HomeOpinionsElectoral Cases Overwhelm Judges, Justice System

Electoral Cases Overwhelm Judges, Justice System

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• Judiciary constitutes 98 panels to hear 1,209 election petitions
• 10 (out of 21) apex court justices saddled with 6,884 cases
• 346 judges drawn from various courts for electoral duties
• Fastest case from High Court to Supreme Court may take average of 30 years – Banire
• In absentia, pending cases of 346 judges are unattended for at least six months
• In Lagos, 65 judges, 146 magistrates, others tackle over 11,000 cases yearly, at ratio 358 cases per judge

Woes of the justice delivery system in Nigeria have been further compounded by the number of cases pending before already overwhelmed judges, who may have abandoned them for political matters.

Despite the heavy dockets across various courts daily, no fewer than 346 judges have been drafted to handle 2023 election matters – while their routine cases are left unattended for the next months.

This development further slows justice delivery in regular courts and such delays portend a serious threat to hapless citizens, foreign and local investors, and ultimately impacts negatively on the nation’s economy.

Ab initio, judges are overworked and grossly inadequate nationwide. For instance, the Lagos State judiciary alone handles an average of 11,000 cases every year.

Comparatively, Lagos ranks third next to Port Harcourt, Rivers State, and Anambra State, in the hierarchy of state judiciaries with huge dockets.

With the workload ratio of an average judge in Lagos being about 358 cases yearly, every judge is subjected to unwarranted pressure to meet the demands of the office.

Lagos State with 65 judges, 146 magistrates, and scores of presidents of customary courts, sets the pace in the country in the area of justice sector reform, which is in tandem with its status as the seventh-biggest economy in Africa and Nigeria’s commercial nerve centre.

By the last count, 101 judges are sitting over Federal High Courts nationwide, which include the 23 new ones sworn in on October 4, 2023, by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, while 31 judges are overseeing the affairs of the National Industrial Courts of Nigeria (NICN).

The Court of Appeal has 20 Divisions spread across the six geopolitical zones namely: Lagos, Kaduna, Ibadan, Enugu, Benin, Jos, Port Harcourt, Abuja, Calabar, Ilorin, Owerri, Sokoto, Yola, Ekiti, Akure, Makurdi, Asaba, Awka, Gombe and Kano. Some states make use of the closest division to them and the headquarters in Abuja.

The Appeal Court has 72 judges, who preside over numerous cases across the division.

However, pulling out 346 judges from various courts nationwide, including State High Courts, Federal Capital Territory High Court, Federal High Courts, and the National Industrial Court to adjudicate disputes arising from the 2023 general elections constitutes an enormous challenge to the judicial system.

The CJN initially inaugurated 10 judges from Abia, six from Adamawa, five from Akwa Ibom, eight from Benue, five from Borno, eight from Cross River, eight from Delta, eight from Ebonyi, six from Edo, seven from Ekiti, six from Enugu, Kaduna, eight from Kano, eight from Katsina and four from Jigawa states.

Sokoto state contributed eight judges to the pool, Zamfara, seven; Kebbi, eight; Taraba, six; Yobe, seven; Gombe, eight; Kogi, seven; Rivers, eight; Plateau, eight; Nasarawa, seven; Niger, seven; Lagos, eight; Ogun, seven; Osun, eight; Ondo, eight; Oyo, eight; Kwara, eight; Imo, eight; Bayelsa, two; FCT, nine; FHC four, and NICN three. This took the total number to 257 before it was later increased to 346.

The implication of this is that cases pending before the 346 judges in their various courts nationwide will remain unattended for six months, thereby reducing the number of cases that ought to have been concluded in record time.

The President of the Court of Appeal (PCA), Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem, who spoke at the beginning of the 2023/24 Legal Year, disclosed that the court delivered 7,295 judgments and 3,665 motions in the 2022/2023 legal year. It could have been more if not for the interregnum.

She added that 98 panels were constituted to hear 1,209 election petitions nationwide. Five of them, she said, were filed and concluded at the Presidential Election Petition Court, while 147 filed at the senatorial election tribunal have been delivered and 417 petitions from the House of Representatives are being attended to.

The PCA also said that 557 petitions associated with states’ Houses of Assembly and 83 gubernatorial complaints were being disposed of, adding that 28 states participated in the governorship elections, with petitions filed in 24.

Dongban-Mensem noted that the Abuja Division of the court is currently overwhelmed and lacks adequate storage facilities and office space.

She, therefore, appealed to the FCT Minister, Nyesom Wike to provide a large piece of land for the construction of the Abuja Division.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court is not immune from the issue of heavy dockets and shortage of justices. It has over 6,884 cases pending with just 10 Justices to handle them.

