S’Court Caseload Crisis Beyond 21 Justices – Lawyers

By Ahuraka Isah and Kunle Olasanmi, Abuja

 

Senior lawyers in the country have advised the federal government to amend the Constitution to streamline the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

The lawyers who spoke in separate interviews with LEADERSHIP held that the recent appointment of four new justices to make for the full complement of 21 justices for the apex court bench won’t solve its age-long caseload gridlock.

They said as long as the apex court hears and determines cases
on an infinite variety of subjects, including chieftaincy cause, land
matter, interlocutory decision and divorce or matrimonial cause, the
court would remain under severe stress of needless workload.

The lawyers submitted that there are no less than 12,000 appeals in
the Supreme Court docket or pending before it, just as only cases
filed in 2006 to 2009 are fixed for hearing and determination up till
2021.

They said cases filed in 2010 till date would only get dates for
hearing and judgement as from 2022, and may take up till 2030 or more
to clear what is pending currently at the Supreme Court.

They added that caseload crisis would remain because even if the justices dispose 100 appeals in one fell swoop, 100 new appeals would be filed immediately.

The excessive caseload, they held, impairs the capacity of the highest court in the land to meaningfully discharge its vital responsibility of providing leadership in development of legal jurisprudence.

Rather than functioning as a first-level appellate court for a policy
role of determining important or urgent legal issues of public importance, the lawyers observed that the apex court could dwell more on playing error-correcting role.

The lawyers also noted that despite being overburdened with workload,
the justices’ salary is very poor because they still collect the same salary they were receiving 12 years ago.

They recommended that electronic recording devices should be deployed to the apex courtrooms as the justices are still taking notes in long hands.

The lawyers warned that unless the present caseload pressure is
released through constitutional amendment, the system will buckle
imminently, adding that signs of stress are clearly obvious and include
overwhelming arrears of work, limited collegiality or interaction
among brother justices, and unsatisfactory output quality or
development of jurisprudence.

The backlog or gridlock of caseloads at the apex court, according to
the lawyers, has unleashed untold hardship on those seeking remedy for
sustained injury without timely remedy and resolution; adding that
justice delayed is justice denied.

On June 9, 2019 when President Muhammadu Buhari formerly wrote to accept Justice Onnoghen’s resignation letter, the president also asked the then acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, to initiate the process of appointing four new justices of the Supreme Court.

‘‘This is in line with the government’s agenda of repositioning the
Judiciary in general and Supreme Court in particular for greater
efficiency, with a view to reducing the backlogs of appeals pending at
the Supreme Court’’, the president had said.

Following the appointment of the four justices alongside four others
by President Buhari, the CJN, Justice Muhammad swore them in on November 6, 2020.

Speaking on the caseload crisis, A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) Prof Ernest Ojukwu (SAN), said while it is good that new Justices were added to the Supreme Court, it would not solve the snail speed justice
process of the Supreme Court.

 

“There are two paths to saving justice at the Supreme Court. One is a major constitutional change to their powers and jurisdiction. The other can only come from the Justices themselves who have been unable to use their interpretative powers to restrict their jurisdiction,’’ the law lecturer stated.

A Former NBA president, Chief Olisa Abakogba (SAN), in his contribution said, “It’s good that the Supreme Court has more Justices to carry the great workload. But it is better and absolutely necessary to amend the Constitution for some matters to terminate before the Supreme Court too.

 

“I sent a bill to limit the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to
Federal causes and establish state courts of Appeal for non-federal
causes and the bill has been proposed at the NASS by Hon Lynda Chuba- Ikpeazu’’.

For Niyi Akintola (SAN), the present Supreme Court is trying its best over pending backlog of cases, “but a lot still needs to be done as their efforts are mere scratch on the humongous heap of pending appeals before the apex court.

 

“This is all due to the structure of our legal and justice
system where all manners of cases concerning even the chieftaincy
title, land matters, divorces and so on have to terminate at the apex
court.

“Nigeria is an ongoing project and that is why the constitution is
going through amendment. Definitely, someday the constitution would be amended to allow some matters to end at the Court of Appeal, and that is when the Supreme Court would streamline and be having sizeable
workload”, he added.

 

However, Professor Yemi Akinseye-George (SAN) is of the view that apart from poor remunerations, the working condition has not been good.

He said, “The Supreme Court’s full complement of 21 justices will not solve its workload crisis for three reasons: firstly, their working
condition is very bad because they are not well paid. Those appointed
12 years ago are still collecting the same salary figure up till date.
Besides, their retirement remuneration is equally very poor. Only the
CJN has adequate retirement benefits including estate with sprawling
houses.

 

“Secondly, appeals being filed at the Supreme Court are too
many. To the extent if they dispose 100 appeals today, 100 new appeals
must have been filed the same day. The jurisdiction of the Supreme
Court has to be streamlined because virtually everything under the
globe lies there. Matters already decided must not be granted right of
leave as of right, not all matters labeled constitutional must be
allowed.

