Access to Justice (A2J) has called on the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Tanko Muhammad and the National Judicial Council (NJC) to reconsider the vacation periods announced by various heads of court, and make new policies regulating the length of time those vacations should last to get the courts back to business in the earliest possible time.
The body also urged them to order Judges handling criminal cases not to partake in the general vacation but arrange their own individual vacations so that criminal trials can continue uninterrupted across Nigeria.
That way, the group said, persons being held in detention during their trials can expect their trials to go on to conclusion without more delay.
In a statement signed by A2J Convener, Joseph Otteh and Project Director, Deji Ajare, the group said the current legal year has been marked by extraordinary disruptions – the COVID-19 pandemic, the ENDSARs protests that saw many court buildings and records destroyed, and the JUSUN strike that shuttered courts for a little over two months.
According to them, despite the enforced closures, Judges also enjoyed at least four additional vacations – the Christmas, Easter as well as two Muslim vacations.
“When the various vacations are summed up, many courts would have been closed for business for up to three months. When the periods of disruption are added to this figure, some courts would have been closed for business for a period of more than five months during the legal year,” the group explained.
They noted that the length of time various heads of courts have decided to shut down courts for vacation purposes is of great concern.
“It would mean, in some cases, that courts would be effectively shut down for close to six months in the legal year. While the factors leading to the enforced closure of courts during the legal year were not primarily the making of the Judiciary, yet, the Judiciary must be conscious of the impact these developments have had on those who use or “patronize” the courts, and on the delivery of judicial services nationwide,” A2J declared.
They added that the judiciary ought to fixate more eagerly and conscientiously on how to clear the case backlogs that have accumulated over the months that court could not sit, create a sense of burning urgency among Judges for more spiritedness in resolving cases, and thus, placing the needs of court users – who are the courts’ customers – well above its own.
“Taking extended court vacations at this time, therefore, appears insensitive to the interests of court users who have already endured much suffering from the closure of courts for many months.
“Some court users are in correctional centres or other detention places, either waiting for courts to hear and decide on the legality of their detentions or awaiting the hearing and conclusion of their trials. Many others who have pending cases before courts may suffer irreparable injury with more delays in resolving their disputes or getting court orders, without which some serious harm might befall them.
“We are persuaded that the Judiciary ought to give a better public image of itself, and offer a higher level of accountability to the public which it serves. Where the Judiciary ignores the broader needs and stakes of the court user community, and takes any length of vacation periods it chooses, only just because it can, it gives the impression that it is more interested in preserving the vocational privileges of its members than it is committed to the cause of justice and realising the constitutional rights of citizens to a fair and reasonably speedy trial.
“Where court users feel this way, they further lose faith in courts as vehicles of justice and see the judicial branch as just another impassive, spiritless player in the business of governance. For a Judiciary that has been reeling under a considerable weight of negative public perception, this can be further alienating,” the group said.
The organisation therefore called on the CJN and NJC to declare a state of emergency in the Judiciary, following the many months of court closure.
They also urged them to convoke a high-level justice delivery stakeholder meeting immediately to explore the most effective ways to drive an expeditious programme to decongest court dockets and develop a programme of action for doing so.
A2J further urged the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court to ensure that there is vacation courts open in all of its judicial divisions, and not just in Lagos, the FCT and Port Harcourt, given that urgent matters can arise anywhere in the country.