Judicial Overhaul Urgently Needed In Nigeria, By Charles Musa

“Efficient justice delivery is central to the nation’s economic growth and development.” 

There is hardly any doubt that the administration of justice in Nigeria craves for serious reform in order to cope with the challenges dictated by 21st Century changes and developments e.g. the advent of the internet, the mobile phone, increase in terrorist acts and crimes hitherto unimagined e.g. the  senseless and brutal kidnapping and or killing of fellow human beings.

The justice machinery, reputed to be the last hope of the common man, is squeaking under the weight of a heavy caseload and myriads of problems. The criminal justice system has endured prolonged delay in the administration  of justice, congestion of courts, inadequate infrastructure and lack of access to justice by the poor, a majority of who cannot afford the services of lawyers, the congestion of prisons with the daily influx of accused persons or suspects awaiting trial, the persistent issue of the holding charge, arrest of suspects’ relatives in place of suspects, the use of torture by the police to extort extra judicial confessions and allegations of corruption against judicial officers.

In addition, many of our laws are outdated and out of tune with modern trends. Some of them are nothing but mere relics of colonial legislation that ought to have been reformed long time ago. Most of the laws brim with anachronistic provisions that take no cognizance of the changes and developments that have occurred over the years.

Efficient justice delivery is central to the nation’s economic growth and development, and the socio-economic wellbeing of its citizens. It is not an overstatement to say that our budding democracy depends heavily on the just resolution of our individual and collective differences through an efficient and robust judicial system.

The incontrovertible assumption behind legal and judicial reform is that it concerns the rich and the poor, the high and low alike; all and sundry must be guaranteed access to a court system for settlement of disputes quickly and fairly. The law is the mechanism for reducing the level of grievance in a society. Unless there is confidence in the system itself, both in its rules and the officials that apply them, anxiety and bitterness will ensue. Justice in any society must assure the weak of the possibility of winning against the strong, even against the state itself.

Judicial reform requires both cultural and systematic change in the delivery of justice. Such a program should include repealing/amendment of antiquated laws, enactment of modern laws to meet the needs of ever changing socio-economic conditions, court modernization and restructuring, legal reforms and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, training of judges, court personnel, and lawyers, students and civil society; and improved access to justice. The starting point for these programmes should be a clear plan that focuses on activities that have a high probability of success and that provide immediate benefits.

The success of an effective justice system is measured not only by the number of cases that it manages to dispose of, but also and more specifically by the amount of litigation which is avoided because the rights and obligations of parties are ascertainable in advance. Where the justice system is reasonably effective and coherent, parties are able to ascertain the extent of their rights and obligations without systematic reference to the courts. In the context of judicial reform programs, the measures which need to be taken to reduce the duration of the litigation process are those relating to avoidable sources of delay, which tend to slow down and even halt proceedings unnecessarily.

Although justice is most of the time, a matter of finding the appropriate rules for settling disputes, resolving grievances and trying the accused persons with basic fairness, no justice system can be worthy of that name unless it provides for judges who are independent of the state which appoints them and operate without any pressure to decide cases in favour of government.

In addition, certain offences like corruption, terrorism, kidnapping, election fraud, etc., should be designated as serious crimes and should attract severe punishment without option of fine. There should also be a time limit of twelve months for criminal trials to ensure speedy dispensation of justice. In cases where the accused does not have counsel when a matter is called, the State should appoint a counsel to represent him before the adjourned date. It is further suggested that various tactics employed by parties to judicial proceedings to delay and undermine the justice system, should be sternly deprecated.

Thus no interlocutory appeals or stay of proceedings should be permitted in criminal trials. Lagos State is on track in this regard as its Administration of Criminal Justice Law 2011 does not allow the preliminary objection to criminal trial before the prosecution has closed its case. It is further advocated that even where a court lacks jurisdiction to entertain a matter, rather than strike it out, it should be accorded inherent jurisdiction to transfer the matter to the court having jurisdiction. This would prevent undue costs and expenses incurred by parties in filing fresh actions in the court having jurisdiction when a matter is struck out for want of jurisdiction and the irreparable hardship occasioned if the time limited by law for filing such an action expired by the time the matter was struck out.

In the final analysis, however, there is no doubt that the Nigerian judiciary has a key role to play. No combat against crime, corruption and other social vices plaguing the country can either be credible or complete unless at the end of the day there is in place an independent, effective, and robust judicial system to count on. A properly administered judicial system capable of guaranteeing individual rights and freedoms, protecting victims from the arbitrary exercise of power, and punishing criminal offenders; is an essential catalyst for good governance and uplifting of the socio-economic wellbeing of Nigeria and her citizens.

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