18 September 2017

Nigeria: Chief Justice Outlines Radical Reforms in Judiciary

Photo: The Guardian
Nigerian judiciary?

Nigeria's Supreme Court handed down 243 judgements, out of a total of 1,362 cases it treated within the 2016/2017 legal year, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, has said.

Mr. Onnoghen also outlined major reforms in the judiciary.

He was speaking at an event to mark the opening of a new legal year for the judiciary and the swearing-in ceremony of new Senior Advocates in Abuja on Monday.

The CJN said the number of determined cases was a positive development, despite the "numerous challenges faced by the judiciary" during the year under review.

"In the course of the 2016/2017 legal year, the Supreme Court considered a total number of 1362 matters comprising motions, appeals and judgements. Under motions, we heard 82 political,675 civil and 208 criminal motions, totalling 965. The Court also considered a total number of 394 appeals comprising 96 political, 174 civil, and 124 criminal. In total, 243 Judgments were delivered in the 2016/2017 legal year.

"This is by all means, an impressive report considering the persistent and increasing volume of cases that continue to come before this Court. I attribute this impressive performance to the hard work of judicial officers, support staff and the reforms we are implementing to improve justice delivery," Mr. Onnoghen said.

The CJN reiterated the reasons given by the Legal Practitioner's Privileges Committee, LPPC, for not conferring the rank of SAN on one of the shortlisted nominees, adding that the successful candidates must conduct themselves in a manner befitting of their new status.

Mr. Onnoghen condemned the attitude of some politically exposed persons who appear in court, with a large number of legal representatives, saying the development stagnates the movement of activities in court.

He gave a new directive that lawyers representing anyone in court, must not exceed five at a sitting.

"I have also observed the practice by members of the Bar wherein a lead counsel appears before the courts in the representation of a client with as many as a 100 and even more lawyers. This translates to an unfortunate yet avoidable waste of the time of the court, which has to record the appearance of all counsels before it.

"Most of such entourages hardly have any active roles or participation in the matter for which they appear. Furthermore, such a large number of counsel fill up the courtroom thereby depriving other counsels for other matters as well as members of the public enough room to sit and observe proceedings within the courtroom.

"Some are therefore forced to stand or sit on the floor in a most undignified manner. This practice consumes space, time and more often than not, adds no serious value or serves any meaningful purpose to the case. If anything, it brings about undue sensationalism, an outcome which members of this noble profession are enjoined to shun.

"I have therefore issued a directive, which should extend to other courts, that lawyers appearing in the Supreme Court should not be more than five for each party, including the lead counsel".

The trial of the Senate President Bukola Saraki, at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT which ended earlier this year was one of such cases where legal practitioners numbered over a 100 during various sittings.

During one of the trial sessions in June, Mr. Saraki appeared in court with 106 lawyers.

Mr. Saraki's lead counsel, Kanu Agabi, a former Attorney-General, had during one of the sittings boasted about the ability of his client to bring a higher number of clients to court.

Mr. Onnoghen said the fight against corruption will continue "more sternly within the judiciary," adding that persons found wanting of judicial misconduct would not be spared.

"We must not lose sight of the indispensable role of the judiciary in the fight against corruption. Corruption continues to place the judiciary in the eye of the storm, but we cannot allow that to deter us or weaken our resolve. It is regrettable that the image of the judiciary has been tarnished by the notion that the Nigerian Judiciary is bedevilled by corrupt elements, hence the need for an image-buildingparade.

"We must accept that acts of misconduct of a few rub off on the rest of the judiciary and create the impression that all judicial officers have their hands soiled with the proceeds of corruption.

"Let me be clear here; it is not going to be business as usual for the few unscrupulous elements in our midst. I am determined to redeem the unfairly battered image of the judiciary. Any judicial officer found wanting would be dealt with decisively, and shown the way out swiftly."

Mr. Onnoghen described as unfortunate the many cases delayed in courts, adding that members of the judiciary should not be found wanting in the "seemingly slow" pace at which cases are handled.

"The Supreme Court, fully cognisant of the role of the judiciary in ensuring that justice is properly served to those who approach the courts, frowns at all forms and appearances of such delays and/or abuse of court processes. Members of the Bar are therefore enjoined to shun all tactics and ploys, which constitute clogs in the seemingly slow-winding wheels of justice so that they do not come to a grinding halt.

"In this regard, we have just directed Heads of Courts to clamp down on both Prosecution and Defence Counsel who indulge in the unethical practice of deploying delay tactics to stall criminal trials. Heads of Courts are now to report such cases to the National Judicial Council, NJC which in turn, would transmit them to the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee, in the case of Senior Advocates, and Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee in the case of other Legal Practitioners."

Mr. Onnoghen also said the payment of N5.2 billion had been provided as pension for retired staff of the judiciary.

He also noted expected improvements in the area of technology for the judiciary during the new judicial year.

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