Comments of late by high ranking judicial officers in the country have not only highlighted the unwholesomeness of slow justice system characterising justice administration in Nigeria, they point gravely to an urgent need to address the issue before it consumes the country.
Speaking during a special court session to mark the 2022/2023 legal year, the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice John Tsoho decried the backlog of cases pending at the Federal High Courts, lamenting that some judges have over 1,000 cases in their dockets. He further revealed that a total number of 135, 592 cases are pending before the Federal High Courts at the end of the last legal year, comprising 41, 788 civil cases, 31, 832 criminal cases; 39, 799 motions and 22, 173 fundamental rights enforcement applications.
Apart from the Federal High Court, Nigerian courts especially the courts in the commercial nerve centre of Lagos are highly congested. For example, speaking at the investiture of 62 new Senior Advocates of Nigeria in Abuja on November 28, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, stated that the Supreme Court is currently bogged down with 6,884 delayed cases. It is sad that most cases filed in our courts drag on endlessly. For example, it takes a minimum of 10 to 15 years in a normal situation to start and conclude a simple civil case from the High Court to the Supreme Court. Commercial litigants who could not tolerate this anomaly have stopped taking their cases to court. Others now resort to self-help or other forms of extra-judiciary means in the settlement of personal disputes.
There is no doubt that congestion of law courts with court cases has dampened the justice delivery system in Nigeria. Therefore, it is high time our law courts were decongested of law cases to pave way for expeditious delivery of justice. Justice delayed, it is said, is justice denied. To start with, judges and magistrates need to be relieved from the tiresome burden of writing and recording daily court proceedings in long hand. With the new technology available to all and sundry in this 21st century, it beats the imagination that judges and magistrates are still writing and recording court proceedings in court in long hand every day. Surely, if court rooms are modernised and availed of the latest technology used by the law courts abroad, our judges and magistrates will stop writing in long hand. This is the first step to expeditious dispensation of justice as evidence will be easier to collate, case files will be easier to trace, records of appeal will be easier to compile and appeals at the apex courts will be disposed of expeditiously.
Already law reports, law precedents, law-books, law journals and law libraries are now digitised, and judges are even making use of the digitalised materials. So, why can’t the law courts be equally digitalised so that the backlog of cases in the courts will be swiftly disposed of? In the same vein, service of court processes can be affected electronically by court bailiffs. The court may even sit and hear cases of litigants and deliver judgments electronically as done abroad. In this high technological day and age, lawyers and litigants do not have to physically appear in court to attend to their cases. After all, during the COVID-19 lockdown, some law cases were heard electronically. In this technological and computer age, the Nigerian judiciary cannot afford to be left behind. Techno-computer powers are currently accelerating the efficiency of lawyers and courts in the United States and other advanced countries. The Nigerian courts should not be denied the advantage of these highly-sophisticated technology facilities necessary for the expeditious and quicker dispensation of justice in Nigeria. As a veritable third arm of government essentially entrusted with the sacred responsibility of dispensing justice, the judiciary plays an indispensable pivotal role in the sustenance of democratic governance in Nigeria. Democracy sans the rule of law cannot facilitate democratic dividend.
Not all the cases filed in courts should proceed to trial. This is the rationale behind the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and case management conference provisions in virtually all the High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules in the various divisions of High Courts across Nigeria. The idea is to decongest the courts of cases by ensuring that many cases are amicably resolved by parties out of court through the ADR and the case management conference without the need for trial in court. Therefore, the ADR and the case management conference should be effectively utilised so that pending cases in courts are expeditiously disposed of.
More importantly, many cases are pending in law courts owing to the incompetence, laziness, incoherence and corruption of many judges and magistrates. This is why despite the introduction of Woolf’s front-loading system and some innovative judicial reforms in most judicial divisions across the country, court cases continue to drag on endlessly in our law courts. Therefore, the lazy and corrupt judges and magistrates in our court should be removed.
Inconsistent and irrational decisions from such corrupt judges and magistrates necessarily pave the way for litigants and lawyers to file multiple applications and appeals in order to seek substantial justice. And because of distrust of the honesty and impartiality of judges and magistrates, many lawyers now deploy every legitimate or illegitimate means in order to forestall the judges’ or magistrates’ decision in the hope that time and administrative transfer contingencies would work in favour of their client. Therefore, judgeship should be reserved for the best and the brightest not for lazy lawyers who dropped out of private legal practice. Judgeship must not be used for rewarding political party loyalists or family friends. A single error in appointing unworthy persons to the Bench could ruin the whole administration of justice. A judge must not allow his political leaning to cloud over his sense of justice.
Whenever a vacancy for the appointment of a judge exists in any Judicial Division, it should be widely advertised to the public so that interested lawyers would apply for consideration. As done in some countries, candidates applying to be appointed judges should be made to sit for compulsory “Bench examinations.” The yearly continuing education programme for Judges and Magistrates should include such courses like basic logical reasoning processes, basic psychology, legal ethics, basic writing skills and basic philosophy. Appointment and elevation of judges should be based on merit not on family connection or political patronage or what Prof. Joseph Richard has dubbed as prebendalism.
• To be continued tomorrow.