Will the justice sector, as we know it, survive the next 50 years? Not until it tackles the problem of justice delay. Heavyweights in the sector considered these and more on November 17 during the second edition of the Wole Olanipekun & Co. (WOC) Justice Summit in celebration of the 70th birthday of Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN). They also provided practical steps to solving the problem. ROBERT EGBE reports.
The lawyer approached the court with a simple application: a motion for extension of time. It was a non-contentious motion in a basic commercial transaction so she was confident it would be granted.
She was right. The judge wasted no time in assenting, but she got a shock when the Registrar gave her a return date of six months.
Lawyers in Nigeria would not be surprised by this scenario. Long adjournments are an all too common feature of the Nigerian legal system and one of the contributors to the backlog of cases that the judiciary, despite its best efforts, is routinely confronted by.
This is not the only problem of the sector, of course.
Against this backdrop, stakeholders in the justice sector gathered in Lagos on November 17, to find a way out of this and many other problems.
The occasion was the Wole Olanipekun & Co. (WOC) Justice Summit on Justice Sector Reforms in celebration of the 70th birthday of Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN.
Managing Partner, Wole Olanipekun & Co, Mr. Bode Olanipekun, SAN, moderated the event, which was themed “Implementing Justice Sector Reforms”.
He traced the 41-year history of his father’s law firm that has “serviced legal obligations from 31 out of the 36 states of Nigeria, including FCT.
”We initiated the justice summit as a platform for critical engagements, where remarkable thought leaders of distinguished pedigree lead discussions that enhance justice delivery in Nigeria.
“Our law firm is underpinned by the core values of diligence, integrity, and refined expertise because we believe no value that is antithetical to these can be sustainable,” Bode explained
Speakers also considered, among others, the integrity of the justice sector.
“This is critical because, the value of a judicial system is largely dependent on the trust that judicial outcomes command. The trust that judicial outcomes command also has a direct bearing on virtually all aspects of national life,” Bode added.
Nigeria must urgently address slow judicial process – Osinbajo
Key among the speakers was Vice President Yemi Osinbajo.
Osinbajo warned that for the sector to survive the next 50 years, the slow process of dispensing justice must be addressed.
The VP, who chaired the event, described delays in the judicial process as the “elephant in the room”.
Osinbajo said: “I’ve had many conversations with Chief Olanipekun through the years and invariably we come back to the elephant in the room: will the legal profession, as we know it, survive another 50 years, given the gridlock in processing cases through the courts and the question of integrity of the legal process or better still the integrity of the actors in the legal process?
“Regarding delays in Nigerian Courts, the United Kingdom Court of Appeal had on occasion to comment in the case of (IPCO v. NNPC  EWCA Civ 1144) where a challenge to the enforcement of a Nigerian seated arbitration tribunal award came before the English Court of Appeal.
“The court referred to the delays in the parallel proceedings before a Nigerian Court as catastrophic and that it could take a further 30 years to resolve.
“Incidentally, the expert witness who testified on delays in the Nigerian Courts was a former Justice of the Supreme Court who testified that it could take 20 to 30 years to resolve a case in a Nigerian court.
“On the integrity of the legal process and its key actors, judges, and lawyers, most of us here who have practised in our courts and who still practise know at least, anecdotally, that many important cases today are under a shroud of doubt as to whether outcomes would be influenced one way or the other.”
Praises for the celebrant
Osinbajo described the celebrant, Olanipekun, “as one of the most consequential and influential lawyers in the Commonwealth”, adding that beyond his accolades and achievements, he has impacted many lives through his kindness, philanthropy and faith.”
Thanking God for giving the legal luminary “an ever-youthful physique and disposition, Prof. Osinbajo said “Chief Olanipekun’s great intellect, mastery of the law, its substance and its technicalities, his incredible ability to get to the heart of the matter and to let whole panels of judges see his sometimes daring points; his disarming wit and humour, his sometimes lyrical and poetic submissions, quoting from the classics and the Scriptures, make him easily one of the most outstanding minds in the legal profession in this or any other generation.”
Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Tanko Ibrahim lauded Olanipekun’s accomplishments and generosity.
The CJN, who was represented by Justice Olukayode Ariwola of the Supreme Court, said Olanipekun “bestrides the Nigerian legal landscape with iconic and academic discernment.”
He also described him as a “very unique and nationalistic Nigerian with a radical posture of justice and rule of law.”
Aside Osinbajo, other speakers included Justice Fedode Tabai, JSC (Rtd.); Justice Adamu Galumje, JSC (Rtd.); Chief Judge of Borno State, Justice Kashim Zannah; former President, Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), A. B. Mahmoud, SAN; former NBA Vice President Mrs. Funke Adekoya, SAN, lawyer-activist Femi Falana, SAN; founder of The Chair Centre, Mrs. Ibukun Awosika, and the immediate past Chief Executive/Vice Chancellor of the Lagos State University Prof Olanrewaju Fagbohun.
Why justice sector reform hasn’t stopped delay
Fagbohun spoke on the theme: “Implementing Justice Sector Reforms in Nigeria: Connecting The Disconnect.”
He identified the reasons for and instances of delay as well as the solutions to the problem.
Fagbohun said there must be effective institutional checks within the judiciary to guard against misconduct on the part of judges and lawyers.
The SAN explained why, despite having the ideas and capable personnel, justice sector reforms have not had the desired effects.
