Ajulo: Additional justices will ensure quick dispensation of justice
Abuja-based lawyer and former National Secretary of Labour Party, Dr. Kayode Ajulo, told BRIDGET CHIEDU ONOCHIE in this interview that there is nothing constitutionally wrong with the existing number of Supreme Court justices, even though he equally called for an increase as a way of restoring confidence in the judicial system.
There have been called to increase the number of Supreme Court justices. Are such calls misplaced?
I don’t think that increasing the number of justices is the issue. We should understand that the Supreme Court is a creation of the law, not an ordinary law, but the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and one of the constitutionally recreated bodies in this country. So, its operations must be in line with the law that created it. If you look at Section 232 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), as well as the Supreme Court Act of 2004, Section 3, Sub-Section 1, it says that the number of justices of the Supreme Court shall not exceed 21. That means that they should not be more than 21. It also means that 21 should be looked at as the maximum. Today, they are not up to 21, but they are 13. Yet, I don’t think that there is any problem with that number by virtue of the law that created it, except for one or two issues, which I may point out, hence I don’t see any course for alarm in the sense that the Supreme Court is carrying out its constitutional functions as ascribed by the Constitution, and the Supreme Court Act.
Clearly, Supreme Court justices exceed quorum because they sit in fives and in sevens as clearly stated by law. As it is today, I believe that in spite of retirement and other issues, they still have 13 and I also want to believe that they always exceed that quorum, and so can dispense justice.
If you check Section 32 and Section 2 of the Supreme Court Additional Jurisdiction Act, you will see where they are supposed to sit five, and where they are supposed to sit seven, such as constitutional matters. Now, if they are 13 today, it is alright since they still meet the quorum. Where I have issues is that there are three courtrooms in the Supreme Court. The way it is structured entails that the court can sit simultaneously in three courts and this is for quick dispensation of justice. If it comes to quick dispensation of justice, or where we have a backlog of cases, that is where we can say that there is a need for that maximum number of 21. That 21 divided into three places gives you seven. This means that at all times and purposes, the three Supreme Courts ought to be sitting simultaneously.
I must confess that most lawyers pray that their cases be heard on time. However, even at that 21, you can imagine three Supreme Courts or 21 people taking care of all the appeals from the entire 36 states of the federation. How will this be possible? Just imagine the number of cases at the Supreme Court. Even with a maximum of 21, some of us believe that the Constitution needs to be amended. I want to see a situation where the number of Supreme Court justices should be 100, and I also look forward to where we would have more courtrooms. I don’t see any reason why we should not have more than 10 courtrooms for justices to sit so that we can dispense justice.
I remember a particular case that we dispensed. I was not born when the case was instituted, yet I grew up to become a senior lawyer and still met the case. There are many cases like that. So, many believe that the 21 justices in the constitution should increase to at least, a minimum of 100. If we must keep this Supreme Court, let us have nothing less than 10 courts so that we can dispense justice quickly.
To some of us, apart from political cases that are heard expeditiously, it is like going to heaven to appear in Supreme Court because the date you get takes so long a time. Apart from political cases, you should count yourself lucky to appear at the Supreme Court two or three times a year. For one to appear at the Supreme Court four, five times a year in different matters would be like a dream come true.
I think that is the reason we need additional justices at the Supreme Court. Beyond quick dispensation of justice, there is no cause for alarm because even at the pace it is going, justice is still being dispensed. The only thing that people are agitating for is the quick dispensation of justice. So, we need not just 21 justices, but more than that. As God would have it, there is an ongoing constitutional amendment. So, we look forward to seeing the Senator Ovie Omo-Agege Constitution Amendment Committee recommending a minimum of 100 justices of the Supreme Court. I look forward to seeing that section of the Constitution that says “not exceed 21” changed to “not exceed 100.” With that, justice would be dispensed on time, and many more people would have confidence in our justice system.
Beyond increasing the number of Supreme Court justices, what other judicial reforms do you expect to see in the amended constitution at the end of the day?
I have raised many issues concerning the constitution amendment, especially the issue of federalism. When you check cases of agitations in this country, one of the issues that have always been on the front burner since the advent of democracy has been restructuring, and we really need to restructure. If we believe in federalism, we must practice it both in letter and in spirit, and not what we have now. Whether we like it or not, we are practicing a unitary system of government, where everybody still runs to Abuja to collect money from the Federal Government. We should have true federalism.
What impact do you think that the restructuring will have on the nation’s justice system?
Let us be sincere. If we should have full restructuring, I believe every state should have its own Court of Appeal and its Supreme Court. That is how it is done in other places, including America that we so much believe in its democracy, and are always copying from. If you go to various American states, you will see their appeal courts and the Supreme Courts. So, if we must practice federalism, we should also understand that it starts with the government, which is made up of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Today, we have the executive fully in place; we have the legislature fully in place; in the same way, we should also have the judiciary fully in place so that any case from the state such as murder be heard at the state level. After the high court, the state ought to have their Court of Appeal that would take the issue of murder, then, the Supreme Court. But today, even though murder is a state case, you would find out immediately after the high court, the next thing is to go to any Court of Appeal Division and then, Abuja, whereas the incident happened in the state. I pray that one day our government will have the courage to address this issue.
When you consider the volume of cases, particularly election matters, which the Supreme Court hears and determines within a stipulated period of time, don’t you think the quality of judgment is compromised?
I must confess that until today, it still baffles me how the Supreme Court has been able to dispense justice, particularly some of the political cases brought before them. I said this because I happen to have handled some of the cases and I know the level of resources and the industry put at play. I am not talking about justice that will read all these cases. How they have been able to read all the briefs remains a mystery. I think that the Nigerian judiciary needs to be commended, particularly those of the Supreme Court for the way that they have ensured quick dispensation of political matters. However, the truth of the matter is that some other cases suffer. Throughout last year, most of our cases at the Court of Appeal were adjourned until this year because of political matters. That is why you see some of us lawyers clamouring for the appointment of additional judges and justices because we are the ones suffering. That is also one of the reasons we have jungle justice because some Nigerians will tell you that once you take the offender to the police and before they go from high court to the appeal court, the matter would have been forgotten. The snail movement of cases from one court to the other makes some people believe that there is no justice in the country.
When people complain about errors in judgment, should such miscarriage of justice be blamed on the fact that justices don’t have enough time and personnel to read cases brought before them?
I don’t want to believe that. One of the things you can say about Nigerian judges is that they read everything. Some judges even read beyond what both parties present. I know of a judge at the Industrial Court, which is always a delight to be before him. Irrespective of what you file, he will go-ahead to do detailed research. When it comes to industry, give it to Nigerian judges.
What about the idea of appointing private lawyers directly to the Supreme Court bench, which some persons have suggested with a view to reducing workload. Do you buy such an idea?
I subscribe to it because before you attain the rank of a senior lawyer, you would have acquired in-depth knowledge, but not all senior lawyers anyway. We are talking about senior lawyers that have attained enviable positions in the bar, and not just counting years in the bar; lawyers that have distinguished themselves. Of course, we know them, and the judicial system knows them too. It is expected of them to be appointed to the Supreme Court bench and we pray it should come to pass. We were happy when we heard that, it is unfortunate that up till now, nothing has been done about it. But we need them.