‘Nigeria’s federal courts should be reserved for constitutional issues’
What kind of judicial reforms would you say have taken place in the last five years? Like many other things in the world today, there are lots of changes and transformations partly because of the speed in technological advancement. It goes together with all sorts of human endeavours, including the economy and politics. So, our relationship as human beings in our daily social, political and economic activities is mostly determined by the community we belong and you cannot divorce from another.
An example is the issue of digitalization or ICT, which is fast-tracking everything and everyone is struggling to catch up with it. Most of our laws and even rules of procedure were put in place when they were not thinking of ICT. More so, the Nigerian judiciary is tailored from the common law system which obviously, is very robust and very detailed in terms of laws and practice, and that is why it is being regarded as being conservative. That conservation has to do with the strictness in the legal system we operate to ensure justice and fair play because what is sacrosanct under the common law legal system is that there shall be substantial justice, equity and good conscience. That is why some people who are not necessarily professionals or very conversant with how the legal systems operate look at it as a conservative profession or a conservative system. But now, there is globalization, which goes hand in hand with ICT. So, you have to look at things very broadly and also adapt to constant changes.
In Nigeria for instance, if you look some five, ten years back, situations are always changing, but for human beings, change is a bit more complex and difficult. While some people who have been in the system either as legal practitioners or as members of the Bench may not necessarily be conversant with ICT, they know the laws and the rules but applying ICT may be a problem. However, the current generation of Nigerians, especially those with international exposure will look at the legal system generally as very slow with a lot of congestions in the dockets of various courts, including the Supreme Court. But this has to do with the transition or trying to conform to the current ways of doing things. Yet, you cannot dispense with the fountain of knowledge of the older people in the profession, both in the bar and the bench. So, we are on transition as a nation and the judiciary cannot be an exception.
Nigeria is grappling with the challenge of infrastructure, including ICT infrastructure. What we have cannot meet the minimum requirement for efficiency and effectiveness. Even the mobile telephone system we are operating in is not very efficient. The tariffs do not commensurate with the services rendered. People are talking about 5G now when we are not sure we even have 2G irrespective of what network providers are saying. So, these are the things. You cannot isolate the judiciary from the challenges and blame it for the slow pace in the delivery of justice. It is two-way traffic and we should not forget that judges were first lawyers. So, it is the same orientation and problem we are facing and the same challenges we have to confront.
So, what do you think is required to have noticeable improvement in Nigerian legal system?
Certainly, what is required is of general nature because you cannot treat this in isolation. But there is a lot of improvement in spite of all these shortcomings, which have to do with the nation and nothing in particular with the judiciary. Before now, apart from isolated cases of the jurisdiction in this country, we were operating the old way of advocacy – oral arguments, oral submissions, and oral addresses. The texts were very long and sometimes, very cumbersome for even lawyers and the judges. But the introduction of the frontloading system, which allows for the filing of submissions and processes ahead of the hearing, has bridged a lot of time.
The major issue confronting the Nigerian legal system is the of behaviour and attitude of legal practitioners – both the bar and the bench. We have to be observant of professional etiquettes and strictly too, and where necessary, as a matter of strictness, reprimand those in the breach. I said this because most times, you find lawyers going to court to file frivolous cases, which ordinarily should not be there. So, this compounds the situation because the rule is that it is the right of every Nigerian to file a matter. It is only when it is heard that the court will decide that it is a frivolous matter. People do most of these things deliberately and at the end of the day, they waste the time of the litigants, that of the court and also waste public resources because these judges and other supporting staff involved in the administration of justice are paid from the public fund. So, at the end of the day, the court discovers that you have filed a frivolous matter, yet, you get away with it without anybody punishing you. This has to be checked and it is the responsibility of the Nigerian Bar Association and the Body of Benchers. They have to take some measures to check the menace.
Beyond issues earlier enumerated, what other challenges would you say require attention?
I do believe that the independence of the judiciary needs to go beyond rhetoric, especially at the state level where they don’t have financial autonomy, which is a big constraint on the exercise of their judicial functions. Apart from financial autonomy, it is also necessary that the judiciary everywhere is adequately funded. This will insulate them a lot from collusion or what may be regarded as compromises as being perceived by the general public. Although there are isolated cases but there are instances you will see glaring cases of compromises. What brings about compromises? Of course, there are bases. Although that cannot be an excuse but there is basis upon which those compromises come up. One of those bases is poor remuneration of judges.
We should not forget that judges are human beings like anyone of us. That they are judges does not mean they cannot enjoy some luxuries. They are entitled to luxuries; they are entitled to the best things of life, quality education for their children as well as medical care for their family members. And they also have to participate in community issues with the attendant pride because the value system in Nigeria like any other African clime is that once you are a judge, you are held in high esteem and this goes with some responsibilities to your community. They have to mingle and socialize even though it is with moderation and not with funfair as politicians do. If they don’t participate in community activities, they would be seen as outcasts. So, all these issues need to be looked into. If you want to have a robust, efficient and upright judiciary, you must pay the prize for that. You must make judges comfortable. Beyond that, in terms of workload, you don’t expect magic from a judge who hears more than 10 matters daily, listens to lawyers make arguments and uses reasoning and judgment to apply the law, review submissions and arrive at a decision, all alone without supporting staff.
In other places, judges have legal assistants who help in research and in assembling documents. There are cases where a judge sits in the court from 9 am to 4 pm. They deserve to eat, rest, attend to their families and have time to pray, yet, we expect them to deliver judgment quickly. Let us assume there is infrastructure and ICT knowledge, still, one person cannot sit down to do all these things on a daily basis. Even if it is a machine, normally there are back-ups because there could be a failure due to wear and tear. So, all those need to be looked into.
