin (1999) 10 NWLR (Pt. 622) 290 @ 333; NUT, Taraba State & Ors Vs Habu & Ors (2018) LPELR – 44057 (SC) @ 13 – 14 D – A; Zenith Plastics Industries Ltd. Vs Samotech Ltd. (2018) LPELR 44056(SC) @ 13 – 14 D – F.

— K.M.O. Kekere-Ekun JSC. Umeano v. Anaekwe (SC.323/2008, Friday January 28 2022)

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THE FUNDAMENTALISM OF FAIR HEARING – STATUTORY AND CONSTITUTIONAL

Now it has been held that the principle of or doctrine of fair hearing in its statutory and constitutional form is derived from the principle of natural justice under the twin pillars of audi alteram partem and nemo judex in causa sua. The principle of fair hearing is fundamental to the administration of justice as enshrined under Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). It hinges on the conduct of a hearing which is fair to both parties to the suit and without bias or partiality in favour or against either of them who will thereby be prejudiced. See Ude v. State (2012) LPELR 14193 (CA); Uguru v. The State (2002) 9 NWLR (Pt. 771) 90; Newswatch Communications (CA) v. Attah (2006) 12 NWLR (Pt. 993) 144; Ovunwo v. Woko (2011) 6 SCNJ (Pt. 1) 124; Nosepetco Oil and Gas Ltd v. Olorunimbe (2012) 10 NWLR (Pt. 1307) 115. In Egbuchu v. Continental Merchant Bank Plc (2016) NWLR (Pt. 1513) 192 at 207, the apex Court held inter alia that: “The Constitutional provision for fair hearing mainly stems or germinates from two common law principles of natural justice. They are audi alteram partem and nemo judex in causa sua. The meaning of the Latinism is, hear the other party; hear both sides. No man should be condemned unheard. What the rule or doctrine of fair hearing means is that the parties must be given equal opportunity to present their case to the Court and no party should be given more opportunity or advantage in the presentation of his case.” See also Inakoju v. Adeleke (2007) 4 NWLR (Pt. 1025) 423. The issue of fair hearing is so fundamental and germane that any proceeding conducted without fair hearing amounts to a nullity and is bound to be set aside. See Tsokwa Motors (Nig) Ltd v. UBA Plc (2008) 2 NWLR (Pt. 1071) 347; Egbuchu v. Continental Merchant Bank Plc supra; Adigun v. Oyo State (1987) 1 NWLR (Pt. 53) 678.

— S.C. Oseji, JCA. Access Bank v Edo State BIR (2018) – CA/B/333/2015

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FAIR TRIAL – RECOURSE TO SUPRA NATIONAL COURT

In the Case Concerning Bryan v. United Kingdom, 22 November 1995, paragraph 44, the European Court held that “A fair trial is a right which does no more than enable an aggrieved person to have recourse to a supra national court, so that the one who governs him may be condemned if the proof of a violation of his rights is established; the court must have jurisdiction to examine the points of fact and of law in the case which has come before it, in order that it may reform it…”

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