Fast-Tracking Justice Delivery

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Some senior lawyers have expressed divergent views on the claim by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, that the attitude of legal practitioners is contributing to the delay being experienced in the nation’s justice delivery system and cases congestion at the Supreme Court.

While some of the lawyers agreed with the CJN, others submitted that the courts and possibly, the prosecution, also have their own faults in the twin problem confronting the nation’s justice sector.

The CJN had last Monday while declaring open the 2022/23 Legal Year and Swearing-in of 63 new Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) lamented the slow pace of justice delivery system, saying among other factors causing the problem, “the attitude of some of our lawyers too is unexciting.

Some do not even mind throwing their integrity and reputation to the winds by taking briefs that they know lack substance, just for pecuniary reasons. So disturbing is the fact that even in the face of failure, they would still persuade their clients to push the case further on appeal”.

Giving a breakdown of the numerous cases pending before the Supreme Court as a result of ‘attitude of lawyers’, the CJN said that between October 2021 and September 2022, a total number of 3,563 convictions were made through the collaborative effort of the Committee.

“There were equally large number of forfeited cash and non-cash recoveries made within the period. Also, within the window offered by the 2021/2022 legal year, the Supreme Court entertained a total number of 1,764 cases, comprising of motions and appeals. Out of these, we heard 816 civil, 370 criminal and 16 political matters, making a total of 1,202 motions.

Similarly, the court considered a total number of 562 appeals, comprising of 341 civil, 186 criminal and 35 political. A total number of 154 judgements were delivered in the year. “Our pending (backlog) civil appeals are 4,741 while the number of pending (backlog) criminal appeals is 1,392.

On the other hand, we have 751 moribund appeals for disposal. That brings the total number of pending (backlog) appeals in this Honourable Court to 6,884. Out of the 4,741 appeals in the court’s docket, 1,495 have briefs filed and exchanged and are ready for hearing; whereas, the remaining 3,246 appeals are having about 10,000 motions, with some contentious and others innocuous in nature.

As for the pending 1,392 criminal appeals, 461 already had briefs filed and exchanged and are ready for hearing. The remaining 931 appeals have about 2,000 different motions for hearing to determine their eligibility for hearing. “However, the identified 751 moribund appeals are to be disposed of for non-compliance with the Supreme Court Rules, i.e. Order 8 Rule 8.

This score card, from all indications, is impressively fascinating. I attribute the tremendous success recorded to the doggedness and team spirit exhibited by my brother Justices and the general staff of the court.

“Even as we celebrate the huge successes recorded in the past legal year in the disposal of cases, the Nigerian public needs to be reminded on the need to do less litigation and embrace more of alternative dispute resolution to free the courts of this unnecessary over-stretching of human and material resources.

As rightly observed, Nigerians are the most litigious people on earth; especially the political class. We don’t need to rush to court after every little disagreement. We have various alternative dispute resolution mechanisms across the country that we can conveniently leverage on, with a view to freeing the courts of this incessant case-overload. In every little disagreement, we rush to court; and in every lost case, we rush to appeal even up to the Supreme Court, no matter how little the issue might be.

“That has obviously accounted for the several appeals pending in Supreme Court. Though, we receive scathing criticisms from members of the public over our over-blotted docket, we are neither in any position to regulate case inflow to the court nor have the supernatural powers to attend to all in one-fell-swoop.

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“We have said it repeatedly that ordinarily, most appeals should be allowed to end at the Court of Appeal; but such Constitutional provision is yet to be enacted, so we have no blame in it, rather, we are daily overburdened by that long awaited Constitutional amendment as we work round the clock to attend to the plethora of appeals. There should also be amendment of the Constitution to stop most interlocutory appeals from coming to the Supreme Court; they should be allowed to end at the Court of Appeal.

“The attitude of some of our lawyers too is unexciting. Some do not even mind throwing their integrity and reputation to the winds by taking briefs that they know lack substance, just for pecuniary reasons. So disturbing is the fact that even in the face of failure, they would still persuade their clients to push the case further on appeal.

