Recently, some Nigerians expressed their exasperation at the debilitating delays in justice administration in the country’s apex court, the Supreme Court. They contended that it was a signpost to the worsening condition of justice delivery in the country.
Some of the nation’s top lawyers’s had, sequel to a pronouncement by the nation’s head of the judiciary, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, that the Supreme Court’s diary had already been fully booked till 2021 with appeals slated for hearing, raised concerns at the slow pace of justice administration. What this means is that cases taken to the apex court for redress will not receive judicial attention till after four years, in 2022!
What is even more troubling is that only appeals filed between 2006 and 2009 are pencilled down for hearing/determination from now till the end of 2021; other appeals brought to the Supreme Court from 2010 till date will be assigned hearing dates from 2022 and beyond. From every indication, it could take the next 10 years (2028) to clear the appeals already filed at the Supreme Court.
Information available to this newspaper indicates that pending civil appeals adjourned for hearing and determination between now and 2021 include 215 appeals filed in 2006, 253 in 2007, 235 in 2008 and 243 in2009. Pending appeals which will be given dates for hearing with effect from 2022 include 308 appeals filed in 2010, 324 in 2011, 351 in 2012, 503 in 2013, 597 in 2014, 675 in 2015, 725 in 2016, 743 in 2017 and 726 fresh appeals filed so far in 2018. This is aside the criminal, political and constitutional appeals.
From the foregoing, those not versed in the intricate functions of the apex court may be tempted to conclude that the justices at the court are lazy. But according to the CJN, in the course of the 2017/2018 legal year, the Supreme Court considered a total of 1,540 matters and gave judgement in 297, and between January and June this year, it gave judgement in 116 criminal appeals.
The Supreme Court is simply over burdened by the volume of appeals before it.
The statistics above are quite disturbing. Not only are litigants made to suffer their hurts for an extended period of time due to the inability of the court system to grant them their legal rights, the situation could encourage corruption, impunity, and the resort to self help by aggrieved parties.
The worrisome situation is not lost on the CJN who has declared that because of the foregoing, there is no room for unnecessary adjournments arising from lack of diligent prosecution, poor preparations or non-appearance by counsel. Therefore, any matter that is assigned a date must be heard and determined one way or the other on that date.
As a newspaper, we commend this step by the CJN to hasten the hearing and determination of appeals, but it will not be enough to clear the backlog that stretches out to several years.
Consequently, more drastic measures need to be taken for the justice delivery system at the apex court to exit this distressing scenario. The first step is for President Muhammadu Buhari to appoint competent persons to fill the vacant seats at the Supreme Court, as only 15 out of 21 seats constitutionally available are occupied in the apex court at present.
Moreover, there needs to be restriction on the kinds of appeals that can be entertained by the Supreme Court. The current system that allows litigants automatic right of appeal in all cases to the Supreme Court should be reviewed. The situation in which appeals on matrimonial cases, commercial cases and chieftaincy tussles, etc, come to the apex court should be discontinued. Such matters should terminate at the Court of Appeal so that the Supreme Court can focus on appeals on constitutional, human rights and criminal matters involving death sentence or life imprisonment.
Another suggestion towards accelerating justice delivery at the apex court is to decentralise the Supreme Court and have it at every state of the federation, just like the Court of Appeal.
Yet another possible solution is to allow for the appointment of adhoc justices such as retired justices and erudite senior advocates to work alongside the regular justices from time to time to help decongest the court, as it obtains in Britain. The above two suggestions, no doubt, require constitutional amendment.
It is well known that certain lawyers try to waste the time of court with frivolous motions. Towards speeding up hearings, it will also be a worthwhile idea to take interlocutory appeals together with the main matters rather than allowing such appeals separately on them all the way to the apex court.
The registry of the Supreme Court also needs to be totally reorganised. It is still operating analogue system in a digital age.
Cases of filed documents and processes missing are still rife, leading to frequent adjournment of cases. The Federal Judicial Service Commission should review the staffing there and recruit those who have the capacity to cope with the challenges of court administration.
It has been argued that the main reason for the rising spate of criminality in the country is the belief that judicial redress may not be forthcoming in the foreseeable future. It is true that the wheel of justice grinds slowly, but it needs not grind forever, or else many of those seeking redress would be gone before their hurt is redressed. Afterall, it is said that justice delayed is justice denied.