After a long vacation, the courts are resuming for the 2017/2018 legal year. Lawyers have identified issues that must be addressed towards speeding up the administration of justice and avoiding endless trials, especially in high profile cases. They spoke to JOSEPH JIBUEZE of The Nation.
To say the judicial process is slow is an understatement. It is crawling. What should be done to speed up the justice system, especially in corruption-related matters? Some senior lawyers have solutions. They, yesterday, identified ways of speeding up corruption cases and avoiding undue delay in the trial process.
Among those who suggested ways out in separate interviews with our correspondent are Prof Yemi Akinseye-George, Dafe Akpedeye and George M. Oguntade – all Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs). They urged the judiciary to support the executive in tackling corruption.
Other lawyers who spoke on their expectations in the new legal year include Collins Okeke, Jonathan Iyieke, Tope Alabi and Dele Igbinedion.
Prof Akinseye-George would like the courts to reclaim their voice and independence.
He said: “The judiciary must fearlessly assert its self and must not succumb to intimidation. However, it must purge itself of all forms of corruption. The National Judiciary Council (NJC) must be proactive in addressing the issue of corruption within the judiciary.”
Setting an agenda for those in the legal profession, he said the judiciary must ensure that it concludes some of the high profile corruption cases pending before it in the new legal year.
Akinseye-George said: “Concluding the cases does not necessarily mean conviction. The court loses respect when cases involving big men are allowed to drag on endlessly.
“In the last legal year, the Supreme Court took the bull by the horn when it approved the prohibition by the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) of Stay of criminal proceedings. The court’s decision on Olisa Metuh is highly commendable.
“The courts should build on this foundation and rapidly bring to conclusion some of the high profile cases pending before them. Cases involving persons who want to contest elections should be accelerated and concluded one way or the other. The government should rejig its investigational and prosecutorial institutions.
“The court must rise to the challenge of dealing with political corruption cases. Political corruption is the mother of all corruption. Many politicians who are now jostling for political offices when their cases are pending in court are mocking the people. They know the cases will not be concluded before the elections.
“Let the judiciary constitute specialised (not special) courts to conclude the high profile cases one way or the other.”
Urging the executive to accord due respect to the judiciary, the professor of Law said that rather than categorising all judges as corrupt, whoever has any concrete evidence of corruption against judges must be encouraged to submit same to the NJC.
He said: “People, especially of the ruling party, should stop condemning the judiciary generally. They should stop speaking as if all judges are corrupt. We know that a great majority of our judges are clean, hardworking and courageous.
“The NJC must be proactive in dealing with the few corrupt ones in their midst and making the disciplinary actions taken known to the public.”
On his expectation in the new legal year, Akpedeye hoped for a more effective synergy between the Bar and the Bench to achieve quick dispensation of justice.
He said the rules cannot on their own change the course of justice, despite the giant steps taken by the heads of courts to review regulations and practice directions.
He said: “We, the active participants as ministers in the temple of justice, have to put in the requisite commitment, forthrightness and dexterity for this to work. As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied. On the flip side also, there is a saying that justice rushed is justice crushed. We cannot afford to run over the rule of law and due process in order to win fleeting victories.
“The fight against corruption is a war and not a battle. I hope both the Bar and the Bench can be courageous to insist on due process and strict adherence to the rule of law in the fight against corruption, such that ultimately, we will win the war,” Akpedeye said.
The senior advocate also wants more use of technology, rather than manual methods that contribute to the delays.
“Law reporting, case management and even court proceedings are increasingly being positively enhanced by Information Technology (IT) in many jurisdictions. We cannot afford to lag behind in the name of conservatism,” Akpedeye said.
Oguntade urged members of the Bar to re-dedicate themselves to the finest traditions of the profession, particularly at this very challenging time in the country.
He said: “We should place a higher premium on and be more cognizant of the leadership role we occupy in the society, and therefore appreciate the fact that any sloppiness on our part will impact negatively on the society.
“The Bar should at all times strive to enthrone justice and the rule of law in every way possible. This will include generally avoiding practices that seek to delay justice, pervert the course of justice or bringing the profession into any form of disrepute.”
Okeke, who is the Programmes/Legal Officer at the Human Rights Law Service (HURILAWS), urged the judiciary to restore public confidence in the system.
“The Bar and Bench can do this by working together to ensure the dispensation of cases fairly and expeditiously, and that corruption and unethical conduct at all levels in the judicial system are fought vigorously,” he said.
Alabi wants to see improvement in communication between the judiciary and practitioners.
He said: “When a court would not be sitting, the court has our mobile numbers and e-mail addresses. Let the Registrar send messages to us that the judge will not be sitting.
