Yesterday January 6, 2020, most courts resumed legal business for the new year and the judicial calendar will be busy and crowded for the next three months before the Easter break. It is about the most productive period of litigation in Nigeria. By now, it is taken that lawyers and judges have rested and there are not too many holidays within this long period. So, the question then is this: what should we expect from the judiciary in the new year? Let me attempt to identify some of them, although this cannot be exhaustive. The judiciary, being the third arm of government, is about the most important institution, for the true practice of democracy, which is anchored on the twin pillars of the rule of law and due process. Law is the engine of genuine democratic practice and without it, we cannot talk of a sane society. It is the judiciary that is keeping society together otherwise there will be total lawlessness and anarchy if everyone is allowed to resort to self-help. Thus, for the new year 2020, the judiciary should get its acts together to achieve smooth administration of justice, in the following areas.
FUNDING AND TRANSPARENCY
All Nigerians should unite to get the government to fund the judiciary in order to place it in its vintage position to achieve the statutory roles defined for it by the Constitution, of being the final arbiter of all disputes between persons and persons, between persons and governments and between governments and governments. Even though the budgetary allocation to the judiciary is small and far between, there exists internal mechanisms of generating revenue for the judiciary by way of filing fees, the huge penalties paid for late filing of processes, the high costs now being imposed by the courts and the huge revenue coming in through the probate registry of the courts.
There must be some transparent method for the courts to properly account for their funds in order to maximize what is available. So, in the new year, I expect that the judiciary will focus more on infrastructure in order to fast track the process of justice administration.
APPOINTMENT OF MORE JUDGES
There is presently a paucity of judicial officers in many of the States with very busy judicial schedules, such as Anambra, Lagos and Rivers States, the Federal High Court and the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory. There is no reason why a single judge should have over 700 cases in his docket, as he is human too. The cause list of the courts is too congested and what is needed in that regard is to build more courts and appoint more judges. In a State like Lagos for instance, with a population of about twenty million people, there should be at least 200 judges sitting and active.
BETTER WELFARE FOR JUDGES AND ALL JUDICIAL STAFF
It is not just enough to appoint judges and leave them to struggle to make ends meet. The government must take a bold step to improve the welfare of judicial officers through proper remuneration. And this should follow an established pattern of say every two years or so. As it is presently, judges have no association through which they can press for better emolument except as it suits the powers that be. In this regard, the National Judicial Council should partner with the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission to work out a template that will constantly see to the improvement of the salary and allowances of judges and other judicial staff.
Whether we admit it or not, the judges go to the same market as we all do, they send their children to the same schools and they contend with blackout to maintain their generators and their cars as the rest of society.
COMPLETE OVERHAUL OF THE COURT SYSTEM
The world is gradually going digital and it is only proper that we embrace digital technology in the legal profession. The electronic filing regime will cure a lot of corruption in the system and fast track the judicial process. Presently, lawyers and litigants are at the mercy of court officials such as the court registrars, the sheriffs, the probate staff and other members of staff of the courts, without which you cannot achieve anything. Electronic filing and service should be embraced. Parties should file their papers and adopt their arguments online without the necessity of appearing in court physically except when there is need to call witnesses during trial. The judge should read the processes filed, go through the arguments of lawyers and take a decision and communicate it to the parties through their lawyers.
There is no reason why any court should still be taking proceedings in long hand in year 2020. So, I expect that all the court system will be updated electronically and we can follow up processes online. If for any reason the court will not sit, then parties and their counsel should be well notified ahead of time except in rare cases of emergency, such as ill health.
A FEARLESS AND INDEPENDENT JUDICIARY
If and when the courts are properly funded and more judges are appointed, it would require deliberate efforts to grant autonomy to the courts, in order to allow them function according to law and according to their conscience. In this regard, the issue of monitoring judges, through the law enforcement agencies, is an indirect way of intimidating and silencing them to always do the bidding of the executive arm of government. A judge should be free to give his decision anyhow, without first thinking of how his Governor or President will react to it, as when that happens, it means that everybody is not equal before the law.
The common man expects justice from the courts, that is why it is called High Court of Justice. The courts should rise up and confront impunity and lawlessness on behalf of the ordinary man and be able to look the high and mighty in the face and speak truth to power. The President in his new year message said the government will not do anything that is not in accord with the rule of law. Let our courts take this as a declaration of faith and hold the government accountable to its undertakings.
I also expect that in year 2020, the executive arm of government will obey the orders of courts more readily and where there is any deviation, the judiciary should stand firm and insist on its authority according to law, in line with the President’s new undertaking. Judges should look the authorities in the face and call them to order. It is not being confrontational but rather having the fair mind to declare that law as it is.
CONSISTENCY OF JUDICIAL DECISIONS
In the new year, I expect that the courts will harmonize the judicial system to avoid conflicting decisions. Law should be predictable, based on established patterns, in order to properly regulate human behavior. Lawyers should be able to advise their clients based on existing common principles of law. The courts should not be changing legal principles at the occurrence of every new case, otherwise there will be confusion. As we all well know it within the legal profession, if there is any reason to depart from the previous decision of the court, then let us follow the procedure prescribed for doing that and not this present practice of having to cope with conflicting decisions of the courts on the same subject matter.
SYNERGY BETWEEN THE BAR AND BENCH
Lawyers and judges are critical partners in the administration of justice so there must be effective collaboration between them for the good of society. The Nigerian Bar Association, the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, the Body of Benchers and all other organs within the Bar should meet constantly with the judges through the heads of the various courts, to suggest ways and means of improving justice delivery.
There should be constant engagements by way of conferences, periodic meetings and seminars, between the Bar and the Bench, on issues commonly affecting the due administration of justice, with a view to addressing them in the common interest of all.
HARMONISATION OF ACJA
The Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, is a bold attempt to improve criminal justice administration. To that extent, all States should take a cue from ACJA to update the relevant criminal procedure laws regulating criminal trials and procedures, in order to decongest the prisons and other detention centers and to fast track justice delivery.
In many of the States, the old criminal procedure laws of the British colonialists still regulate the criminal law process. With appropriate modifications as may seem just, ACJA should be domesticated by the House of the Assembly of the States for better criminal justice administration.
IMPLEMENTATION OF THE 4TH ALTERATION BY ALL STATES
It is a complete wonder that the Judicial Staff Union of Nigeria, JUSUN has not found cause to take the matter of the implementation of the 4th Alteration Act, which grants financial autonomy to all the judiciaries of the States, as a matter of urgent national importance, to warrant a confrontation with the executives in most of the States that are yet to domesticate the Act. This should be the concern of all stakeholders in the judicial sector in this new year, to ensure that no State in Nigeria is allowed to cripple the judiciary with lack of fund. Furthermore, the fund available for the judiciary should go the account of the High Court directly, not to be supervised by the Accountant-General or the Attorney-General of the States. When the courts go begging for fund, they are indirectly under the control and direction of the one who approves the fund.
Let our courts take the bull by the horn and give Nigeria hope for a new decade. Happy new year.
– Adegboruwa is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria