By Henry Ojelu
In view of the ravaging coronavirus pandemic, civil society organisation, Access to Justice, A2J, has appealed to the National Judicial Council, NJC, to direct all courts that have announced judicial vacations to reverse the directive.
In a statement by its Convener, Joseph Otteh, and Project Director, Deji Ajare, the organisation said it is insensitive for courts across the country to embark on annual vacation when several cases affected by COVID-19 nationwide lockdown remain unattended to.
The statement noted that taking vacations after long suspension of court sittings is not right and gives the wrong message about the judiciary’s commitment to delivering justice.
It read in part: “The announcement that their courts will proceed on routine annual vacations, for at least a two-month period, is unfortunate.
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“Thousands of cases were affected by the suspension of court sittings, following the Chief Justice of Nigeria’s directive to suspend court activities in March, or the limited scope of hearings taking place now following the partial resumption of court business.
“Many of the cases affected by limited court sitting are cases that are delicate, time-sensitive, and vital for other processes or those that involve personal liberties.
“In some criminal cases, defendants who could not access pre-trial bail are in overly-congested correctional houses, institutions that also present a very peculiar problem of their own.
“Should there be a COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in them, many of the inmates there would be at huge risks of infection and their lives on the line.
“The judiciary as an institution has a primordial and frontline responsibility to protect human life, and this responsibility ought to weigh heavily on how its decisions — including vacation decisions — are arrived at.
“The National Judicial Council, NJC, must step in now, just as it weighed in to direct the suspension of court proceedings following National Policies and Guidelines in March and April.
“The NJC ought now to make a judiciary-wide policy on vacations that demonstrates that the Nigerian judiciary does not exist in an abstract institutional vacuum of its creation, but is part and parcel of Nigerian society, and will itself make the sacrifices necessary to ensure the overall good and welfare of the Nigerian people.
“The NJC should direct all the courts that have announced judicial vacations to reverse those decisions now.”
A2J, however, commended some states that have taken the initiative to cancel their annual vacation.
It noted: “Some Judiciaries have put off those vacations for the year 2020. Among those who have done so are Ogun and Jigawa state judiciaries.
“Access to Justice applauds the heads of the court that have, in response to the exigencies of ameliorating the delays caused by the judiciary’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, put off annual vacations for their Judges. The heads of these judiciaries have shown conscientious and responsive leadership.”
The organisation also queried why Nigeria judiciary’s adoption of bloc vacation, which has been discarded by many countries.
A2J said: “In the first place, the idea of taking en bloc judicial vacations is wrong. Many judiciaries around the world that practiced it have abandoned the model.
“Judicial officers may take individual vacations as individualised vacations have a lesser effect on the delivery of judicial services as a whole.
“Second, the length of judicial vacations, when calculated cumulatively over a given year, is also excessive.
“In the present context, given that courts’ docket backlogs are possibly at breaking point, the judiciary ought to have taken a different approach to the length of vacation period.”