Are you, therefore, suggesting the appointment of additional judges? That too is important because, in some Federal High Courts, a judge hears matters in Abuja also has to go to other stations where he has part-time matters to conclude. There are mixtures of even their diaries and it is not just possible for them to cope under this situation. In some states that you have about 4 million people, there may not be more than five judges; yet, you expect accelerated justice delivery forgetting that they listen to all kinds of matters including matrimonial cases. There should be a general overhaul of the system in terms of what each court does.
For instance, I always argue against matrimonial matters going from a magistrate court in a local government through appeal up to the Supreme Court. What is the essence of that? And these are personal contract matters, which have to do with one’s emotions. Most of them are better resolved, not through the legal process but through some alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.
If you have an accomplice in a matrimonial case and you go to court and the matter is resolved either way and you are not satisfied and it goes on appeal, assuming it has to do with the custody of children and the matter continues, it will have social effects on those children. It may affect their education and upbringing. If it is a contract where a party wants a separation, no court can compel otherwise because it is a mutual contract. So, there must be an easy way to resolve such matters. The courts are courts of justice and they look at things from legal angles. There should be some other mechanisms for resolving matrimonial issues to reduce the burden on the courts and save society.
Even land matters, some of them are better resolved at the community level or handled by quasi courts. This will reduce hiccups in the judicial system. But beyond that, judicial staff and those involved in the administration of justice must be taken care of because the judiciary is an important organ of every society.
Without the judiciary and the legal system being effective and efficient, we will end up having a lawless society. All these fights against corruption will not work if the judicial system is inefficient or not well managed. This is not to say that all is well on the part of the judiciary, there can be infractions because they are human. Even those that are brought before the court, they are human beings too; sometimes, it is the attitude that leads them to commit a crime. Even in our scriptures, God said he is merciful and he is a forgiver because he knows that human beings must commit sin, though it is not an excuse to commit a crime.
What is your take on the call for decentralization of courts for greater efficiency and speed?
No matter how you decentralize the courts, the Supreme Court, for instance, is the last bus stop. So, what we have in a complex society is reluctantly an example of America in every state. Despite the fact that America is a cosmopolitan society, every state has its own legal system. They have the courts of their own even up to the Supreme Court, which is quite different from the Supreme Court of America. These courts address daily multifarious issues that affect their individual societies.
People go to the Supreme Court of America basically on constitutional matters. They interpret the constitution of America. So, the kind of federation we have requires that kind of arrangement. We need to restructure the system. If the constitution of Nigeria allows states to legislate on certain things as they deem fit in accordance with their value system, it will help immensely. There is no way you will tell me that what is being obtained in Lagos State will work in Abia or Borno States.
So, if for instance, Lagos State wants to make a law on lottery, it is a highly cosmopolitan society and that will create avenue to generate revenue for them but if the same law is made in a state that is not cosmopolitan, where 90 percent of the residents are natives of the state, it may not yield income. There are things they look at religiously or culturally as taboo and if you come up with a lottery business, people may protest. So, that is why we should have a system whereby states like Lagos have their own courts, have their appeal and supreme courts to govern and administer their state laws, not the federal laws. Let the federal high courts administer federal laws.
The constitution has laws that are exclusive to states and to the local governments. So, states should have courts that are peculiar to their states. There are some minor issues that are peculiar to states. We have to restructure by whatever name we call it, either to reform our legal system or the judiciary so that there are state laws confined and administered within the state. If homicide fetches a life sentence or death by hanging in one state, another state might give it a life sentence. This also determines the rate of crime prevalent in a particular state. Let us reserve the federal courts for constitutional issues so that they can concentrate on their works of interpreting the constitution.
Talking about the judges, do you think that earlier accusation by President Buhari has succeeded in putting them under check? I think that whatever anyone may say depends on the context. Whether you are being accused of not, everybody is guided by his conscience; and if that was his feelings and impression then, his experience or what he thought, it does not translate exactly to what was happening, and if it happened, why did it happen? We are talking about the corruption of people holding public offices in trust; it is the question of code of conduct. The way it is structured, we cannot eat our cake and have it. We have to do all we can to make the system work. If you look at the Code of Conduct Bureau or Tribunal, how many public officers do we have in this country in the three tiers of government are subject to the jurisdiction of CCB? Don’t also forget that we have only one CCT.
Normally, even a counselor is required to declare his assets and bound by the code of conduct as provided by the constitution and the CCB is supposed to verify those declarations and when there is an infraction, that person is supposed to be brought before the CCT. Yet, we have only one CCT in this country and managed by only three persons. We have 774 local governments in the country and each has 10 councilors. If you multiply 774 by 10, you are talking of over 7,000. You have commissioners, permanent secretaries, directors, special assistants and you have only one CCB to cover these verifications. It is not possible.
Still on the judiciary in the last five years, would you say there are no developments?
I cannot say that there is no development. At least, there is an increase in the number of judges in some courts, especially at the federal level.
Secondly, I know as a matter of fact that there are efforts to enhance the services of judicial officers through budgetary provisions and in terms of infrastructure and training. It is not static, there are degrees of improvements but it will take time before some of these things reflect.
In a few years to come, you will see what a digital court will look like. In terms of resources, we in the legal profession, our resources are law reports and other books, a number of publishing companies are trying to have online law reports and they have introduced a number of case management applications for both bar and the bench. So, these will help improve the efficiency and delivery of cases. Also, citizens are becoming aware of their rights and are going to courts instead of self-help. However, we need more development than we had in the last five or seven years.
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