Courts nationwide are resuming for the 2021/2022 legal year, but familiar challenges await them, write ADEBISI ONANUGA AND ROBERT EGBE.
The 2021/2022 legal year got underway last week, bringing to an end the about eight weeks of annual long vacation observed by state and federal judiciaries across the country.
The vacation held despite concerns that the judiciary had already lost two months to an industrial action by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) in April that paralysed the sector.
The situation was similar to 2020, when the judiciary in most states proceeded on full annual vacation, despite losing months to the COVID-19 lockdown.
Stakeholders, including civil society group Access to Justice (A2J), had suggested that judges should have cancelled or abridged the vacation to give them time to tackle the huge backlog of cases which perennially slows down justice administration.
But those in the know argued that the annual vacation is a statutory issue and cancelling it might result in a breach of the law.
For instance, “Order 46, Rule 4 (d) of the Federal High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules 2019,” recognises the observation of the vacation for the Federal High Court.
This year, however, the Lagos State Judiciary stood out in this regard. It observed just under half of the usual eight weeks.
The state’s Chief Judge, Justice Kazeem Alogba, explained that this was to enable the judges clear the backlog of cases due to the #EndSARS protest last year and the JUSUN strike.
Judiciary’s shopping list
The judiciary’s challenges have been in the news in recent times and some of them are completely out of the sector’s hands.
Topmost is, perhaps, the problem of lack of financial autonomy.
As of September 12, 2021, no fewer than 26 states were yet to enact laws for the implementation of the financial autonomy for the state legislatures and judiciaries.
This was 54 days after the expiration of the July 20 deadline reached in the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) signed by the 36 state governors and the leadership of JUSUN and the Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria (PASAN) for the implementation of the financial autonomy for the two arms of the government.
The states included Anambra, Imo, Enugu, Osun, Oyo, Benue, Niger, Kebbi, Kwara, Taraba, Nasarawa, and Akwa Ibom.
While states such as Edo, Kaduna, Kano, and Imo had not even prepared the bills, the bills were at various stages at the state houses of assemblies in other states.
Following the expiration of the 45-day deadline, the committee set up by the National Judicial Council (NJC) to monitor the implementation wrote the 36 state Chief Judges (CJs) demanding the status of implementation in their respective states.
The five-member committee appointed by the NJC to ensure that the governors did not renege on the agreement includes President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Olumide Akpata; a retired Justice of the Supreme Court and Emir of Lafia in Nasarawa State, Justice Sidi Bage (Chairman); President of the National Industrial Court, Justice Benedict Kanyip; Chief Judge of Abia State, Justice Onuoha Ogwe; and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Dr. Muiz Banire.
Of the 36 states, only Lagos, Rivers and Bayelsa claimed that they had started the full implementation while Plateau State had commenced partial implementation.
The non-implementation of judicial financial autonomy resulted in the two months strike experienced earlier in the year.
Flowing from the non-implementation of judicial financial autonomy is the problem of judges’ welfare.
President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem, recently gave an idea of the appellate court’s welfare situation recently.
Justice Dongban-Mensem, who spoke at the maiden edition of the Court of Appeal Legal Year and Justices Retreat, in Abuja, claimed that the salaries of Nigerian judicial officers is the poorest in Africa.
She noted that the last time the salary of the judicial officers were reviewed was in 2008. She consequently appealed to the federal and state executives to live up to their statutory obligation to implement the financial autonomy of federal and state judiciary, as stated in Executive Order 10.
She said: “My Lord, the Hon Justice Mustapha Akanbi, CFR (of blessed memory), a former President of the Court of Appeal, stated in a publication entitled ‘The main obstacles of Justice according to Law’ that “A good judgment flows from a mind that is not bogged by the thought of where do I get my next meal or where do I get the money to pay my son’s school fees. Poor conditions of service disturb the mind. It is an obstacle to clear and positive thinking.”
She noted further that the Chief Justice of Nigeria earns N279,497.00 monthly, while other justices on the Supreme Court earn N206,425.00 monthly.
“As President of Court of Appeal, I receive N206,425.00, while other justices on the bench of the Court of Appeal go home with N166,285.00 every month,” Justice Dongban-Mensem added.
But if the judiciary has complaints against the government, so do lawyers have against the judiciary.
