‘Nigerian judges work less than four months a year’
When all the days they go on holiday and vacation are computed, judges in Nigerian courts work just about 104 days in a year, The Guardian can reveal.
Out of 365 days in a year, judges do not sit during weekends -104 days; public holidays -10 days; annual court vacation- 60 days; Christmas vacation-14 days; Easter vacation -14 days; conference week- seven days as well as Fridays, which are usually reserved for judgments, amounting to 52 days.
When the figures are summed up, they add up to 261 days, implying therefore that judges sit only for 104 days, when 261 days are deducted from the 365 days in a year.
Besides, in an election year and during staggered elections, high court judges who are members of election petition tribunals, are away for 180 days, amounting to six months.
Cases in the courts manned by such judges are adjourned sine die as judges are said to be away on national assignments.
Similarly, appellate courts concentrate attention on appeals arising from election petitions.
Former president of the West African Bar Association, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN) said the yearly vacation by courts was designed by the British colonial regime to allow judges travel to the UK for summer holidays.
“But at that time, judges were working on Saturdays and the country did not observe many holidays. The judiciary ought to indigenise the administration of justice in the country by jettisoning the colonial legacy. Judges should go on leave for a month in a year which should be structured in a way that our courts do not collapse during their vacation he stated” Falana said.
According to him, facilities for effective performance by judges are not available. His words: “Judges still write longhand while court rooms are not adequate or conducive to work. Some lack ventilation and others are so dark that judges cannot sit if there is no light.
In many states, the courts have no funds to buy generators and diesel. When there is no light the courts are so hot that the judges and lawyers are allowed to remove their wigs and gowns.
“As there are no libraries, judges have to take photocopies of reported cases from lawyers. The Executive arm of government has refused to comply with the provisions of the Constitution which has guaranteed financial autonomy for the judiciary.
Since the Nigerian Bar Association has failed woefully to ensure that the two judgments of court on financial autonomy for the judiciary are complied with by the executive, the judiciary staff union has been left to fight for autonomy for Nigerian judges.
“The judiciary should take advantage of the ongoing Constitution review to ensure that all judges retire at 70 years, while interlocutory appeals are abolished. Election petition tribunals should be constituted by retired judges so that the proceedings of courts are not disrupted by the avalanche of election petitions. After all, most arbitral tribunals are constituted by retired judges,” he advised.
For the director, Access to Justice (A2J),Mr. Joseph Otteh, the length of judges’ vacation raises concern.
“We can acknowledge at the outset, that the line between official working hours and personal rest time among judges is a blurred one, and this is so even during yearly vacations. We also concede that the conditions under which some judges function, at work or home are daunting and can be quite stressful.
“However, in the face of widespread delays in the delivery of justice, and the frustrations caused to court users, as well as the negative case clearance rates found in the courts, the length of vacation time is unsustainable and can be a significant contributory factor in the congestion we see in court dockets,” he said, adding that there is a legitimate and reasonable public interest claim for judges to stay longer on their beats and do more to reduce case delays.
He said: “One way to look at this is to ask: If a patient with long term medical care needs is told that his treatment will have to be suspended for about three or four months in a year, because his physician is on vacation, will that make sense to the patient? I believe it will not.
“Cumulatively, the duration of judges vacation in Nigeria is among the lengthiest in the world. Just recently for example, the Indian High Court of Gujarat announced judicial vacations in 2016 for a period of less than one month, from Monday, the 9th of May, to Sunday, the 5th of June 2016, and Indian High Courts enjoy a cumulative vacation period of between one and half months and two and a half months. In Israel, district court judges enjoy a six week vacation while in Netherlands, it is four weeks.
“With the caseload in our courts, it is hard to justify the amount of time judges spend on vacation in Nigeria, even if we admit the difficult conditions under which they do their important work,” Otteh declared.
In his own view, Lagos lawyer, Mr. Tony Odiadi said the cost of judges going on vacation does not outweigh the benefits. He said: “When a system is not in operation, there is usually a cost, but when matched against the tradition and values of the system, the said cost is dispensed with. There is also a Parliamentary tradition of vacation as well as the Executive/ President vacation periods. With that in mind, the whole exercise amounts to an essential practice within the various arms of government.”
Odiadi pointed out that urgent matters affecting rights, responsibilities, freedom and violations are usually attended to by a vacation judge who sits to treat all such urgencies.
“Anti-corruption war of the current administration cannot be compromised or lost because the court is keeping to its age old tradition of vacation,” he stated.
Similarly, former chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Lagos branch, Mr. Alex Mouka believes that the long vacation is justifiable when the pressure under which judges and lawyers (especially litigation lawyers) work are considered.
He said: “Busy practitioners work under intense pressure nine months of the year – arguing cases back to back and travelling to courts in different cities. The long vacation is the only time such practitioners and judges can rest and recharge.”
Mouka said cases do not really suffer during the vacation.
His words: “First of all, probably as a result of universal awareness of the vacation or because it is summer holidays and most litigants are also on holiday, there is a reduction in the number of matters that come to court around this period.
“In any event, while the courts are on vacation, there is always provision for vacation judges, who will sit in rotation and handle urgent matters and cases coming up during the vacation. Thus, cases do not suffer.
“Finally, it must be pointed out that the Magistrate Court, where a lot of matters (both Civil and Criminal) are disposed off does not go on vacation (although some Magistrates would arrange to take their annual leave about this time) and is in fact open throughout the year dispensing justice.”
On his part, Dr. Kayode Ajulo believes that court’s long vacation is part and parcel of the legal year, in our jurisdiction as well as in other common law jurisdictions. He said that it is codified in the legal calendar during which period, most of judges are on vacation and do not regularly sit to take up cases.
He noted that the vacation helps judges rejuvenate themselves. “It very well give their sagging spirits a boost. It is also to some, a time to thoroughly embark on legal research of the cases before them, holding conferences, etc. It is a tradition of the bench that has come to stay,” he stated, adding that it is technically incorrect to posit that the cost implication of court’s long vacation amounts to 261 days in a year.
“The vacation is justiciable, considering the number of criminal cases and commercial disputes.
What should be reviewed and increased is the number of the judges in Nigeria,” he suggested.