Delay in the issuance of certified true copies (CTCs) of court judgments has become a big problem in the administration of criminal justice in Nigeria and led to denial of justice.
After the Kwara State High Court in Ilorin sentenced Rasaq Yusuf to death by hanging last November, he asked his lawyer to appeal the judgment. To enable him file the appeal within the three-month window, the lawyer, Ibrahim Gambari, immediately applied for a certified true copy (CTC) of the judgment delivered by Justice H.O Ajayi.
But Mr Gambari waited in vain for months for the copy and his client decided to forfeit his right to appeal the judgment.
The certified true copies of court judgments are stipulated by law to be made available within seven days. But lawyers told PREMIUM TIMES that they often wait for months to obtain the copies and sometimes miss the three-month deadline to file an appeal.
This, lawyers say, has become a big problem in the administration of criminal justice in Nigeria and led to denial of justice.
In the case of Mr Yusuf, it is not clear whether an appeal would have reversed his death sentence. He was arrested in 2015 at Tapa, a village in Asa Local Government Area of Kwara State, following a clash that caused the death of one Rasaki Kadiri.
After five years of several adjournments, Mr Yusuf and one Ismaila Mustapha were sentenced to death by hanging on November 18, 2020.
"May God have mercy on your souls. Amen," said Justice Ajayi of the state high when delivering the judgment.
On the day of the judgment, Mr Gambari applied for the CTC to prepare his appeal but waited for months until PREMIUM TIMES got involved in the matter.
In January, nearly two months after he first submitted the application, Mr Gambari told PREMIUM TIMES that court officials informed him that the court was occupied and the judge was yet to vet it.
On January 6, this newspaper submitted an application for the CTC of the same judgment as a concerned member of the public.
The court officials, who were unsure of this newspaper's interest in the case, were suddenly disturbed but still did not provide the needed document on time.
After going through the request letter submitted by our reporter, a court official, later identified as Mrs Lawal, insisted that the judge had to assent to the application. A week after the application, Mrs Lawal told our reporter to forward the request to the Ministry of Justice, adding that the judge had rejected the request.
At the Ministry of Justice, an official directed our reporter to Ayoola Akande, the government lawyer who prosecuted the case.
"It [the judgment] has been typed and given to the judge to proof-read before appending her signature. But as it is now, the judge is still proof-reading," Mr. Akande said. "That was the last thing we were told. They [the court officials] know we don't have the judgment. They know. We don't have a copy of the judgment as it is."
After several reminders and visits to the court, Mr Gambari was able to get the CTC of the judgment on January 26, 70 days after his application and 20 days after PREMIUM TIMES' application.
"Your application was also part of the reason it came this early," Mr Gambari told PREMIUM TIMES. "They informed me that a journalist was involved."
But by this time, Mr Gambari's client had lost interest in the appeal.
"A lot of work is on our judges in and outside the court," Mr Gambari said. "So if our courts are digitised, it will lessen the burden of the judges. In fact, our judges of today need more than one legal assistant. If judgment has been typed already, the legal assistant can help with the vetting."
Such delays had also frustrated Abdulrahman Yahaya, an Ibadan-based lawyer.
He told PREMIUM TIMES that his client, convicted of theft, was sentenced to three years in prison in 2014 but he could not appeal the judgment because they ran out of time waiting for the CTC.
"They were dilly-dallying at the court registry," Mr Yahaya said. "The court officials showed me pepper for unknown reasons," he added.
"Although there have been improvements today compared to what we used to have then, I can still tell you that the system is not sane yet. These little foxes are eating the system up," he said.
Same Delay For Civil Cases
Babatunde Adebisi, a farmer in Ilawe Ekiti in Ekiti State, recalled how the delay in obtaining a CTC of a judgment forced him to forfeit two plots of land in 2015.
The smallholder farmer, who has now relocated to Ondo State, explained that when he lost the case over the ownership of the land at the Ekiti State High Court, he wanted to file an appeal to the higher court in Ado-Ekiti. But because the CTC of the judgment did not come on time, he missed the three-month deadline for an appeal.
