How to tackle wobbling justice administration system in Nigeria
The Nigerian justice sector is faced with myriads of problems, ranging from poor infrastructure to crowded dockets and many more. Notwithstanding these challenges, the judiciary is over-burdened during election seasons owing to petitions arising from the conduct of elections, which must be determined before every other matter. YETUNDE AYOBAMI OJO reports that such challenges can be successfully mitigated.
Hobbled by crowded court dockets all year round, the Nigerian judiciary gets more burdened during and after election circles, when the judges are substantially preoccupied with determining election petition matters.
The length of litigation time and undue delays are disincentives to people who are considering filing matters in court, as well as investors interested in contributing to the development of the country.
For instance, as gleaned from the Technical Report on the Nigerian Court Procedures Project 2001, land matters topped the list of cases with the longest average period of seven to eight years of disposal from filing to judgment.
Personal injuries or tort cases take three years minimum. Commercial cases are three years, while family disputes and divorce cases have the least average of two to five years.
For example, it took seven years to dispose of a case of wrongful termination of employment in the case of Eperokun v. University of Lagos.
In most cases, by the time a matter is concluded, the litigants may have either completely lost interest, suffer irrecoverable loss and/or may no more benefit from resorting to the courts.
These problems continue to make the search for justice sometimes a mirage and there is an imminent need to foster an effective and efficient justice delivery system.
In recent years, the surge in the number of filed cases is alarming, as judicial officers are inundated with countless cases, just as recent innovations, such as case management and front-loading of processes, have not significantly impacted the accomplishment of an effective and timely dispensation of justice.
The introduction of the Administration of Criminal Justice Law (ACJL) 2007 in Lagos State became a template for the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015 at the federal level and in some of the states of the federation. The law introduced case management conferences to give greater control to judges and many others.
Despite all these innovations, the nation’s judicial system is still over-burdened and judges are overwhelmed with backlog of cases.
Lagos State judiciary alone handles an average of 11,000 cases every year.
Interestingly, Lagos ranks third, next to Port Harcourt, Rivers State, and Anambra State, in the hierarchy of state judiciaries with huge dockets.
The workload ratio of an average judge in Lagos State is about 358 cases, thereby reducing every judge to a workaholic to meet up the demand of the office.
However, Lagos with 65 judges, 146 magistrates and numerous presidents of customary courts, set the pace in Nigeria in the area of judicial sector reform, which is in tandem with its status as the seventh African biggest economy and foremost commercial hub in Nigeria.
At the last count, 78 judges are sitting over Federal High Courts across the country, while 31 judges oversee affairs at the National Industrial Courts (NIC).
Notwithstanding these challenges, the political class succeeded in ensuring that the laws are amended to put a timeframe to conclusively resolve election dispute cases.
On the contrary, there is no timeframe for criminal and civil matters, which are allowed to linger for years, while election disputes must be resolved within 180 days from the time it was filed.
Ironically, the same over-burdened judges, who are struggling to clear their crowded dockets, are the ones that are drafted to serve at various election petition tribunals.
The implication is that every case they were handling must be in abeyance, including cases bothering on civil rights and liberties, until they conclude their assignments at the tribunals and return to their courts.
Consequently, some stakeholders are of the view that concerted efforts should be made to minimise the time within which to determine criminal and civil cases and rekindle confidence in the system, even if it has to be by increasing the number of judges and automating adjudication processes.
Lamenting the huge sacrifices judges make daily, the administrative judge of Lagos State, Justice Olutoyin Atinuke Ipaye said with an average of 11,000 cases filed every year, there is no way judges could cope, adding that though rules are constantly reviewed to improve the situation, it is regrettable that not much has changed.
She wondered why India’s model of the dispensation of justice was not introduced in Nigeria to ease the burden of administration of justice and justice delivery.
She equally wondered why senior lawyers do not make use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) as a means of resolving conflicts.
“All judges of superior courts will send in what we call performance evaluation forms quarterly. And we send it to the National Judicial Council. We send it to the body called the Committee of Performance Evaluation.
“Committee of Performance Evaluation is one of the standing committees of the National Judicial Council. So, they have a strong research section at the National Judicial Council. They are able to collate all the data. Over time, they have been collating data. What that data showed us, at least for Lagos State, is that they have a case disposition rate of 13 per cent.
“Then we have a workload of a ratio of 340 cases. What that means is that each judge has an average of 340 cases in their courts. Some have a bit more and some have a little bit less. You know it has a range. This figure puts us as the third judiciary with the heaviest workload ratio.
