By Chidi Nkwopara
This is not the best of times for Imo State Judiciary. In this interview, the state Chief Judge, Justice Benjamin Njemanze, spoke on a number of issues affecting the state judiciary.
The opening of the Legal Year and Assizes appear to be a yearly ritual. Is this exercise truly necessary?
This function is significant in some ways. In the first instance, it affords us an opportunity to present ourselves to God and pray for the renewal of our mandate as God’s representatives on earth to continue to judge others.
The second aspect of the ceremonies is used to mark the formal commencement of the trial of criminal cases.
The opening of the assizes is of historical significance. In law, assizes signifies a session or sitting of a court of justice. It originally signified the method of trial by jury. During the Middle Ages, the term was applied to certain court sessions held in England and because of the historical past of Nigeria, I was introduced in the country during the colonial period. In modern times, courts of assizes are criminal courts that deal with the most serious crimes. Here in Imo State, a court tries both civil and criminal cases. It has to be noted that assizes was abolished in England in 1971.
Is this all you do while heralding the legal year?
Not exactly. The legal year ceremonies affords the state judiciary an opportunity to take stock and self appraisal of the activities of the proceeding year. It also allows the judiciary to make projections for the succeeding year.
In 2011/2012 legal year, you branded it “entrenching democracy through the rule of law”. Why?
The theme provided us an opportunity to examine the doctrine of separation of powers in a democratic governance. We drew attention and cautioned against arbitrariness in governance. We drew attention to the importance of the respect for rule of law and for the sustenance of democratic government.
In 2012/2013 legal year, the theme was “that justice be done”. Did you achieve this desire?
The theme afforded us an opportunity to examine the claim of the independence of the judiciary. We appealed to the BAR to take more appropriate interest in seeing to the actualization, protection and sustenance of judicial independence. We demanded for the implementation of the constitutional provision, which granted the judiciary financial autonomy. We drew attention to the fact that it was important to promote and maintain judicial independence both in fact and as it is perceived objectively by the public. It was also our considered opinion that the three arms of government must be seen to be separate and independent from one another. I will leave it at that.
In your candid opinion, has anything changed for the better?
It is most disheartening to state that the situation has not changed as the judiciary still goes cap in hand begging the Executive for funds!
Are you comfortable with the standards attained by the Bench and Bar?
In every profession, there is a great pressing need to uphold certain time-honored standards. This need is more urgent and appears in greater relief in a profession like ours, which proclaims itself learned and honourable. Also, in the seeming paradox of a lawyer’s life, his only shield is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions and his ready, implicit and undiluted obedience to the unwritten laws of the profession, to the traditions of the profession, to that strict code of honour expressly designed to allow the lawyer discharge his duties to the administration of justice without being false to himself or to his conscience.
Do you have any advice to lawyers?
Lawyers must bear in mind at all times that they are officers of the court. So, an advocate is required to perform his advocatory duties with all honesty of purpose. A lawyer must perform his duties with reasonable degree of care, skill and sincerity. A lawyer, as a priest in the temple of justice, must not do anything to denigrate in the integrity of the court. A lawyer, who for reward, for whatever reason, casts aspersions on the integrity of a judex is no longer worthy to worship in the temple of justice where he is a minister, for he has by so doing, destroyed himself in the eyes of his congregation, that is the public.
Let us look at the infrastructure in Imo State Judiciary.
The buildings housing the courts in the state, are nothing to write home about. Since its creation in 1976, the judiciary is the only arm of government, out of the three arms that is still operating in a temporary site. Where we are today is not and is not supposed to be the permanent site of the judiciary.
Can you please explain what you mean?
To expatiate on this point, let me state that the legislature, which used to have a temporary house of assembly at the premises of Owerri Municipal Council, now has a befitting House of Assembly Complex at the New Owerri. Similarly, the Executive arm of government, which used to have its ministries and departments scattered along Okigwe and Orlu Roads in Owerri, are now housed in befitting structures along Port Harcourt Road, Owerri.
Are there fresh developments in the administration of justice in the state?
Yes. Let me use this opportunity to thank my brother, Hon. Justice B. A. Adejumo, for seeing to the establishment of a division of the National Industrial Court in Owerri, and for posting Hon. Justice O. Y. Anuwe as the pioneer presiding judge. As a result of this development, lawyers and litigants from Imo State no longer travel to Enugu for the hearing of their labour related cases. We are most grateful. We are however, still awaiting for the Code of Conduct Tribunal to start sitting.
