Managing Africa’s ‘Second Busiest’ Judiciary

CJ Lagos State Honourable Justice Opeyemi Oke

Managing the Lagos State Judiciary, reportedly Africa’s second busiest, is no mean task. The person on whose shoulders the task falls is  the Chief Judge, Justice Opeyemi Oke. What are her plans? Robert Egbe writes.

Lagos State prides itself as one of Africa’s foremost socio-economic frontiers. Its claims are, in many respects, meritorious. Last May, its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was calculated at $136 billion, giving credence to the assertion of Lagos State Governor Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode that the state has the fifth largest economy on the continent, larger than that of any African country except South Africa, Egypt, Algeria, Angola and Morocco.

Also, although it is the smallest in area of Nigeria’s 36 states, its estimated 24 million residents make it Africa’s most populous city.

The state’s economic and demographic vibrancy now appears to have spilled to its judicial system, with claims being made that it is sub-Saharan Africa’s second judicial powerhouse.

This hint was first given on October 9, 2017 by Ambode when, at a church service to mark the Lagos State golden jubilee 2017/2018 legal year, he described the state’s judiciary as Nigeria’s busiest.

The service was also the first public event organised by then acting Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Opeyemi Oke.

Justice Oke was sworn in as Acting Chief Judge in September 2017 to replace Justice Olufunmilayo Atilade, who retired on September 24 at the statutory retirement age of 65.

Last Friday, Governor Ambode swore her in as the substantive Chief Judge of Lagos State.

Her swearing-in followed the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC) and confirmation by the Lagos State House of Assembly.

Ambode said: “I congratulate members of the busiest judiciary in Nigeria in maintaining a high standard of integrity….Indeed Lagos State has a general reputation for trailblazing reforms in the justice sector and in many other sectors.”

On October 10, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Chief Wole Olanipekun described the Lagos State Judiciary as the busiest in Africa, apart from South Africa’s.

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Olanipekun said the statistics showed that the volume of cases filed in Lagos courts were unmatched by that of any African judicial system, except, perhaps, that of the Rainbow Nation.

He stated this in his keynote address: Promoting a pace-setting and productive judiciary in Lagos State, during a Bar and Bench Forum, which was part of activities marking the state’s legal year.

The problem with size

One major problem with its size is that the Lagos judiciary must continuously up its investment in manpower and infrastructure to keep up with the pace of cases filed in its high, magistrates and customary courts as well as other judicial panels.

According to Olanipekun, between 2015 and October 4, 2017, a total of 3548 civil and criminal cases were filed before the Lagos State High Court.

The Federal High Court, Abuja, had a total of 3963 cases within the same period. Yet the Federal High Court has about 100 judges as against 56 judges in Lagos.

The lawyer called for an urgent recruitment of more hands for the state’s judiciary, particularly on the High Court Bench, to cater for the judicial challenges facing it.

Failure to do so would worsen the problem of delay in the administration of justice that the Nigerian judicial system is often accused of.

Chief Ifedayo Adedipe (SAN) believes the recruitment of more judicial officers would ease their burden.

He said: “I believe some of the things that contribute to the delays are found in the way the courts have been set up.

“Another issue is  the volume of cases being handled by judges on a daily basis. When a judge has about 30 cases to handle in a day, he can only do as much as he is able to cope with, particularly, considering the fact that we still go the analogue way.”

According to Ambode, the state is aware of the problem.

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“Indeed Lagos State has a general reputation for trailblazing reforms in the justice sector and in many other sectors.

The volume of cases handled by the judges and magistrates has necessitated the appointment of additional judicial officials with improved welfare and continuous infrastructural development to further enhance the quality of justice delivery,” Ambode said.

All eyes on Justice Oke

The legal community got its first public glimpse of the Chief Judge at the simultaneous Christian and Muslim services at the Cathedral Church of Christ and Central Mosque, Lagos Island, during the special opening service for the 2017/18 legal year.

Justice Oke’s comments at the event left no one in doubt that there was a new sheriff in town who was determined to raise the bar of the administration of justice in the state.

The CJ, whose tenure ends on June 10, 2019, explained that her mission was to create “a judiciary that epitomises discipline, honesty, hard work, integrity, credence, dignity, honour and zeal for results and excellence.”

She pledged to, among others, uphold the rule of law, “stamp out all forms of official corruption, make speedy dispensation of justice a hallmark of Lagos State Judiciary and improve on the reputation of Lagos State Judiciary as a pace setter and the best in Nigeria and Africa.”

‘Oaths of secrecy, allegiance’

One of the ways the CJ plans to safeguard the integrity of the system is for judiciary workers attached to judges to swear to oaths of secrecy and allegiance.

Justice Oke observed that the work judges do is sensitive and secrecy oaths will shield their support staff from the temptation to divulge sensitive information about cases.

She said: “One of the things that we are going to do soon, is to make sure that every member of staff of the judiciary will swear to an oath of office, oath of secrecy and oath of allegiance; and that is very, very important.

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“We have sworn to an oath and we have members of staff that have not done so. So, they have that as an excuse. We have to let them know that every supporting staff of a judge must also swear to that oath.”

The CJ also warned lawyers that lawyers that delay tactics would no longer be entertained.

“…It’s going to be tough this time; it’s a new era and no longer Christmas as it used to.

“We are not going to allow unnecessary adjournments, we are going to talk to ourselves as judges and we are going to be firm, because there are certain things members of the Bar do here that they won’t dare do in Europe or America. Unnecessary adjournments will cost you your practising licence, but you come here and you do all these.”

Other reforms

Justice Oke revealed that as part of the reforms of her administration, lawyers will now serveý as court registrars and that 28 legal practitioners are already undergoing training for that purpose.

She pledged to look into the issue of increment in filing fees and flush out the bad eggs tarnishing the judiciary’s image.

The CJ added: “The committee for the 2018 Rules of Court has been set up and is chaired by Hon. Justice K Alogba.

“An “APP” will be introduced which can be installed to enable counsels have access to the diary of the court.

“Members of the bar who are trained mediators would be invited to sit as mediators (pro bono) on old cases so as to decongest the courts.”

Source: The Nation

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