The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, recently bemoaned how the Supreme Court is grappling with 6,884 delayed cases.
There is a shortfall of justices in the Supreme Court, with only 13 left on the bench despite that the constitution provided 21, which has widened the gap in the ratio of judges to litigants in Nigeria.
According to the National Judicial Council (NJC), the judiciary’s regulatory body, only 1,179 judges are available for the courts across the country with an estimated population of 218 million people.
As a result, many cases drag in the courts with some files being called up for the first time after 10 years.
A staff of the Supreme Court confided in Daily Trust Saturday under the condition of anonymity that many appeals filed in 2006 were being heard for the first time this year.
He said recommendations of committees in the past for special courts to expeditiously handle some cases, like criminal and corruption cases, had not been implemented.
CJN speaks on backlog
Speaking at the investiture of 62 new Senior Advocates of Nigeria in Abuja on November 28, Justice Ariwoola said that out of the 6,884 cases at the apex court, there were 4,741 appeals in the court’s docket, with 1,495 of them having briefs filed and exchanged for hearing, leaving only 751 as moribund appeals.
The CJN said there were 3,246 remaining appeals having about 10,000 motions, with some being contentious and others innocuous in nature.
He added that within the window offered by the 2021/2022 legal year, the Supreme Court handled a total number of 1,764 cases, comprising of motions and appeals.
He commended the efforts of the Corruption and Financial Crime Cases Trial Monitoring Committee (COTRIMCO) under the leadership of retired Justice Suleiman Galadima, which has worked towards fast-tracking the trial of corruption and financial-related crimes in the country.
He said that between October 2021 and September 2022, a total number of 3,563 convictions were made through the collaborative effort of the committee, while there were equally a large number of forfeited cash and non-cash recoveries made within the period.
Besides, the shortfall in the number of justices compared to the number of cases, the CJN also bemoaned the “litigious” nature of Nigerians as accounting for the huge ratio of cases and judges.
“We don’t need to rush to court after every little disagreement. We have various alternative dispute resolution mechanisms across the country we can conveniently leverage on, with a view to freeing the courts of this incessant case overload. In every little disagreement, we rush to court, and in every lost case, we rush to appeal, even up to the Supreme Court, no matter how little the issue might be. That has obviously accounted for the several appeals pending in the Supreme Court,” he said.
Ariwoola noted that although the apex court receives scathing criticisms from members of the public over our over-blotted docket, the justices are “neither in any position to regulate case inflow to the court nor have the supernatural power to attend to all in one fell swoop.”
Another reason for the congestion of the courts is that the few justices in the Nigerian judiciary mainly write in long hand during proceedings, which makes it difficult to accelerate proceedings.
To accelerate justice delivery, the NJC has begun an elaborate installation of an electronic court system through its technology-leveraged courts (TLCs), which are expected to eliminate papers with cases filed under the case management system, and lawyers can reach the court in real-time from anywhere.
This is besides the general condition of service of judicial officers, especially at the highest level. The Nigerian judiciary is also beset with other challenges, such as poor funding, political interference, corruption, delays due to inadequate manpower, technology, unwieldy structure, low quality of judicial officers due to flawed recruitment process, poor welfare for judges, absence of a fair and transparent system, political interference and lack of independence.
Analysts suggest that proof of the lack of independence of the judiciary is the poor funding as provided in the low share of the judiciary in the country’s overall budget, which is a threat to rule of law, democracy and development.
Although the judiciary budget has been on the increase in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021, there has been a decline in the percentage of the total budgetary figures to less than 1 per cent.
For instance, the budgetary allocations to the judiciary have been declining in percentage share of the nation’s budget. One of this is the N70 billion budgeted for the judiciary in 2016 out of the N6.08 trillion total proposals, which is 1.1 per cent.
Also, the 2023 budget proposes a sum of N150 billion out of the N20.51 trillion, which is a 0.74 per cent.
In the 2022 budget, out of the N17.126 trillion overall budget, the judiciary got N120 billion, which is 0.7 9 per cent.
Many recruitment exercises of judges in the country have been challenged in courts on allegations of nepotism, political interference and non-compliance with the NJC Guidelines and Procedural Rules.
In the last exercise for the FCT High Court in May 2020, the Open Bar Initiative led by Prof Chidi Odinkalu accused the NJC of appointing certain persons based on “connection” and “family affiliation”.
Reacting, Dr Chudi Chukwuani, a contractor, who has battled for many years in the courts to recover his funds for work done, said the heavy caseload on judges is killing quick justice delivery, especially in the FCT.
“If the entire cases filed in court is one per cent of the country’s population of over 200 million, that comes to two million cases filed nationwide every year. Now, what percentage do you think would come to the federal capital?
“You find out that most people believe that they won’t get justice in their respective states, so most of the disputes, especially the political ones, everybody brings his to FCT High Court. So, the FCT High Court is now inundated with so many cases because of the peculiarities, population, growth and economic development of our society.
“Some of the judges are handling about 1,000 cases. How can a judge be handling 1,000 cases? What do you want him to do, kill himself? The consequence is that the judges would not give justice because they won’t have time to analyse cases.
“We need more courts and judges in the FCT to at least 250 judges because the population is exploding.”
Lawyers proffer solutions
Speaking in this vein at the Call to Bar ceremony of the Nigerian Law School in Abuja on December 6, the chairman of the Body of Benchers (BoB), Wole Olanipekun (SAN), harped on the poor salary and welfare package of judicial officers as a major impediment to justice delivery.
He said efforts were being made to ensure the implementation of the report of the committee on the Review of Judicial Salaries and Conditions of Service set up by the president in August 2018 by engaging the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN) on the implementation of the report of the committee on the Review of Judicial Salaries and Conditions of Service set up by the president in August 2018 by engaging the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN) on the implementation of the report for the first time since the 2008 review.
Similarly, a former director-general of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, Prof. Epiphany Azinge (SAN), expressed support for the agitation for an increase in the salary of judges.
He said, “Let it be on record that the judiciary deserves the best because you cannot be accusing judges of corruption and at the end of the day you are still starving them.”
Some lawyers, however, spoke on some practical solutions to offset the congestion in the Supreme Court.
A former Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in Ekiti State, Dayo Akinlaja (SAN), said the Supreme Court should be devolved with new divisions in the six geopolitical zones to offset the thousands of cases trapped at the headquarters in Abuja.
Like other lawyers, he wants to see a constitutional court in Abuja, which would be the Supreme Court dealing with cases involving state governors and the president and constitutional matters alone while the other supreme courts in the zones would deal with criminal and civil cases/appeals.
“Speaking concretely, I suggest we should have supreme courts at the level of the six geopolitical zones, and the one in Abuja.
“Maybe if they want to retain the current system, something has to be done to clear the backlog of cases at the Supreme Court.
“All these would involve tinkering with the constitution,” he said.
In the same vein, Professor Paul Ananaba (SAN) noted that one panel of the Supreme Court sitting at any point in time was not sufficient to accelerate the disposal of cases in the apex court. He called for different panels at a time.
“I call for the establishment of regional supreme courts and courts of appeal. And matters of national importance only should go to the headquarters,” he said.
In his view, Sunusi Musa (SAN) said, taking every case through the High Court to the Supreme Court didn’t make case but to restrict the customary courts.
“Customary courts, they should be given criminal jurisdiction so that you give them the capacity to undertake some of the criminal cases,” he said.
Similarly, the president of the Public Interest and Development Lawyers (SPIDEL), Dr Monday Onyekachi Ubani, called for the establishment of supreme courts at the zonal level.
He suggested that not every matter should go to the Supreme Court, except constitutional ones since the court does not have the numbers recommended by the Nigerian constitution.
He added that other cases could be handled by the proposed zonal supreme courts.
“That you have a matter in the Supreme Court in which you can have a date for two to five years is something that no living country should tolerate in the world and not Nigeria,” he said.
However, Nnamdi Ahaiwe said the Supreme Court should not be decentralised to the zones to avoid influences from state governors and due to the lack of adequate security in the country.
Instead, he suggested six zonal Supreme Court offices manned by registrars, where parties can file their appeals and adopt their processes electronically, adding that the Supreme Court in Abuja should have the requisite number of justices and additional panels sitting simultaneously.
“Let the justices be appointed by lawyers and their terms renewable every five years, with weak and corrupt justices not re-elected for a fresh term,” he said.
In his view, E.M.D. Umukoro, bemoaned the depreciation of the quality of judicial officers from the pioneer judges, such as Ademola Adetokumbo, Chukwudifu Oputa, Nikki Tobi and others.
“The journey within the last 20 years has been a story of steady decline. Judgements in cases should not be more than two months from commencement to conclusion,” he said.