Oiling the Wheels of Justice

13 Nov 2012

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Aloma and Musdapher

Is the number of judges or justices in courts really the problem to the quick dispensation of justice in the country or their attitude to work? Davidson Iriekpen asks this question against the backdrop of the recent swearing-in of 12 justices of the Court of Appeal
Last week, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Aloma Maryam Mukhtar, swore in 11 out of the 12 newly-appointed justices of the Court of Appeal at the Supreme Court complex with a charge to them to be committed to their jobs and shun vices that could bring the judiciary to disrepute.

They are Justices Ibrahim S. Bdliya, Abiriya James Shehu, Obietonbara O. Daniel-Kalio, Onyekachi Otisi, Stephen Jonah Adah, Tinuade Akomolaje-Wilson, Fatima Akinbami, Habeeb Adewale Abiru, Peter Olabisi Ige, Tijani Abubakar, and Emmanuel Agim. The twelfth justice, Ifeoma Jombo-Ofo, was suddenly dropped owing to controversy over her state of origin.

While some of the appointments are aimed at filling the vacuum created by the retirement of some of the justices of the court who had attained the mandatory retirement of 70 years, others were in compliance with the recent increase in the number of the justices of the court from 70 to 90 by the Senate.

The increase, which followed the passage of the Court of Appeal Act 2005 (Amendment) Bill, was to ensure and quicken the dispensation of justice and reduce the pressure on the few justices of the court. The bill also increased the number of justices from three to five, for each of the division, excluding Enugu, Lagos and Abuja.

Debating the bill on the Senate last April, Chairman, Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, Senator Umaru Dahiru, said the need to increase the number of justices from 70 to 90 was necessitated by the creation of additional divisions of the court across the country as well as the exigencies of clearing the high volume of election petition cases which have affected disposal of other cases pending before the court.

The Court of Appeal is the second highest court in the country.  Section 240 of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, states that the court “shall have jurisdiction to the exclusion of any other court of law in Nigeria, to hear and determine appeals from the Federal High Court, states High Courts, including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Sharia Court of Appeal, including the FCT, Customary Court of Appeal of states, and decisions of a court martial or other tribunals as may be prescribed by an Act of Parliament.”  This makes the court to entertain all manner of cases and appeals including criminal, commercial and other civil cases.

Currently, the court has 13 divisions across the six geo-political zones in the country. It was in order to quicken the dispensation of justice and reduce the workload of the justices of the court that four new divisions were recently created by the former President of the court, Justice Umaru Abdullahi.

In spite of this, in almost all the divisions, particularly in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Benin City, there are thousands of cases in courts begging for timely disposal but which have been pending or lingering due to a lot of factors. The frustration usually encountered by Nigerians when seeking justice in the law courts is unimaginable.

Before this experience, many analysts had attributed the delay experienced in the dispensation of cases at the court to inadequate judges to handle the plethora of cases pending before it and the attitude of some of the judges to work. But over time, based on the attitude of some of the justice, it is gradually donning on Nigerians that many of the judges are lazy and nonchalant to their jobs.

One of the allegations against them is that because there is no proper way to monitor their activities, they display nonchalance on their jobs. While some of them deliberately absent themselves from courts without excuse or prior notification, others are in the habit of coming late to court and rising early, thereby frustrating litigants and lawyers.

In Lagos for instance, there are instances where litigants and their counsel come from Abuja, Enugu, Benin, Port Harcourt and other far places only to be told that the court won’t sit for that day. All these are added to the long-hand which almost all the judges conduct their proceedings. Some of the justices do not sit due to incessant conferences and seminars for judges. Other even abandon sitting for frequent prayers and do not come back

Because of the delay usually experienced in cases, virtually every agency in the country is today clamouring for special courts to handle their cases. Irked by the delay in concluding suits instituted by banks against their debtors, Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Malam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, recently, called a special court to handle suits pertaining to finance and banking in the country. Former Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mrs. Farida Waziri, had also at different fora canvassed for a special court to handle EFCC’s cases.

Constitutionally, an appeal to the court is supposed to last more than 90 days, but these days filing a case before this court seems like the proverbial camel going through the eye of a needle. It takes more than three or more years to conclude a matter in this court except where a litigant is lucky. To many observers, a well functional judiciary is the central element of civil society and the sole adjudicator over the political, social and economic spheres.  Unfortunately, speedy resolution of disputes is becoming increasingly elusive.

The impression many a Nigerian have about the judiciary is that of ambivalence. To many lawyers, it has become a norm for a litigant to take an average of 20 years to successfully prosecute a civil and criminal case from the High Court to the Court of Appeal and ultimately to the Supreme Court. Investigation revealed that apart from political cases that are often treated with utmost dispatch from the High Court to the Supreme Court, other cases such as criminal, commercial and other civil matters take a minimum of 20 years to be concluded at the Supreme Court

Checks revealed that while it takes about five to seven years to conclude a case at the High Court, whether state or federal; it takes almost the same number of years for the same case to go through the Court of Appeal upon appeal. And at the Supreme Court, it could take far up to eight or 10 years. THISDAY checks revealed that the Supreme Court is currently hearing appeals that were filed in 2001 and 2002.

It is against this against this backdrop that many analysts are urging the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Dalhatu Adamu, to initiate reforms aimed fast-tracking justice delivery at the appellate level.

For instance, in order to quicken the dispensation of justice and reduce the number of cases pending before the Supreme Court, the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Dahiru Musdapher, reversed an administrative order 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 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 a heavy backlog of cases as many cases which ought to have been determined were automatically adjourned. With the new policy, the apex court now sits every week of the month.

While the policy was in place, many lawyers found it objectionable but did not complain to the authority for fear of reprisal. Upon assumption of office, Musdapher promised to restore public confidence in the judiciary. He had also expressed concern at the backlog of cases pending before the apex court.

Reacting to the increase in the number of justices at the court recently, Executive Director of Access to Justice, Mr. Joseph Otteh, said the problem of the court particularly regarding quick disposition of justice is not all about the number of judges but their attitude to work.

Otteh noted that the performance evaluation programme of the National Judicial Council (NJC) aimed at monitoring the outputs of judges was doubtful and that the council has not sought to strengthen this tool.

“While the sentiment for expanding the Federal High Court’s judicial staff is understandable and even appealing, there are arguable grounds for questioning the coherence of the policy. The idea of appointing more judges because cases are not progressing fast enough is attractive, and while sometimes it may be a necessary response, oftentimes however, it is a misjudgment, a ‘solution’ which never delivers any improvement in the disposal rates of cases.

“Unfortunately, neither the Senate nor the judiciary has, as far as we know, done any analysis to find out what the output, per capita of the 70 judges of the Federal High Court are and whether the current judge-docket ratio is appropriate to the needs of Nigeria’s development. The National Judicial Council’s performance evaluation programme that monitors outputs of judges is literally of very doubtful value now, and the Council has not sought to strengthen this tool.

“Appointing more judges may be a useful approach to the problem of docket congestion if an objective need for an expansion can be established in this regard; unfortunately such a case has not been made out now and the Senate’s intervention of increasing the number of Judges is too simplistic and inane an approach to the problem,” he said.

Tags: Politics, Nigeria, Featured, Justices Ibrahim S. Bdliya, Abiriya James Shehu

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