State of infrastructure in most Nigerian courts is becoming worrisome as stakeholders in the nation’s judiciary are blaming the situation on poor funding of the sector and many years of neglect by successive governments.
With just N70billion given to the judiciary in this year’s budget just passed by the National Assembly and poor budgetary allocations to states’ judiciary by some state governments, there seems to be no respite in sight in resolving the infrastructure deficit of the judiciary anytime soon, as the amounts are considered inadequate to carry out major capital projects in the fiscal year. In this survey conducted in some states like Lagos, Plateau, Enugu and Cross River, it was discovered that a lot need to be done to improve the physical infrastructure of the courts, welfare of judicial officers and conditions of service of judiciary workers across the country. Excerpts:
The immediate past chairman of the Legal Aids Council, Mr. Bolaji Ayorinde (SAN) said the sad situation of our courts is something that requires continuous development.
He called on the Ministry of Justice to do everything within its powers to enhance the physical image of the courts, adding that such creates the first impression on the mind of the people with regards to justice system in any society.
Also contributing to the discussion, Elder Paul Ananaba (SAN) submitted that our Courts ought to be conducive for the business of adjudication.
According to him, it is imperative that the courtrooms have the necessary equipment, including the size and quality of seats that makes adjudication comfortable.
Well, generally, the state of infrastructure of the courts in Nigeria is appalling. This is more visible in state courts, particularly those outside the headquarters. Electricity is almost absent, while furniture and fittings are usually disused and unkempt. It would appear that Federal Courts and Lagos State courts are getting better attention now. However, the design of most of the courts doesn’t seem to take into account the challenge of electricity supply in Nigeria such that in the event of power outage, most of the courtrooms are not usually conducive to the court personnel, counsel and litigants.
“Some courts, particularly Federal High Court in Lagos may not meet these criteria . But we are aware that the Federal High Court is erecting it’s own building. It means that soon, we will see that as a thing of the past. It is good for government to take interest and ensure that the courtrooms are conducive.
“Many times, the courts would be so filled up that lawyers would not have any seat to sit and articulate their cases. Like I said, efforts should be made to fast track the ongoing building project so that adjudication can take place in the best environment”, he stated.
Ananaba said he would be surprised if the new structure under construction do not take care of the present difficulties. “I will be surprised if a court is erected in today’s Nigeria without considering the size and facilities for the physically challenged and legal personnel as well as the parties.
“It is not only in the interest of the physically challenged lawyer or litigants. There’s nothing that says that a physically challenged person cannot be a judge or a registrar. So, all those would be taken into consideration”, he stressed.
In his own response another Lagos-based lawyer Oluwole Kehinde said:
“Well, generally, the state of infrastructure of the courts in Nigeria is appalling. This is more visible in state courts, particularly those outside the headquarters. Electricity is almost absent, while furniture and fittings are usually disused and unkempt. It would appear that Federal Courts and Lagos State courts are getting better attention now. However, the design of most of the courts doesn’t seem to take into account the challenge of electricity supply in Nigeria such that in the event of power outage, most of the courtrooms are not usually conducive to the court personnel, counsel and litigants.
In addition, virtually all the courts in Nigeria do not have provision for car park, restrooms and Lawyers’ robing rooms. So in most cases, you find lawyers and litigants scrambling for places to ease up themselves before, during and after court sessions. Unfortunately, some law enforcement agents now exploit these inadequacies to impound cars around the courts and extort money from lawyers and their clients. Double jeopardy, adding insult to injury, you would say”.
Declaring open the 2015 law week of the Enugu branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) on November last year, the NBA state chapter chairman, Dr. Osita Nnamani had summarized the situation of the Enugu judiciary thus: “Our judiciary has perhaps become the only establishment where old manual typewriters, some of which were procured during the colonial era are still in use.
Where our Judges still record on long hand, where one court is shared by two judges and where cases last as long as possible due to work load”.Ogbu did not stop there. He went further to lament that dearth of Judges at the State High Court to handle cases was the greatest challenge the justice system was faced with in the state, as only 15 judges exists ( and still exist) at the state high court against 50 prescribed by section 4 of the high court law of Enugu state.
