By Ade Okeaya-Inneh, SAN

I have at some point, many years ago written about the desperate need for the reform of our justice delivery process. In the article titled “Delays in the judicial process” published in the Guardian newspaper law report of September 15th 1993, I alluded to the incredible delays in our justice delivery process. It is now 27 years since I wrote that article and I am afraid that the problem still abounds. I dare say that they have multiplied and are greatly amplified by both the physical and human infrastructure. The entire fabric of the Nigerian project seems to be or has been at a crossroads for so many years. There are several political reasons for this but this short article is not the platform to deal with that aspect.

There is a pressing need for an overhaul of the entire architecture of the justice delivery process. There are multifarious and confusing factors highlighted by our colonial heritage, and perhaps, a misunderstanding of whether we really want to operate a Federal or Unitary Constitutions. What we have is a form of cross breed or fused system of both a Unitary or Federal Constitution.

I think the starting point is to properly define what indeed we want. It is possible to have a mix of both but it must be properly defined and transparently operated. I do not think it will be putting too fine a point on the fact to state that our current justice delivery process has failed. What we need is a robust and broad approach to the entire process of reforming the judiciary and indeed the Bar. It is a travesty that both civil and criminal matters take ten to fifteen years, perhaps more to conclude. I am currently involved in a matter that has been in the judicial stranglehold for over thirty (30) years. This matter was commenced before I was called to the Bar. It is shocking. We need to ask ourselves whether we are still in the 18th Century. Is this not what Charles Dickens wrote about in his famous book, “Bleak House”? Every case in our jurisdiction appears to take the cause of Jandyce v. Jandyce in that famous fictional but powerful representation of the snail pace of the judicial process in the 18th to 19th Century England.

This is a short article so I will need to confine myself to making some suggestions regarding reform of the justice delivery process in Nigeria. Suffice to state however, that my views are not exhaustive of my thoughts on the issues and they are clearly not definitive. They are really an invitation to the stakeholders to take them into consideration. I state some of them here under as follows:

I. A Federal Constitutional Court as the final Court dealing with constitutional and human rights issues. Not more than 15 Judges. All appeals by way of leave.

II. Six (6) Regional Supreme Courts.

III. Intermediate Court of Appeals as they exist now.

IV. Federal Courts to handle only Federal cases arising from the Exclusive Legislative List.

V. Federal Revenue Courts to handle Federal revenue cases.

VI. States High Courts as they exist, with jurisdictional base clearly defined.

VII. The introduction of health and safety Courts in the States, dealing with health and safety issues arising from the States.

VIII. Introduction of health and safety Courts at the Federal level, dealing with health and safety issues relating to and arising from Federal related matters.

IX. The introduction of Tribunals to handle matters related to immigration at the Federal level.

X. The Magistrate Courts at both the Federal and State level should be totally restructured.

XI. A review of the Customary Court’s jurisdiction.

XII. A review of the Sharia Court structure.

XIII. The Establishment of a Judicial Appointment Council with representatives of all stakeholders such as, the Heads of Courts, Senior Judges, members of the bar, Civil Society and lay men, etc.

XIV. If the quota is to be continued, the most effective yardstick is the selection of the best qualified applicant/candidate from the particular zone.

XV. If you are going to continue with quota, the best person by way of merit must be the yardstick.

XVI. All judicial appointments must be screened and applicants must be investigated to get a record of their conduct.

XVII. A judicial philosophy must be established by applicants to all the Appellate Courts

XVIII. An applicant to the Federal Constitutional Court must have exceptional educational qualifications. A minimum of a first class degree in the humanities, law or the sciences. This should apply to all the Appellate Courts with rare modifications for those with other proven educational or scholarly records.

XIX. All Registrars must be lawyers with a minimum of ten (10) years practice experience.

XX. Interlocutory applications should all go before a new cadre of Registrars at the Federal and State levels.

XXI. A matter should only go before a Federal or High Court Judge if it is ripe for trial.

XXII. The use of technology at all levels.

XXIII. A wholesale review of the various Rules of Courts.

There is a lot to be done. The responsibility lays with the Heads of all Courts, the Attorney General of the Federation, the Attorney General of the different State of the federation and all Stake Holders.

I will conclude by stating that although there are plausible arguments for the abrogation of Section 14 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), my view however is that in a nation with such diversity, there is merit in perhaps legislating positively towards a quota system that ensures equality of some sort. It is the abuse of the concept and it’s implementation that is the problem.

We must understand that the starting point must always be to appoint the best and the brightest. In the metrics or equation, meritocracy should be the starting point. A very good friend of mine, who is now a distinguished scholar at Kings College, University of London once said to me when we debated some of these issues: “if you get into an Aircraft, and you are told the pilot and crew are from your village or town but they are really not qualified to fly the aircraft will you insist on being aboard that aircraft”. I imagine the answer is obvious to any right thinking person.

The reform or improvement of the physical architecture or infrastructure of our justice delivery process is the easiest of the equation. It is the reform in the appointment process and the selection of the personnel to superintend these Courts that pose great problems. The polity will to do the right and honest thing in the larger interest of the people must be exemplified in the actions that are taken towards reform. I will close by saying that it is a continuing and pressing need, it clearly is not a work in progress yet.

Ade Okeaya-Inneh, SAN is a Senior Partner at the law firm of Ade Okeaya-Inneh & Co

Disclaimer: The views represented in this article are the views of the author and does not necessarily reflect the view of the law firm.