Prominent legal practitioners in the country have expressed deep concern over the unduly long delays in justice delivery at the Supreme Court, saying it is a sign of the worsening justice administration in the country.

The lawyers, including members of the inner bar, were reacting to a recent pronouncement by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, that the Supreme Court diary is already filled up with appeals slated for hearing up to the year 2021.

They described the situation as disturbing and frustrating as litigants suffer so much hardship due to the suspension, or even forfeiture, of their legal rights, adding that it undermines legal practice and breeds corruption in the system.

The situation, they said, has immense negative impact on economic growth and development, stunts democracy and creates social disorder by encouraging all manner of criminality in the country.

They further suggested possible solutions that would help in accelerating the dispensation of justice at the apex court, including setting the Supreme Court in each state and restricting the kinds of appeals that should come to the apex court for adjudication.

The lawyers who spoke with LEADERSHIP on the matter are the chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Professor Itse Sagay (SAN); law professor and former chairman of the Governing Council of the National Human Rights Commission, Chidi Odinkalu; Professor Yemi Akinseye-George (SAN); Nigeria Law School lecturer, Professor Ernest Ojukwu (SAN), Emeka Ngige (SAN), Valentine Offia and Muktar Abanika

LEADERSHIP recalls that in a statement released by his media assistant, Awassam Bassey, on October 8, 2018, the CJN had said the Supreme Court diary was filled up with appeals set down for hearing up to the year 2021.

He added that the appeals would be heard and judgments delivered as necessary and in accordance with the Rules of the Court.

“The situation therefore leaves no room for unnecessary adjournments arising from lack of diligent prosecution, poor preparations or non-appearance by counsel. Accordingly, the Hon CJN says this means that any matter that is assigned a date must be heard and determined one way or the other on that date’’, the statement noted.

Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen

But LEADERSHIP findings revealed that, while it is only appeals filed between 2006 and 2009 that had dates of hearing/determination from now till the end of 2021, other appeals brought to the highest court in the land from 2010 till date (eight years running) are yet to get dates of hearing and shall be assigned hearing dates from 2022 and beyond.

A source at the Supreme Court said it would take up to 2028 to clear the cases at hand.

LEADERSHIP checks further showed that the pending civil appeals adjourned for hearing/determination between now and 2021 are 215 appeals filed in 2006, 253 in 2007, 235 in 2008 and 243 appeals of 2009.

Besides, pending appeals which would be given dates for hearing with effect from 2022 include 308 appeals from 2010, 324 of 2011, 351 of 2012, 503 of 2013, 597 of 2014 and 675 of 2015.

Others are 725 appeals of 2016, 743 of 2017 and 726 fresh appeals filed so far in 2018.

Out of a total of 8,935 appeals filed from 2006 till date, 3,037 are political and criminal matters, while 5,898 are civil in nature.

In a speech delivered on September 24, 2018, to mark the commencement of the 2018/2019 legal year, the CJN said, “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, totalling 1,097. 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.’’

LEADERSHIP had earlier reported that records at the Supreme Court indicate that from January 12, 2018, when the first set of judgements were delivered till June 1 this year, the apex court delivered judgements in 116 criminal appeals.

Criminal and constitutional matters are, however, not affected. The Supreme Court (Criminal Appeals) Practice Directions (2013) issued by the former CJN, Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, and operational from November 15, 2013, enjoin all criminal appeals relating to the offences of terrorism, rape, kidnapping, corruption, money laundering and human trafficking to be heard and determined expeditiously.

New Sections 285 (10) and (12) of the 1999 Constitution now mandate high courts and appellate courts (including Supreme Court) to hear and determine pre-election matters within 180 days and 60 days respectively from the date of filing of the suit/appeal.

Previously, so many appeals were lying untouched in the Supreme Court docket until the CJN directed recently that all appeals or older appeals be assigned dates for hearing and determination.

Hence, all appeals brought before the apex court in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 were assigned dates and they filled up the apex court’s diary till 2021.

Lawyers who separately spoke with LEADERSHIP on the matter said the constitution needs to be amended in order to overhaul and transform the country’s justice delivery system.

The legal luminaries described the measures adopted by the CJN for speedy dispensation of justice as mere palliatives, or glossing over the Augean Stable of piled-up cases in the apex court.

Supreme Court, they said, is overburdened because of the Constitution. According to them, the current system that allows the automatic right of appeal in all matters to the Supreme Court has to be reviewed. They also averred that interlocutory appeals have to be taken together with the main matters rather than allowing appeals separately on them all the way to the apex court.

They recommended the setting up of the Supreme Court in all the states – like the Court of Appeal, adding that only constitutional matters should be allowed for adjudication in the apex court.

They further held that if there are too many appeals at the apex court, there will be confusion in the law and frequent revision of the law, whereas, few appeals before the apex court will cause good changes in the law.

