Court of Appeal: Challenges of justice dispensation
Posted: 27/Dec/2016

The Court of Appeal which is the second highest Court in the country occupies a central and critical position in the administration of justice. Apar from entertaining appeals from the States High Courts and the Federal High Court, the court serves as the final court in election petition and sundry matters.

The judiciary was in the eye of the storm following allegations of corruption levelled against some judges of the High Courts and some of their brother Justices of the Supreme Court.

As grievous as some of the allegations are, the presumption of innocence still avail the affected judges and justices until they are found guilty by courts of competent jurisdiction.

The judiciary is indispensable for the existence of every society because it  provides the vital link and inevitable nexus in the necessary relationship between law and politics on one hand and between the executive and the legislature on the other hand.

Where there is a political stalemate, it is the judiciary that resolves the tango by  interpreting the law as it is. Thus, it is the resourcefulness, ability, reliability, impartiality, fearlessness, courage, and autonomy of the judiciary that is always put to test when frivolous aspersions are made against those who interpret the  laws of the land.
The public remains strategic to judiciary’s  course of nation building because democracy in a way  depends on what the Judges  make  of it; therefore, its last ray of hope lies with the Judiciary for the society and invariably, the common man.

Among judicial institutions established by the Constitution is the Court of Appeal whose major responsibility in a democracy is the resolution of election petition cases.

The Court of Appeal has been the final Court on Election Petition except in Presidential Election Petition since its establishment in 1976. Only recently, precisely in 2011, that the final decision in Government Election Petition became the concern of the Supreme Court.

The ambience in which Court of Appeal is vested with the responsibility to uphold norms and Rule of Law is unprecedented in powers and Jurisdiction; hence the Judiciary is often referred to as a sharp tool that can be used to correct a failed system.

In the dispensation of Justice, the Court of Appeal is manned by passionate, experienced and courageous jurists who have shown great  effort to make the justice system work despite the difficult conditions in which they work.

Prior to the 2015 general elections, the Court under the purview of Justice Zainab Adamu Bulkachuwa,  introduced new rules to frustrate delays by lawyers with the fast-track Practice Direction, 2014 and Active Case Management (ACM) process with a fundamental objective of enabling the Court to deal with fast- tracking appeals quickly and effectively.

The President Court of Appeal had explained during the unveiling exercise that the ACM process allows the Court to adopt the best skills and techniques to secure efficient and speedy administration of justice.

Justice Bulkachukwa said: “What we do are in public domain, the court is empowered under the new Practice Direction, to Suo Motu exercise the various Case Management techniques to abridge time for compliance with the Rule, Practice Direction or Court Order, bring forward a proceeding, conference and consolidate proceedings.”

The introduction of this mechanism contributed to the timely dispensation of Election Petition cases at the various tribunals.

However, politicians and their cronies who believe that every decision of the court must be in their favour have subjected these honest and diligent Justices to malicious attacks thereby placing deep scars on them.

Some of these  tirade against the Justices of the Court are  not unconnected with  the judgment of various Election Tribunals and it has become persistent with lawyers joining the fray.

This strange bizarre and disturbing development of the attacks and bashing of the Judiciary was monumental and attracted the attention of the immediate past  Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed ( CJN) as he then was,  who admonished politicians to be mindful of their utterances while expressing concern over the reactions that trailed the rulings of some election tribunals.

In a terse statement, the CJN advised aggrieved politicians to lodge their petitions at the National Judicial Council (NJC) assuring them that the long arm of the Law will catch up with any Judge found wanting in the dispensation  of justice.

He specifically admonished politicians to desist from politics without principles, while at the same time urging heads of government to refrain from disparaging the integrity and reputation of the Judiciary.

He said: “This is against the backdrop of some Governorship, National and State Assembly Election Petition Tribunal matters in the country, where some politically exposed persons, governors and even lawyers to some litigants averred that these verdicts were influenced by the huge sums of money and political pressure.

“It is not enough to attack Judges over corruption and bribery allegations and look away when thugs enter courts to beat up Judges and destroy court processes to prevent the delivery of judgments.

“The fight against corruption is a collective responsibility especially amongst public officials, particularly the state governors who are equally the chief security officers of their respective states.

“Corruption is a common denominator experienced by all sections of government as such; each Head of Government should look inwards to devise strategies that will clear the Augean Stables of corruption.”

Apart from the CJN, many other Nigerians who appreciate the sacrifice and sleepless nights Judges go through in ensuring the sustenance of our democracy equally frowned at the nasty, below- the – belt campaign, mudslinging,  character assassination  and sundry attacks on Judges.

Many people believe that judges are clothed with some kind of immunity from civil or criminal suits. But this perceived immunity is more apparent than real. Judges can be removed, suspended, reprimanded or censured by the NJC if they violate the law or ethical standard.

Judges are different species of public servants as they are not supposed to represent constituents,  rather to serve the public by following the law regardless of personal preferences, political pressure, or popular will.

Therefore, observers say attacks against judges for the decisions as a means of intimidation as well as institutional retribution against the Judiciary as a whole might inhibit Judges from performing their vital functions.

Analysts say it is easy for a complainant to allege that a judge has engaged in a conduct prejudicial to the effectiveness and expeditious administration of the business of the court; while on the other hand, attacks on the judiciary, especially in general terms, threaten the institution itself because it tends to reduce the power and authority of the courts and make them more susceptible to public opinion, making the correctness of the judge’s decisions dependent on the popularity of rulings.

If one is not satisfied with any decision of the court or tribunal, there is a window of hope for that person at the Supreme Court for further redress. This is why experts say there is no need for unguarded statements against the judiciary which are capable of inciting and heating up the polity. To them, such statements amount to a grievous disrespect and indignity to the persons of the jurists of the Court of Appeal and to the entire Judiciary as an institution.

Observers say judges have contributed immensely to  the sustainability of democracy and should be commended. Therefore, where it is established that a particular judge has compromised his or her oath of office, there are appropriate steps to be taken rather than drag the entire institution into disrepute and ridicule.

By John Austin Unachukw

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