On Monday, October 6, 2008, members of the Bar and Bench converged on Benin, the Edo State, for the annual new legal year service and Judges' Conference of the Federal High Court. At a special court session to kick-start the new legal year, the Chief Judge of the court, Justice Abdullahi Mustapha, disclosed that in the last legal year, the court successfully disposed of 5, 341 cases out of the 336 criminal and 5244 civil matters that were filed in all the divisions of the court. He added that the number of pending cases in the court is now 18, 889 and that 32 ocean going vessels were arrested and detained while 15 of them and two of four arrested cargo were released by the court. LAW REPORTER Tunde Opeseitan was at the five-day carnival-like conference. His report:
Ever since its inception in 1973, the Federal High court (FHC) has greatly contributed to the positive advancement and development of the machinery of justice in the country. Without fear of contradiction, the court is the busiest in the country. Statistics recently released by the court showed that there are 18, 889 pending criminal and civil cases.
Unlike all the state High Courts that have been marking the beginning of a new legal year for a very long time ago, the FHC started to mark the beginning of a new legal year in 2002. Though, the court commenced the annual ritual a bit late but it is done with a different touch. The court is the only court in the country that moves from one part of the country to the other just to celebrate the commencement of another legal.
This, perhaps, explained the reason why Benin was chosen as the venue for this years' event.
Prior to this time, various cities in the country like Enugu, Lagos, Ibadan, Abeokuta, Yola, Kano and Abuja have at one time or the other, played host to the annual event, which is a fulfilment of the dreams and aspirations of the founding fathers of the court.
Recounting his steadwardship at event, the Chief Judge of the court, Justice Abdullahi Mustapha, who took over the mantle of leadership of the court in January this year, said his administration had successfully added Awka, Ado-Ekiti, Gombe, Gusau and Lafia judicial divisions to the existing divisions of the court.
While the judicial divisions of Ado-Ekiti and Lafia have been officially opened and judges have already been sitting, Awka, Gombe and Gusau will be officially opened before the end of the year.
Also, in an effort to improve the machinery of justice and remove the rules that often inhibit quick and efficient service delivery, Justice Mustapha constituted a nine-member committee to review the existing 2000 civil procedure rule of the court. The committee was made up entirely of judges of the court.
After the completion of the review, the draft rules was circulated to the judges of the court both serving and retired, Nigerian bar Association (NBA), Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BSAN) and other stakeholders in justice delivery system for their comments, observations, suggestions and input.
The new draft rules have now been adopted by the Judges' Conference, which is the apex body as far as the Federal High Court is concerned.
The committee was said to have critically looked into the concept of front loading with proof of evidence, written address in respect of substantive and all applications before the court, taking all preliminary objections together with the substantive suit where the substantive suit primarily does not involve the taking of oral evidence, limiting the time for raising objections to the courts' jurisdiction vis-a-vis the number of applications for adjournments.
In the new draft rules, there will be no oral examination of a witness during his evidence in chief except to lead the witness to adopt his written deposition and tender in evidence all disputed documents or other exhibits referred to in the deposition.
All these, Justice Mustapha explained, were aimed at bringing about quicker dispensation of justice while minimising delays and discouraging the use of technicalities without unduly sacrificing the principles of rule of law and fair hearing.
The conference also reviewed critically, issues of abuse of ex parte orders, need for uniformity in sentencing particularly in drugs and drugs related offences.
Speaking further, the CJ said that all the judges and principal officers of the court have been hooked to the Internet at the headquarters in Lagos, adding that other judicial divisions of the court would soon be equally connected.
He said: "We also hope to instal electronic recording machines in all the courts so as to reduce congestion. In effect, that means that judges will no longer need to write with long hand and litigants will be able to have record of proceedings the same day".
Continuing, the CJ added, "In our effort to automate the library, we have planned to convert all the court judgments and rulings into electronic readable form using the Internet compatible software called DOCU-WARE. The intendment of this is to allow all our judges no matter where they are stationed to have access to the judgments and rulings of their brother judges and to give greater access to lawyers, researchers and law report publishers who are constantly in search of judgments and rulings," Mustapha said.
He appealed to members of the bar to always realize and appreciate the fact that they are partners in the due administration of justice, advising that lawyers must cooperate with the court to make the new draft rules to work by complying strictly with the provisions in the draft rules.
Also, the CJ promised that the admiralty law of the court would soon be reviewed and under the Nigerian law, the Federal High Court has exclusive jurisdiction on admiralty cases. Admiralty matters are disputes concerning shipping.
Now, that the civil procedure rules of the court has been reviewed, practitioners and observers of the court are also looking forward to the review of the criminal procedure rules, so as to ensure quick and efficient delivery of justice in matters bordering on criminality in the court.
Some analysts are, however, of the view that there would be tremendous changes in the new legal year of the court. They argued that the court has witnessed tremendous development in all ramifications since the current CJ took over the mantle of leadership of the court, adding that there is pressing need for the court to maintain the tempo.
In an interview with Daily Independent, Ricky Tarfa, SAN, noted that the members of the bar are looking forward to an exciting moment in the new legal year of the court.