How to mitigate trial delays in Nigerian courts – Access to Justice

Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen
Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen

An advocacy group, Access to Justice, has urged the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, to review the timing of judicial conferences for judges as it delays administration of justice in the country.

The group in a statement on Saturday urged the National Judicial Institute, the organiser of the conferences, to reschedule the programme to hold during court vacations.

“We have no objection to conferencing amongst judges or anyone else,” Adenike Aiyedun, Deputy Director, Access to Justice, said in the statement.

“However, we may observe that there is nothing inevitable about how those meetings are scheduled, and no legal requirement that such conferences take place on court users’ time.

“Once courts open for business, the time available to be applied towards adjudication of disputes technically belongs to court users and the satisfaction of their needs, and not the judges themselves since it is to meet the needs of court users that the Judiciary owes its existence.”

The bi-annual Judges’ Conference held in Abuja last week with the theme ‘Strengthening Judicial Integrity and the Rule of Law.’

On the opening ceremony of the event, President Muhammadu Buhari noted that a reform of the Judiciary should begin with eliminating “seemingly endless delays” particularly at the Appellate courts.

Cases before the judges attending the week-long conference were stalled and subsequently adjourned to later dates, some to the early weeks of 2018.

Ms. Aiyedun said the effect of the conference on litigation is that lawyers and witnesses who had given up important commitments to go to courts would have wasted their time.

She added that if the Judiciary is interested in cutting trial delays, then it must walk the talk by introducing reforms that would remove factors that occasion delays in the trial system.

“Any talk about reforming the speed at which justice is administered must include a commitment, indeed a Covenant, not to place any other duty on Judges above the duty to adjudicate over their various dockets.

“As a matter of fact, the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers specifically states in a preamble that the ‘… the judicial duties of a Judicial Officer, which include all the duties of his office prescribed by law, take precedence over all his other activities.’

“To reduce court delays, therefore, the Judiciary must prioritise the rendering of a Judge’s adjudicative functions above every other activity of its Judges.

“The scale of the impact which a Court’s closure for even one day has on the life of any single case is significant, and not miniscule or marginal as may be assumed: the fixture of any trial date often involves participatory forensic planning to ensure a date is suitable for every party in the case – that is, the court, the litigants, legal counsel, and witnesses.

“Therefore, one adjournment can trigger a series of further adjournments in an effort to get a suitable trial date for all the parties.”

Ms. Aiyedun further noted that while the Nigerian Bar Association, the umbrella body of lawyers in the country, schedules its own annual conference during court vacations, judicial conferences in a number of countries are held on weekends or public holidays.

“In India for example, judicial conferences have been held on Easter as well as on its Independence Day.

She added that preventing one adjournment in a case could save a significant amount of time available for trial and improve court users’ experiences with attending courts.

“In any event, taking a stand that Judicial Conferences will no longer disrupt courts’ adjudicative functions will set a worthy example for every stakeholder in the justice system: it will amplify the message that it is no longer business as usual in our courtrooms and that the Judiciary expects Judges to no longer superimpose other responsibilities over their primary adjudicative duties.

“If the National Judicial Council fails to do this, the current paradigm of adjudicatory delays will not change and will continue to create unpleasant experiences for court users and an unfavourable perception of courts and justice in Nigeria.”

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Ben Ezeamalu is an Assistant Managing Editor and the Head of Lagos Operations/Metro Editor at PREMIUM TIMES. A graduate of Microbiology from the University of Jos, Ben won the 2015 Africa Fact-Check Awards and was a runner-up in the 2014 CNN/Multichoice African Journalists of the Year.

Twitter: @callmebenfigo.

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