Mr Adebisi said his lawyer told him that he was waiting for the copy for more than three months.
"I thought within myself that I was already spending more money than the value of the land. So, I just told him one day to withdraw," he said.
Mr Adebisi believed he could have reclaimed the land if he had been able to appeal the judgment. His lawyer, Simeon Olorunsogo, confirmed the incident and said the delay was due to some administrative challenges in the court then.
Another lawyer, Desmond Orisewezie, told PREMIUM TIMES that he had been working on an appeal that should have commenced but the delay in obtaining the certified true copy of the ruling of a lower court had stalled it.
Although Mr Orisewesie did not give the details of the case owing to client confidentiality, he said he had submitted the application for the copy at the Federal High Court in Lagos since last November but was yet to obtain it as of April.
"I was trying to get the CTC of the ruling of a court delivered in November 2020. You know after putting out an application at the Federal High Court in Lagos, you know, even up till now, I'm yet to get it," he said.
For the Lagos-based attorney, the delay showed that there was a need for "better efficiency on the part of court officials."
Noel Brown's experience was at the National Industrial Court in Akure, Ondo State. He told PREMIUM TIMES that it took more than 90 days to obtain the judgment delivered by the court against his client.
"But more often than not, you always get it," he said. "But one or two judges might delay in giving the certified copies."
Extortion in Oyo
Our reporter submitted an application for a CTC of the judgment against a former staff of First Bank, Oreoluwa Adesakin, who was prosecuted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
Mr Adesakin, who was accused of stealing over N40 million from the bank and its customers, was arraigned in 2014 and sentenced to seven years in prison on September 28, 2020, by O. M Olagunju.
At Justice Olagunju's court on January 13, our reporter was directed to the court's registry to make necessary payments for the CTC.
After paying the statutory N100 for filing, a court official who PREMIUM TIMES later identified as Adewale Ipaye, requested our reporter to pay for the photocopying, even though the court has its own photocopier.
"Even the file, they have come for it from the appeal (court). So we have to go and retrieve it from there. Then, you drop money because we are going to do the photocopy. I don't know the number of pages. Just drop 2,000. If it is more than that, when you come (I'll tell you). I don't usually do it for people but because you said you are a journalist, that is why. If it is a lawyer, I won't do it o," he said, eventually collecting N1,500 from the reporter.
He sent the copy of the judgment in less than a week. Afterwards, the reporter paid N1,890 at the registry, being the amount charged for the certification of the 93-page document.
An official at the registry who spoke on condition of anonymity told PREMIUM TIMES that the money paid to Mr Ipaye was an extortion.
But several Ibadan-based lawyers were not surprised by the outcome of PREMIUM TIMES' findings.
"Well, by and large for Oyo State, it doesn't take time," said Hussein Afolabi, a lawyer. "If you apply for CTC and you go back to your office to go and sleep, it will take time. What we do is we apply for CT, and file... . for assessment, then we follow up. I file in the registry, go to the court, to see the clerk and officials. I tell them I've filed for CTC if I wait for the registry to contact the court. The file will move at snail's mode, we mobilise them."
The 'mobilisation' he was referring to is an undisclosed amount offered as a tip to facilitate a faster process.
"Normally, if they deliver a judgment today, one should be able to get a copy of the judgment today. But sometimes, we have issues when the judgment delivered wasn't typed," he said.
This was corroborated by another lawyer in the state, Adekunle Adewumi, who said what PREMIUM TIMES paid to Mr Ipaye is relatively low compared to what the court officers collect from some lawyers.
"I have had cause to pay more on some occasions. The court officials now see it as their right. Sometimes, they deliberately abandon your application, waiting for you to give them something," he said.
Meanwhile, the Oyo State Chief Judge, Abimbola Munta, has ordered that an investigation be conducted based on PREMIUM TIMES' findings.
Mr Ipaye has also been summoned after this newspaper confronted the court authorities with necessary documents and evidence obtained while processing the CTC of the judgment.
