The House of Representatives recently passed through second reading a bill to prescribe time for dispensation of criminal and civil cases. PHILIP NYAM reviews the debate on the bill
Worried by the unnecessary delays in the dispensation of cases in the courts, the House of Representatives last week moved to redress the disturbing trend. The time it takes judges to dispose of cases before them is an issue that has bothered many Nigerians for a long time as there are cases that take more than 10 years to be decided. Sometimes, these delays are caused by judges, but in some cases, it is the lawyers that are responsible thereby defeating the whole essence of the litigations.
Of course, justice delayed is said to be justice denied. It was against this backdrop that Green Chamber in an attempt to correct the anomaly, passed a bill titled: “A bill for an act to alter the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, to set time within which civil and criminal cases and matters are heard and determined at trials and appellate courts in order to eliminate unnecessary delays in justice administration and delivery.”
Chairman of the House Committee on Justice, Hon. Onofiok Luke (PDP, Akwa Ibom) moved the motion and was seconded by the chairman of the House Committee on Electoral Matters, Hon. Aishatu Dukku (APC, Gombe).
The lead debate
In leading the debate on the bill, Hon. Luke stated that the bill seeks to establish the appropriate timing for dispensing with litigation matters for the good of the justice delivery system. According to him, “the very slow justice delivery system has been extremely detrimental to the proper functioning of the socio-economic life of Nigerians and foreign investors in the country.” He also pointed out that the intervention of the National Assembly by amending the electoral laws, which mandated matters in election petition tribunals to be decided within a short period has given succour to politicians.
“This proposed bill seeks to grant the same succour to Nigerians and all residents in the country. Therefore, it proposes the amendment of chapter 6, part 4 by inserting a new section 227A to deliver judgement within nine months from the date of filing of any such case,” he said. He also submitted that electoral matters are exempted from these laws as they have been covered already.
Supporting the bill, the Chief Whip of the House, Hon. Mohammed Tahir Monguno (APC, Borno) stated that the administration of Criminal Justice Act stipulates that matters should be handled on a day-to-day basis without a time limit for disposing of cases, while the proposed bill stipulates a time-bound litigation exercise. Monguno praised the spirit of the bill as it aims to decongest the nation’s correctional facilities and the burden on the judiciary. He also pointed out that the bill takes care of sharp practices that seek an unending adjournment of court cases. Also speaking in favour of the bill, Hon. Herman Hembe (APC, Benue) stated that the term “reasonable time” should suffice as long as all the parameters and variables allow. Similarly, Hon. Abdulganiyu Olododo Cook (APC, Kwara) agreed that there is the need to decongest correctional facilities and sought the passage of the bill. He called on the Constitution Review Committee to ensure a thorough work on the bill to address any gray area.
Picking holes in the bill, Hon. Uzoma Nkem-Abonta (PDP, Abia) pointed out that though the bill has extremely good intentions, shortening the time frame for litigations can be counterproductive as some crimes such as murder take longer periods of time to investigate and prosecute. He called on the relevant committees to work on the bill to try and manage its pros and cons. Abonta consequently advocated for more courts for prosecution of criminal matters. Hon. Shaba Ibrahim, in his contribution, agreed that all individuals are entitled to fair hearing within a reasonable time and that “reasonable time” varies from case to case. He called for caution in passing the bill, so that it does not infringe on sections 35 and 36(5) of the Constitution.
The ruling While ruling
on the bill, Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila advised the constitution review committee to take into consideration observations raised by Nkem-Abonta and others. He urged the committee to balance the situation, so that the rights of people are not infringed upon. The speaker reminded his colleagues that such unforeseen occurrences or circumstances like the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced courts to also shut down would infringe on the timeline stipulated by the bill. According to him, if the bill becomes an act, there will be no way to work round it if such an unexpected thing happened. The bill was voted on, passed for second reading and referred to the special ad-hoc committee on the review of the 1999 Constitution.