By Hafizu Isah
WHEN the Federal Court of Appeal was established in 1976 following Decree (now Cap. C36 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004), the aim was to help lighten the burden of the Supreme Court. In other words, it came to serve as a bridge between the lower courts and the apex court.
Owing to the December 31, 1983, Military Intervention and the promulgation of the Constitution (Suspension and Modification) Decree, 1984 the name of the court was changed from Federal Court of Appeal to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal was established as an Appellate Court to entertain:
*Civil or Criminal appeals from the Federal High Court, High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, High Courts of the 36 States as well as National Industrial Court, Customary Courts of Appeal of states and the Federal Capital Territory, Sharia Courts of Appeal of States and the Federal Capital Territory.
*Election Petition Tribunal, Appeals from Martial Court, Code of Conduct Tribunal, Investments and Security Tribunals, Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee, and most recently, the Alternative Disputes Resolution (ADR) which was established on June 28, 2018.
Growth: At the onset, the Court of Appeal started with three Judicial Divisions: Lagos, Kaduna, and Enugu.
With the three operational Divisions, the need arose for expansion. As a result, in June, 1977, additional Divisions were established in Ibadan and Benin and in January, 1983, Jos Division came alive. This expansion continued in 1989 as Port Harcourt Division was established and subsequently Abuja Division came to light in 1996.
With increase in demand for services of the Court of Appeal, 2 Judicial Divisions sprang in Ilorin and Calabar in February, 1999 totalling 10 Judicial Divisions. 1999 to 2009 witnessed the establishment of six more Divisions namely: Owerri, Sokoto, Yola, Ekiti, Akure, and Makurdi, bringing the Divisions to 16. To further take justice delivery closer to the people, four Divisions: Asaba, Awka, Gombe and Kano, were added between 2014-2019. 45 years on, the Court of Appeal boasts of 20 Judicial Divisions, spread across the six geopolitical zones of Nigeria.
As the second longest President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umaru Abdullahi, the Walin Hausa puts it, “the Court of Appeal is where the decisions are made; the Supreme Court merely whitewashes it” hence, the need for justice delivery to be taken seriously and closer to the people.
From the above perspective, the need beckoned to increase the number of Justices adjudicating in this Noble Temple from the initial 36 it started with to 41 in 1990. Again, it rose to 50 in 1993 and to 70 in 2006. With the Court of Appeal Amendment Act of 2013 the number increased to 90. Currently, the Justices are 85 in number.
The Court has produced seven presidents namely: Late HJustice D.O. Ibekwe, 1976 – 1978; Late Justice Mamman Nasir, 1978 – 1992; late Justice Mohammed Akanbi, 1992 – 1999; Justice Umaru Abdullahi, 1999 – 2009; . Justice Isa Salami, 2009 – 2012; LateJustice Dalhatu Adamu (in Acting capacity) 2012 – 2013; Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, 2014 – 2020; and Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem, 2020 – to date
Sitting in the former Federal Capital of Nigeria, the Court was accommodated in the old Supreme Court Complex now Lagos Division. With the movement from Lagos to Abuja, the Court of Appeal domiciled at the Area 3 office complex which now houses the National Industrial Court, NIC. It was during the tenure of the then President, Court of Appeal Hon. Justice Umaru Abdullahi, CON that all hands were put on deck to build a befitting office complex, commissioned by the Ambassador of the Rule of Law and Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces, late President Umaru Musa Yar’adua, GCFR, on 15th December, 2008.
The Court of Appeal on top of history right now, is a melting pot where justice is justice without colour, section or place of origin, where all the Justices must sit together in a quorum to take decision in any matter devoid of sentiment. This is the reason some Senior Advocates of Nigeria have been speaking on the developments as the Court turns 45 years old.
Historically speaking, for Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, who has spent over three decades at the Bar, the establishment of the Court of Appeal as an intermediate Court between the High Court and the Supreme Court is justified. For Chief Garba S. Pwul, SAN, the Court has been extraordinary in terms of effective expansion, performance and impacting positively on the legal system of Nigeria. While Chief Patrick Ikwueto, SAN, is of the view that the Court has done tremendously and has lived up to its statutory mandate in discharging its functions creditably.
Chief Awomolo puts it thus, “The court has justified its existence, no doubt it has over the years produced very eminent jurists, some of whom ended their career in the Supreme Court, others retired as Justices of the Court of Appeal or Presidents of the Court of Appeal. To me, the Court of Appeal is desirable but it has to spread to a wider area because litigation in 1976, 1986, 1996, 2006 and now are never the same. Nigerians are getting more conscious of their legal rights and of course, people are now beginning to feel that it is better to test the decision of the High Courts in the Court of Appeal where three gentlemen of the learned profession will sit to consider the decision of one man.”
In the opinion of Chief Pwul, “To give a run-down of the performance of the Court of Appeal, first of all, to get to 45, is a great achievement. I started practising in 1982, and my posting as a Youth Corps member was in the Court of Appeal, Kaduna Division. I would say the Court of Appeal has come a long way in terms of expansion, performance and impact on our legal system. When I joined the Court of Appeal, there were only three divisions of the Court. Today, we have Divisions in more than half of the 36 states of Nigeria. In bringing justice proximate to the people, it is on record that the number of appeals determined every single year by the Honourable Justices is an indication that they have performed amazingly in the past 45 years.”
