In light of the frequent invitations from the National Assembly and the States Houses of Assembly in Nigeria to companies and individuals alike, to attend public hearings for inquiries on diverse issues, it has become important to examine the nature and place of investigative public hearings conducted by the Legislature in Nigeria as well as the role of lawyers at such hearings.
Investigative public hearings are usually convened for the purpose of finding out facts, in respect of certain activities, upon which recommendations for action can be made. Such public hearings are not held at large but are part of a decision making process where the affected or interested parties are given the opportunity to make representations on the matters being investigated. These hearings may manifest in the form of consideration of petitions and investigation of allegations contained in such petitions.
The powers of the Nigerian Legislature to conduct investigative public hearings are traceable to enabling laws. For instance, the investigative powers of the National Assembly are derived from Section 88 while those of the State Legislatures are derived from Section 128 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) (the Constitution). The relevant sections empower the Legislative Houses to conduct investigation into anything in respect of which they have the power to make laws. The federal and state Legislative Houses can also conduct investigations into the conduct of persons or agencies charged with executing or administering federal or state laws and with disbursing funds appropriated or to be appropriated by the National Assembly or by the state House of Assembly as the case may be.
Similarly powers are conferred by Section 4 of the Legislative Houses (Powers and Privileges) Act (LHPPA) on committees of the National Assembly as well as State Houses of Assembly, if so authorized by their Standing Orders or a Resolution of the House, to summon any person to appear before the Committee to give oral or documentary evidence on or without an oath.
The investigative power of the National Assembly has, however, not been without challenge and judicial interpretation. In the case of SENATE OF NATIONAL ASSEMBLY V. MOMOH (1983) 4 NCLR, 269 at 295, the Court of Appeal interpreted the extent of the powers under the provision of Section 82 of the 1979 Constitution (which is in the same terms as the provision of Section 88 of the 1999 Constitution), and stated that the investigative powers of the National Assembly are not designed to enable the Legislature usurp the general investigative functions, of the executive nor the adjudicative functions of the judiciary. In other words, the section does not constitute the House as a universal “Ombudsman” inviting and scrutinizing the conduct of every member of the public for purposes of exposing corruption, inefficiency or waste.
The question has often arisen as to whether legal representation is required at investigative hearings since such hearings are not court hearings. The answer to this is clear from Section 8 of the LHPPA which provides that every person summoned to attend to give oral or documentary evidence before a committee of a Legislative House is entitled, in respect of such evidence, to the same privileges as before a court of law. These privileges before a court of law, as spelt out by the Constitution, include a right to a fair hearing which carries with it the right to legal representation of choice. This provision may account for why various Houses of Assembly provide, in their Standing Orders, that witnesses at an investigative hearing may be accompanied by their own counsel for the purpose of enlightening them on their constitutional rights.
Indeed, the lawyer will play an important role not only in enlightening his client on the latter’s constitutional rights but also in the provision of guidance to his client in answering queries to prevent any form of prejudice.
It must, however, be noted that the presence of lawyers in investigative public hearings conducted by the legislature, is not to disrupt, pontificate or otherwise frustrate any such hearing.
Committees of Legislative Houses are therefore strongly encouraged to accord invitees at public hearings all privileges they enjoy in a law court including legal representation of their choice.