As courts across the country resume for the 2012/2013 legal year after about eight weeks of annual vacation, Davidson Iriekpen highlights areas that might constitute interest for majority of Nigerians
After about eight weeks of vacation, courts all over the country both at the federal and state levels have begun to resume for the 2012/2013 legal year, beginning from last week. Like every other resumption, the judges who had used the opportunity offered them by the vacation to rejuvenate, are coming back to face daunting challenges. Apart from the huge and piles of applications and motions awaiting their attention, the judges are also back to work at a time the image of the entire judiciary is at the lowest ebb.
No doubt, the courts are the only places the weak, oppressed and the cheated run to for succour or justice. But the question of how many of those who had to run them for justice and secured same remains a guess work. Therefore, as the 2012/2013 legal year begins in earnest, there are a number of cases that need to be urgently resolved, and the resolution of these cases rest squarely on how fast the courts can expeditiously determine them.
Over the years, many a Nigerian had lost hope and confidence in court, not only because their slow pace at dispensing justice but the illogical, incoherent and incongrous decisions and judgments the judges often deliver. It is believed that it takes over 15 to 20 years for a case to go from the High Court to the Supreme Court. But as the courts resume for a new legal year, many analysts are waiting to see a situation where judges would demonstrate to Nigerians that indeed it is possible to secure justice and within estimated time too.
Investigation revealed that it takes an average of 20 years to successfully prosecute a civil or criminal case from the High Court to the Court of Appeal and ultimately to the Supreme Court. Apart from political cases that are often treated with utmost urgency from the High Court to the Supreme Court, other cases such as criminal, commercial and other civil matters are left to suffer and in turns. This, it was learnt, could take up to a minimum of 20 years.
Checks revealed that while it takes five to seven years to conclude a case at the High Court whether at the state or federal level, it takes almost the same number of years for the same case to go through the Court of Appeal upon appeal. At the Supreme Court however, same case could take up to six, seven or ten years.
THISDAY checks revealed that the appeals currently being heard at the apex court were filed since 2005 and 2006. It was part of efforts to quicken the dispensation of justice and reduce the pressure on judge and justices that the Senate recently passed two bills increasing the number of the justices of the Court of Appeal from 70 to 90 and the judges of the Federal High Court from 70 to 100.
Analysts believe that it is the delay usually experienced in cases that is making every agency in the country clamour for special courts to handle their cases. For instance, the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, was recently irked by the delay in concluding suits instituted by banks against their debtors and called for a special court to handle suits pertaining to debt recovery, breach of contracts, finance and banking in the country.
Former Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mrs. Farida Waziri, had all through the period she was office, canvassed for a special court to handle EFCC’s cases for quick dispensation of justice.
Many lawyers have also called for the demarcation of courts into subdivisions such as constitutional issues, civil, criminal, and contracts, as it is currently done at the Lagos State High Court.
In Lagos, courtrooms are subdivided or designated into criminal, commercial, probate and land. This enables each of these courts to know the cases to hear. Analysts have thus joined in the call for an increase in the number of courts, especially at the appellate level to quicken justice.
At the Court of Appeal in Lagos, for instance, only two courts sit. Analysts, however, want the court to be increased to four or five to cope with the volume of appeals coming from the federal and state High Courts.
One of the achievements of Justice Dahiru Musdapher in the 11 months that he was at the helm of affairs as Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) was the reversal of the administrative policy of his immediate predecessor in office, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu, which restricted the sitting of the Supreme Court to only three weeks in a month.
Musdapher, in order to quicken the dispensation of justice and reduce the number of cases pending before the court, directed the litigation department to fix cases for every week as against the administrative policy of Katsina-Alu whereby the court sat for two weeks and took a break on the third week.
The administrative practice put in place by Katsina-Alu resulted in heavy backlog of cases as many of them which ought to have been determined were automatically adjourned indefinitely. With the new policy, the apex court now sits every week of the month. While the Katsina-Alu policy was in place, many lawyers found it objectionable but did not complain to the authority for fear of reprisal.
But upon assumption of office, Musdapher promised to restore public confidence in the judiciary. He also expressed concern at the backlog of cases pending before the apex court.
In a recent article, Mr. Stanley Ibe, a research fellow with Right to Know Initiative, said one factor investors consider when rating a country is whether they will have access to suitable mechanism by which to resolve disputes. According to him, a stable legal framework is one of the key factors that drive economic activities.
“It is no secret that public officials often commit abuses of executive power. Thus it is the role of the justice sector to protect individuals against such abuses. Without such protection, it can be assumed that most investors will, as new opportunities arise, exercise the right to seek other more investor-friendly jurisdiction to invest in,” he said.
Many had also challenged the judiciary as it resumes for the 2012/2013 legal year, to counter the series of allegations of corruption leveled against it and prove that it is not corrupt. Apart from the various corruption allegations leveled against some judges, a recent survey on crime and corruption conducted by the EFCC and National Bureau of Statistics in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, revealed that the judiciary in the country is being irretrievably destroyed by corruption.
The survey had shocked many Nigerians when it named the judiciary as one of the institutions where there is massive corruption. “Nigerian courts of law receive the biggest and highest bribes from citizens among all institutions in which corruption is rampant.”
Though, it particularly stressed that bribery in the third arm of government was less frequent than in many other agencies and other organisations, most of the respondents to the survey admitted that they had paid the biggest bribes to the courts in huge transactions. It also disclosed that among public officials, police personnel were most frequently alleged to request the payment of bribes followed by employees of PHCN and the Water Board, revenue officials as well as Customs.
Another critical area where many want the courts to focus is on the allegation that judges inadvertently shield politicians and other government officials charged with corruption from prosecution. It is believed that since corruption has been identified as one of the greatest problems confronting the country, the judiciary needs to play a critical role to eradicate it. A general lack of courage in the Nigerian judiciary to deal with corruption frontally is believed to be responsible for the upsurge in the malaise.
Incidentally, the courts are resuming few months after Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar was appointed the Chief Justice Nigeria (CJN). And as the first woman to occupy the position of CJN, Nigerians expect a lot from her leadership especially as many of her predecessors had failed to meet the expectations of the people.
It is believed that Mukhtar has to take some tough decisions that would lead to the cleaning up of the institution. But this can only be done when all the corrupt judges are exposed and dismissed from service, observers noted.
Interestingly during her grilling by the Senate, Mukhtar, admitted to some shortcomings in the judiciary and promised to make it better by engendering remarkable reform in the sector and make changes in some key areas. She also sought for support of the legislature in bringing about necessary constitutional amendments concerning the sector, which she described as her “home”.