Learned Silk, Chief Ikwueto in his contribution observed that, both the Trial Courts and the Courts below and even practitioners who come before the courts are encouraged to do their work because in all human endeavours there are chances of making mistakes. The great Jurist, Oputa averred, when he referred to the Supreme Court as not being infallible because as human beings they could make mistakes, but since ‘’we are final, we are infallible’’ Ikwueto remarks.
Furthermore, Ikwueto is of the view that if there was no Court of Appeal, then the facts of the case at the Trial Courts won’t be tested, and if you were to have all these coming to the Supreme Court without an intermediary Appellate Court, obviously the situation would be very chaotic and ‘’I think that the Court of Appeal has lived up to its statutory mandate and it is worthwhile to have that appellate sieving platform whereby, judgements and decisions of the Trial Courts are tested again before they go to the Apex Court for final determination. The Court of Appeal indeed is a deserving intermediary between the Trial Courts and the Supreme Court.”
Annual Justices conference 2020
The use of information communication technology is considered one of the key elements to significantly improve the administration of justice. In the knowledge, the world has rapidly developed into a global village which has opened new opportunities that were unthinkable some years ago.
Around the world, several reforms have been introduced to allow the use of enhanced electronic data and documents within the judicial systems. The availability of web services, the possibility of consulting online legislation, the use of electronic filing, electronic exchange of legal documents are spurring the judicial administration across the globe to rethink their functions and activities, enhance efficiency, access, timeliness, transparency and accountability that will help the judiciaries to provide adequate services.
The imperative of adequate ICT infrastructure in the sustenance of a thriving judicial system cannot be overemphasised and this much, Joe Kyari Gadzama, SAN, shared his thoughts in a paper he presented recently that given the number of cases being filed in different courts, it is necessary to review the workload on the Judiciary. ‘’We do need to realize the fact that the human brain has its limitations; hence, the era and practice of our Justices writing in longhand needs to be dispensed with for good.”
At a point when the world was almost shutting down as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, was the period the 7th President of the COA, Justice Dongban-Mensem assumed office. The period came with opportunities and challenges however, the new President came prepared.
From the different view points, Covid-19 engulfed the world with such a speed faster than the speed of light. Everyone became worried, scientists intensified research into the causes and possible vaccines to curb further spread and deaths.
As the virus spread its tentacles, it posed concern to medical experts and world leaders since every hope of finding cure seemed bleak. Thus, the world shut-down to prevent further spread. The only option was to Wash Your Hands Frequently with Soap under a Running Water; Wear a Facemask; Use Hand Sanitizers where Soap and Water is Not Available and Maintain Social Distancing.
This indeed changed how things were done. A world which thrived in trade and exchange of human resources now became completely locked down; forcing leaders and stakeholders to think deeply on how to sustain their economies to tally with human demands.
Back home, President Muhammadu Buhari declared the shutdown of the Federal Capital Territory, Lagos and Ogun States on March 29, 2020, when it became obvious that the cases as well as death tolls were on the increase.
The Nigerian Judiciary was not left in the limbo! The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Muhammad, Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, SAN and Head of Courts brainstormed on the way forward since the judiciary was a public institution where litigants, lawyers and Justices gather to adjudicate legal matters. Thus, Guidelines were rolled out on how the workforce would operate.
The little things that we do can become powerful if we reinvent ourselves
At the Court of Appeal, the Hon. President, Justice Dongban-Mensem brought the conversation to the front burner by engaging the services of virologists, Dr. Patrick Dakum, Chief Executive Officer, Institute of Human Virology and Prof. Abdulsalam Nasidi, former Director-General, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, to parley with some Justices and senior Management Staff on veritable opportunities for reform in Court Processes through tele-adjudication; imploring the use of zoom as a veritable platform to engage her brother Justices and Staff.
Armed with this knowledge, Dongban-Mensem said that the COVID-19 pandemic was a wakeup call for the court as a professional organisation to have full grasp while complying with the lockdown directive; ‘’but considering that the court has to adjudicate on urgent, essential and time-bound matters we should not completely close our doors to the public.’’ For the first time in 45 years of the Court, she experimented the use of Zoom to hold meetings and conferences with Justices and Sectional Heads while beefing up the ICT Department with the required technology to ensure that Court of Appeal is at par with other Judiciaries across the globe.
Fallout of her steady strides
No doubt, the year 2020 had been eventful, not only in the history of Nigeria but the judiciary as well; especially the Court of Appeal with over 34,000 pending appeals spread across its 20 Divisions.
Recall that all through the lockdown from March 25, to June 30, 2020 Justice Dongban-Mensem confronted the fear that surrounded COVID-19 pandemic with faith to lead her colleagues by setting up Special Panels with the Justices drawn from all the Divisions. Special permits were obtained from the Police Force to cover their movements to expeditiously determine a total of 1,356 appeals and 1,960 motions.
More significantly was that a total of 528 Judgements (16.97% of the total number of Judgements) were delivered via the Zoom Online Platform during the course of the 2020-2021 Legal Year while 10 hearings were held by Panels of the Court using this platform.
*Hafizu Isah is Chief Registrar, Court of Appeal