Lagos — A real estate firm (name withheld) based in Ojodu in Ikeja Local Government of Lagos State, recently secured a judgement at an Ogba Magistrate's Court on a disputed shop at Alausa-Ikeja.
The verdict came after many months of legal fireworks, which culminated in the court empowering the shop owner to take over the property from the present tenant over accumulated debt.
"For four months, the case dragged at one of the courts at Samuel Ilori Magistrate in Ogba Lagos before we got the judgement," Funmilayo B. A, who handled the case said. The lawyer said she would prefer to use initials for confidentiality purpose.
After getting the judgement, the next problem is how to serve same to the illegal occupants. According to her, she would need the full complement of the court bailiff to implement the judgement through court service.
"When I approached the bailiff assigned to me, he said his transportation fare was N20, 000 to have the judgement executed. I told my client who said they could not afford the money and I handed over a copy of the judgement to my client so he could execute it on his own.
"Five days after, my client called again, pleading if the money could be reduced further, believing the judgement would be quickly executed if a bailiff would go with the police to serve the court process. However, he would not reduce the price," the lawyer explained
In another instance, one lawyer told Daily Trust on Sunday how he was asked to pay N300 to check which judge was assigned for his case in the Magistrate's Court.
"I asked the registrar at Ogba Magistrate's Court what the N300 was meant for and she asked if I was new in the court. I didn't get to know the judge my case was assigned to until I paid that money. I found it strange that I was asked to pay N300 to check which judge my case had been assigned to, after paying the statutory processing fees," he alleged.
These scenarios summarise the extortionary judicial process in many magistrates' courts in Lagos, where lawyers grumble about the multiplicity of officers to "settle" before getting things done. Most of the lawyers who spoke with our correspondent said extortion had become a norm among court officials.
Unarguably, the administration of criminal justice system would be inefficient and arduous without the supervisory roles played by sheriffs and bailiffs, whose functions are instrumental to the attainment of justice in Nigeria and anywhere in the world. They are charged with the statutory responsibilities of delivering court processes, execution of writs and judgement orders, as well as effecting lawful arrests, depending on the surrounding circumstances.
Going by the Act that established them, sheriffs and bailiffs are indispensable, as their absence could impede smooth dispensation of justice. But how effective have they been in playing their roles? Have they helped the course of litigants or added to their woes?
Findings at the Magistrate's Courts in Lagos show that the relationship between lawyers and sheriffs/bailiffs has been chaotic following ceaseless allegations of extortion. Lawyers say after paying the statutory filing fee for cases and applications to the coffers of government, other sundry charges are often imposed on them, which are unaccounted for.
A frustrated female lawyer said she had to pay N3, 000 to get a certified true copy of a judgement delivered at a Magistrate's Court in Ikorodu.
"Though the judgement is just two pages, the court registrar asked me to pay N5, 000. After much pleading, the money was pruned down to N3, 000, which I paid to get a copy of the judgement. No receipt was issued to me," she said, pleading anonymity for fear of being targeted.
Between extortion and tipping
There is a thin line between extortion and tipping, says a lawyer, who was also interviewed at Ogba Magistrate's Court. According to him, there is the need to distinguish between the two terms in arriving at a conclusion on the menace of corruption among judicial officers.
"Let's say I have a case and I want either the bailiff or sheriff to perform a task for me and speedily, is there anything wrong if I offer to give him something as a form of encouragement? This is not extortion. It only becomes an extortion when you demand from me.
"That is not to say there have not been cases of extortion in our courts. Here in particular, the processes are just too slow. For instance, I came all the way from Lagos Island for a tenancy case. I got here and the judge is not in the office. We don't know the whereabouts of the registrar, now we are being told to choose another date. The next available date is next month. This means if we want to serve a quit notice to a defaulter, the person would occupy the property for another one month. We really need to improve on the processes here. We must remove the sluggishness and sanitise the system," the lawyer said, pleading anonymity.
Mr S.O Lawal comes from Ogun State frequently to handle cases in Lagos. Narrating his experience to our correspondent, he said, "Coming to courts in Lagos, you have to know your way. You can't just help but give at all times. That is the game."
To file a case in court, there is a statutory fee charged and calculated based on the value of the property involved when it comes to tenancy matter. For instance, if a case is being instituted on a property, the processing fee is usually five per cent of the rate involved.
"This is the only money that is receipted. Under normal circumstances, you are not expected to pay any additional charge. But there are various hidden charges you pay without receipts," the lawyer said, showing our correspondent a copy of the two-page judgement, which he confirmed to have paid N3,000 to obtain.
"It is one thing to file a case, it is another thing to "settle" the officials. If you don't do this, your case will not move anywhere," he added.
Most of the lawyers who spoke with our correspondent wouldn't reveal their full names despite much prompting. Though allegations of corruption against judicial officers have been rampant, it has been an arduous task getting the affected lawyers to speak up.
rom the findings of our correspondent in the Magistrates' courts visited in Ikeja and Ikorodu, the court vicinity has become a marketplace of sorts, where all sorts of people transact one business or another with the aid of court officials.
A former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Maryam Aloma Mukhtar, asserted that corruption had become rampant among judicial staff - secretaries, court registrars, process clerks and bailiffs across Nigeria.
"Now more than ever, the public has become more critical of the conduct of judicial staff, perhaps buoyed by public outcry against unwholesome conduct of the judicial staff, like leakage of judgements before delivery, demanding bribes before the preparation of records of appeal, acting as go-between for some overzealous litigants and some corrupt judicial officers, ostentatious lifestyles beyond legitimate earnings, and host of other activities," Mukhtar said in 2014.