Hear him: “In effect, some judges are assigned to more than one judicial division with heavy workload. For instance, in Agbani
judicial division, there are more than 300 land cases being handled by one judge in addition to criminal cases and matrimonial causes. How will the judge retain memory of the demeanour of witnesses and her impression of the cases? We know that positions in the legislature, the executive and local governments are normally filled at all times but vacancies in the judiciary are unfilled for years”, he said.
Calling for the appointment of 30 more high court judges in the state,Ogbu further observed the lack of infrastructure as part of the challenge confronting the dispensation of justice. “Our magistrates sit in rotation as a result of lack of court halls.
If care is not taken, they may soon start sitting at night. Our Judiciary is perhaps the only establishment where old manual
typewriters, some of which were procured during the colonial era are still in use”, he disclosed.
He listed other challenges to justice in the state to include, delay in assignment of cases to courts, delay in disposal of cases, poor remuneration of customary court judges, dearth of bailiffs, arbitrary charges by bailiffs, extortion and unauthorized charges by court workers and unaccounted fees.Others are problems encountered by lawyers and litigants who apply for transfer of cases, obtaining records of some courts, assignment of magistrates to sit at police stations during strikes, multiplicity of special courts and tribunals and delay in obtaining records of appeal among others.He called on government to immediately wade into the problems to save the state judiciary and make it perform effectively.
Apparently buttressing the point during the 2015/2016 legal year ceremony, Chief Judge of the state, Justice Innocent Umezuruike had given the position of cases at the Courts, explaining that of a total of 17322 cases pending at the beginning of that year, 18322 was pending at the end of year. The cases were criminal, civil, appeals, divorce and miscellaneous.
At the Magistrates Courts within the same period, 21,492 cases were pending at the beginning of the year, but ending with 23549 cases, while Customary Court of Appeal had 176 cases pending at the beginning of the year and ending at 189 cases.
Indeed, the situation of the justice sector in Enugu is one that has continued to attract reactions from members of the bar, the bench and the public. At the Magistrates courts in the state, apart from moving
Magistrates from one court to another, the 75 Magistrates in the state record on long hand.
Our Reporter which visited the Magistrate court headquarters in Enugu discovered that they have continued to sit in turns. The courtrooms serve two different judges with one sitting in the morning and another in the afternoon due to space constraints.
In most cases, the court rooms are so jam-packed that the Magistrates find it difficult to operate when there is no electricity as there is no standby generating set in the whole of the Magistrates’ courts of the state.
Mostly affected by the disorder are cases being handled by junior lawyers. Because of the long list of pending cases and their system of operation, many of these lawyers end up attending to courts without
their cases being mentioned.
But the British Department for International Development (DFID), through their Justice for All (J4A) programme recently embarked on the renovation of some of the buildings in the premises, said to have existed since the history of judiciary in the state
Former governor, Chimaroke Nnamani gave the justice sector a leap during his administration when he built a brand new High court and judiciary headquarters at the Independence layout, Enugu. Although it was a model building with enhanced premises and other amenities that could make work easier for the judges, lawyers and litigants, nothing had been done to improve on what that administration left. In fact,the building is fast degenerating.
Many of the courtrooms there are empty because there are no judges assigned to them. The few judges working also use long hand to record the proceedings. Judges are not easily replaced as they retire. For instance, while four judges retired at the High Court last year, only one has been appointed to replace them.
Perturbed by the development, a Human rights lawyer, Olu Omotayo recently petitioned the National Judicial Council (NJC), enumerating what he described as developments that have affected smooth,effective, efficient and speedy dispensation of justice in Enugu State.
Omotayo in the petition entitled “Save Enugu State Judiciary”, stated that over the last few years many judges have retired from the state judiciary while others were elevated to the higher bench thereby creating a vacuum on the bench of the state judiciary.
He said: “At present a judge sits in more than one judicial division which is not only unhealthy but also has no legal backing.
This is the breakdown of judges that sits in more than one judicial division:
Justice A.O. Onovo sits presently in three judicial divisions, namely:
High Court Nsukka, High Court Enugu-Ezike and High Court Enugu.
Justice F.C. Obieze sits presently in two judicial divisions, namely;
High Court Enugu and High Court Awgu. Justice Anthony A. Nwobodo
sits presently in two judicial divisions, namely; High Court Enugu and
High Court Oji River. Justice L.O. Okereke sits presently at two
judicial divisions, namely; High Court Enugu and High Court Oji
River. Justice R.O. Ozoemena sits presently at two judicial divisions,
namely; High Court Enugu and High Court Oji River.