Can we have an idea about the number of cases pending or decided in Imo courts?
Let me start by saying that there are nine judicial divisions of the High Court and a Customary Court of Appeal. We also have 20 Magisterial Districts and 44 Customary Courts in the 27 local government areas of the state.
The number of cases pending in the High Court as at October 1, 2012 are as follows: Civil – 19,176, Criminal – 5,311, Miscellaneous – 5,534.
The number of cases filed in the High Court from October 1, 2012 to September 30, 2013 are as follows: Civil -2,721, Criminal -5,332, Miscellaneous – 8,211. This gives us a total of 16,264.
The number of cases disposed in the High Court from October 1, 2012 to September 30, 2013 are as follows: Civil – 965, Criminal – 263, Miscellaneous – 510. This gives a total of 1,738.
From the figures established above, the number of cases pending in the High Court as at September 30, 2013, are as follows: Civil – 20,932, Criminal – 14,675 and Miscellaneous – 23,080. Thus we have a total of 59,687 cases pending in Imo State High Court, as at the time of this interview.
What is the position in magistrate and customary courts?
The number of cases pending in the magistrate courts as at September 30, 2012, are as follows: Civil – 4,984, Criminal – 18,059, and Miscellaneous – 2,555. This gives a total of 25,601 cases. However, the number of cases filed in the magistrate courts from October 1, 2012 to September 30, 2013, are as follows: Civil – 582, Criminal – 923, Miscellaneous – 852 and this gives a total of 2,357.
The number of cases disposed at the magistrate courts from October 1, 2012 to September 30, 2013, is 1,556. A total of 417 civil cases, 782 criminal matters and 377 miscellaneous cases were disposed. When we add up these figures, we will be left with a total of 26,402 cases pending in the magistrate courts.
In the Customary Court of Appeal, 399 cases were pending at the beginning of the legal year, while 412 cases were filed within the same period under review. A total of 353 cases were disposed, while the number of cases pending at the end of the legal year is 458.
The number of cases pending in the customary courts at the beginning of the legal year was 11,410. Cases filed within the period was 3,512. The number of cases disposed was 2,087, while the number of cases pending as at the end of the legal year was 12,835.
What do these figures portend for the state judiciary?
A critical analysis of the foregoing statistical data glaringly exposes the dilemma of the State Judiciary in terms of the case management and the burden our judges bore in their bid to reduce the number of cases pending in our courts.
For instance, in 2012/2013, the number of cases filed from October 1, 2012 to September 30, 2013, in the High Court was 16,264 as opposed to 4,890 filed within the same period in the preceding year. Equally, the number of cases pending as at September 30, 2013, in the High Court was 59,687 as opposed to 33,021 pending as October 1, 2012.
Today, there are only 15 judges in the High Court and five in the Customary Court of Appeal of Imo State. The fact of the matter is that the case/judge ratio in Imo State High Court is 3,979 per judge. It is absurd that 3,979 cases should be pending before one High Court Judge in the state.
Certainly, this is unacceptable. The last time judges were appointed in the state was in 2008, when five judges were appointed in the High Court and three in the Customary Court of Appeal. Since that period, five judges have retired from the High Court, while one retired from the Customary Court of Appeal. We lost one of our judges to death in 2009.
What do you say about prison congestion?
Prison congestion is worrisome. During the period under review, I visited the Nigerian Prisons severally and conducted goal delivery. I observed that the prison in Owerri is congested. Let me therefore suggest that the prison in Owerri be relocated to a site that will allow for the building of a good prison complex, especially for the rehabilitation of the inmates.
In the same vein, let me specially appeal to Governor Rochas Okorocha to immediately constitute the Advisory Council on Prerogative of Mercy. This is very necessary and important. If this is done, then the Governor can grant pardon to some deserving prison inmates on the recommendation of the Advisory Council on Prerogative of Mercy.
In spite of the numerous constraints militating against the speedy dispensation of justice in the state, the judiciary has done its best. It will be an understatement to say that the judges are over stretched. Let me use this opportunity to thank my brother judges for rising to the occasion, which we found ourselves. Let me also thank the lawyers for their understanding and cooperation. I am very grateful to the people of Imo State for having faith in the judiciary.
Are there other constraints?
Another major impediment constituting a clog in the smooth administration of justice in the state is the non-adequate funding of the judiciary. A look at the premises of the judiciary will say it all. Government should visit the state judiciary and make its impact felt by both serving and retired judges, magistrates and all the workers of the state judiciary.