By Joe-Kyari Gadzama SAN
On behalf of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, I congratulate this great institution, the Federal High Court, on the conclusion of the 2019/2020 legal year and the opening of the 2020/2021 legal year. Earlier today I joined My Lords and colleagues at the church service held at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Maitama, to praise God for the outgone year and seek His blessings for the legal year ahead. Similarly, our Muslim colleagues gathered at the Al-Nur Mosque, Wuse 2, Abuja, this morning for the same purpose. It is fitting that we should formally conclude the previous year and begin the next one with gratitude to God.
Effects of Covid-19
The fact that the occasion is taking place in December, rather than in September as customary, is an indication of the extraordinary times in which we are currently living. A great shadow was cast over a substantial part of the outgone legal year by a global pandemic that had a tremendous effect, not only on the administration of justice but also on our personal lives. Even now, the masks over our noses remind us that we are not quite in the clear, but with the discovery of a vaccine, we are confident that the worst of this scourge is behind us.
As we look back on the outgone year, we recall with admiration that even a global pandemic did not deter this Court from performing its constitutional function as a custodian of the rule of law. As other sectors of the economy and society in general were shutting down, the courts remained accessible for urgent and time-bound cases. We salute the courage of the judges of this Court who continued to discharge their duties in the thick of the pandemic, at great risk to themselves and their loved ones. The honourable judges of this court showed a very high order of devotion to duty, and set a great example of personal sacrifice and public-spiritedness.
The outgone year was in many respects a year of challenges. But inherent in every challenge is an opportunity, so the outgone year was also a year of opportunity. By making physical hearings impracticable, the pandemic helped to put in focus something that we ought to have given due attention long before now – the digitization of the administration of justice.
In a remarkable demonstration of foresight, the Federal High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules, 2019 provided the procedural framework for the adoption of digital tools in the administration of justice. The new rules, which were promulgated long before the outbreak of the pandemic, prescribe the establishment of an e-Filing Unit (Order 58). By May 2020 the Honourable Chief Judge of this Court had issued Practice Directions tailored to the peculiar needs of those strange times, which Practice Directions included provisions for virtual hearings.
Many state courts followed suit and issued protocols for virtual hearings. Some states, such as Rivers State, have gone as far as establishing virtual filing systems, drawing the curtain on the age of paper. It is hoped that, before long, a similar system will be operational in the Federal High Court. When fully deployed, these ingenious technological aids will have massive positive implications on the speed and efficiency of justice delivery. All in all, it is encouraging to see that the judiciary has made admirable progress in adapting itself to the challenges induced by the pandemic.
The ‘End SARS’ Protests
The judiciary as an institution has been provided with further cause for reflection in the form of the ‘End SARS’ protests that swept the country in October. The trigger of the incident was wanton police brutality against the youth, but as young people took their grievance to the streets, we observed what seemed to be a peculiar focus on the institutions of justice. In Lagos, mobs visited their fury on the courts, looting the offices and burning what remained. In Lagos and Calabar, lawyers were attacked and law offices plundered.
Why did the judiciary suffer a disproportionate share of the attacks? Could it be a matter of inadequate security? Is it because the premises are accessible? Is it mere coincidence? Or is it that people have lost confidence in the judiciary? Rhetorically, I can go on and on, but these posers are topics for another day as the answers may be far to fetch at the moment.
It is easy to dismiss this as the work of hoodlums, but it is worthwhile to consider that it signals a general and growing disenchantment with the entire justice architecture. The man on the street is not particularly concerned with the case load of the judge or magistrate; all he knows is that the system is sluggish. He does not understand, or appreciate the necessity of, procedural rules; but he feels it very keenly when a hearing on the merits is truncated on purely technical grounds. These are only a few causes of this disenchantment.
Many of the challenges are systemic, and it is hoped that as we go forward, we will pay greater attention to the little signs of discontent and take steps to address them. It is necessary to staff the courts with more judges to accommodate the swelling case load; to utilize precise scheduling techniques that assist in case management and the pace of proceedings; and to reiterate the emphasis on substantive rather than technical justice. We are optimistic that many improvements will be made regarding all these issues going forward.
Another area that merits close attention is the perception of judicial corruption. In its “Nigeria Corruption Index: Report of a Pilot Survey”, the Independent and Corrupt Practices Commission lists the judiciary at the top of the Nigerian corruption index, stating that about N9 billion was requested or offered in bribes to judicial officers between 2018 and 2020. There is no question that our judicial officers are upright people of strong moral convictions. But the administration of justice is so sensitive that even the slightest blemish can critically affect the reputation of the entire edifice. It is therefore important that the judiciary guards its reputation jealously, doing all it can to eliminate even the slightest hint of vice. The responsibility does not lie with judicial officers alone. It is also the duty of legal practitioners to shun corrupt practices and thereby help strengthen the perception of the judiciary, because it takes two to tango.
