Improving Access to Justice in Nigeria – Dele Igbinedion Esq.

Dele Igbinedion Esq

I practiced law in the United Kingdom for several years as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. The period proved to be eye opening. The law in the United Kingdom is mainly settled. You know what to expect in many situations.

If you represent a client in a criminal case, you could almost assess your client’s chances of discharge or acquittal before the trial starts. This will be because the Police and the Prosecution would have disclosed all the evidence which would be adduced at trial to you-without exception. In fact, no suspect interview or questioning would be conducted without the presence of the suspect’s Solicitor. If he does not have one, a Duty Solicitor who is paid by the government to be present  24 hours at every police station will be provided. Then, after the interview, a copy of the interview tape will be handed over immediately to the Solicitor.

Prior to commencement of trial, the Defence will also furnish their exculpatory evidence to the Prosecution. Upon receipt, the Prosecution is also legally obliged to assess the possibility of securing a conviction, relative to the arguable defence.

In Civil cases, the same principles apply. Before you issue a Writ, you must send a Pre-action Protocol Letter outlining the complaint and remedy required. Each cause of action has its own protocol. Upon receipt, the Defense is obliged to seriously get legal advice on their position-in writing-from a Solicitor and then from a Barrister. To be safe, you get the opinions of two Barristers. Woe betide the litigant who issues a Writ without the foregoing.

Then when the matter is filed in Court, the process follows a rigorous timetable usually set in a case management conference for exchange of pleadings, witnesses statements, evidence, and your final skeletal legal argument, all of which will be contained in a trial bundle. Then the trial dates will be fixed-in stone, and can only be amended in the most exceptional circumstances. In all my years, I never asked for (nor do I know or heard of any Solicitor who applied for) the adjournment of any case. This is no exaggeration. If you must, and if you absolutely must, then at least two days notice is required. Nobody has anytime to waste.

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The above is obligatory. Case management principles require it, and failure to do the needful by either the Prosecution, Plaintiff or Defence usually attracts severe sanctions, ranging from costs awards in both civil and criminal cases (including wasted costs awards against the individual Solicitor), reprimand, increased sentences, dismissed suits, professional negligence actions against the solicitor, etc.

Once, I attended a Court for a civil matter which could not proceed because the Bailiff failed to notify the other side. Tough, but not my problem. I applied to the Judge for the Court to pay my costs for the day. No argument at all. Application was granted, and the issue was referred to the Court Administration who later made contact and paid.

This way, cases get disposed off swiftly, to make way for new ones. Hence, the typical lifespan of an average case is usually calculated in weeks and months. It is not even compulsory that you attend Court physically. Proceedings conducted by telephone is a norm. Yes, as in all parties conducting arguments and the Judge delivering his verdict by telephone, after which you receive the written outline of the Judgment by next day post. Oh, I could go on and on.

So very different from practicing law in Nigeria.

Here, everything takes forever. You only know when you file a suit, but never when it will end. Indeed, the legal cum judicial system is so fossilized that a case that moves swiftly usually attracts an accusation of bias. In a case which I handled, after parties concluded legal arguments, the Judge adjourned for Judgment to the next day. On that next day, a sixty five Judgment was swiftly delivered. Apparently, My Lord stayed up all night. Then, the other side appealed the Judgment, making the impossibility of a Judge writing a sixty five page Judgment overnight as a Ground of Appeal. I’m serious folks. It’s no laughing matter.

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In the Courts, no one takes responsibility for getting anything done. Judicial Staff generally think they are appointed by government to be paid, not to work. So, you must pay them separately to do their jobs. If you insist that things should get done, then you are branded a trouble maker. Like me. Not that I mind, though it hurts a little.

Case management decisions are reached in conferences in civil cases and then disregarded, as if the time spent is unaccountable.

Forget criminal cases, where the ‘interest of justice’ seems to dictate that cases should generally be eternal endeavours. Try to persuade a Magistrate or Judge to foreclose a prosecution being conducted indolently will almost certainly meet with ‘one last adjournment for definite hearing’.

Adjournments are annoyingly granted, often with the most flimsy of reasons, leading one to wonder whether the Presiding Judge or Magistrate is lifted to heavenly euphoria by the very fact of it. Imagine flying from Lagos to Abuja only to find out that the Court will not sit because the Magistrate has a migraine, as I found out once.

The net effect of this state of affairs is that Nigerians have a low rating and respect for legal and judicial procedures. Unarguably, only the most resilient of Nigerians, blessed with the patience of Biblical Job, that can bear with the Court system. Many disappointingly look elsewhere for quicker avenues to redress grievances, which is not often justice, but unjust to all involved. Let the reader understand.

My humble submission is that most of these avoidable delays ultimately reduce access to justice. We need to improve. Maybe we can start with small ways, like applying for less adjournments as lawyers and litigants. Then the Magistrates and Judges can resolve to grant less adjournments.Incrementally, the small measures will increase access to justice.

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Some Lawyers, Magistrates and Judges are to be greatly praised and commended for their uncommon diligence and commitment to the service of the law. These I salute as our heroes and heroines. And I say this post is not for them.

Soon, the annual Courts’ vacation will end and the superior Courts will start sitting, again. Let’s us all, whether litigants, lawyers, Magistrates, Judges or Court staff, commit to improving access to justice for everyone.

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