Giving impetus to justice delivery in Lagos
That the legal system in Lagos State is adjudged the best in Nigeria is not accidental, and historically, it is the oldest in the country.Its existence dates back to the period of the cession of Lagos to the British Colonial Government when it was established and known as Colony Province Judiciary. Since then, Lagos judiciary system has been at the forefront, with the highest number of judges, magistrates and it leads in the speedy administration of justice as well as justice delivery.
It has, however, been taking the lead among the 36 states’ legal systems following the reformation agenda that was introduced under the administration of former Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu, which subsequent administrations have built on, including the incumbent, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu and his deputy, Dr. Obafemi Hamzat.
On taking the oath of office in 1999, Tinubu and the incumbent Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, who was then Lagos State Attorney-General and Commissioner of Justice, created a justice policy committee that instituted series of legal reforms, which later transformed the civil courts.
The administration embarked on not only the dismissal of corrupt judges, but he also looked into factors breeding grafts in the state’s justice system and addressed them. The High Court rules were re-written, administrative procedures were computerised, and citizen mediation centres were set up to resolve disputes out of court. The result was a more efficient, accessible and fair civil justice system.
The need was necessitated by the widespread inefficiency and corruption throughout the Nigerian legal system under the military rule. For instance, in 1997, the average duration of commercial cases in Lagos was over four years, and new cases filed in the late 1990s did not stand a reasonable chance of being concluded within a decade. There was little or no chance of getting justice through the courts, especially in Lagos, prior to the civilian rule in 1999.
A survey by legal experts in 2000 indicated that 99 per cent of respondents believed that the Lagos judiciary was corrupt. The situation had become so serious that, in May 2000, there were 40,000 commercial cases pending before the High Court, and there were 10,000 new cases being filed every year, facilitating the need to carry out a radical reform of the sector.
Some of the impacts in the state’s justice system under Tinubu were the reduction in backlog of cases in the High Court, extension of the accessibility of the legal system to the wider population, reduction in the average delays and duration of commercial cases before the civil courts and others.
However, there have been series of build-ups on what Tinubu did to the state’s legal system since the era of successors, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, now Minister for Works and Housing and Akinwunmi Ambode, the incumbent governor is unarguably toeing similar line, which necessitated some legal luminaries to set agenda for the current administration. Some of the value that the various and current administrations have impacted to make the Lagos legal system second to none in Nigeria are promulgation of laws, review of court rules, law reform, improvement in court system, creation of additional judicial divisions, increase and improvements in the system of appointment of judges, judicial assistant and online access and sale of Law of Lagos State, establishment of a DNA forensic centre, Citizens Mediation centres, Domestic and Violence Response Team (DSVRT).
For speedy and efficient administration of justice, the expansion of additional courtrooms, magistracy reform, verbatim court recorders, establishment of mobile courts, fast track, e-filling, guideline for sentencing, bondsmen (professional surety), small scale court and establishment of court of arbitration, among others.Each of the past chief judges in the state had immensely contributed to the growth of the judiciary through various innovations and maintaining ethics of the legal profession.
The immediate past governor successfully sustained the status of pacesetters in the administration of justice and enhanced professionalism among staff of the judiciary. Various innovations range from technologies, review of law and introduction of different ideologies to aid and ease justice delivery.For instance, former Chief Judge, Justice Opeyemi Oke, left remarkable imprints in the state’s justice system.During her tenure between 2015 and 2019, she established a special offences court, introduced mission statement, which was placed on each of the courtrooms across the state and also fought corruption in the system.
She overhauled the Sheriff and Probate departments in the courts. And some of the judicial workers who were found negligent were sacked but were not prosecuted. Justice Oke also established the case Backlog Elimination Programme, among others.To build on Oke’s legacy, the new administration under the current chief judge, Justice Kazeem Alogba, has been urged to look into some of the problems hindering the effective dispensation of justice as well as the need to build more courtrooms and renovate the existing ones, which roofs are falling off.
Pointing out some of the must-do, a legal practitioner, Mr Tunde Kolawole, called for creation of more magisterial districts, saying, there are not enough courts in Lagos. “There is therefore the need to create more customary, magisterial districts as well as High Court Divisions. A situation in which people in Lekki and Ajah travel all the way to Epe and people in Ikotun come to Ogba to access the justice system is not good enough,” he said.
He also called for the expansion of the jurisdictions of the customary and magistrate courts to accommodate more cases, stressing that “justice is about service delivery, which have serious consequences on the economy, peace and wellbeing of all Nigerians. It does not appear to me that we who ply our trade in that sector have woken up to that realisation.”
The legal practitioner further observed that the new High Court Civil Procedure Rules 2019 is a setback for access to justice, saying, “the rule is forcing or compelling citizens to first engage in mediation; conciliation and arbitration, before coming to court. Citizens should be allowed to make their own decisions without being compelled. The new rule is also making access to justice very expensive in terms of the prohibitive costs it imposes for late filing of processes. What the rule is unwittingly encouraging is self-help.
“The rule is also imposing very heavy burdens on lawyers while there are no sanctions for indolent judges. This could not be right. Different factors contribute to lawyers filing processes out of time.“One of this is poverty on the part of litigants. The lawyer is ready to file and go to court but the litigant, most times, does not have the means to move his lawyer. Why would the rules now begin to punish indigent litigants and innocent lawyers?”