“There is also delay in delivery of rulings and judgments. I want the court to adjust in this aspect. I also want judges to live above board this period that they are bribery and corruption allegations against judges.”
Iyieke would like the judges to de-emphasize reliance on technicalities, which deny litigants justice.
He said: “I think there should be a joint tax force within the legal profession and the Bench to root out and bring to book corrupt lawyers and judges, including their accomplices.
“I, therefore, canvass a radical campaign by the Bench and the Bar towards eradicating the age-long disease of bribery and its twin brother corruption in the society, particularly in our noble profession,” Iyieke added.
Igbinedion, who has practiced law in the United Kingdom for several years as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales, said Nigeria has to learn from other jurisdictions.
He said: “The law in the United Kingdom is mainly settled. You know what to expect in many situations. If you represent a client in a criminal case, you could almost assess your client’s chances of discharge or acquittal before the trial starts.
“This will be because the police and the prosecution would have disclosed all the evidence which would be adduced at trial to you-without exception. In fact, no suspect interview or questioning would be conducted without the presence of the suspect’s solicitor.
“If he does not have one, a duty solicitor who is paid by the government to be present 24 hours at every police station will be provided. Then, after the interview, a copy of the interview tape will be handed over immediately to the solicitor.
“Prior to commencement of trial, the defence will also furnish their exculpatory evidence to the prosecution. Upon receipt, the prosecution is also legally obliged to assess the possibility of securing a conviction, relative to the arguable defence.
“In civil cases, the same principles apply. Before you issue a Writ, you must send a Pre-action Protocol Letter, outlining the complaint and remedy required. Each cause of action has its own protocol.
“Upon receipt, the defense is obliged to seriously get legal advice on their position-in writing-from a Solicitor and then from a barrister. To be safe, you get the opinions of two barristers. Woe betides the litigant who issues a Writ without the foregoing.
“Then when the matter is filed in court, the process follows a rigorous timetable usually set in a case management conference for exchange of pleadings, witnesses statements, evidence, all of which will be contained in a trial bundle. Then the trial dates will he fixed in stone, and can only be amended in the most exceptional circumstances.
“In all my years, I never asked for (nor do I know or heard of any solicitor who applied for) the adjournment of any case. If you must, and if you absolutely must, then at least two days’ notice is required.
“The above is obligatory. Case management principles require it, and failure to do what is proper by the prosecution, plaintiff or defence, usually attracts severe sanctions, ranging from cost awards (including wasted cost awards against the individual solicitor), reprimand, increased sentences, etc,” Igbinedion said.
He recalled that he once attended a court for a civil matter which could not proceed because the bailiff failed to notify the other side. He applied to the judge for the court to pay his costs for the day. The application was granted, and the issue was referred to the court administrator who later paid.
He described as unacceptable the difference in the practice of law in Nigeria to what obtains in other climes.
Igbinedion said: “In Nigeria, everything takes forever. No one takes responsibility to get anything done. Case management decisions are reached in conferences in civil cases and then disregarded, as if the time spent is unaccountable.
“Forget criminal cases, where the ‘interest of justice’ seems to dictate that cases should generally be eternal endeavours. Try to persuade a magistrate or judge to foreclose a prosecution being conducted indolently and you will almost certainly meet with ‘one last adjournment for definite hearing’.
“Adjournments are annoyingly granted, often with the most flimsy of reasons, leading one to wonder whether the presiding Judge or Magistrate is lifted to heavenly euphoria by the very fact of it. Imagine flying from Lagos to Abuja only to find out that the Court will not sit because the Magistrate has a migraine, as I found out once.”
According to him, the net effect of this state of affairs is that Nigerians have a low rating and respect for legal and judicial procedures.
He said it was only the most resilient of Nigerians, blessed with the patience of Biblical Job that can bear with the court system.
He said: “Many disappointingly look elsewhere for quicker avenues to redress grievances, which are not often justice, but unjust to all involved.
“My humble submission is that most of these avoidable delays ultimately reduce access to justice. We need to improve.
“Maybe we can start with small ways, like applying for fewer adjournments as lawyers and litigants. Then the magistrates and judges can resolve to grant fewer adjournments. Incrementally, the small measures will increase access to justice.
“Some lawyers, magistrates and judges are to be greatly praised and commended for their uncommon diligence and commitment to the service of the law. These I salute as our heroes and heroines.
“Soon, the annual courts’ vacation will end and the superior courts will start sitting, again. Let’s us all – whether litigants, lawyers, magistrates, judges or court staff, be committed to improving access to justice for everyone.”
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