FOLUSO OGUNMODEDE writes that there is the need for the nation’s apex court, the Supreme Court to design a mechanism, a system-wide but focused reform aimed at reducing docket congestion with a view to fast tracking dispensation of justice if the apex court must unburden itself of too many cases ahead of next year’s general election
Adetilade Ojowewe died a few years ago without getting justice in a case he initiated against a traditional ruler in Lagos state over a forceful acquisition of a vast land bequeathed to him by his late father.
The case which began at an Ikeja High Court in 1998 is still stuck at the Supreme Court. Ojowewe, who was 52 years’ old when the matter began, died last year at 72.
An alleged murderer, whose conviction was upheld by the Court of Appeal last year after 19 years on death row, has gone to Supreme Court, waiting for justice.
These are a few of thousands of cases pending at the Supreme Court, having passed through all stages of judicial echelon.
Nevertheless, this is no fault of the court already described as not only the busiest on the continent of Africa but most hardworking.
For instance, the Supreme Court of United Kingdom delivered a total of 38 judgements in four months.
The same goes for the Supreme Court in United States of America which delivered a total of 38 judgments in four months compared to 32 judgements delivered in one month by the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
This was corroborated a few months ago by one of the Justices of the Supreme Court, Justice Mohammed Tanko Ibrahim, who said that despite congestion of cases in the court, there was no Supreme Court anywhere in the world that worked as the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
He said: “Every Friday you find out that the Supreme Court delivers 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 judgments. There was a month where the court delivered about 32 judgments.
The work is too much. There is urgent need for a solution to reduce the work load.
“Lawyers will have something to say to the legislature to stop this kind of a thing. There is no Supreme Court in the world that works as the Nigerian Supreme Court works.
“Traffic jam cases. Let it (SCN decisions) be on policy issues and on law only, but if a judge (someone) coughs and someone does not like that cough, the matter goes to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
“Landlord and tenant cases go to the Supreme Court of Nigeria which could be determined by magistrate courts. The work is too much; we better start thinking of what to do.”
Apparently worried, some lawyers at the weekend were unanimous that only constitutional matters should go to the Supreme Court.
Section 233 of the 1999 Constitution outlines the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court especially its appellate jurisdiction, which also has its original jurisdiction conferred upon it by the Constitution.
It is also an obvious fact that Supreme Court’s dockets were congested which had compelled the apex court to sit from Monday through Friday.
This, a lawyer described as a sad fact
“They are burdened with too many cases regardless of the time lag between filing and disposition and irrespective of whether the cases hit a snag as they inch forward towards final disposition. The accumulation of prior years’ cases aggravated by the increase in the number of new filings without a corresponding increase in case disposition simply results in a huge backlog,” he said.
Specifically, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Adeniyi Akintola said the Supreme Court should be made to attend to only matters bordering on constitutional matters.
He said: “There are cases that should not go beyond the state level that are being taken to the appellate court. All over the world, Supreme Court deals mainly in constitutional matters, but that is not obtainable in Nigeria. Matrimonial causes find its way to the Supreme Court. The same thing with land, inheritance and chieftaincy matters. The problem will persist until we change the structure we are operating.
“Each state of the federation must be allowed to develop at its own pace. That is one of the principles of federalism. Even, the United States does not operate a uniform system. In some states in the U.S, abortion is legalized while it is not so in other states. In order words, the peculiarities of each components part that make up the United States of America are recognized.
“The Court of Appeal was established by the Western Nigeria, being the pace setter and this was eventually embraced by the Federal Government. Its establishment was meant to clear congestion but when it was taken to the center, it now becomes an all comer affair.
So, the fundamental thing is to restructure the country along federal line and all these problems will disappear.
“If we cannot have state Court of Appeal, let us have regional ones. Do you know that of all the nine Justices of the Court of Appeal in Lagos, none of them is a Yor
uba man? What type of anomaly is that? All these things are happening in an attempt to force us together, it cannot work.
Ours is unity in diversity and we must recognize our feelings. Our forefathers even recognized this fact. We must start to respect our differences and there will be a way out of all these problems”.
