By Davies Iheamnachor
Chief OCJ Okocha, SAN, practices law in Rivers State. Okocha, a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, in this interview spoke on some salient national issues on how to speed up the course of justice delivery in the nation. Excerpts:
The CJN during a function in Abuja said delays in court processes are scaring away investors from coming into the country, do you agree to that claim?
Yes certainly, because whenever an investor is seeking to invest in any country, they will be anxious to know what the situation of law and order is in that country and how the rule of law is practised in that country. Clearly, when you have a country where there is no law and order and the judicial process is interminably very long, it discourages investors from going to invest in such country. I agree entirely with the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
What would be the remedy to that situation?
There are certain things which you cannot enshrine in the constitution, because they are subject to the vagaries of human nature and what we know as the realities on the ground. What we should do to improve the speed of justice in Nigeria is to institutionalise all such processes that are necessary and requisite for speedy determination of cases. This will start by proper establishment of courts. Sufficient courts for particular areas. For so long, some of us have made the point that they have to look at each state of the federation on its own peculiar factors. Some states are more populous than the others, so it indicates that they should have more cases in those states. Some states have good communication, good road and transportation system, all these need to be taken into consideration before you locate courts at particular centres where they can administer justice and when you think about it, you must make sure that all the requisite working materials are made available to the courts and the personnel that will man the courts.
Are all these things you mentioned achievable in Nigeria as a nation that seeks speedy justice system?
Yes, as I have said several times, the amount of money allocated to the judicial arm of the government is totally inadequate. And you know we have one octopus or behemoth they call National Judicial Council, NJC, which is calling the shots, dictating to particular states the number of courts, magistrates and judges they require, that is not right. Each state should be allowed to determine for itself the number of courts it requires, categories of the court and the kinds of personnel they require in their courts, not the NJC as we have dictating to states how many courts and judges and other judicial officials they need.
The call for devolution of power has been serious; does this fit into the call for restructuring?
It is part of the argument for restructuring. When we talk about restructuring and devolution of powers, we are talking about the functions of the various tiers and levels of government in Nigeria and who should have particular constitutional responsibility for certain aspects of our national life. If the matter of administration of justice is on the concurrent list as presently is, we have courts at federal and state levels, and you see that there is a problem because the constitution has stipulated the courts that are required under the constitution. So, each state has the responsibility to create its own courts because all that is provided for in Section 6 of the Constitution is that each state should have a High Court. It is also provided there that the Federal Government should also have its own High Court. Oil mining and prospection is under the exclusive legislative list and the jurisdiction of such matters is placed squarely under the purview of the Federal High Court, yet we have Port Harcourt Division here with only four or five judges and we are saying this is an oil-producing area, we should even have at least 12 judges of the Federal High Court sitting in Rivers State to deal with the volume of cases that emanate from the locality. The state courts should determine how many they need not for the NJC to tell us that they have made provision for 30 high court judges for Rivers State.
Don’t you think more actions that will drive the process of speedy justice should emanate from the CJN himself?
Well, you see the process of amending constitution and putting provisions in the constitution is driven by the legislative arms, the law- making body. As you are aware, the law-making body is currently undergoing the process of amending the 1999 Constitution and they have been doing it piecemeal. I am aware the National Judicial Council, the Nigerian Bar Association, and all stakeholders in the legal sector, that is, the justice sector of Nigeria have made inputs, their recommendations to the National Assembly (NA) but these are yet to be dealt with appropriately as required by the NA. It is not a matter that the CJN himself should drive; the CJN is just a judicial office holder in this country. It is a matter that the whole legal profession has to pursue through the NJC, NBA and through the Council of Legal Education, which trains lawyers for the judicial arm in the country.
CJN also urged judges to advice litigants to use Alternative Dispute Resolution, ADR, mechanism in handling less contentious issues; don’t you think it will affect justice delivery?
We agree with the CJN that Alternative Dispute Resolution, ADR, mechanism be used. ADR mechanism has always been part of our law as far back as in 90s. In the laws of Nigeria 1958, we had the Arbitration and Reconciliation Act, and these Acts have continued in all the volumes of laws of the federation up till date. Arbitration and Alternative Dispute Resolution, ADR, have always been part of our jurisprudence, but the thing with Nigeria is that we have not strengthened the arbitration process and other processes for Alternative Dispute Resolution, because what you see invariably is that people go to arbitration and when they finish before the arbitrators, they end up in court challenging the award of the arbitrator. Because Nigerians are sour losers, they want to continue the struggle till they eventually get to the Supreme Court. Some even get to the Supreme Court and come back to start all over again.
Over the years, you have been in practice, how would you compare the legal system now and 20 years ago, has anything improved?
We have improved in the area of establishment of courts . Following the creation of more states, we have now got more high court of the states. Following the creation of more divisions of Federal High Court which originally started as the Federal Revenue Court, we have now got divisions of the FHC. We have also improved in the area of the appellate jurisdiction of the court. We now have 12 more divisions of court of appeal. We have also tried to improve our rules of court so that processes and proceedings can be efficiently handled. But the population explosion has indicated that many more persons are now ready to take their matters to court and many more businesses established and are ready to take their matters to court, so, by the same token, we ought to have increased the number of courts so that with the increasing population and businesses and companies, we would have matched it with creation of more courts, appointing more judges and magistrates so they can speedily dispose of these cases. Individuals and corporate organisations have not been matched with equivalent increase in the number of courts, judges and magistrates and this is the place where the problem lies and we need to improve.
What are the major improvements in the rules of the court?
The rules of the court have changed over time; now we are using what we call the front loading system. We in Rivers State started it in 2016. Lagos had started it earlier in 2002 or 2004. Most of the states have adopted it even the Federal High Courts. But you see, they have not increased the number of judges so we still have a situation where when these processes are front loaded, the time when the matters will get to trial, we end up getting a bottleneck because the cases are too many and one judge can only sit for so many hours in a day and can only handle so many cases in a day.
Can ICT help in improving the pace of justice delivery?
Yes, to a great extent. Just last week, the judiciary in Rivers State organised a workshop, they are now trying to introduce information technology into the system. We can now computerize court processes and transmit same by electronic processes. Information technology should be brought to court, so we don’t have to receive papers as hearing notices, they can send us email to know when cases are coming up. Computerisation of the judicial process will also help to quicken the pace of justice. And we know that information is transmitted at the click of button. It will greatly improve our speed of justice. You go to court and you have verbal recording, transcribed and distributed, and the judges will not have to write in long hand, we as lawyers don’t have to prepare our papers in long hand, we do everything electronically and at the tap of a button, you transmit the court process and court is also giving you a scheduled date and hearing notice, things will move faster. It is already taking place at the Federal High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. When we file matters in those courts, they require us to provide email addresses and phone contacts, they transmit these things through email, but the real work of documentation is still done manually.
The FG under Buhari in the fight against corruption has prosecuted many cases, yet we see less conviction, what is the cause?
The Judiciary is the last resort, so before any case comes to court under this so-called anti-corruption war, there must be process that must be undertaken before you arraign anybody whether a natural person or corporate person for offences of corruption and the first part is proper investigation. For example, James Ibori was prosecuted for corruption in this country and they could not prove anything against him. The same James Ibori was prosecuted in the UK, he saw the evidence presented by the prosecution, he pleaded guilty and was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment. The EFCC, ICPC, DSS, which ended up raiding houses of judges in this country need to understand that they need to investigate every case of corruption before they go to court, because when you go to court, you must present credible evidence that will prove the offence beyond reasonable doubt before such persons can be convicted.