By virtue of Section 230 of the 1999 Constitution, the Supreme Court ought to comprise the CJN and other justices not exceeding 21 as may be proscribed by the Act of the National Assembly. With 10 justices presently, the court is short of 11 justices.

The implication of all these is that justices are overwhelmed, and the CJN, Ariwoola, had, not long ago, lamented that political cases were taking a monumental toll on the dockets of the courts, stressing that no court in the land is spared of this.

“We are constantly on our toes and the dockets are ever rising in response to the challenges of the time. This underscores the undisputed fact that Nigeria continuously ranks among the most litigious countries in the world.

“I strongly believe it is high time we began to imbibe the culture of less litigation and more of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms so that our courts can be free of unnecessary burden and depletion of both human and material resources,” he said.

Worried by the development, some lawyers have proposed to the National Judicial Council (NJC), to look into the appointment of retired judges and magistrates to assist in adjudicating in the election petition tribunals, as well as the need to build more courts.

A former APC legal adviser, Dr Muiz Banire (SAN), said that this development has become a matter of serious concern to the economy and administration of justice in Nigeria.

He also frowned at drafting judges into election petitions when their dockets were overweight.

“As of today, a matter that commenced at the High Court in some jurisdictions takes an average of five years and a minimum of five at the Court of Appeal, and 15 years at the Supreme Court. So, the fastest case from the High Court to the Supreme Court may take an average of 30 years, by which time most of the original parties are dead. Justice delayed, it is said, is justice denied.

“Due to the appalling situation, the judiciary itself decided to put some of the cases on what is called fast track, that is, cases that will enjoy priority in our courts. Examples are anti-corruption cases, terrorism, criminal cases, etc.

“The implication of this is that all other cases, particularly commercial cases, are of no importance to the judicial system now. This is a country desirous of both domestic and foreign investments. I am not too sure that any investor will be interested in gambling with his investment when the judicial system is wobbling.

“It is in the midst of the confusion and the excruciating scenario facing the judiciary that every four years, more than half of our judicial officers are drafted into electoral justice duty. They now sit in a panel of three over election petitions for a period of six months. Each time this occurs, it further compounds the already bad situation of delay in justice delivery.

“At all levels of the administration of justice, it crawls to the extent that it is now an acceptable position in Nigeria, it is easier to access the courts than exiting it,” he lamented.

Banire noted that many ideas have cropped up towards eliminating the contributory aspect of the judge’s administering electoral justice.

“I have personally toyed with the idea that we should adopt arbitration due to the relaxed nature of the rules of evidence in that regard. I have also thought about the use of retired judges to carry out this assignment,” he submitted.

According to Banire, there seems not to be any alternative other than recruiting judges to deal with the election petitions, otherwise in due course, our judicial system will fail.

Chief Afe Babalola (SAN) also thinks in the same direction. According to the revered lawyer, but for the recent increase in the retirement age of trial court judges, the idea is ideal.

Similarly, a former Osun State governorship aspirant, Mr Kunle Adegoke (SAN), urged the NJC to look into the appointment of retired judges and magistrates to assist at the tribunals.

Unlike Babalola, Adegoke thinks many of the judges who retired at 65 and 70 are still sound enough to adjudicate on such matters, which they had been doing all their lives.

In his contribution, Dr Yemi Omodele said the rate at which electoral offences are rampant in Nigeria calls for a special court to handle them.

He said the number of judges in the country is limited compared to the workload that they face, adding that joining electoral cases to their workload is tantamount to multiplying their problems.

According to him, it will not be out of place to allow retired, but sound judges to handle election petitions in Nigeria. This, he said, will relieve serving judges of this burden.

“It will facilitate quick dispensation of justice in the sense that for about six months, cases in the courts of the judges who are on election petition tribunal assignments, remain in abeyance.

“Even applications for transfer of such cases are rarely approved because some of the cases are part heard. Then, would litigants and counsels be waiting for politicians to know their faith before their cases are determined? I think it should not be so.

“Independent lawyers who have practiced for 30 years and above, and have good records in the legal practice, who are sound, should be included as well, after considering their health, age, and a host of others. Note that there are some retired judges of 80 years and above who are sound more than judges of less than 50 years old.

“Also, the retired judges may not compromise due to their past experiences. They are no longer after wealth. Using them will also save costs for the government,” Omodele suggested.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mr Lateef Fagbemi (SAN) has reassured that the administration of President Bola Tinubu would address the shortage of judges at the appellate courts.

Yetunde Ayobami Ojo

Guardian

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