"The chief judge of the high court and the entire Oyo State judiciary frowns upon extortions, bribery and corruption. They do not generalise issues and prefer to handle issues as it comes, one at a time. Oyo State judges are honest, they are judiciary heads and may not know what is going on administratively. No judge will know that the registrars and court clerks are extorting lawyers and encouraging it. It is unethical," an official of the Oyo judiciary who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorised to talk to the press, said.
According to the source, lawyers have been encouraged to report cases of extortion instead of giving bribes.
"If there are such cases, it will be looked into and the parties involved if found guilty will be dealt with," she said.
Sweet-bitter experience in Lagos
At the Lagos State High Court, our reporter was told he could not apply to obtain the CTC of a judgment as a concerned member of the public. Only a lawyer who is a party in the case can do so, he was told.
The official brushed aside the reporter's argument that a court judgment is a public document that should be made available to anyone who applies for it.
Interviews with several lawyers, however, showed that the delay in issuance of CTCs of judgments in Lagos courts is similar to that in Kwara and Oyo states.
"It's clearly a torture, a very tortious process here," said Monday Ubani, a Lagos-based legal practitioner. "If you look at the constitution and look at the rule, the moment a judgment is read, you are supposed to be handed a copy of that judgment or ruling. But here, most of the judges know the process we go through in order to obtain a certified copy of those judgments or rulings but they will leave us in the hands of their registrars.
"They will tell you the process of getting it typed or photocopied. If you like you pay but if you don't, you can't go to the judge to tell him what happened. You can't even have access to the judge. It is a thing that I personally felt the administration of the judiciary should have addressed."
Mr Ubani, who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES in March, said he had applied for a copy of judgment since January but was yet to get it from a Lagos State high court.
"But I don't want to mention the judge, I don't want to indict any judge. If I want to apply for anything (in the appellate court) now, I need the certified true copy," he said. "We don't even complain with the whole thing upside down because what is normal is no longer normal, what is abnormal is what has become normal in Nigeria."
Farouk Obisakin, a lawyer, cited an example of an instance when the CTC of a judgment was delayed for nearly three months.
Mr Obisakin, however, said delay depends on the judges, adding that for judges who are good at using modern communications, their copies of judgment are easier to obtain.
"Some of the judges, in fact, type as they speak or get someone that types like a stenographer," he said.
Digitalisation will resolve the delay
The Director of Centre for Justice, Mercy and Reconciliation, an NGO based in Ibadan, Hezekiah Olujobi, said his organisation had long advocated for digitalisation of the court process.
"In this age of technology, there are cases that the judges can record without even writing down anything," he said. "While handwriting is a good form of documentation, there are experts who can take these documents and even upload them on the Internet
"In America, there are court judgments that under 24 hours, you see them online but the reverse is the case in Nigeria. I think the judiciary is long overdue for this reform because it will reduce the stress of judges."
Mr Ubani called on the Chief Justice of Nigeria and chief judges of all the states in the federation to address the anomaly.
"They should go ahead and put it into law that any judge that wants to read a judgment or ruling must ensure that it is ready before pronouncement. Once you are done reading it, hand a copy over to the counsel at most, one week after the judgment.
"If any of the chief judges put it as a rule, I can assure you all the judges in our judiciary will comply. But because there has not been any pronouncement made by the chief judges over this issue. That is why it takes three months, five months before getting a CTC. I think the NBA should be able to push this."
But Soji Oye, the spokesperson of the National Judicial Council, said lawyers should petition any judge that delays the release of copies of court judgments.
"They are supposed to follow the provisions of the constitution," he said. "That's the normal thing to do. You can write a petition," Mr Oye said.
Rapulu Nduka, the publicity Secretary of the NBA, said although the attention of the association had not been drawn to the delays, it is ready to intervene.
"The NBA has some structure, the branch level. Every state has at least a minimum of three branches and I believe that most times if there is a problem with that, practitioners within a state have a problem, they can resolve it within the state. If the NBA is called upon or there are issues brought to the attention of the NBA, then the NBA will intervene."
Mr Nduka, however, said the process of obtaining copies of judgment has improved when compared to previous years.
This report is funded by the Civic Media Lab, under its Criminal Justice Reporting Fellowship, with support from MacArthur Foundation