“Thirdly, there is no electronic recording; apex court justices still
take notes in long hands. Reasonable technology should be deployed
there. While the increase in the number of justices are commendable,
the apex court docket is highly overloaded and overwhelming for the 21
justices to overcome.’’

Another senior lawyer, Mr Emeka Ngige (SAN) said,

“This is the first time the Supreme Court of Nigeria will be
functioning with its full complement of justices. I believe that
congestion of cases in the apex court will be minimized greatly by the
infusion of additional hands in the court. I also believe that the
backlog of pending appeals and applications will be cleared by the
court.

 

“However the FJSC and NJC should be proactive by setting into
motion the process for the replacement of two of the justices of the
apex court who are due to retire in March 2021 to ensure that the
court operates with its full complement at all material times.’’

On his part, a constitutional lawyer, Valentine Offia said, “Nigeria’s legal system with the Supreme Court at the apex of the pyramid has a design flaw that has ensured the inefficiency of the system. Theoretically, no dispute can be said to have been conclusively decided until the Supreme Court pronounces on it. Just one court of 21 judges with the workload and responsibility to settle all business, cultural, civil, criminal etc disputes that arose within the boundaries of Nigeria.

 

Human limitations will ensure that such a system will never have speed. It will take years or decades to await their pronouncement. In a world where business is now transacted at the speed of light and monies are moved across national boundaries at the touch of a button, a legal system operating at such speed is anachronistic.

 

“We have to amend the Constitution to establish State Supreme Courts where some appeals that have no trans-state relevance will terminate. What business does the Supreme Court of Nigeria have settling disputes which border on who is the chief of a village?”

Another lawyer, Muktar Abanika, noted that the Supreme Court is a system currently under severe stress and may buckle unless something urgent is done.

 

He said, “The Court hears and determines cases on an infinite variety of subjects leading to excessive caseload which impairs its capacity to
meaningfully discharge the vital responsibility of providing
leadership in development of legal jurisprudence. Rather than
functioning as a first-level appellate court for a policy role of
determining important or urgent legal issues of public importance, it
dwells more on error-correcting role.

“Unless the present caseload pressure is released somehow, the system
will buckle imminently. Signs of stress which are clearly obvious
include overwhelming arrears of work, limited collegiality or
interaction among brother justices, and unsatisfactory output quality
or development of jurisprudence.

“Yes, Section 230 (2) (b) of the 1999 constitution provides that;
“The Supreme Court of Nigeria shall consist of such number of Justices
not exceeding 21 as may be prescribed by an Act of the National
Assembly.” But recent appointments of justices to attain full
complements won’t solve the caseload crisis, but rather makes
magistracy of the apex court. The last amendment proposals set to peg
the apex bench at 16 maximum’’.

An Abuja-based legal practitioner, Alasa Ismaila said, “There are no less than 12,000 appeals in the Supreme Court docket or pending before it. According to former CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, only appeals filed from 2006 to 2009 were slated for hearing and judgement from 2018 to 2021. And that appeals filed between 2010 till date would be given date for hearing and determination as from 2022.

“Mind you, COVID-19 has disrupted that hearing date. Hence, increase
of the apex court to 21 won’t help to clear the caseload except by
legislating to streamline the apex court jurisdiction’’

 

A’Court Sets Up Panel To Decongest Backlog Of Cases

Meanwhile, the president of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica

Dongban-Mensem, has set up seven special panels saddled with the
responsibility of de-congesting backlog of appeals.

 

Justice Dongban-Mensem disclosed this yesterday at
the maiden edition of the meeting with presiding justices of the 20
Divisions of the Court of Appeal tagged, ‘Working Conference of the
Presiding Justices of the Court of Appeal’.

The working conference, which is first of its kind, was specially
chosen to promote a sense of togetherness by enabling the most
experienced minds to be deployed on Special De-congestion Panels that
will tackle the most congested divisions.

The special panels which will be sitting in two sessions daily will
work for three days to depose off over 100 Motions.

This became necessary in view of the lingering appeals clustering the
Court due to what she described as the unwillingness of some litigants
who go into deep slumber without filing complete processes.

Speaking at the event, the appellate court president said, “The Court of Appeal cannot be used as a tool in the hands of these litigants who go into a deep slumber. All notices of appeal filed without being followed with other processes to ensure quick prosecution and disposal of the appeal should be shown the way out. We have sufficient provisions in our rules, which are backed by constitutional provision for the disposal of matters in court.”

She noted that since presiding Justices are heads of the Divisions they can go ahead and take charge and keep up with the tempo in their
various Divisions.

 

She said, “Since the Presiding Justices are heads of the Divisions, we have come out to dare to bite so that when we go back to

our Divisions, we shall not forget to keep up the tempo.

“In a nation with teeming unemployed graduates and restive youths, we
must do our part to create jobs by ensuring that all appeals are heard
expeditiously especially those which involve corporate bodies and
businesses which can provide jobs for our youths.”

 

 

 

 

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