The constitution, the argued, should be further amended to allow for the appointment of adhoc justices so as to allow retired justices and erudite senior advocates to be invited from time to time to help decongest the court if the need arises, as is done in the UK.

The lawyers unanimously quoted the legal maxim that justice delayed is justice denied, contending that if legal redress is available to a party that has suffered some injury, but is not forthcoming in a timely manner, it is effectively the same as having no redress at all.

They reminded President Muhammadu Buhari of his promise to reform the judiciary, saying any reform that fails to promote speedy justice delivery has missed the mark.

They added that the current justice delivery system in the country is such that the injured parties are forced to remain with their hurt with little hope of resolution, saying it is the main reason people resort to self-help these days.

Prof Itse Sagay said, “The situation is highly embarrassing and disturbing for the hardship litigants are subjected to as they are made to suspend their legal rights or forfeit same. The current system that allows automatic right of appeal in all matters to Supreme Court has to be reviewed. The interlocutory appeals have to be taken together with the main matter, rather than allowing appeals separately on it to the apex court.

“Appeal on subject matters permissible to lie at the Supreme Court has to be reviewed. We need not allow appeals on torts, matrimonial causes and commercial cases to lie at the apex court; they can terminate at the Court of Appeal. But appeals on constitutional, human rights, criminal matters involving death sentence or life imprisonment can lie at the apex court’’.

For Emeka Ngige (SAN), firstly, there should be full complement of justices on board as only 15 out of 21 seats constitutionally available are occupied in the apex court at present.

“All the vacant seats in the apex court should be filled up forthwith,” he stated, just as he suggested two other solutions.

The learned silk continued: “Secondly, the Nigerian constitution should be further amended to allow for the appointment of adhoc justices so as to allow retired justices and erudite senior advocates to be invited from time to time to help decongest the court.

“In UK, her Constitutional Reform Act 2005 has a provision for acting judges to be appointed from a pool of judges of lower courts or of retired jurists referred to as ‘supplementary panel’ to sit with the regular justices if the need arises. If we have similar provisions here, I can assure you that the backlog of appeals in the Supreme Court will be cleared within two years.

“The third suggestion is that the registry of the Supreme Court should be thoroughly reorganised. The Federal Judicial Service Commission should get one or two of the reputable auditing firms like Arthur Andersen or PWC (Pricewatercoopers) to help recruit staff that will man the registry of the apex court.

“The crop of personnel there lacks the capacity to cope with the challenges of court administration. How can we continue to hear that filed court documents or processes are missing, thereby leading to frequent adjournment of appeals?’’

On his part, Akinseye-George noted that the matter requires serious research and comparative study.

“The CJN should set up a study group consisting of judges, practitioners and academics to prepare a well-researched paper of this subject,’’ he said.

To Prof Ojukwu, the CJN’s comment on closed diary for hearing appeals in the Supreme Court is the clearest testimony of Nigeria’s failed judicial process and dispute resolution as well as a sign of a failed legal profession and a failed state.

He offered seven solutions: “Constitutional amendment that caps the kind of cases that can go up to the Supreme Court; establish an apex court for states like a Court of Appeal for each state; appoint more justices of the Supreme Court up to the number prescribed by law; Change our legal education to justice education to develop lawyers that respond to true issues of access to justice as a responsibility; address the perennial infamous conduct of lawyers who use our legal system and procedure to abuse the legal system with frivolous litigation and appeal; encourage ADR (alternate dispute resolution), and change the rules for the appointment of SANs that encourages the use of large quantity of litigation for qualification for the privilege.’’

On his part, Barr Valentine Offia, blamed the constitution for the overburdening of the Supreme Court, saying it is a flawed paradigm for every appeal to go all the way to the highest court of the land.

He said, “The problem is that our constitution has allowed access to the Supreme Court to every litigant even when the case of the litigant has no national significance. For example, why should the Supreme Court determine an appeal on disputes over who is the monarch of a village in Nigeria? Such an issue is usually regulated by state law and has no trans-state significance.

“Yet, such disputes are allowed to be litigated upon all the way to the Supreme Court. We need to amend the Constitution to establish Supreme Courts for each state where such disputes will abate. This will quicken the delivery of justice and avoid the clog which is the consequence of having 20 judges of the Supreme Court of Nigeria determine every dispute in Nigeria.”

Another constitutional lawyer, Barrister Muktar Abanika, spoke in similar vein. According to him, “Only cases that raise constitutional issues or point of law should be appealed to the apex court as practised in USA where they don’t sit on appeals more than 100 a year.

“If restrictions are so applied, then what now comes to the apex court can change law. Too many appeals lead to confusion in the law and frequent revision of the law.’’

On his part, former National Human Rights Commission boss, Professor Chidi Odinkalu, noted that he and Dr Sam Amadi had addressed some of the relevant issues in their joint article entitled, ‘Killing the Supreme Court’ published over 14 years ago.