Nigeria @62: Legal experts demand judiciary restructuring

As the Nigerian judiciary marks 62 years since the country’s independence, legal analysts have demanded the urgent restructuring of the country’s judiciary to make it more competitive.

The legal experts believe that a total reorganization of the Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the country’s judicial hierarchy, will have a trickle-down effect on the other levels of the judiciary.

There are hundreds of thousands of cases pending in a slow process at the law courts nationwide; while most private cases at the Supreme Court have not been assigned for adoption in the past seven years.

The entire judiciary is also faced with more challenges like poor funding, political interference, corruption and delays due to inadequate manpower and technology.

Others are unwieldy structure, low quality of judicial officers due to the flawed recruitment process, poor welfare for judges, absence of a fair and transparent system, corruption, political interference and lack of independence.

The way forward

A former Attorney General and Commissioner of 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.

Similarly, the President of the Public Interest and Development Lawyers (SPIDEL), 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 said other cases can 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.

Ubani called for more training of judges on public interest to avoid throwing cases away on the basis of locus standi based on the Abraham Adesanya and FRN case of 1981 “not minding the work of Gani Fawehinmi has expanded the space in public interest litigations.”

However, Nnamdi Ahaiwe Esq said the Supreme Court should not be decentralized to the zones to avoid influences from state governors and due to 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, EMD Umukoro Esq discussed 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,” he said.

“Judgments in cases should not be more than two months from commencement to conclusion.”

In his view, the executive director of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), Sylvester Uhaa, said some progress has been achieved, but so much is needed to be done, especially in the areas of amendment of pre-colonial laws, access to speedy justice for all, and anti-corruption in the judiciary.

Judiciary’s 62 years’ journey

The British colonial authority set up formal courts in the southern part of Nigeria in the 1800s known as “Courts of Equity”, which did not preclude the operation of native courts based on customs, provided such were not repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience.

Around 1863 and 1900, two supreme courts were established for Lagos and the protectorate of Southern Nigeria respectively. While both had both civil and criminal jurisdictions, the Southern Supreme Court exercised the same powers and jurisdictions vested in Her Majesty’s High Court of Justice in England.

Although, the Supreme Court then exercised appellate jurisdiction over the high courts, between 1934 and 1954 appeals from the Supreme Court went to the West African Court of Appeal (WACA). Appeals from the WACA went to the Privy Council’s judicial committee.

But 1954 was a major watershed in Nigeria when a Federal Supreme Court was established. Between 1958 and 1972, Justice Adetokumbo Ademola became the first indigenous Chief Justice of the Federation at the Supreme Court.

When Nigeria became a republic in 1963, the Supreme Court of Nigeria became the highest court and the last point of appeal. This was because the Privy Council was abolished.

Justice Ademola was succeeded by Justice Taslim Olawale Elias between 1972 and 1975 after he was nominated by the Bar.

In 1954, regional-level high courts presided over by chief judges were established. Appeals from each of the Regional High Courts went to the Federal Supreme Courts, while that from Customary or Native Courts Grade A went to the Regional High Courts.

Then there was the promulgation of the Federal Revenue Court Decree of 1973, 15 years after the idea was muted.

The earlier decision was reached at the one of the independence constitutional conferences in the 1950s to establish a high court for the determination of cases and matters within the Exclusive Legislative list as the case with other countries with a federal system of government. More specifically, it would be a court for government’s revenue disputes.

Disputes over the court’s jurisdiction led to the enactment of Section 230(1) of the Nigerian Constitution of 1979 and replicated in the amended Federal High Court decree of 1991 with the same jurisdiction conferred by Section 7 of the Establishment Act of 1973.

From a single division in Lagos, the court now has 38 divisions in all 36 states and two divisions in Lagos. From the five judges, led by pioneer judge, Justice SO Lambo from 1973 to 1975, it now has 82 judges.

The Court of Appeal of Nigeria was then established as an intermediate appellate court through the Federal Appeal Court Act of 1976. It had Justice DO Ibekwe as its pioneer president. The court has now grown to 20 divisions across the federation and about 80 justices.

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