By Onozure Dania & Henry Ojelu
After about two months of vacation, justices, judges and magistrates of the appellate and trial courts across the federation are back to their duty posts. With a well deserved rest, they are expected to tackle with new zeal and vigour, the numerous new and old cases before their dockets.
Apart from the regular criminal and civil matters, the 2019 legal year is expected to be a very busy one for the judiciary in view of disputes emanating from politicians, their political parties as well as the 2019 general election. In this edition, Vanguard Law examines some of the critical issues that will determine the success of the judiciary in 2018-2019 legal year, even though it appears as the only arm of government that takes seriously the issue of sanitising itself from time to time.
In spite of the efforts of successive leadership of the Nigerian judiciary to tackle the issues of corruption among judicial officers, the problem has simply refused to abate. Just last week, the Nigerian Judicial Council, NJC, recommended the dismissal of two judges for issues bordering on corruption. Several other judges are also still being investigated by the council. Commendable as the occasional interventions of the NJC may be, there are still corrupt judges and judicial officials in the system. For as long as these corrupt officials remain in the system, justice will continue to be an exclusive preserve of the highest bidder.
Appointment of judges
According to available statistics, the ratio of judges and magistrates to the human population in the country is still very low. With Nigerian population estimated to be 198 million, the number of judges and magistrates in the country today certainly cannot cope with disputes from such huge population. Unlike other jurisdictions, Nigerian judges and magistrates currently have the largest number of cases per judge. Agreed that new judges and magistrates were appointed recently, the number is still not enough.
In an interview with our correspondent on this issue, a senior lecturer in Lagos State University, Gbenga Ojo, said: “It is clear that the number of judges we have now is not sufficient. There are so many cases and you have a judge for instance, having like 30 to 40 cases in one day. For God’s sake, the judge is not a machine.
”There is no way he can handle such heavy workload. The consequences will be endless adjournments and the matter will be in court for three to five years.”
With the exception of few courtrooms in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt, most courtrooms across the country are still in very terrible states. Shockingly, in some states, proceedings are conducted in courtrooms built by the colonial government. In other states, court proceedings are conducted in cubicles where lawyers and litigants sweat profusely throughout the proceeding.
Speaking on the poor state of courtrooms across the country, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Solo Akuma, said: “If you go to the Federal High Court in Lagos, those places are not court halls, they are cubicles. Judges, lawyers and litigants are suffering there. If government wants the judiciary to move at a fast pace, they must create an enabling environment by building courtrooms. You don’t put a judge in the cubicle and expect him to work effectively.”
Backlog of cases
One major issue that still poses a challenge to the judiciary is backlog of cases. In some court jurisdictions across the country, 10 to 15 year-old cases are still on the cause list. This drains the little confidence the citizenry still have in the judiciary. There is no justice when a case is decided after parties in the suit are long dead.
The President of Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Paul Usoro, SAN, harped on this issue in his address at the conferment of senior advocates on some lawyers in Abuja, last month. He said: ”Election-related appeals will, of course, not be all that will fill Your Lordships’ dockets in this New Legal Year. There is still a huge backlog of appeals, mostly civil appeals that are pending before Your Lordships. We note with deep appreciation, Your Lordships’ efforts, notably in the last Legal Year, to clear the deck of these backlog of matters. But then, the pile still remains.
“We know that there are still appeals pending before Your Lordships that were filed in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 – appeals that remain outstanding for more than 10 years. When this time-span is added to the time span that it takes for the appeals to journey from courts of first instance to Your Lordships, then the delays in our judicial process becomes quite pronounced, frightening and discouraging not only to litigants but also to the Bar and other stakeholders in the justice administration sub-sector.”
The Lagos State Judiciary recently inaugurated a committee to clear backlog of cases in its cause list. At the last briefing on the activities of the committee, it was disclosed that many of such cases had been disposed of, while others were referred for arbitration. This effort is highly commendable and is recommended for other states which are still struggling with heavy backlog of cases.
Speaking on the need to clear backlog of cases and ensure speedy dispensation of justice, Seyi Sowemimo, SAN, said: ”When you are talking of the Judiciary, for me, the most important thing is quick dispensation of justice. Once you have quick dispensation of justice, everything works well. They have just appointed a good number of justices of the Court of Appeal. My expectations is that with the increase in number, cases would move faster and the system would be more efficient.”
The world has gone digital and so must our judicial system. Speaking recently at a forum, Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, emphasized the need to increase the adoption of information technology in the justice system. He noted that with e-justice, case management will be automated; payment of fees via dedicated websites will reduce corruption and forms that simplify and streamline court proceedings will be accessible to users online. Although the Supreme Court and Lagos State Judiciary have been moving towards complete utilisation of information technology, there is need for all law courts in Nigeria to be ICT-compliant. A situation where court judgments and rulings still take weeks before being made available to parties is just not acceptable.
Expectedly, election tribunals will be a major feature of the 2019 legal year. After the federal and state elections, judges would be appointed as members of various election petition tribunals. The extra duties will occupy the judges for almost three months. While appointment of judges as tribunal members is inevitable, it has been observed that this extra duty makes original cases which these judges are supposed to handle in the courtroom suffer.
Lawal Pedro, SAN, in an interview with Vanguard decried the situation, saying: “We may have to think outside the bar on this issue. Even when election petition tribunals are not sitting, do cases in our courts not suffer? They do. There are cases that have been lingering in our courts for over five years. It is really a very pathetic situation. Taking out judges for election petition matters, obviously compounds the situation. One good thing that has been done, however, is that even if judges on such election petition matters don’t sit, there is a time limit now to decide all cases. This has helped to ensure tribunal engagements don’t take judges away for too long from their core responsibilities.”
Enforcement of court orders/judgment
In many instances, government and government agencies select court orders to obey or disobey. Already, the Federal Government has set a dangerous precedent in this direction by severally refusing to obey orders of court in some high profile matters. This must not be allowed to continue in the 2019 legal year. The courts must insist that its orders are obeyed else such matters should not be entertained before any court. Judges have the duty of filing complaints against lawyers who flagrantly encourage their client to disregard court orders.