“However, the solemn pledge we normally make, is to always work assiduously with the required speed to dispose of all cases that come before us. By the grace of God, under my leadership, that pledge will be tenaciously held and justice will be dispensed without fear or favour”.

In a related development, Justice Olasumbo Goodluck of the High Court in Abuja had in 2018 blamed lawyers for prolonging cases in court through adjournments. The judge, who made the disclosure at an event organised by Partners West Africa (PWA) said lawyers do so by claiming to have matters in higher courts. He also presented its findings on the implementation of Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015, by judges and lawyers.

The documents containing findings and recommendation of PWA was part of a three-year project with support from MacArthur Foundation to ensure transparency and accountability in the judicial sector. Justice Goodluck, who described the situation in courts as one of the crises experienced by judges, called for a mechanism to track cases in various courts and the lawyers handling such cases.

He said: “The crisis we are having is that most of the prosecutors or counsel lie to the court that they are engaged in the Supreme Court. It has become a regular practice for counsels to seek adjournment of a case because he has a case in either Supreme Court or Court of Appeal.

“And there is no way to crosscheck this information. I think that time has   come to put mechanism into the justice delivery system in Nigeria”, the judge said. Justice Goodluck also canvassed the introduction of a technology that would provide data of cases pending in courts and the counsels representing such cases.He charged counsels to delegate cases to their team members, rather than relying only on the team leader to argue cases in courts.

“What is the essence of having a team of three counsels who are in the case from inception, and because the lead counsel is engaged somewhere, the team would demand an adjournment. “Any member of the team should be able to take charge at any point in time whenever the principal counsel is not on ground,” he added.

Buhari’s concern In the same vein, President Muhammadu Buhari had last year called on the judiciary to devise and deploy stringent measures against lawyers, who in the cause of servicing their clients employ all kinds of delay tactics thereby hindering speedy dispensation of justice in the country.

President Buhari predicated the call on the need to make the justice sector more efficient and effective as to preserve the nation’s democracy, as well as attract foreign investment. He made the statement while declaring open the 2021 All Nigeria Judges’ Conference of the Superior Courts.

Buhari, who was represented at the event by the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, expressed concern over the impact of delays in the administration of justice system, as well as the image of the judiciary and by extension the country. “As my lords are aware, delay in the dispensation of justice, coupled with the increase of cases in our courts have remained subjects of great concern.

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As someone said, our problem is not access to justice, it is exiting the justice system. “And I know that delays are not necessarily the fault of judges, lawyers are also responsible. Should we not then as have been suggested by some, evolve a cost award system that recognizes the court as a finite and expensive public resource and as such, delays and other dielectric tactics are visited with deterrent cost”, he suggested. Lawyers on CJN’s claim In his submissions, an Abujabased lawyer, Dr. Nnamdi Okoye, disagreed with the CJN’s position, saying the blame cannot be shifted

on the lawyers. Okoye said: “The Nigerian Police Force and other security agencies cannot be exonerated from this. They must work harder by devising modern methods of getting credible and reliable evidence before framing their charges, so that extra work will not be added to the judges.

“In most cases, it is when the trial commences that they now begin to look for evidence. This act is not only condemnable, but also a major cog in the wheel of speedy justice delivery. It has equally accounted for the high number of cases pending in various courts across the country.

“This has now made it germane for our entire criminal laws to be comprehensively appraised and updated so that those outlandish aspects that are no more in tune with modern trends can be updated”.

In his own reaction, another Abuja-based lawyer, Peter Erivwode, noted that the view expressed by the CJN stands so tall that one can only but agree with him absolutely. “There is no gainsaying the fact that a good number of cases in courts today, be it court of first instance or courts of higher allotment are frivolous and bereft of substance and as such, they ought not to find their way to our courts.

“The point must be made however that as long as the court continue to dignify such frivolous cases with a hearing, there will be no end to such practice in our courts. “Our courts have held in plethora of cases to the effect that an application, once filed in court no matter how useless it may seem, must be heard and determined one way or the other.

Thus, it is a breach of fundamental right to fair hearing to either strike out or dismiss an application without a hearing. “The above position of the law appears to have emboldened some lawyers, both young and senior members of the bar to constantly engage in filing and sometimes proliferation of frivolous matters for pecuniary benefit.

