Court congestion, adjudication and Nigeria’s constitution

Stakeholders in the judiciary have continued to advocate for decongestion in the courts in order to ease in the dispensation of justice. Would it suffice?  KEHINDE OSASONA writes.

In a newspaper publication recently when he was asked to comment on the state of congestions in Nigerian courts, a respected litigant, Eyimofe Atake (SAN) was quoted as saying, “Today, congestion in the courts has made the adjudication of justice to be slower and that leaves judges completely overwhelmed.

He added, “At the Court of Appeal, the story is the same; ditto, Supreme Court. This is really sad as congestion in courts is killing advocacy.”

 CJN’s position

Also, while revisiting issue of congestion in Nigerian courts recently, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Muhammad Tanko (SAN) told the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters who were on oversight visit that there was need to amend the relevant sections of the constitution to make it work.

 According to Muhammed, in order to reduce the work load of the justices at the apex court, all stakeholders must do the needful.

 “The Supreme Court of Nigeria remained the busiest apex court in the world,” he noted.

Not only that, he added that the number of appeals pending and those received this year alone by the court, he said, were mind-blowing.

He continued, “The burden of appeals was already affecting the justices of the apex court. Many of us don’t sleep for 12 hours as recommended by stress managers.

“We don’t write judgment merely by stating that so, so and so cases were filed by this and that and end it up by saying the appeal is hereby dismissed or upheld. We have to give reasons which are the bedrock of judgment writing.”

Subsequently, the CJN thereafter seek urgent review and amendment of the 1999 Constitution in the area of the Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction, insisting that the step would ensure, among other things, that all manners of cases do not have to terminate at the apex court.

Developments scary

While giving it a different coloration, another lawyer and former vice-president, Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Monday Ubani, described the revelation by the CJN as scary.

According to Ubani, the development portends danger for the country as it could discourage foreign investors, among other problems.

Ubani was nevertheless quick to link the menace to the scramble for the conferment of SANship by legal practitioners in the country, arguing that there must be reduced emphasis on having a certain number of cases at the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court to qualify for the SAN title.

“As long that this is a requirement to become a SAN, I can assure you that the appellate courts would always be congested. We should rather be looking at competence, fair recommendation and other things,” Ubani explained further.

He continued, “Honestly, that statement by the CJN is pregnant; it means that if your appeal has not been given a date, it would have to wait for another three years. It means that new cases that are coming up would start from 2022.

“That, to me, is very scary as it portends danger and we need to sit down and address this issue. Let us look at whether we are comfortable with having only one Supreme Court, which is in Abuja and whether it is not possible for us to have the divisions of the Supreme Court in the different regions.

“We have suggested that we should begin to take practical steps to address the problem, one of which is to the suggestion to decentralise the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

“Why must we have only one Supreme Court for a country of about 200 million people? “Why can’t we even have some matters stop at the Court of Appeal? Why must every matter get to the Supreme Court? Even issues that have already been decided and jurisprudence settled, people still want to appeal because they want to be a SAN because for you to be a SAN, you should have done a number of cases at the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

“We must realistically appraise these issues and find solutions because more problems are coming up every day and the situation is not giving our country as good image, in terms of investors-friendliness.

Constitutional courts to the rescue

Meanwhile before now, the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria had called for the establishment of constitutional courts recently, saying that it would help  to reduce the workload on the existing ones in the country.

Speaking recently at a valedictory session held in honour of retired Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Adamu Abdu-Kafarati, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Adegboyega Aromolo, expressed regrets that earlier proposal made for the courts  was struck down by the authorities due to lack of foresight.

The senior lawyer insisted that the establishment of constitutional courts must be revisited and reintegrated into the constitution of the country in compliance with Section 250.

He also advised that all political matters, including pre and post-election matters and election petitions, should be handled by such courts, while all appeals from the court terminate in the Court of Appeal.

“Each state would then have its own Court of Appeal and only constitutional matters will go to the Supreme Court,” he said.

Carried over cases, a disturbing phenomenon

Making further revelations,  Awomolo noted that in the Federal High Court alone, over 16,000 cases were carried over from 2018 to 2019 legal year, with many of those cases filed over four years ago.

He then advice that the trend must not be allowed any longer, saying it can only lead to denial of justice.

“Decongestion in all the courts have become a great burden, a source of concern and embarrassment. In the Supreme Court, only political cases are being heard on a daily basis.

“Indeed, every day, on the course list of the Supreme Court, there are about 12 to 15 cases for hearing. As a matter of fact, the Supreme Court has no vacation this year due to heavy work-loads, while the Court of Appeal in all the divisions is daily preoccupied with pre and post-election cases.

Any hope in sight?

Meanwhile, as stakeholders continued to make advocacy in respect of congestion of cases in Nigerian courts, the Senate panel led by its chairman, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele, appears to be on the same page with eminent jurists from the bar and the bench who had at one time or another discussed the issue extensively at various fora.

“The judiciary plays a very crucial role in the sustenance and deepening of democratic core values therefore, the National Assembly would make necessary interventions to strengthen and guarantee the independence of the judiciary.

While aligning with other stakeholders on the need for the amendment of the constitution by NASS, Bamidele described it as necessary, assuring that the Senate Standing Orders 2015 and the 1999 Constitution empower the committee to oversee the federal judiciary.

In carrying out the task, Bamidele further guarantees that all 14 members of the committee are lawyers whose names are contained in the Legal Practitioners’ Roll of the Supreme Court.

The committee, according to him, would make appropriate legislative interventions to ensure proper funding for the judiciary.

He added, “The Committee would work in collaboration with the judiciary to review laws and embark on reforms, including the amendment to the constitution, to ensure effective and efficient administration of justice.

“This, no doubt, would enable us to make appropriate legislative interventions in times ahead for the betterment of the judiciary.

Going forward

As observed by the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, during his administration, the apex court’s diary which has been filled up till 2021 apparently portends a big threat to the system.

Going forward, stakeholders therefore hold the views that it is high time the age-long agitation for speedy adjudication and decongestion of courts were heeded, if the current reform must work.

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