Tasks Before the Courts

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The courts across the country are due to resume for the 2016/2017 legal year after about eight weeks of annual vacation. Davidson Iriekpen, in this report, highlights areas, where the ministers in the temple of justice are expected to focus their attention

After about eight weeks of vacation, courts all over the country, both at the federal and state levels have started to resume for the 2016/2017 legal year, beginning from last week. Like every other resumption, the judges who used the opportunity offered them by the vacation to cool off, are coming back to face daunting challenges. Apart from the numerous applications and motions awaiting their attention, the judges are also retuning to work at a time the image of the entire judiciary is abysmally low.

No doubt, the courts are the only places the weak, oppressed and the cheated run to for succour and justice. But, the question on how many of those, who had run to them for justice came out successful, is left to mere assumption. Therefore, as the 2016/2017 legal year begins, there are a number of cases that need to be resolved urgently, and the resolution of these cases rest squarely with how fast the courts can expeditiously determine them.

Over the years, many a Nigerian have lost confidence in the courts not only because of their slow pace of justice delivery but the illogical, incoherent and sometimes the incongruous decisions and judgments the judges deliver.
First, as the new legal year begins, many Nigerians would want to see a situation, where judicial authorities led by the National Judicial Council, tackle the incessant conflicting and contradictory orders and judgments especially by courts of concurrent jurisdiction. Not only have these orders and judgments caused Nigeria huge embarrassment, they have caused more danger to her jurisprudence, especially to the upcoming lawyers.

In recent times, Nigerians have been thoroughly embarrassed with the way and manner Federal High Court handled the crises in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the tax allegation against the Governor of Abia State, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu. In the cases involving the PDP, the courts in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja were notoriously fighting for supremacy and churning out conflicting orders to the parties. Even when the court in Port Harcourt had settled the case, the ones in Abuja refused to abide with the decision.

The same applied for the case against Ikpeazu, where the court in Abuja and Owerri were involved in an unnecessary tussle. At the centre of both the PDP and the Ikpeazu cases was Justice Okon Abang, who has become a household name for notorious orders.

Interestingly, last week, the National Judicial Council (NJC) sacked three judges, who have denigrated the bench. Nigerians are therefore calling on the council to properly set in motion, a process to weed out other judges, who have caused the judiciary huge embarrassment for sanity and confidence to return to the all-important third arm of government.

As the courts resume for the new legal year, many analysts would wish to see a situation where judges will expeditiously determine cases before them. Currently, it is believed that it takes between 10 to 15 years for a case to go from the High Court to the Supreme Court. 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 up to a minimum of 10 years to get to the apex court and be concluded.

Checks revealed that while it takes about four to six years to conclude a case at the High Courts 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, it could take far up to eight to 10 years.

To quicken justice delivery and reduce the pressure on the justices of the Court of Appeal in the country, a lot of lawyers have called for the subdivision of courtrooms at the Federal High Court particularly in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt, where there are more cases into political, criminal, business/commercial, probate and land etc as it is done at the Lagos State High Court. This would enable each of these subdivided courtrooms to know the cases to hear and handle with dispatch.

In Lagos, particularly, analysts have also called for an increase in the number of courtrooms at the Court of Appeal in Lagos from the two that are currently sitting to four or five to cope with the volume of appeals emanating from the federal and state High Courts.

Therefore, as another legal year begins, many analysts would want the judges to disabuse the minds of Nigerians that they are responsible for the slow and frustrating judicial proceedings in the country. They advised the judges to always stand up to counsel, especially those for the defendants, who usually employ tricks to frustrate trial.

For instance, a cursory look at some recent case list of the Federal High Court in Lagos shows cases that were filed over six and seven years ago, but are still at the preliminary stages. This, according to analysts, is one of the challenges facing the judiciary in Nigeria today. While some believe that most of these cases are stalled by frivolous applications mostly by the defendants in the suit, others put the blame on the judges for not standing up against counsel, who are in the habit of doing this.

Sometimes, if it is not application to challenge the jurisdiction of the court, it is for stay of proceedings or other interlocutory applications. In some cases, it could even be an outright petition or complaint for the case to be transferred from a particular judge or court. All these are aimed at delaying or frustrating justice delivery and give the Nigerians judicial system a bad image and reputation. This is why as the courts resume for a new legal year many analysts would want to see a situation, where judges would demonstrate to Nigerians that indeed it is possible to get quick justice in the country.

Also, among the many challenges the courts have as they resume for the 2016/2017 legal year, is the allegations of corruption. The third arm of government is seen as an indispensable tool in any meaningful anti-graft war. Hence, it is taken for granted that in a society buffeted by corruption, a courageous, independent, unbiased and financially autonomous judiciary is a most needed bulwark against the continued reign of the monster of corruption and graft in the country.

Many have argued that sadly, Nigeria has not been particularly fortunate in its drive to evolve functional democratic culture since 1999, which could deliver a just society, principally because of the greed of its political class, and the attendant impunity accentuated by an ineffective judiciary. This has set a lot of analysts wondering if a corruption institution can actually purge the country of the malaise.

A recent independent survey on crime and corruption recently revealed that the judiciary in the country is being irretrievably destroyed by corruption. The survey shocked many Nigerians when it named the judiciary as one of the institutions, where there is massive corruption. According to it, “Nigerian courts of law receive the biggest and highest bribes from citizens among all institutions in which corruption is rampant.”

Although it particularly stressed that bribery in the third arm of government was less frequent than in many other agencies and 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 for bribes, making criminal justice administration difficult.

Another advice to the judges as they resume for the new legal year, is to protect their judgments from leakage. All over the world, court judgments are supposed to be highly confidential and secretive until delivered. When judgments are to be delivered, people are supposed to be on tenterhooks, waiting with bated breath for what would be the final word from the judge.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in Nigeria today. These days, before some judgments are delivered, either the petitioners, applicants or respondents would have started rejoicing and boasting based on the assurances he or she had received from the court. Another area where many observers want the courts to focus is on the allegation that judges inadvertently shield politicians and other government officials charged with corruption from prosecution.

Many analysts have argued 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. They believe that the general lack of courage in the Nigerian judiciary to deal with corruption frontally was responsible for the upsurge in the malaise.

Incidentally, the courts are resuming at a time a new Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) would be appointed for the country, in the person of Justice Walter Onnoghen. As the only man from the Southern part of the country to attain the position in over 30 years, many Nigerians are anxiously looking forward to seeing him transform the judiciary into stronger, independent, assertive and politically neutral judiciary, knowing full well that success or failure of the democratic system depends significantly on a vibrant judiciary and its capacity to protect all interests without fear or favour.

At a time the country is seriously yearning for foreign investments, many Nigerians want the judiciary to sit up and assist the government by fast-tracking justice delivery and embarking on confidence-building.

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Like every other resumption, the judges who used the opportunity offered them by the vacation to cool off, are coming back to face daunting challenges. Apart from the numerous applications and motions awaiting their attention, the judges are also retuning to work at a time the image of the entire judiciary is abysmally low