“Anambra State is ahead of us and then Rivers State. So, if we are ranking it, we are the 3rd congested court. Because having 340 cases on your list is too much, and even if we sit 24/7 and work 18 hours a day, it will not be possible to round off all these cases in a good time.
“The result is that we now have an increasing backlog. You know that in most cases you don’t finish a case in a year, meanwhile, the following year; another set of fresh cases is added. At our registry, we monitor things. Lagos is getting between 11,000 to 12,000 cases filed every year. We have 60 judges, which is less than 100 judges,” she revealed.
Continuing, she said: “Assuming we are up to 100, some of us are also retiring soon. When we are even in our largest state, we have about 70 judges to deal with 11,000 cases. That already tells you that the figure is high and then every year, it will be adding more and you have not finished dealing with it. By next year, others will be added. So, most of the cases that we should finish very fast, we are now having like four to five years to finish them.”
She, therefore, suggested the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) in settling conflicts to decongest judges’ dockets.
“ADR mechanisms are designed to relieve the courts of their ever-increasing workload, decongest the court dockets and prevent undue cost and delay, facilitate access to justice, and provide more effective dispute resolution methods that can be adopted to reach an expeditious settlement.
“It is expedient for parties to explore alternative dispute resolution mechanisms that are simple and rapid,” she said.
For Dr. Yemi Omodele, federal and state governments should appoint more judges as a way out of the conundrum.
His words: “Sincerely speaking, the workload of the judges in Nigeria is much. The administrative work and the open court work increase every day. This development calls for urgent attention from the new administrations at the federal and state levels.
“There is a need to increase the number of judges at the federal, state High Courts and the appellate courts. There should be at least a division of the Court of Appeal in each state of the federation. Highly populated states such as Lagos, Rivers, Kaduna, Kano and even Abuja should have more divisions of the Court of Appeal. A system can be adopted that not all appeals will get to the Supreme Court. Lagos State should have at least three divisions of the Court of Appeal.
“The volume of cases in Lagos State is more than all the cases in the other 35 states of the federation including FCT. The number of judges in Lagos State High Court should not be less than 200, while magistrates should be up to 1,000.
“The Federal High Court in Lagos should have up to 100 judges. The working conditions of the judges should be improved in terms of power supply, remunerations, supporting staffers, security, accommodation, and a host of others. The National Judicial Council should properly activate the supervisory and disciplinary roles against judicial workers who act contrary to their oath of office.”
On his part, Mr. Oluwole Kehinde is of the view that there should be a change of attitude to litigation.
He noted that lawyers must be honest in their dealings with fellow citizens in all transactions to avoid resorting to litigation.
According to him, litigation is rare in Japan because the citizens hardly have a reason to go to court.
Kehinde further suggested that “we must truly invest in infrastructure for the judiciary as most courts don’t have the necessary infrastructure to function optimally.”
Such infrastructure, he pointed out, includes electricity, furniture and fittings, electronic devices, computer accessories, etc.
“Courts and lawyers must work together to harmoniously settle grounds for seeking adjournment or mandating adjournment of cases. Sometimes, the fault comes from lawyers, while sometimes it comes from litigants.
“Case management is still not effective and efficient. Road traffic sometimes causes delays, thereby making judges and registrars sit late, or counsel absent, and we need to change the court sitting time from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Road traffic was good when the colonial masters fixed it at 9 a.m.,” he explained.
Kehinde, the editor of the Nigerian Weekly Law Report (NWLR), further suggested that there should be proper communication of judicial diaries to lawyers and litigants. Things like seminars and conferences, he said, should be clearly marked closed for purposes of adjournment of cases.
He said: “There should be compulsory scheduling of cases by judges. A lawyer or client should not just be sitting in court all day before knowing the time the case will be called. There should be no rushing to court at 9 a.m. for a case that will not come up for hearing by noon.
Then we have a workload of a ratio of 340 cases. What that means is that each judge has an average of 340 cases in their courts. Some have a bit more and some have a little bit less. You know it has a range. This figure puts us as the third judiciary with the heaviest workload ratio. Anambra State is ahead of us and then Rivers State. So, if we are ranking it, we are the 3rd congested court. Because having 340 cases on your list is too much, and even if we sit 24/7 and work 18 hours a day, it will not be possible to round off all these cases in a good time.
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