Speedy Justice: In Defence Of Judges
Posted: 03/Sep/2020

I am sure that you are wondering what that is, ‘speedy justice.’ It is a term often wrongly used to denote efficient delivery of justice. Justice is justice and any delay in the dispensation of justice amounts to injustice. This is why the saying in legal parlance is “justice delayed, is justice denied.” Thus, it is either we have justice through speedy resolution of disputes or we do not have it, but that is a story for another day. However, what this means is speedy administration of justice. 

It implies the resolution of disputes within a reasonable time in a generous term. Recently, at  the opening ceremony of the Nigeria Bar Association conference, the President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR, in a speech  delivered on his  behalf  by the Vice President of Nigeria, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, GCON, SAN, touched on three fundamental areas of reform in the administration of justice, ranging from appointment of judges, conflicting rulings and judgments to the realm of speedy resolution of disputes.

While each of these areas deserves comments, I have chosen to address the latter, which is of immediate concern to me as a lawyer under obligation to promote justice at all times and, on a selfish note, as a litigator whose means of survival largely depends on the efficiency of the administration of justice, to wit: quick dispensation of justice in all cases filed in court. The rate of turnover of cases dictates litigators’ survival threshold. Thus, I am as equally disturbed as the President of the country on this. The question, however, is, is the executive justified to put up the lamentation? To me, it would appear from the speech that the Presidency is suggesting the location of the fault elsewhere in the system. Can the Presidency extricate itself from the malaise? I think not.

For me, the culpable institution is the executive, as typified by the Presidency. The narrative is best captured or illustrated by the Yoruba adage: Ajala, ta n’ no? meaning, who is responsible for the malady? This is so because a greater number of factors accounting for the inefficiency in the administration of justice in Nigeria is traceable to the failures of the executive, nay the Presidency. My expectation is that the Presidency should have done its diagnosis before making the statements, and, if already done, should have alluded to some of these challenges arising from the executive’s fault and remedial measures contemplated or being made to restore normalcy in the system.

Having failed to do so, the implication is that those to be blamed are judicial officers and lawyers. I would have expected the Presidency to have diagnosed the problem before coming out to make the pronouncement. In as much as I will readily concede that some blame can be placed at the doorstep of some judges that are misfits for the job due to their inability to take charge of their courts, or outright laziness or downright instances of corruption on the bench, some lawyers take advantage of the loopholes in the system in engaging in delay tactics.

The bulk of the challenges associated with the slow pace of justice dispensation, however, lies with government at all levels. The allusion by the Presidency to delay in the dispensation of justice implies the difficulty in exiting the court after access, adopting the expression of the erudite scholar, Fidelis Odita, SAN, QC. Let me remind us that judges are human beings and are no magicians or miracle workers. To this extent, there is little or nothing judges can do beyond their human capacity in fast-tracking court proceedings. The allusion to the success in the electoral justice system and other time-bound proceedings implies the failure of other causes of action not in the category of fast-track proceedings. Nothing in reality has changed than re-allocation of inefficiency.
 
While some traction is gained in some cases like election petitions, in others, depression is their fate. Has the Presidency taken a peep into the average docket of a judge in most capital cities, particularly commercial cities like Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Onitsha, etc, to unveil what the judges are saddled with, most times arising from the lawless template set by the government itself? This exponentially contributes to the overwhelming number of cases before the judges. Beyond the above, while the Constitution speaks of financial autonomy for the judiciary, to what extent has this been respected or implemented by those in the executive? What is the legal propriety of handing over an ‘envelop budget’ for the judiciary, as if the organ is an agency of the executive? Is it any news that most agencies or parastatals of government enjoy multiple budgetary allocations and funding than the judiciary, which is the third arm of government? Still, we expect wonders from the judiciary that is lying financially prostrate. Therefore, the judiciary, in line with extant laws, must, henceforth, submit its budget directly to the legislature, and not through the executive. It is an aberration to do otherwise.

Where are the latest technologies for recording the proceedings of court, or that will engender efficiency in the administration of justice? Most courts still deal in longhand and those with some measure of stenographic equipment or recorder are grappling with stale contraptions incapable of coping with contemporary challenges. It was, therefore, not strange that, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the judiciary could not respond appropriately, and is still unable to respond till now on a mere issue of virtual hearing. Where are the courts’ infrastructure? Some court rooms are not better than storage facilities with several collapsed chairs, benches and tables, archaic air conditioners merely decorative and reflective of Mungo Park’s days in Lokoja.

The budget of the judiciary continues to dwindle, and we expect higher performance. It simply can’t happen, until we leave the realm of pretence in the appreciation of the onerous role of the judiciary. Beyond the physical infrastructure, how much refurbishing of the persons of judges do we do? Recently, I had cause to voice out the appalling conditions of service of these judicial officers that are expected to commit suicide in the course of their job. The situation of the retired judges is even worse and more precarious, with some of them becoming a public embarrassment to the judiciary and the legal profession. Apart from going cap in hand all over for sustenance, some have been unjustifiably converted to legal consultants for lawyers, and, in some instances, as intermediaries with their serving colleagues for clients and lawyers. What a shame!

Beyond the foregoing, what of the sufficiency of judicial hands? Apart from the unrealistic numbers appropriated, the same grumbling executive often frustrates the process. Never in the history of the Supreme Court has the number been this depleted, now to 11 instead of 21. Notwithstanding the timely processing of the nominations into the apex court by the National Judicial Council, you discover that most delays in the appointment exercise are due to the fault of the executive.

As indicated above, I am aware that some appointments to the Supreme Court bench have been gathering dust in the Presidency in the last seven months and still counting, yet we expect speedy administration of justice. Again, a sizeable amount of delays suffered in courts are due to the inefficiency of government lawyers, particularly in criminal matters. The prosecutors are never ready to conduct their cases when, most times, they rush to the courts prematurely to file a charge and ask for remand orders. This is quite apart from their tardiness in prosecuting cases when they feature to do. Government, in this wise, that is, the executive, needs to put its house in order before apportioning blame.

Beyond the executive’s culpability are also internal convulsions in the judiciary. A lot of matters go unheard simply because some judges are often perennially on training. Most of the so-called capacity development programmes occur during the working period of the courts. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. It has been suggested, and I see no evidence to the contrary, that most of the trainings have become yearly routines, stemming from the need to exhaust the surplus funds in possession of these federal agencies and parastatals. The money must just be spent. In as much as I believe and cherish capacity building, this must never be promoted at the expense of court hearings. In other jurisdictions, like the United Kingdom that I am familiar with, it is unthinkable that such would happen.

Vacation periods are best suited for that purpose, with corresponding compensatory allowances, preferably the first two weeks of the annual vacation or the last two weeks before vacation ends. In addition, there is also the advocacy that there is urgent need to reduce the number of days used for vacation by the courts as recently done during this pandemic. According to Femi Falana, SAN, judges sit for 104 days out of the 365 days in a year. However, this seems not to have taken cognizance of the time spent on research and judgment. We must revisit this and increase the number of sitting days to ensure speedy resolution of disputes.

If truly the concern of the Presidency is anything to go by, all the issues raised above as militating factors from the executive’s end must be urgently addressed, otherwise, as rightly said by the Presidency, no investment will be attracted to a country where the judicial system is inefficient. Charity, it is said, must begin from home. Nigeria cannot expect any growth when the judiciary and, by extension, the rule of law, remains impaired.