Delay in Cases
The great volume of cases that come to this Court have always strained its resources, and one effect of this strain is that it takes longer and longer to conclude cases. Still, there is one aspect to this matter that merits consideration. Political cases tend to receive priority to the detriment of general civil causes. It is understandable, even desirable, that these cases should be accorded priority because they are often time-bound, but it is worthwhile to ensure that the situation does not have a negative impact on regular civil causes.
One way to ensure this is to insist that cases be heard in the division of this Court where the dispute arises. Too often we see lawyers and litigants move their disputes from other states to the Federal Capital Territory. This undermines the administrative convenience that the divisions of the Court are meant to provide, resulting in overloaded dockets in certain divisions.
It may also be worthwhile for My Lord, the Honourable the Chief Judge of the Court, to consider the establishment of special decongestion courts to clear the backlog in Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt. Such an initiative would no doubt go a long way in making for a more efficient justice delivery system.
It will not be out of place to use this occasion to reemphasize and remind other arms of Government on the need to respect and promote the independence of the judiciary in line with the doctrines of rule of law and separation of power as constitutionally enshrined in the 1999 Constitution (as amended) (Sections 4, 5 & 6). Attempts, whether direct or indirect, to intimidate, cow and/or suppress the Judiciary must be condemned and discouraged in all ramifications at all times.
The doctrine of rule of law presupposes equality before the law and this is important as the concept of rule of law is the bedrock upon which any modern democratic society rests on. No arm of Government, or its Ministry, Department, Agency, Functionary or Appointee must be seen to be above the law. The need for obedience of Court orders by all and sundry, no matter how highly placed, cannot be overemphasized. The reality as at today, that some persons pick and choose at will, court orders which are to be obeyed and those not to be obeyed, is really worrisome and disheartening.
We must all be reminded that our judiciary plays a similar role to that of a mother in our democracy, and should be respected at all times. This respect must be reflected in the funding of the judiciary. Not only is it imperative that adequate funds be made available, it is also crucial that access to such funds be unhindered by any other branch of government.
For our Judges, courage should be an indispensable attribute. It is in the interest of the society at large, that our laws are interpreted and decisions given in line with current realities and developments. Law, they say by its nature, is not static but dynamic. If I may borrow the words of the Master of the Rolls, Lord Alfred Denning –
“If we never do anything because it has not been done before, we shall never get anywhere. The law will stand still while the rest of the world goes on, and that will be bad for both.”
New Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs)
Only yesterday we gathered at the Supreme Court to witness the conferment of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria on a new and vibrant crop of legal practitioners. Seventy-two (72) lawyers were conferred with silk, the highest unprecedented number ever to be so conferred in one swoop. BOSAN once again congratulates them on their achievement and welcomes them into the fold with open arms. Their elevation is testament to the fact that hard work and excellence continue to be prized in the legal profession, and will receive their just reward. It also reinforces our belief that the future of the legal profession is secure. Moreover, it is also of benefit to the court, since this means there will be a greater number of Senior Advocates appearing before our various courts, which will help to enrich practice and improve the quality of legal submissions.
Section 14(1)(b) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) tells us that the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government, but the insecurity in many parts of the country is quite alarming, especially in the Northern states of Borno, Katsina, Yobe and Zamfara. Although it is not within the mandate of the judiciary or the legal profession to address this issue, one can ask; how can we be of help?
Where are our Chibok girls? Where is Leah Sharibu? Where are the boys abducted from Government Science Secondary School, Kankara, Katsina State? Even if one cannot provide a solution, one can cry out for a solution! From available statistics, Nigeria is the third most terrorized nation in the world, out of over 195 countries, and with the recent developments we are gravitating towards the top spot. Why us? Why us? Why us?
It is crystal clear that the challenges of the past year, from the ravages of the pandemic to the social unrest that followed the “End SARS” campaign, have not diminished the court’s resolve to dispense justice without fear or favour, affection or ill will. Even in this difficult atmosphere, the Court has conducted its business as vigorously as ever, with many cases moving at an accelerated pace. This observation gladdens the heart of BOSAN, legal practitioners, and other stakeholders in the administration of justice.
As we launch into the new year, I urge that we do so with optimism, and with a renewed commitment to the cause of justice, which is the ultimate purpose of the judiciary a fortiori, the legal profession. The Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria stands willing and ready to provide any assistance necessary to ensure the effective and timely administration of justice.
Once more, BOSAN extends its congratulations to the Honourable the Chief Judge and all the Honourable judges of the Federal High Court on the opening of the 2020-2021 legal year and wish us all a fruitful year ahead. God bless you.
Chief Gadzama OFR, MFR, SAN, delivered this address on behalf of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN) at the 2020/2021 legal year ceremony of the Federal High Court on Tuesday December 15, 2020, held at the Federal High Court Headquarters, Abuja.