The PUNCH NEWSPAPER is presently doing an analysis on the Supreme Court of Nigeria and how it has been burdened with not less than 5000 cases in its docket. These appeal cases are being handled only by 17 Justices of the Supreme Court. This analysis is being done by the PUNCH under the caption SUPREME COURT OF LIVING, DYING AND DEAD CASES. This analysis is a must read for all members of the legal profession particularly the lawyers and judges as well as the authorities that co-ordinate their activities. The litigants including the politicians that engage the services of lawyers to do the litigations as well as members of other arms of government. The general public particularly the stakeholders in the justice delivery system also need to read the said thought provoking analysis so that we can all together proffer solutions on how to end the endless litigations at the Supreme Court. A lot of cases where parties are not satisfied with the decisions of the various divisions of the Court of Appeal throughout the federation usually find their last bus stop at the one and only Supreme Court in Nigeria located at the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. This is apart from those cases where it has the original jurisdiction as stipulated by the Constitution of the Federal Republic.
There is no doubt that our Learned Justices of the Supreme Court are very wonderful jurists who work day and night to see to the true dispensation of justice but unfortunate they are most time shouldered with appeal cases that are ordinarily ought not to have found their way to the apex court in the first place. Why must the Supreme Court be bothered with cases such as to determine the ownership of a fish pound between SAKITI and BAKO as cited in the said analysis where all the courts below had given concurrent judgments? Why should the Supreme Court be concerned with the issue of who should be installed a Chief in a village? Are those cases not better terminated at the Court of Appeal? You have cases that have spent over 30 years in court and still yet to come to any end. In these types of cases you will discover that those that initiated them as litigants must have died and substituted in the course of the cases. Judges who handled them must have retired from service or chains of lawyers must have been involved in the cases as some lawyers taking over the cases from the other lawyers.
The Justices of the Supreme Court on several occasions have lamented the delay and this sorry state of dragging cases unnecessary before the court. In the case of ARIORI Vs. ELEMO (1983) 1 SC on pages 74-75 ,the late Justice Eso had this to say :
“It is unfortunate that a case that has been litigated through a space of twenty two years is still not brought to an end and has to be reopened again due to the avoidable fault of the trial judge especially when some of the witnesses might have died or perhaps cannot now be traced. Indeed the trial judge himself has retired from the service. If it is possible to make an order other than a retrial I would have readily acceded to it. But to my mind the course of justice can only be satisfied by a retrial and I do hope the Chief Judge of Lagos State will look into the issue of speedy trial and assign a judge to this case who would attend to the trial from day to day and complete it with utmost dispatch”.
In the case of AMADI Vs. NNPC (2000) FWLR (Pt. 9) 1527; (2000) 10 NWLR (Pt. 674) 76, the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Uwais also had this to say :
“With the success of the plaintiff’s appeal before us, the case is to be sent back to the High court to be determined, hopefully, on its merits after a delay of 23 years. Surely, this could have been avoided had it been that the point was taken in the substantive claim to enable any aggrieved party to appeal on both the issue of jurisdiction on merit in the proceedings as the case might be. I believe that counsel owe it as a duty to the court to help reduce the period of delay in determining cases in our courts by avoiding unnecessary preliminary objections as the one here; so that the adage justice delayed is justice denied may cease to apply to proceedings in our court.”
We can go on and on to cite many other jurists, but these two may be sufficient for now for the sake of this present discuss. The truth of the matter is that when you have a system that allows people to aim high, there is no way people will not aim beyond the sky no matter what it will cost to get there. In my article titled EXAMINING THE NBA PRACTICING FEES, I submitted some years back:
“The reality on the ground today is that the Legal Profession in Nigeria has become a big kind of cow that only very few of its members are milking the cow. The other day I overheard some lawyers complaining that some companies in Nigeria have declared members of the Outer Bar persona non granta in their companies, that is to say if you are not members of the Inner Bar (SANs) no any legal brief for you. Perhaps this is more the reason why every lawyer is desperate to become Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN).There are applicants for the rank who are even ready to pay any price for it including buying judgments from their colleagues to boost the number of cases to be submitted to the Legal Practitioner Privilege Committee so as to have the title conferred on them.”
For a lawyer to become a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), one of the conditions he must fulfil is that he must have argued certain number of cases up to the Supreme Court apart from those he must have argued at the Court of Appeal and the High Court. With this kind of condition, tell me why many lawyers would not like to file appeals up to the Supreme Court regardless of the fact whether such appeals have merit or not. I think, there is a need to have a second look at that condition. I believe sufficient good number of cases that have added value to the development of law argued at the High Court or Court of Appeal without reaching Supreme Court can be considered. Not all cases should be allowed to reach Supreme Court. Some kinds of cases should be allowed to terminate at the Court of Appeal. In the case of A-G, ADAMAWA STATE Vs. WARE (2006) 4 NWLR (Pt. 970) Pgs. 417-418 Paras F-C, late Pats-Acholonun, JSC said:
“I cannot but comment on nature of cases that now inundate the Supreme Court. That this Apex court which ordinarily should confine itself dealing with important cases more particularly constitutional matters would now be crowded with non-discreet pedestrian cases like deciding on who should be a chief in a village or community. This court should borrow a leaf from the U.S Supreme Court where that court on its own, turns it back and refuses to handle some matters which they in their wise discretion and wisdom regards as frivolous or would not advance the growth of jurisprudence. Such banal, dreary and utterly vapid cases ought to end in the Court of Appeal and this court should on its own decide whether some cases filed in this court should necessarily be heard by this court. To my mind it is the duty of this court to reject in toto an application for appeals in a matter where: (a) there have been concurrent findings of fact in the lower courts and no constitutional issue of law is involved unless in a case where this court is of the view that it has to depart from some precedents hitherto resorted to because we inherited them from English report (b) cases which counsel took up because they want to use it to advance or increase the number of cases they handle in Supreme court for the purpose of application for SAN. Of course novel cases that have arisen in the lower courts could of necessity find their way in this court for determination. That is what this court is instituted for, not for ordinary drab, dull and strictly non-contentious issues where counsels merely wish to make themselves heard.”
Part of the solutions are as propounded by the late Supreme Court Jurist above as this will go a long way in solving the stream of cases that go to the Supreme Court by ending the endless litigations. The politicians who are lawmakers rather than easing the burden of Supreme Court have added more burden to it. The appeals on gubernatorial elections that used to terminate at the Court of Appeal have now the extended to the Supreme Court. I keep wondering why interlocutory appeals still go to the Supreme Court rather than terminating at the Court of Appeal as held in the case of EKO CONSULT LTD Vs. PANCHO VILLA LTD (1999)1 SC 83 at 84 . The constitution will operate in this country seems seriously to have tied the hands of Justices of the Supreme Court to say some cases should not come to their court. For instance, when the National Industrial Court (NIC) came on board, it came with a caveat that whatever decision it delivered was final but you can only appeal against its decision on the ground of FAIR HEARING. The NIC was able to maintain this posture until the Supreme Court eventually pulled the rug off the feet of the NIC that that posture was unconstitutional. But the price that the Supreme Court is now paying is that by that decision it has now opened more flood gates for more appeals from the Court of Appeal which originated from the NIC. This is why there is the serious need to review the JUDICATURE part of the present Constitution we operate.
As long as we maintain the system that insists that lawyers must argue cases up to the Supreme Court before being conferred with the rank of the Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) so shall lawyers continue to troop to the Supreme Court to file appeals regardless of whether the appeals are meritorious or not as I doubt if the awarding of heavy cost against frivolous appeals will do enough magic to discourage filling of unnecessary appeals before the apex court.