Five years after, the acts have not abated, rather they are said to have assumed an alarming rate.
Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, also confirmed that the judiciary is infested with corruption. Speaking while appearing before the Senate for screening prior to his confirmation as substantive CJN, Mohammed argued that corruption persists in Nigeria as a result of lack of stiff punishment of offenders.
"I always say that Nigeria judiciary is part and parcel of Nigeria and I am not surprised seeing some judges being corrupt but must be treated same way other corrupt elements are treated."
He recalled his experiences when he was a magistrate in Bauchi years back, noting that corruption in the judiciary began when indigenous judges took over adjudication in courts.
"I was a magistrate in Bauchi then, but by the time I finished law school, went to NYSC and came back and then we had a White man as our boss, there was no corruption. Later, when we had a black man we started having problems."
The chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Ikeja Branch, Dele Oloke, said while he would not deny that there are cases of extortion of lawyers by judicial officers, most of the cases have been hinged on hearsay. He challenged the affected lawyers to report attempted extortion to the Bar.
"I can tell you that as a Bar leader, I have heard of complaints from lawyers about attempts to extort money from them in the course of transacting one business or another with the judiciary.
"Let me take Lagos as an instance. If I say I have not heard of such complaints, I am being clever by half. What we have told them is that if you have an encounter with a particular court official for extortion, please bring the person to our attention and come with the details.
"We have our monthly meeting on first Monday of every month, and after we have transacted all businesses of the day as contained in the agenda, anytime we get to Any Other Business, lawyers are supposed to bring their experiences on the Bar," he said.
Financial autonomy as antidote
From a realistic point of view, the NBA believes that any attempt to curb corruption among judicial officers without addressing the burning issue of financial autonomy for the judiciary will not materialise. According to him, there should be adequate funding of this arm of government, but it can only happen when they have autonomy.
It was gathered that the mileage paid to sheriffs for service of court papers on litigants was recently increased from N400 to N600.
"What happens when the person being served has vacated the address stated in the documents, or the sheriff could not locate the person?" the NBA chairman asked.
"If, for instance, the money collected for service is N400 to Apapa, from Ogba Magistrate's Court, and the sheriff, armed with the court process, attempted service for the first time and the person to be served, otherwise known as defendant, is not at home or the man has vacated the address, what do you expect the man to do? To go to the same location three times with N400? My brother, is it feasible? That is one aspect.
"When you get to the address of the person you want to serve proceeding process and you were told by the neighbour that he has moved out of this place or he leaves early in the morning and comes at night, very late, and you know that under our rules, there is time specified for the service of court process to be carried out by the sheriffs of the court, maybe between 7am to 600pm and the man does not come back from work until 8 or 9 pm, it is incumbent on every client or good lawyer to go to court to apply for an order of substituted service.
"When you apply for an order of substituted service, more often than not, the court will grant the order to go and serve defendants by substituted means to wit, by pasting on the wall of the house, and for the photographic evidence of which you should furnish the court by an affidavit," Oloke said.
He said the state judiciary should emulate the National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN), which purchased vehicles for all its sheriffs to ease service of court process. Without that, he said, it would be difficult to rid the sector of corruption. "My point is that government should fund the judiciary adequately as done in the advanced world," he added.
A lawyer's intervention
Mr Bayo Akinlade, the NBA chairman in Ikorodu, said in a bid to reduce cases of corruption among judicial officers, he started an intervention programme where lawyers can complain in cases of attempted extortion. He, however, said that most lawyers are not willing to speak up. He challenged lawyers who feel they are being extorted to speak up, assuring that their identities would be protected. He, however, alleged that some lawyers also aid and abet corruption in the judiciary in their bid to make money.
"In some instances, even the lawyers are colluding. Let me not lie to you because when a registrar says he wants N200,000 for bail, for instance, some lawyers will tell their clients that it's N300,000.
"Of course those people are desperate. They will negotiate, maybe they would give them N100,000 and lawyers will give the registrar N50,000 and take N50,000. Sometimes the lawyers will not even give the registrar but they would use him as a cover-up. We have had instances like that and we know that it exists. So we will try and educate lawyers more," Akinlade said.
But the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN), the umbrella body of all judicial workers in Nigeria, would not agree with the blanket condemnation of its members, insisting that cases of corrupt practices had reduced drastically in the judiciary. The immediate past Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Opeyemi Oke, said that many judicial workers found culpable had been punished.
Some stakeholders are of the opinion that to sanitise the system, the leadership of the judiciary would have to curb the activities of bailiffs who, more often than not, are not on the payroll of government. It was learnt that they stay around court premises to get money from litigants, who need their services.
This was confirmed by the chairman of the JUSUN, Mr. Abioye Emmanuel, who said there is the need to distinguish between sheriffs and bailiffs.
He said, "Bailiffs are people who are helping out as labourers in charge of execution. Sometimes lawyers don't find it easy to deal with uniformed sheriffs, so they begin to deal with people who are labourers. And those ones don't have anything to lose; they just come, like casual labourers who are not even officially recognised. They are comfortable to ask lawyers anything because they are not in uniform. They are not also under the government payroll; they make their money from whoever wants to do execution."
He said the allegation of corruption among judicial officers would not be curbed if such cases are not properly reported. He, however, insisted that the problem had reduced drastically due to sensitisation of members of staff.
He also agreed that corruption would be removed in the system if the judiciary secured financial autonomy.
This investigation was supported by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ).