Being a speech delivered by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, at the special session of the Supreme Court of Nigeria to mark the commencement of the 2018/2019 legal year and swearing in of newly conferred Senior Advocates of Nigeria, held at the Supreme Court complex, on 24th September, 2018.
It is a great privilege and opportunity to mark the commencement of the 2018/2019 Legal Year. Therefore, on behalf of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, I extend a warm welcome to everyone present at this auspicious occasion. As we all know, this unique occasion is celebrated alongside the swearing-in of deserving members of the Nigerian Bar conferred with the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN).
Certainly, the 2017/2018 Legal Year had been an eventful one. An occasion like this gives us the opportunity to reflect and examine the activities of the last one year with the aim of paving the way for a robust legal year by building on the previous landmark achievements and avoiding a repetition of past mistakes. The Judiciary to a large extent was successful in effectively responding to the challenges it faced towards maintaining its independence and protecting its impartiality.
May I therefore use this medium to commend my learned brother Justices for their courage, resilience and expertise in the handling of cases. We have worked together as a team to pilot the affairs of the apex Court of the land. I am optimistic that we shall demonstrate more commitment and hard work in the course of this New Legal Year.
I wish to also recognize the efforts of all those, both within and outside the judiciary, who have been very instrumental in rebuilding the judiciary. Indeed their unwavering support and partnership have given birth to an improved justice delivery system.
APPOINTMENTS, RETIREMENTS AND PASSAGES 2017/2018
On 27th February 2018 Hon. Justice Clara Bata Ogunbiyi’s sterling career as a judicial officer came to a fitting end as she gracefully retired into a well deserved era of rest and private life. We wish her good health and God’s blessing in her retirement. Also of note is the appointment of Mr. Bassey E. Bassey, a Chartered Accountant as the Secretary of the Federal Judicial Service Commission. Mr. Bassey, replaces Mrs. Bilikisu A. Bashir, OON who retired last year.
Sadly however, we recall the passing of two seasoned Jurists, both former Chief Justices of Nigeria. I refer to the Honourable Mr. Justice Dahiru Musdapher, GCON, who died on January 22, 2018 at the age of 75 years and the Honourable Mr.Justice Katsina-Alu who died on18th July, 2018 at the age of 76years. The leadership that both Jurists provided to the Nigerian judiciary and the Supreme Court in particular during their stewardship as Chief Justice of Nigeria was impactful and profound. Their judicial pronouncements have remained and will continue to be invaluable references both in advocacy and the practice of law in this Country. We also lost four of our brothers and retired Justices of the Supreme court namely; Hon. Mr. Justice Saifullahi Muntanka Coommassie, who departed on Friday, October 13, 2017 at the age of 71 years; Hon. Mr Justice Pius Olayiwola Aderemi who passed away on Monday, June 18, at the age of 79 years; recently, Hon. Mr. Justice Dennis O. Edozie answered the call on 18th August, 2018 at the age of 82 years, and just last week, my ‘Senior Brother’, Hon. Mr. Justice Ikechi Francis Ogbuagu, CON, passed away at the age of 78 years.
We thank God for their worthy and noble lives and the privilege of having them in our midst. We pray for the peaceful repose of their gentle souls and comfort for their families.
On a personal level, I lost a mentor, Hon. Mr. Justice Mohammed Mustapha Akanbi CFR, former President of the Court of Appeal, and former Chairman, Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, (ICPC), who died on 3rd June, 2018, aged 86 years. You will all agree with me, we lost one of the finest Jurists of our time whose enduring legacies we will cherish for a long time. May God grant his noble soul the rest he so deserved.
REVIEW OF THE 2017/2018 LEGAL YEAR
In the course of the 2017/2018 legal year, the Supreme Court considered a total number of 1,540 matters comprising motions, appeals and judgments. Under motions, we heard 824 civil and 273 criminal motions, totaling 1097. The Court also considered a total number of 438 appeals comprising 246 Civil, and 192 Criminal. A total of 297 Judgments were delivered by the close of the 2017/2018 legal year. This is by all means an impressive report considering the persistent and increasing volume of cases that continue to come before this Court. I attribute this impressive performance to the hard work of judicial officers, support staff and the reforms we are implementing to improve justice delivery. As we sit daily and sometimes conduct special sittings to clear back log of cases, we remain committed to expeditious dispensation of justice. I would like therefore, to once again salute and thank my learned brother Justices for their continued commitment and hard work.
As we acknowledge noticeable improvement in the disposition of cases, we are not resting on our laurels. This court will therefore continue to strive for speedy disposal of cases that come before it.
On the international scene, our reform efforts are recognized and rewarded. I was recently conferred with the Michael Hill Prize by the International Society for the Reform of Criminal Law in Montreal, Canada. I was also in Vienna, Austria at the launch of the Global Judicial Integrity Network by the United Nations Office on Drugs in April, 2018.
I am happy to inform you that one of our Judges, Hon. Mr. Justice Kashim Zannah, Chief Judge of Borno State was nominated to serve on the Advisory Board of this important body.
2018/2019 LEGAL YEAR IN FOCUS
In my speech at the commencement of the 2017/2018 Legal Year, I stated that my primary concern is, inter alia, to ensure progressive upgrade of the judiciary especially in areas of administration, practice directions, independence of the judiciary and contributing significantly to the fight against corruption. I also emphasized that justice must not only be done, but must be manifestly seen to be done. While our quest for a vastly improved and ICT driven judiciary has achieved commendable milestones, I must state here that much work still needs to be done in order to improve our administration of justice, particularly as regards stricter timelines, records management, enhancing I.T presence, the independence of the judiciary and strengthening judicial standards and ethics.
ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE
In order to enhance the administration of justice in Nigeria we are constituting a National Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure made up of Judicial Officers, Legal practitioners from the local chapters of the Nigerian Bar, Academics and the National Judicial Institute. In addition to the present system of partial frontloading which covers pleading of facts and law, evidence should also be included. The Rules of practice and Procedure should make provision for concessionaires to handle the service of court processes and documents. Also, the Rules of Practice and procedure should provide for e-filing to be done either by courts or by external management service providers.
We consider that the appellate system should be strengthened by enabling applications for leave to appeal where applicable to be dealt with in Chambers. Also I believe we have reached that stage in our legal system where it is needful for our rules of court and procedure to provide for the award of punitive or wasted costs by the Court for frivolous litigation or delays caused by Counsel. Rules of Court must provide for the mandatory keeping of Court Diary not only by the Registrar of Court, but also by the Judicial Officers. Where Information and Communication Technology is available and applicable, there must be computerized records in each Court. Entries must also be made and posted on the Website of the Judiciary, where information on the type of cases, progress made, judgments etc., can be accessed anywhere in Nigeria, weekly, monthly or quarterly. The National Judicial Council will write to each Head of Court within the State to avoid conflict between the Chief Judge, Grand Kadi and President of Customary Court of Appeal where they exist.
In addition, the Bar and the Bench should ensure that they play their roles in restoring ethics to the legal profession. The National Executive Committee of the Bar should prescribe and enforce sanctions for members who address news men while fully robed, and making comments on cases that are ongoing in court. The Educational Committee of the National Judicial Institute should include in its curriculum, issues that would sensitize Judicial Officers on the need to be cautious in having improper and private communication with Counsel appearing before them. Finally, there is need to continuously train Judges and lawyers in the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanism as a means of speedy dispensation of justice, and more importantly, boosting investor confidence in our economy.
As we prepare for the 2019 general elections I reiterate that the Judiciary will, in determining electoral disputes, continue to play the role of independent, dispassionate arbiter without fear or favour, affection or ill will. However, the Bar must partner with key stakeholders to play the critical role of sensitization and voter education to ensure that eligible members of the public are properly enlightened on the need to participate in the process and conduct themselves lawfully. Such peaceful and largely accepted electoral outcome will engender peace and stability in the polity and ensure sustainable, innovative developments.