Senior Advicate of Nigeria (SAN) Chief Wale Taiwo, told The Nation a few of his expectations for the judiciary in the new legal year.
Time management, allocation of time slots
Foremost on his list is time management and allocation of time slots by court officials.
Taiwo said: “One of the perennial complaints of lawyers in litigation is time spent in court or delays to cases due to judges or magistrates not sitting as and when expected.
“It is time we ensure that lawyers are not made to spend too much time waiting for courts to sit or awaiting their turn for their cases to be called. I suggest that cases be allotted particular time when they are adjourned and judges endeavor to stick to same. Time is money.”
Access to court proceedings and enhanced digitalisation – Cloud Computing
The silk referenced the recent experience in the Lagos High Court and some other courts across the country, which suffered fire damage in the #EndSARS protests as reasons for enhanced digitalisation.
He said: It “necessarily calls to mind the need for our court proceedings and records to become fully digitalised. Many cases already languishing in court and at the verge of judgment are now suffering.
“Our courts just have to prioritise digitalisation so that records cannot be damaged by fire: cloud storage will ensure seamless retrieval and access to court electronic records.”
As for conflicting decisions, he noted that judges are human but they must be careful.
“The recent uproar about conflicting decisions of courts, especially borne out ex parte applications is a menace that must be tackled.
“Our judges are human after all but they must be wary of the shenanigans of politicians and forum shoppers. Election 2023 is just under 18 months and politicians with their collaborators at the bar will keep doing their thing. Our judges must be wary.
“I propose that the heads of court create a database for cross-referencing potential cases to ensure that conflicting decisions in related matters are minimised,” Taiwo said.
The silk also harped on JUSUN and judicial autonomy
He advised JUSUN not to use such tactic again to drive home its agitation “as the common folks seeking justice, poor criminal defendants and our junior colleagues at the bar were the one that suffered in the process.
“I hope that our heads of court will be proactive in engaging with the Executive arm across the country to ensuring that judicial autonomy is fully implemented.”
Support staff and their welfare
According to him, the courts and judges can only function with the help of highly motivated staff – Registrars, Clerks, Judicial Assistants, and Bailiffs etc.
“Most of our colleagues do complain about the incessant demands on them by court staff in the name of mobilisation while making applications or filing court processes.
“The net effect of this culture on the judiciary is unimaginable and the only way to tackle same is to ensure that the welfare of our court staff is prioritised. Our heads of courts must look into this issue of welfare,” Chief Taiwo said.
Dilapidated court infrastructure
Attah Ochinke, Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, Calabar Branch (the “Doyen Bar), also weighed in on the matter in his speech during a ceremony to mark the official opening of the 2021/2022 Legal Year for the Cross River State Judiciary on September 20, 2021.
The Chairman of the Doyen Bar spoke on the dilapidated state of court infrastructure. He noted the efforts of senior lawyers and elders of the Bar in Calabar, under the leadership of Rosemary Obanya, Esq., towards the renovation of some courts in Calabar, thanked the elders of the Bar for picking up the gauntlet and pleaded with them to not tire in their effort.
The Chairman however pointed out that the contributions of lawyers and citizens in renovating court facilities is not a reflection of generosity; rather it is a reflection of the state of abandonment of the Judiciary noting that the Judiciary in the state had become “an object of charity; desperately seeking help and taking help from every source.”
He urged the state government to approach the issues in the Judiciary, not as an afterthought, but as a matter of urgent importance emphasising that the capital budget of the Judiciary must be deployed for capital projects in the Judiciary.
On the issue of ex parte orders, Ochinke stated that it was natural to blame judges who issue ex parte orders in controversial circumstances, but that while “we may rightly call such judges to account, we as lawyers cannot abdicate responsibility as we are the ones who present these applications. No judge will grant an order which a lawyer has not sought for.”
Courts sitting late
A former chairman of the NBA’s Ikorodu Branch, Mr Bayo Akinlade noted that there were complaints in Lagos about some High and Magistrates Courts sitting late, “well after 9am (9.45am onwards).”
Akinlade said: “We have interacted with some of the courts concerned and registered these concerns by lawyers and litigants.
“While we acknowledge that this is not a new issue, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has forced many to be very weary of going to court only to be informed that the court won’t sit or that the judge will only start sitting by 10am or afterwards.”
Culled: The Nation