- Adedipe, Sowemimo, others knock Buhari’s planned reform
AKEEM NAFIU writes that lawyers have questioned the sincerity of President Muhammadu Buhari’s call for the repositioning of judiciary to fast track dispensation of justice. They said his refusal to forward names of four Court of Appeal Justices recommended for Supreme Court Bench by the National Judicial Council (NJC) to the National Assembly almost 15 months after the names got to him has cast serious doubt on his readiness to tackle the problem of delay in justice system
Some senior lawyers have questioned the rationale behind President Muhammadu Buhari’s call for urgent reform of the judiciary.
To them, the president has not shown enough political will to deal with the issue of delay in administration of justice in the country as failure by the Executive to assist in quick dispensation of justice through the delay in confirming appointment of Judges and Justices of the appellate courts has been a major cause for worry.
They cited the case of four Justices of the Court of Appeal whose elevation into the Supreme Court is being delayed by the president owing to his failure to do the needful following recommendation by the National Judicial Council (NJC).
The NJC headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Muhammad, had in October 2019 among other recommendations to President Buhari sought the elevation of four Justices of the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court. It is the president who has the powers to appoint the judges with the backing of the Senate.
The appointment of the judges is expected to make up for the full complement of the Supreme Court Justices which currently stood at 12 contrary to the provisions of Section 230 (2) (b) of the Constitution which provides that “the Supreme Court of Nigeria shall consist of such number of Justices not exceeding 21 as may be prescribed by an Act of the National Assembly.”
However, almost 15 months after the NJC’s recommendation, President Buhari is yet to forward their names to the Senate for confirmation.
The Justices recommended for elevation to the apex court were: Adamu Jauro (North- East); Emmanuel A. Agim (South-South); C. Oseji (Sout- South) and Helen M. Ogunwumiju (South-West).
The recommendation was part of the resolution reached at the meeting of the National Judicial Council (NJC) on October 22 and 23, 2019. The four Justices of the appellate court are part of 22 other members of the judiciary recommended to President Buhari for appointment into various positions.
Buhari’s ideal justice system
President Muhammadu Buhari had recently decried the pace at which cases are dispensed with by courts across the country, describing it as terribly slow.
The president has consequently called for an urgent reform of the justice system. In a speech delivered on his behalf by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo at the recently held virtual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) under the theme; “Stepping Forward,” President Buhari suggested a 12-month time limit for the hearing of all criminal cases and 15 months for civil cases as a way of ensuring quick dispensation of justice. In the speech, the president lamented his experiences in court in litigations he instituted over his losses in the 2003, 2007 and 2011 presidential elections.
He said: “I am not a lawyer but I have been both a casualty and a beneficiary of the judicial process. I was before the court for two and half years from 2003 to 2005 and it took me two and a half years to fight for a four-year presidential mandate.
“In 2007, I was again in court for 20 months, almost two years, as petitioner, and later as appellant in the case of Buhari vs INEC and in 2011 again as petitioner in the case of CPC Vs INEC and at the end, I lost all three cases. I wondered then, why it needed to take so long to arrive at a verdict and if I had won the case, someone who did not legitimately win the election would have been in office all that time. “In 2019, I was no longer petitioner; I had now become a respondent in the case of Atiku and Buhari and the whole process took barely six months; just over six months. What was the difference?
The law had changed since my own in 2003, 2007 and 2011. You had now introduced time limits for election petitions. “Everything must be done within a six to eight-month period. My question then is why can’t we have a time limit for criminal cases? Why can’t we have a rule that will say a criminal trial all the way to the Supreme Court must not exceed 12 months?
And why can’t we do the same for civil cases? Even if we say that civil cases must not go beyond between 12 and 15 months. I think that for me is stepping forward.” The president while expressing concerns over the issue of conflicting orders by courts of coordinate jurisdiction also sought for a reform of the process of judges’ appointment. He recommended that aspiring judges should undergo tests. His words: “The second issue for me is the multiple and sometimes conflicting orders of courts.
Recently, my party, the APC, had an internal crisis. In the six-week period before I chaired the meeting of the party to resolve the issues, there were at least 10 different conflicting rulings of the courts across the country.
“Again, I am not a lawyer, but surely these sort of multiple and conflicting rulings of courts sometimes ex-parte, really make a mockery of the judicial process.
“Third issue is the seeming bias towards technicality over the clear common sense justice of cases. If justice is to be seen to be done, then the outcomes of cases must make sense to the average person and not just to the refined minds of learned persons alone. Justice must make sense to lawyers and nonlawyers alike.
“My fourth issue is on the appointment of judges. I believe that we must continuously improve on the selection processes for appointment of the men and women who serve as judges.
“First we must cast our nets wider in search of judges, especially at the appellate level. Second, we must put in place primarily merit-based selection processes including mandatory tests and interviews for all applicants for judgeships.
While our Constitution urges Federal character for balance, this is not an excuse for mediocrity. If a particular zone is to produce a judge, why can’t we find the best talents in that zone.
Our country has excellent men and women everywhere”. While urging stakeholders in the justice sector to further leverage technology to enhance the speed of court processes, the president said; “digitization of court processes, records and services is very much the new frontier of justice delivery and will dramatically enhance access to justice and affect trial timelines.”
