On June 10, 2019 the Honourable Chief Judge of Lagos State, Madame Justice Opeyemi Oke, would have attained mandatory retirement age of 65 years. She served in acting capacity from September 25, and was sworn in as Chief Judge on October 20, 2017. Her tenure is exactly 21 months which tallies with the tradition of an average of barely 12 months over a 10-year period for successive Chief Judges of Lagos State. For judiciary watchers and stakeholders in the administration of Justice, Oke’s tenure had no dull moment. She raised the standard of visionary leadership, hard work and excellence as the number one judicial officer of Nigeria’s busiest and largest sub-national judiciary. She not only sustained the status of Lagos State Judiciary as a national pace-setter in the administration of justice, she also set a far higher benchmark.
I studied Justice Oke’s inaugural speech where she spelt out in detail her ambitious agenda over her short tenure. The agenda was indeed ambitious. There was no aspect of administration of justice over which she did not set a target. For example, stamping out corruption in the judiciary, enhancing professionalism amongst staff of the judiciary across departments, dealing with the monster of case backlog through multi-pronged approaches – enabling rules of courts, issuing specific practice directions, optimising and enhancing existing structure for Alternative Dispute Resolution. Others included many creative ways of expediting the administration of justice such as the setting up special courts to respond to urgent social and economic needs, notably the sexual offences and economic crimes courts. Further, Justice Oke demonstrated admirable interest in breaking down the barriers between the court process and ordinary citizens especially in petty criminal and commercial matters. She also had her attention on improving infrastructure for judicial service delivery as well as on enhancing the morale of judicial officers, magistrates and staff of the judiciary.
Twenty-one months after, there is no aspect of her ‘platform’, as it were, that Justice Oke did not follow through with ensuing transformation in the judiciary. She revamped the Sheriff and Probate Departments – the two most notorious cesspools of corruption in the judiciary. Lagos has blazed the trail in the automation of its probate registry and services which are now delivered and accessed online thereby reducing red tape and corruption. As well, under her leadership, the state is the first to set up small claims courts in the magistracy with simplified time and cost-saving rules of procedure. Debts or claims arising largely from informal commercial transactions now have the benefit of expedited resolution. She also established restorative justice centres, still under the magistracy, allowing citizens to negotiate and resolve minor criminal or quasi-criminal brushes with the law through options in restitution. Extolling the beauty of restorative justice, the Chief Judge urges her magistrates to eschew custodial sentences for minor offences which is an endemic source not only of the violation and exploitation of citizens by the police but also a major cause of prison congestion as the bane of our criminal justice system. Senior Citizens Help Centres are now new platforms to support access to justice to vulnerable citizens who tend to fall off the crack in the administration of justice.
Not one to take comfort in hugging readily available excuses for inaction, Justice Oke has remained proactive, in conjunction with the Judicial Service Commission, in filling vacancies on the higher and lower Benches promptly. Despite troubling albeit unverified reports of brazen political interferences in judicial appointments, the Lagos State Judiciary under Justice Oke has continued to push for a radical expansion in the number of High Courts in Lagos State commensurate with the commanding volume of cases filed in those courts and the voracious appetite for legal services in Nigeria’s commercial capital. Because salaries of judicial officers are paid by the Federal Government, expansion of the number of high courts is beyond the power of the state, yet, Justice Oke was not deterred in pushing the file and making the case. Expectedly, with regard to the lower bench – the magistracy and customary courts – where the state has the exclusive discretion, the Lagos State Judiciary under her leadership has supervised a record appointment of magistrates and customary court personnel in the last 21 months.
Perhaps, one of the most ambitious and revolutionary imprints of Justice Oke over her brief tenure as the Chief Judge is the case Backlog Elimination Programme. By a dint of administrative dexterity, the judiciary has partnered members of the Bar, on pro bono basis, to assist with sorting and filtrating causes of delays for cases that have pended in the courts for over five years with a view to plugging them under multiple pathways for expedited resolution. Those include options under Alternative Dispute Resolution and other disposition channels. Work under BEP so far has proved that it is possible to tackle case backlog – the Achilles heel of the judiciary – at little or no cost to the public coffer. Justice Oke could have chosen to kick the can of case backlog down the road, but she rose to the challenge, leveraging her goodwill with the Bar through the agency of public-spirited law firms.
Another landmark of Justice Oke tenure as the 16th Chief Judge was the unveiling, in January 2019, of the current Lagos State High Court Civil Procure Rules. Justice Oke is no stranger to Rules review, having supervised the 2004, 2012 and partly the 2019 Rules review which was delivered by the Hon. Justice Alogba Committee. As one of its highpoints, the 2019 Rules holds lawyers personally accountable where they are complicit in delaying progress of cases in court on a continuous cost running basis. The Rules took inspiration from the findings of the BEP that lawyers’ poor case management practices account for about 60% of case prolongation. Despite opposition by a segment of the Bar, Justice Oke remained unwavering in rolling out the 2019 Rules. Judicial observers have characterised the Rules as a wake-up call to lawyers and as perhaps the most courageous assault on court delays by the judiciary marking a departure from traditional lip-service to the problem over the years.
Justice Oke was able to accomplish all of these and much more by hitting the ground running. She was well-positioned for the Job of Chief Judge not only by the mark of her excellent track record for hard work and integrity on the lower and higher Bench over three decades. Equally important is her silent role as perhaps one of the most engaged judicial officers through the progression of judicial reforms in Lagos State since the return of constitutional democratic rule in 1999. As well, her leadership style could easily account for her ability to make such monumental impact over a short period. The Hon. Judges of Lagos State take collective ownership of all these strides as there is none of them who is not plugged onto a litany of out-of-court assignments that birthed these transformations. After all, a Chief Judge is, all things considered, first among equals. She can make as much progress as a leader with the support of her peers. Justice Oke has demonstrated that with the right leadership chemistry and vision, time is no hindrance to the surefooted. As she gracefully retires, Justice Oke will remain a strong repository in the administration of justice in Nigeria and will have more to offer the nation post retirement. She has earned a place in Nigeria’s leadership hall of fame and unequivocally an inspirational and referential standing in women’s leadership in the professions.
Oguamanam is a Professor of Law, University of Ottawa, Canada