Sunday, 3rd December 2023

Concerns as Supreme Court Justices reduce to 11

By Rotimi Agboluaje, Ibadan
26 September 2023   |   2:11 am
By virtue of section 230 of the 1999 Constitution, the Supreme Court of Nigeria ought to comprise the Chief Justice of Nigeria and such other justices not exceeding 21 as may be proscribed by the Act of the National Assembly.

SANs, don, lawyers proffer solution

By virtue of section 230 of the 1999 Constitution, the Supreme Court of Nigeria ought to comprise the Chief Justice of Nigeria and such other justices not exceeding 21 as may be proscribed by the Act of the National Assembly.

However, as it stands, there are 11 justices at the apex court. More worrisome is the fact that out of the 11 justices, seven of them would be presiding over the case of the presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar and that of the Labour Party (LP), Mr. Peter Obi, who are challenging the verdict of the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal (PEPT), which awarded victory to President Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC).

The implication is that only four justices of the court would be left to attend to the rest of the matters pending before it. Realising the impacts of this development on the quick dispensation of justice, legal scholars, Senior Advocates of Nigeria and prominent lawyers have expressed concerns over the development.

The concerned legal luminaries are Chief Yomi Alliyu; Prof. Adeniyi Olatunbosun; Mr. Dipo Olasope and Mr. Abayomi Adekanmi. Prof Olatunbosun, said Section 230 of the 1999 Constitution provides that there shall be a Supreme Court of not more than 21.

“Presently, we have 11 Justices of the Supreme Court. There are enormous cases at the Supreme Court. The volumes of cases that are pending are over 6,000. It is very laborious, because they use their hands to write most of the matters at the Supreme Court. It is very cumbersome,” he said.

On his part, Alliyu said even with full complement of Supreme Court Justices, appeals, except political ones, would take nothing less than five years to be concluded. He said one need not use AI to know what happens when the workforce is reduced to half whilst the work continues to increase daily geometrically.

“With Divisions of the Court of Appeal in almost all the States of the Federation and their decisions going to the apex Court, 21 justices of the Supreme Court can never be enough to decide those cases.

“There must be at least seven panels sitting daily to make the Supreme Court effective and functional. At five justices per panel, the Supreme Court should have 35 other justices apart from the Chief Justice of Nigeria,” he suggested.

For Olasope, the shortage of justices in the Supreme Court has far reaching negative effects on administration of justice. He said: “It has and will continue to negate the rule of law. A situation where a case takes too long in court will lead the litigants resorting to self-help. The economy will also suffer and continue to suffer in such circumstances. The unnecessary workload on the remaining justices is also not good at all. Their productivity will definitely diminish.”

Suggesting ways out of the quagmire, an eminent lawyer, Mr. Adekanmi, said the solution is to employ more hands by elevating some justices of the court of appeal to the Supreme Court.

“The justices too are not superhuman. The workload will have adverse effects on their health,” he argued. Suggesting solutions, Prof Olatunbosun said the government should create an enabling environment for the justices to perform their duties.

The government, he explained, needs to come to their assistance by providing gadgets so that proceedings can be recorded and listened to afterwards, to make it less cumbersome for them.

“It is important for the government to ensure there is a full composition so that other cases will not suffer, especially during these election matters.

‘’It must also recognise the federal character principle to ensure that all regions of the country are taken care of for equity and fairness,” he advised.

On the appointment of senior lawyers into the Supreme Court as mooted by some intellectuals, he said it is a welcome development, pointing out that it had happened before when Dr. Teslim Elias was appointed from the University of Lagos to the apex court.

“It is not new. We have had it in the past. Justice Elias was appointed from the University of Lagos. It was the same thing with Justice Adolphus Karibi-Whyte.

“If our priority is to get the best for the judiciary, we should consider that as a complement to the judicial career officers.

“It will strengthen our judiciary and to meet the needs of the 21st century. All avenues of strengthening our judiciary for the people to have confidence in the system must be explored,” he declared.

Alliyu suggested that the Constitution should be amended to limit some appeals to the Court of Appeal or in the alternative let every State have its own Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, such that only federal and constitutional matters will go to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

“The Supreme Court will be shielded from land, matrimonial causes and chieftaincy matters, which today constitute over 49 per cent of appeals before it.

“Secondly, the requirement of having as many as five Supreme Court cases before one could become a SAN should be abrogated. Advocacy, strictly speaking, is at the courts of first instance,” he stressed.

To come out of the conundrum, Olasope said the president needs to be pressured to approve the appointments of justices to the Supreme Court and agreed that some matters should end at the court of appeal.