He flayed the state’s computerisation of projects, saying, it was not heading in the right direction. “In fact, it appears to be a sham. They have been on this for so long, I think from Justice Ilori’s time, and it’s not improving the system because the approach does not appear to be right,” he lamented.
“Opinions of stakeholders,” he added, “could enrich and improve the entire process for the benefit of all.”Another expert in justice administration, Mr. Oluwole Kehinde, said there should be synergy between the courts and lawyers. In the face of serious transportation challenges in Lagos State and across the country, he suggested that “there should be scheduled time for cases, so lawyers and litigants do not just go sit down in courts from 9a.m. until when God knows before their cases are heard. In this regard, it is also suggested court sitting should commence at 10 a.m.”
Kehinde also emphasised the need for proper communication between the Bar and the Bench, such that lawyers and judges know well ahead anytime courts would not sit, saying, “This will reduce the incidents and lessen the burden of avoidable cases of courts not sitting after judges, counsel, and litigants are already set for proceedings.”
For Mr. Yemi Omodele, Lagos State Judiciary has a lot to do in terms of quick dispensation of justice, be it civil, criminal and or quasi-criminal cases.
According to him, the period of filing suit and generation of permanent suit number should be addressed. “Suits filed, though urgent, are not given permanent suit number on time. Epe, Badagry and Ikorodu divisions of the court do face serious challenges as to the issuance of permanent suit numbers. The workers need to be motivated and encouraged morally and financially by the government to get effective/excellent performance.
“Lawyers in the private practice be considered for elevation to the bench. Avoidable holidays and programmes that will warrant courts not sitting should be jettisoned,” he said.S.M.A Olatunuji said filing is registration of new cases while assignment is apportioning those new cases to various courts on time.
A senior lawyer, Mr. Johnson Esezoobo, decried the high cost of litigation. He said: “Let’s give thanks to God for life; to witness another legal year in Lagos State. I consider it spectacular because it has come with a new Chief Judge who went in there from the Bar as against the ministry of justice. Naturally, we should expect a better understanding than as old.
“However, the new rules of court introduced in January 2019 do not impress me as giving hope of any improvement. In Nigeria, we practice for bread and butter rather than for improvement of the system to create an enabling environment for creation of public wealth. Legal practice takes after judgments rather than justice. And the rules are made along that line without regard to the basis of living together.
“One major problem of our time is getting lawyers to practice as solicitors and advocates.“If we practice properly as such, congestion in the courts will reduce. But under the current situation, people go to court just for the sake of it. They have turned the court away from its utilitarian value to serve other purposes. And lawyers are now taking up new roles, some of which are criminal in nature. Using court to prosecute such roles is against the rules of professional conduct,” he said.
Esezoobo maintained that new rules of court have been turned out in torrents without any improvement on the society. Beneath the rules, he said, is the drive to raise revenue for the state. His words: “The service provided by the court is social service. Charging commercial rates for a social service is a contradiction. But what is more astonishing is the collection of penalty for late filing of processes. I want to restate it here for the umpteenth time that this is fraudulent.
“Yet another objection to the new rules is the issue of award of punitive costs. That trend is against our system, which is predicated on living together in harmony under God. On the common principle that you cannot go to court and return to be friends, I think the new CJ, like the court of appeal should look into the matter with a view to reviewing the rules.”
Esezoobo added that the administration of criminal Justice should be critically examined. According to him, we violate the constitutional provision that enjoins ‘hearing within a reasonable time’. “Let me also repeat here, save the high court’s where evidence is taken, there is no reason why a matter should stay on the cause list at the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court longer than two to three years.”
“The current approach which does not address the issue of the solicitor’s aspect of legal practice will not help us. About 70 per cent of the cases in our courts have no business being in court. Because the system has not been properly managed, you see lawyers filing processes just to satisfy the client who wants the process engaged for no reasonable cause other than to oppress the other party. And you hear the judge or judges, even at the court of appeal saying, ‘The man says he is no more interested, he is withdrawing…’ If court is taken as a serious business, such should not. It is such frivolity that ought to be discouraged by punitive cost.
“Finally, at our age/level, as lawyers and judges, we should be more concerned about the legacy to leave behind for coming generations than the private we acquire from this level of practice and judicial process that generations before us bequeathed,” he counseled. Mr. Evans Ufeli called on the judiciary to take a drastic step on judgment enforcement, saying, “In this new legal year, judiciary must do something drastic as regards judgment enforcement, especially as it relates to the security agencies in Nigeria.
“There must be a system that will ensure judgment enforcement is seamless such that banks which come to court to lie that judgment debtors have no account with them can be duly and truly punished for such misconduct. It is the law that a judgment debtor must reap the fruits of his judgment. Therefore, every institution connected there to ensuring that judgment enforcement go according to the law must therefore collaborate with one another to see this happen henceforth,” Ufeli said.
He added that, the Tenancy Laws of Lagos State needs to be reviewed, saying, “Most tenants who are in arrears of rent are evicted and most of the times the courts make an order mandating these outgoing tenants to pay the said arrears of rent. They move out from these premises to other undisclosed addresses without paying the arrears of rent and they get away with it, violating court orders while we watch the landlords in alter distress. He stated that the law must be rejigged such that the court can impel outgoing tenants to disclose their new addresses to the court and a verification is done by the court so that the claimant can get the Sherriff of the court to go after the defendants to enforce the judgment on the arrears of rent which the defendants often get away with.
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