Fagbohun said: “What have we achieved since 1999 in the area of justice reform? On its path to development, the drivers of Nigeria’s justice sector have not been short of vision and ideas on how to move forward to achieve incremental transformation. Like countries with trusted justice systems, Nigeria wanted a system that would expedite and make affordable access to justice a system that will boast of sweet service for all, irrespective of status, a system where the law will be administered and served by an incorruptible, honest and efficient and intellectually sound judiciary and the Bar.”
He noted that the country had never been short of champions of the reform agenda.
“If you have good reforms, if you are able to identify champions and they were able to put this in place, then what is the problem?”
Why there is justice delay
The former VC noted that despite “these meritorious efforts,” not much progress had been recorded in achieving the goals of the different reforms.
Quoting Fidelis Oditah, SAN, QC at the last edition of the summit, Fagbohun said: “Rather than just a problem of access to justice, what we have is a situation of exit from justice. Judges are now being regarded with disdain while lawyers are fast becoming laughing stock or an endangered species. There is a report of the UNODC and that report identifies that the justice system in Nigeria, despite laudable reforms at federal and state levels, continue to face multiple challenges.
He laid the blame for delay on several factors, including gaps in implementation of reforms, such as “Administrative Disconnect”.
Fagbohun said: “Take Registrars of court for instance, they are on daily basis faced with a large amount of judicial work. They initiate administrative actions that have a continuing responsibility for results, yet, most of them do not fully understand the functioning of the justice sector and how crucial their role is in it.
“The system relies for success on their consistency, equality of treatment and of the service they render, and the certainty of rules and principles on which their respective administrative departments rely in their daily use. Where they misact and exhibit administrative lawlessness, the court system is brought into disrepute and ridicule. A few examples are worth highlighting:
“a) Registrars who receive applications from litigants’ counsel and other members of the public, but fail to lodge same in the court’s file, thereby frustrating scheduled court proceedings;
“b) Registrars who fail to communicate changes in the schedule of court despite having the email and phone numbers of counsel on file;
“c) Registrars who engage in manipulation of litigants and other members of the public with a view to extorting them;
“d) Registrars who fail to properly keep and arrange the record of the court resulting in adjournment of scheduled proceedings;
“e) Court Bailiffs and Sheriffs who in breach of their mandatory duty and despite being “mobilised” failed to serve or fail to place in the court’s file relevant proof of service of court process thereby, frustrating cases from going on as scheduled;
“f) At the Appellate Court, Counsel submits several copies of court processes only to discover that the processes are not in the court’s file;
“g) A non-contentious application is filed for extension of time yet, the Registrar routinely gives a return date of 6 to 12 months, thereby contributing to the backlog of cases.”
He noted that the above and many more of such situations which can make the difference between winning or losing a case, life and death, or impact successive generations are daily occurrences in the courts.
Fagbohun went on: “No one is held accountable for these seemingly minor infractions that have significant impact on the attainment of justice and business goes on as usual. Complaints against these forms of maladministration are not robustly addressed so much that persistent infraction of rules has become a culture.
The solution to these, he reasoned, includes holding their superiors accountable.
He said: “So, the question I ask is, could we not have a Deputy Chief Registrar Process Monitoring who can be held accountable for the failure of his unit? Could we not have a directive that all processes served must be in the record of the court within 48 hours?”
He cited the example of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria which seems to have got it right.
Fagbohun said: “Achieving effectiveness in the Court Registry is realisable. A good example is the situation at the National Industrial Court of Nigeria. Its different divisions reflect excellence in the way court processes are managed, and judgment delivered electronically, among others. This great model, which is worthy of study, underscores the point that a functionary’s positive attitude towards their role in the scheme of affairs is not a product of genetics and heredity.
“Again, I ask, could we not train Deputy Chief Registrars in the proper identification of reliefs on motion papers as to be able to deal with non-contentious issues? With proper training, appropriate monitoring and sanctions, we can get our court registries to effectively play their role in the implementation of justice sector reforms.”
In proffering other solutions, Fagbohun said: “In implementing justice sector reforms, there were three key assumptions whose self-evident truths we concluded were clear to all.
“The first is that the moment we bring in best practice, we will achieve the desired goals. The second is that all critical stakeholders have an understanding of what is at stake, and, at worst, what will be required is the upscale of their skill set and knowledge. The third is that all critical stakeholders will exude the right discipline and commitment.”
The Chief Judge of Borno State, Hon. Justice Kashim Zannah, spoke on “Entrenching Integrity of Processes in Judicial Appointments”, while a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Hon. Justice Paul Galumje, spoke on “Entrenching Integrity of Processes in Judicial Reforms”.
Human rights lawyer Falana, spoke on “Political Influence on Judicial Appointments”; while forrmer NBA President Mahmoud, SAN, spoke on “How to balance diversity, gender, inclusion and merit in judicial appointments”.
Mrs. Adekoya, SAN, spoke about “Essential collaborations for successful implementation of justice sector reforms.”
A non-lawyer contributor at the WOC Justice Summit, Mrs. Awosika, spoke on the “Implications of judicial reforms on public trust.”
On his part, the celebrant, Olanipekun, said the Justice Summit organised by his law firm is among his modest contributions to the advancement of the justice delivery system in Nigeria. He noted that the thorny issue of integrity and the urgent need for reforms in the sector remain worrisome and should be of concern to all.
He urged speakers and participants at the event not to relent in their efforts to ensure the reform of the judiciary, stressing that the progress sought by society is largely tied to justice and equity.