Lawyers rue Buhari’s concerns In the meantime, some senior have expressed doubt in the sincerity of the call by President Buhari for an immediate reform of the justice system.
The lawyers while speaking on the issue at the weekend said they were not swayed by the Buhari’s concern because recent events have called the president’s commitment to question.
Speaking on the issue, a bencher, Chief Ifedayo Adedipe (SAN), said the president was not sincere with his suggestions on repositioning of judiciary. He said: “The president is not sincere with his suggestions on repositioning the judiciary and I don’t want to believe what he said. This was the same person that removed a Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) in a very scandalous, illegal and unconstitutional fashion.
There is nothing he will say on judiciary or administration of justice that will appeal to me”. Another member of the Inner Bar, Mr. Seyi Sowemimo, said the president need to tell Nigerians the reasons behind the delay in presenting the recommended names to the National Assembly. “It would have been helpful to ascertain the reasons for the delay. It may have to do with security checks or a flawed process. It will be nice to have a full complement of Justices but it would have been more inspiring if one or more candidates were picked from the ranks of deserving senior lawyers”, he said.
Mr. Olukayode Enitan (SAN) want the Executive to be more alive to its responsibilities in bailing the judiciary out of justice delay quagmire. He said: “The constitutional provision for the Bench of the Supreme Court is not more than 21 Justices so even if the 4 names are sent for confirmation today, the Bench would still have less than the constitutionally prescribed number.
“With regards to the president’s speech at the NBA AGC, I am of the view that it’s an expression of his readiness to do all that is necessary to actualise the desire of a 15-month cycle for having a case tried from trial to conclusion of final appeal. “If the president truly wants to do this, I would expect further action in respect of appointment of trial judges, strengthening of the Court of Appeal Bench by appointing more Justices, complying with the constitutional requirements for the Supreme Court Bench.
“Further action to be undertaken would be enhancement of the welfare and conditions of service of Justices. This will be in addition to the provision of a conducive working environment as well as facilities to make the work of judges easier. The above is what I would expect to see in order that the president may be taken to be serious in pursuit of his stated desire”. A former Secretary of an NBA task force, Mr. Kunle Adegoke, was also not convinced of the president’s sincerity in tackling delay in justice dispensation.
“The lamentation by the president is not a sincere response to the situation on ground in the justice sector by which cases last several years before they are concluded. It is a known fact that one of the slowest judicial processes in the whole world is to be found in no other place but Nigeria. The fault is not entirely that of the judiciary but also that of the executive.
“It is on record that cases that have time limits enjoy fast tract process and are concluded within time. For example, election petitions have been confined within a period of six months to be decided while appeals arising therefrom are to be decided within two months each.
That has made election and pre-election cases to enjoy fast disposal and quick dispensation of justice. The 2019 amendment to Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) Act has also fast-tracked AMCON cases on the same footing with election petition cases. “However, the gains of those privileged cases are the losses of other cases that do not enjoy such fast track.
Thus, cases like land disputes, contract, administration of estates etc. last till eternity in court. The same thing happens at the appellate courts more so since the Supreme Court has taken on election petition appeals which used to terminate at the Court of Appeal before.
“It is imperative to mention the failure of the executive to assist in the dispensation of justice through the delay in confirming appointment of Judges and Justices of the appellate Courts. Governors play politics with appointment of Judges at the High Court level and in many cases, they hide behind lack of money to increase the number of Judges when that is a major solution to addressing the slow pace of work in Courts.
“Some nominations have been made for appointments into the Supreme Court in the past nine or ten months awaiting presidential approval while the number of hands to handle cases at the Supreme Court dwindled below 12.
The consequence is that appeals filed in year 2000 are still pending at the Supreme Court awaiting mention not to talk of trial. No investor will take such a country serious. “The pattern of appointment of judges in this country is appalling as there is too much of political influence on who becomes a judge resulting in appointment of incompetent hands in some cases based on political persuasion than competence. Equally, remuneration of judges has been lamented so much without any reasonable intervention from the executive and the legislature. Where judges have not had increase in their emoluments in the last thirteen years, it is certain that the morale will be non-existent and the masses are the ones to suffer.
“The president should look into all the above in order to place the country on a progressive track. No nation progresses where the judicial system is prostrate like ours. Appointment into the apex Court should be concluded with dispatch while the remuneration of their lordships should be a matter of urgent improvement. The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, which practically covers all manners of causes of action, should be streamlined.
“The Constitution should be amended to whittle down the number of cases to the Supreme Court whether as of right or by leave. A situation where a dispute over a one-room apartment in a derelict building located in a remotest part of the country must end up in the Supreme Court before the dispute terminates is simply disheartening.
The President’s agitation is good but there is need to make the system work rather than merely lamenting the effect without looking at the cause”, he said. Speaking in the same vein, a rights activist, Mr. Kabir Akingbolu also said recent events in the polity has called the president’s sincerity to question. He said: “The president has never been serious with anything. In fact, the last batch of Justices appointed to the Court of Appeal took the president almost a year to act on. So, many judges that were dismissed from the Bench remain for long because the president refused to sign their dismissal.
With all this I don’t think the president meant what he said and only a few people can take him serious. “It is not in doubt that we need quicker dispensation of justice in Nigeria. This is so because a situation where cases take up to 15 to 20 years to get finished in Supreme Court is uncalled for and does not augur well for our judicial system”.