“A frivolous claim, often called a bad faith claim, refers to a lawsuit, motion or appeal that is intended to harass, delay or embarrass the opposition. “A claim is frivolous when the claim lacks any arguable basis either in law or in fact. That means, in a frivolous claim, either the ‘facts in contention are clearly baseless,’ such as when allegations are the product of delusion or fantasy; or the claim is based on an indisputably meritless legal theory.’

“Put differently, “frivolous litigation is a legal claim or defence presented even though the party and the party’s legal counsel had reason to know that the claim or defense had no merit.

“A claim or defence may be frivolous because it had no underlying justification in fact, or because it was not presented with an argument for a reasonable extension or reinterpretation of the law thereby leading to an abuse of judicial process”, Erivwode said.

On his part, Tajudeen Adegbite, blamed the delay on all major stakeholders. He said there were instances where the prosecutors were not ready with their evidence or witnesses on the day of hearing. He noted further that the shortage of judges and overloading of cases on one judge could also cause delay, adding that lawyers were also not left out as they make applications upon applications to delay trials.

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In his submissions, Kasse Saidu, specifically accused Senior Advocates of Nigeria of delaying high profile cases when they knew that it would not favour their clients.

In his contribution, Afam Iloani, advised anti-graft agencies to complete investigation of cases before making arrest, noting that arresting a suspect based on mere suspicion was in bad taste.

“It is wrong for persons to be invited based on mere suspicion without the investigative agencies doing a thorough job to establish probable cause”, he said.

Iloani noted that apart from the EFCC, the police was also guilty of arresting suspects based on mere complaint without substantive evidence. He said: “This is the kind of thing you also see in our various police stations where on mere complaint, people are invited, arrested and clamped into detention.

There should be a change of attitude on the part of the investigative agencies”. He also recommended adequate training for investigative personnel, adding that agencies must set guiding principles for their operatives.

While corroborating Iloani’s submissions, Dele Igbayiloye noted that thorough investigation of cases before arrest would make the entire judicial process less cumbersome. He added often times, delay in cases begins with the manner of arrest and that those arrested were sometimes detained while investigations were ongoing.

Also reacting, a former President of Public Interest Lawyers League (PILL), Dr. Abdul Mahmud, said: “My  view is that the problem is both selfinflicted and constitutional. In the age of technology, and in era in which we have technological devices that convert speeches to texts, justices of the Supreme Court, and in all courts, still take hearings in long hands.

“What stops the CJN to move beyond this self-inflicted problem and introduce reforms, based on the use of technology, to the Supreme Court? The question is, how many justices of the higher bench are really IT savvy? “On the constitutional dimension to the problem, a situation in which the constitution allows all manners of appeals to be heard is unhealthy. Interlocutory appeals are at the heart of the problem.

“Isn’t it time we allow the Constitution to limit the powers of the Supreme Court only to constitutional matters, with the leave of court itself?” Bright Enado noted that several factors are attributable to backlog of cases and there is no one player in this direction that should be blamed for this.

“The government, Judicial Service Commission, the judges, lawyers and litigants should be blamed for backlog of cases in court. “How do I mean, public holidays are too much in Nigeria. If we are to take a calculation of the days of public holidays in a year in Nigeria, it will definitely be more than a month and half. “It is not every celebrated days in a calendar that should be a work free day in Nigeria.

This has brought laziness into the mental reasoning of workers to the extent that worker snoop for public holidays. “But, I think the crux of the problem lies within the judges and the lawyers.

On the part of the judges, some of them are lazy, and they descend into the arena of cases too much and this affect the number of return of cases drastically. Again the idea of judges vacation is not a well-thought out issue. “Why should all judge proceed on vacation at the same time. In other clime this is not so. Judges vacation should be spread through the calendar year and not all going on leàve the same time.

“The issue of granting too long adjournment at the apex court causes delay to the quick dispensation of cases. “Lawyers on their part are the ready tool in this regard. Frequency of adjournment by lawyers is an aspect that needs to be addressed. Frivolous cases without merit should be strike out from course list”, Enado said.

(Newtelegraph)

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