It goes without saying that a free and fair election will generate less acrimony, tension and litigation.
THE COURT AND TECHNONOLGY
It is obvious that the conventional method of justice delivery in Nigerian Courts today is cumbersome, time consuming, susceptible to loss or theft of Court documents. There is difficulty in filing Court processes. Information Technology assisted justice system will therefore enhance justice by ensuring, for example that information is adequately captured and passed on digitally, data ex¬change will not be disintegrated and court processes will be finalized and ready on demand. I believe, rather than point accusing fingers at the courts we should all take collective responsibility for this problem and chart innovative and practical solutions. To what extent, for example, can judicial process be fast-tracked with information technology unwittingly excluding or punishing litigants to negative consequences of IT. With e-justice system, case management will be auto¬mated, payment of fees will be made through dedicated websites to reduce corruption, and forms that simplify and streamline court proceedings will be available to court users online. However such measures must be accompanied by enhanced capacity of personnel and investments in cyber security. There is no doubt that an independent, technology-driven justice system is fundamental to ensuring the establishment and promotion of sustainable institutions.
During the 2017 / 2018 legal year, the following milestones were recorded;
1. Newly Retrofitted Court at the Supreme Court of Nigeria: The year witnessed the commencement of court proceedings in the newly retrofitted Courtroom of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. All Court proceedings are available on High Quality Video Format with FTR Recording Equipment. This has greatly assisted in obtaining real time transcription of Court Proceedings.
2. Nigeria Legal Email System: The Supreme Court of Nigeria had commenced the implementation of serving hearing notices through the Nigeria Legal Email System. This process came into force on July 16, 2018. Every registered lawyer on the platform gets immediate proof-of-service on sending email to the court using their Legal Email Address. Every lawyer having appeals in Supreme Court of Nigeria is expected to enroll for this service in order to be properly served.
At present 23,000 lawyers have been registered for the email and 18,000 already activated on the platform. In addition, 5, 250 email addresses are available for court staff. It is expected that some correspondences should now be mandatorily sent by official email (courts.gov.ng). A Court Policy will soon be developed in this regard.
3. Nigeria Case Management System (NCMS) – New cases are currently being filed into the Nigeria Case Management System. This is our flagship application designed to manage appeals from filling to final disposition. Appeals that have been filed before the implementation of this application will be migrated into the database using a Back loader Template.
4. New Audio Visual Equipment for Court Ceremonial Occasions– The main Courtroom has been equipped with new Audio Visual Technology equipment and big SMART LED Screen. This will assist in handling overflow arising from large turnout of people for court events by projecting the event on real time basis to them in the Court FOYER.
5. Weekly Display of Cause List and Chamber Sittings– Our Cause List and Chamber Sittings are now constantly updated on our website. This will enable counsel and litigants to have prior information regarding the state of their appeals in the Supreme Court. Presently, the cause list of the Supreme Court for the period September to December, 2018 are already on our website. You may confirm it right now!
6. Presence on Social Media– For effective dissemination of information on Supreme Court of Nigeria operations and events, Twitter handle and Youtube accounts have been created in addition to the Court Website. This will enable the court to reach the litigation world through social media. Our twitter handle is @SupremeCourtNg and the Youtube Channel is “Supreme Court of Nigeria Media”. These mediums will be updated on a continuous basis to disseminate relevant information to Litigants and the public at large.
In the same vein, the National Judicial Institute (NJI) has intensified IT training for existing Judicial Officers, Judges of Lower Courts and other staff of the judiciary.
I therefore enjoin all judges and lawyers to join the judiciary’s quest for excellence by subscribing to, and acquiring the legal email, as manual forms of communication will soon be phased out. Lawyers who have acquired the legal email can henceforth communicate electronically with the courts and with each other.
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