Another Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Seyi Sowemimo canvassed a limit to number of cases going to the Supreme Court as some of the cases ought to terminate at the Court of Appeal.
Sowemimo said: “One of the ways that is often canvassed to address the problem is that there should be a limit to the number of appeals going to the Supreme Court. It’s not proper that all cases must go to the apex court before they are ended. In some other countries, a lot of cases stopped at the Court of Appeal level. It is only cases that are of unusual public importance with constitutional significance that ought to get to the Supreme Court.
“Then, you will also found out that if there are better judgements and credible decisions at the lower courts, the temptation for people to want to appeal will be greatly reduced. Most times, judgement from the lower courts does not engender confidence.
“Besides, most times, the Supreme Court is bombarded with election petition matters. Except for the last election which we had that brought in President Buhari, volumes of petition emanated from the election and most of it ended up at the apex court as hearing of the petitions are usually longer than expected even close to the next election.
So, we should ensure that elections are properly conducted so that we will have less of petition about it.”
Deacon Dele Adesina also a Senior Advocate of Nigeria was concerned about the structure of the nation’s judiciary which he said was built on delay.
He said: “The present structure of our judiciary is inherently built on delay. It is a triangular kind of structure. At the base of the triangle, we have the High, Federal, State, Industrial and so many other courts. At the appellate level, we have the Court of Appeal with about 16 divisions nationwide.
“In most of the divisions, we have only one courtroom except Lagos, Abuja and probably Port Harcourt with more than one courtroom. Now, at the final level, you have the Supreme Court. We only have one apex court, even though, we have three courtrooms. Going by the nature of Nigerians, not less than 80 and 85 per cent of our cases terminates at the Supreme Court. So, if you have about 3,000 judgements at the lower court out of this number, not less than 2,700 will go to the Court of Appeal. Out of the 2,700, about 2,600 will end up at the Supreme Court. It goes on like that.
“In addressing the problem, a federal system of administration should be put in place. If each state of the federation has High Court in their domain, they should also have appellate courts. There should also be Supreme Court in each state. This means only matters of constitutional importance that has to do with the entire country will go to the Federal Supreme Court. This will address many problems.”
Dr. Biodun Layonu (SAN) said congestion at the apex court would only be addressed when there was a full complement of Justices at the Supreme Court.
He said: “I am not sure there is the full complement of judges at the moment. There are supposed to be a minimum and maximum number of judges at the Supreme Court. The full complement should be more than 17. This may be a factor contributing to the congestion at the place.
“Besides, I don’t think there is any reason why we cannot have more than two panels of Supreme Court Justices sitting at the same time. Even, if there are 17 Justices at the moment, we can still have two panels sitting at the same time. This will surely help in decongesting the court.
Abiodun Jelili Owonikoko (SAN) said “I think we need to reduce the number of cases that go to the apex court. The United States has just nine Justices of Supreme Court and the number of cases they handle in a year is not up to ten per cent of what our Justices are handling here. The cases that go to the Supreme Court in America raise fundamental, constitutional and legal issues that will impact so much on the entire society.
“However, it is not enough to reduce the number of cases coming to the Supreme Court, it is also important that we should firm up professional ethics that lawyers must be discouraged from filing frivolous cases. Lawyers must see the need to terminate cases that don’t have any chance of success at the lower court and should also embrace alternative ways of dispute resolution. No one seems to be exploring the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) options offered by the High Court and the Court of Appeal.”
Festus Keyamo (SAN) said there was the need for immediate appointment of all the 21 Justices, who were constitutionally empowered to sit at the apex court.
He said: “There are both immediate and long-term solutions to the problem. The immediate solution is to appoint all the 21 Justices that are supposed to be at the Supreme Court, so that there can be more hands. Constitutionally, they are supposed to be 21 in number, but we are having between 15 and 16.
“The long-term solution is to have regional Supreme Court and ensure that all the cases from the Court of Appeal from each region go to that Supreme Court.
“Then, there will be one Supreme Court in Abuja where only constitutional matters involving different levels of government are entertained. We must also ensure that certain cases must terminate at the Court of Appeal. In essence, not all matters should go to the Supreme Court.”
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