Access to Justice (A2J) has urged promoters of the Constitution alteration Bill on judicial reforms to revisit it again, as it requires from the judiciary, a stronger share of the responsibility and accountability for resolving many of the issues raised in the Bill.
The Constitution alteration Bill known as Federal Republic of Nigeria Bill, 2020 seeks to alter the provision of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 by providing for the regulation of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the Appeal Court.
The Bill includes important changes to the jurisdiction (and system) of appellate courts by creating a new Federal Court of Appeal as well as a new Court of Appeal for each State, and limiting the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction to appeals from the Federal Court of Appeal.
It further limits the scope of what appeals can be taken to appellate Courts as of right, and gives appellate courts the right to reject an appeal after only having reviewed the record of proceedings and in the absence of formal hearing. With exceptions made for mostly constitutional (including fundamental rights) matters, election, and political tenure matters, the Federal Court of Appeal will now be the final court of appeal for a host of cases.
The Bill increases the number of Justices who must sit on a panel from the current 5 to 9. It makes proposals to facilitate the speedy adjudication of cases on appeal, requiring that cases be heard and determined within 180 days (6 months).
Additionally, the Bill makes novel provisions regarding the composition of appellate courts, requiring, in the case of the Supreme Court, at least three of its number to be selected from the Bar; two Senior Advocates of Nigeria and one Constitutional law professor.
The changes advanced by the Bill are extensive and touch on some of the critical problems in the delivery of justice and the state of the Judiciary.
But in statement by its convener, Joseph Otteh, the group noted that although the alteration bill is well intentioned, its proposals will not plug the gaps and bring sustainable reform.
Access to Justice stated that there are important gaps in the justice delivery system that a Bill of this nature ought to close, which have not been addressed.
One of them, it stressed, is the lack of judicial accountability, as reform of Judiciary must address questions of judicial accountability.
According to Access to Justice, if the judiciary fails to do so, there are possible interventions that can be explored. It also recommended that removing matters of judicial administration and even appointments from the hands of the Judiciary, and placing them in the care of professional administrators, as is done in some countries, might just be an example of what can be explored.
It said: “But as for the Bill’s proposals for heavy “judicial restructuring” Access to Justice is not sure we’re at the point where that hammer is called for, assuming it can even solve the problems being addressed
“It should not fall to the legislature to resolve the internal and unique problems around the delivery of justice, except the Judiciary feels that legislative intervention is needed. This is what the independence of the judiciary should mean.
“Unfortunately, the judiciary has not done much itself to improve the overall quality of the delivery of justice and public confidence still remains low in institutions of justice. Why should the Judiciary not be more accountable for ensuring that Nigeria operates a credible, dependable, efficient and fair system of justice? A Bill of this nature should resolve to ask more from the Judiciary, about what it has done with its autonomy.
“For we believe that an institution that is created to hold individuals and other branches of government accountable for their actions, must itself offer some accountability to the people it serves,” it added.