‘Supreme Court should be decentralised’
THE role of judges to interpret and uphold law is indispensable in any orderly society. Judges are like the God on earth. They rule on all matters of law. Judges are the ultimate arbiters of the law, resolving factual issues under a number of circumstances.
For instance, the Supreme Court had held that court has a duty to guard against an attempt by any of the parties to make an ass of the law and its rules of procedure. Ngwuta, JSC. MFA& Anor. v. Inongha (2014) 1-2 S. C. (Pt. I) 43.
In spite of such huge roles, Johnson Ezezoobo believes that when a case stayed long in court, it amounts to violation of right to fair hearing. He expressed doubt about the recurring reform mantra by each new Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), saying they should rather focus on continuity.
He said: “I have never seen what they called reform because for each CJN that comes is always talking of reform. That seems to me that there is no establish system of process from which you can talk of continuity. Every process in the saddle get his own process he called reform. What is this reform we are talking about? How can Mr. A who has been part of the system turn round that he wants to reform the system, is not easy. “For example in the Supreme Court, the gestation period of a case there is six years. Hardly you get a case done earlier than six years. It has never been considered that when a case is allowed to stay long, it amounts to violation of the right to fair hearing within a reasonable time. When they talk of reform, nothing has been done to see that that system is thrown over board.
“If a case is allowed to go on for years, assuming you have stayed three to four years at the high court, and four years at the Appeal Court, we are talking of eight years plus six year in Supreme Court, If I get that kind of justice, I call it ‘grave yard justice.’ By the time I get justice I am already getting closer to my grave or I might die before justice is given. “You remember the 44lLecturers of University of Ilorin, some of them died before justice was given at the Supreme court. I remember their lawyer filed accelerated hearing. The Supreme Court reportedly threw out their application for accelerated hearing. They forget that the job they were thrown out from was their means of livelihood. They forget that these people have wife, children. If you allow a case to stay that long, house wife would be affected.”
Suggesting a way forward, he noted that there should be standard set up for filing and decongest Supreme Court by decentralization. “I think if you are talking of reform, you should first set a standard by which you file a case. Once a case is filed you ensure that it is filed within two or three years. There is no reason why a case should not be heard within two to three years. The law and procedure say you file brief within 45 days and others have 60 days to be filed and once these is filed, what is left that keep the file there for six years?
“That is why I am surprised when I see my colleagues running here and there, that they want to be senior advocates, I wonder how they get the cases to meet up with the requirement that you have to get two cases in supreme court, of six years in Supreme court, it means you are talking of 12 years. So how do they get this cases? You see that we get involve in unprofessional things to be able to make up. It makes us desperate rather than correct the system. I have two cases in Supreme Court that have been there since 2005 that they have not touch.
“Let us look at the way the cases are been managed with reference to election petition cases and all that. What makes election petition case more important than other cases? You are chasing power, that is your own problem. If my case is on land, that is my problem. If it is employment, that is my problem. I think every case is important. There are some procedures that we have to do away with. For example, I did a case of Ekunola V. CBN before the Supreme Court. I don’t want to go to the details of that case. That case got to Supreme Court in 2005, it was not decided until 2012.
“The decision of the court was that, we had no jurisdiction because we did not obtain leave. Your grounds of appeal are grounds of law mixed with law and fact. I made a submission that look what is the whole essence of obtaining leave with a procedure, non compliance of it did not cause any body injustice why not overlook it. When we started practice in those days, if there was a procedure to follow that you missed, you say okay my lord, if this is the case I am arguing in the alternative that I hereby apply orally that this be corrected and they allowed it. We were growing and putting more obstacles in the way we get justice. I also proposed to them in that cases that the issue of leave or no leave is to be dealt with administratively.
“Why don’t you initiate a rule such that if part of the rule to obtain a leave fails, the registrar in charge tries to get across to notify you that leave is supposed to be obtain; writing you administratively that you should obtain leave, and please correct it. The merit is that when you are coming to court, you don’t talk of leave, you deal with the main case. All the processes are now there. They will be concerned with only hearing. But because you have failed to comply with one procedure they throw out the case. That is no justice as far as I am concerned. On account of one procedure, the main case is thrown out. That is not justice”, he lamented.
Speaking on the decentralization of Supreme Court, he said: “Yes, if that would help us, we should amend the law and make Supreme Court at Abuja the headquarters and make two to three zones. Supreme Court too can have divisions like court of appeal. And then they find out how they can manage this together to streamline cases.
On the possibility of giving conflicting judgments, he said: “If they give conflicting judgments, there should be a process by which they streamline it. The Court of Appeal that has divisions has been able to manage the system in such a way that if they find conflicting judgment, they find way of resolving it. If a division in Enugu has given decision that contradict an earlier judgment of Lagos division or whatever, you go to the whole process of which one to follow. If the later judgment is seen to be given in ignorance of an earlier one, the law is quite clear that the law is given ‘per incuriam’. It denotes the idea that it is decided through inadvertence or ignorance of the relevant law.
“The later judgment would bring in some other things that would have shown that this later one has overruled the earlier. So the fear of conflicting judgment from different divisions should not be hindrance to it. If decentralizing Supreme Court will solve the problem of delay, it should be what we called reform. Not that you bring one rule and remove something. The new system now is that if you are to file your process within seven days and you file thereafter, they charge you penalty. I still don’t understand the logic of it. Justice is a social commodity. Is the only commodity state should be able to give free of charge. And that is why filing fee should be at the barest level. But because we have becomes so money conscious. We are now charging commercial rate of filing fee.
“When there is no money to file cases and all that, people will resort to self-help. I challenge the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta when he raised penalty from N200 per day to N1000 per day. I wrote him a letter and asked how many Nigerians earn N1000 per day. He wrote me back that my letter was insulting, that he initiated that policy not for revenue generation but to check the tardiness of some lawyers. I wrote him back to ask if he was put there to check tardiness of lawyers? If a lawyer is tardy, he has problem with his client. If a lawyer is tardy, the client can protest the tardiness to the Nigerian Bar Association Disciplinary Committee. The rules are clear. He will be dealt with there.
“I am aware of some judges who go behind lawyer and call up the client and say look, we can give you a lawyer this lawyer is this and that and they charge fees for that. I told him in that letter, that how can he check this misconduct. A judge who is checking the tardiness of a lawyer is going behind the lawyer to talk to his client in a case before him. That is what I called brief rigging. There are some judges who have some lawyers on their pay role. They tell you I have lawyers that I can work with, I will get you a lawyer. Some senior advocate of Nigeria are involved in this kind of terrible practice. I don’t want to mention names. And then, you tell me you are not generating revenue and all that. If you have a case in court, you ask your lawyer to file a case, if you have not giving him money, that may affect your ability to file within time. Or you give your lawyer money to file a case and for one reason or the other, he takes ill, that may affect the filing.”
Ezezoobo is a Lagos based lawyer who hails from Afuze-Emai, Owan East Local Government of Edo State. He began his educational career in 1968 at Afuze where he obtained first school leaving certificate and his Secondary certificate in 1973 and his A level in 1975.
He attended University of Ife now Obafemi Awolowo University from 1976 to 1979. He graduated with a second-class upper degree in Law and then went to Law school. He was called to the Bar in 1980. After his youth service in Jos from 1980 to 1981, he picked up a job with the defunct National Provident Fund now Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund.
He obtained the LLM Master degree in Law from the University of Lagos in 1982. He is Notary Public for Nigeria and a member of Chartered Institute of Arbitrators.
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