“The question is why these judges should be sitting in more than one judicial division, because of the failure of the system. We submit that it is stressful and unproductive to subject any judge to this type of rigorous torture, just because the state government failed to appoint new judges to cover all the judicial divisions in the state.
“We submit that this anomaly should not be allowed to continue as it spells doom for the administration of justice in the state and the Nigerian judiciary as a whole. Though our investigations revealed that it is the state government that has for political reasons failed to appoint new judges to the bench but we submit that the National
Judicial Council should not shirk away from her responsibility to ensure an effective and efficient judicial system in all the states of the federation”.
Omotayo said that in Enugu, Judges’ welfare has been relegated to the background, stressing that most Judges have functioned without the necessary benefits accruable to their offices and appointments in the
State of the Court of Appeal and Plateau High Courts:
The Court of Appeal was formerly located at the Bank Road, Jos near the Challenge Bookshop adjacent the Plateau State Customary Court of Appeal.
While there, Justice Aloma Mukhtar was appointed the first female Supreme Court Justice and she later became the first female Chief Justice of the Federation.
But the new Court of Appeal Complex, Jos Division, was built in 2009 with modern equipment.
Since that new structure, there has not been any visible improvement. Three years some of the walls of the gigantic building were pulled down in the name of renovation. The walls were broken down here and there but no attempt to put them back.
Some hitherto good offices have lost their glamour as they are not what they were when the complex was first built. The contractors handling the projects were not on site when The Guardian visited the court, thereby giving the impression that maybe they were not well financially mobilised. Many of the toilets were not functioning properly as one sees “Out of Bounds” on the doors of the toilets.
Some of the walls are cracking while the zincs need replacement. It was gathered that the contractors would visit for few times and go back and disappear as there is nothing possibly to compel them to stay.
All the members of staff including the Justices have not received their January 2016 salaries which some of them attributed to the newly introduced Treasury Single Account (TSA) by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration. This development, according to them, is very unusual as they always received their salaries on 22nd or 23rd of every month.
The court is enjoying the absence of unionism, so that any lapse in the administration can only be corrected by the powers–that–be when such stinks to the high heavens.
It was instructive that during the reign of Justice Isa Salami as the President of the Court of Appeal, the staff used to receive “overtime” but that privilege had been thrown to the winds after his exit.
However, the money being sent from the headquarters now gets to those staff who are well known to the establishment. They appeal to the Federal Government to improve on the welfare of the workers and also the infrastructural development of the court as they are not lacking in terms of manpower.
It was gathered also that some members of staff are complaining of their entitlements and pensions. The staff begged the government to restore things which they used to enjoy in the past.
The most worrying aspect is the inadequate accommodation for the staff. “There are not enough staff quarters. ‘We want the staff quarters to be expanded to accommodate all the staff. In a situation where external (visiting) judges will have to be lodged in hotels is not too good.
“The quarters are not enough. Staff have to go out to rent houses at exorbitant rates,” they told The Guardian.
One revelation made at the Court of Appeal is that staff discipline is lacking especially among the workers (excluding the Justices), urging the headquarters to set up a disciplinary committee to discipline erring officers.
Contacted, the Deputy Chief Registrar (DCR) of the Court, Mallam Yahaya Ishola, told The Guardian that his hands were tied as he could not speak to the press without authorisation from the headquarters, directing the reporter to write formally to their headquarters in Abuja that he wants some information at Jos Division.
Coming to the Plateau State High Court, the courts are overdue for renovation as the structures are dilapidated. The walls of the court buildings are old with gulfing cracks.
The courtrooms are not enough that is why courts are not concentrated in one place. They are scattered all over and besides, there are High Courts in some far away local governments.
The judges are not enough. The courts are at the mercy of the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) Plateau State Chapter that can hold the entire judiciary to ransom by holding its jugular.
There has been a proposed new complex of the high court a new facelift but the project has since been abandoned by successive administration. The Guardian learnt that the abandonment was informed by the fact that the leadership of all those past governments was not legally inclined, optimistic that the present administration headed by a legal-minded man in the person of Governor Simon Lalong, who is a seasoned lawyer, the project will be revived.
Other past administrations had been promising to complete the project but at the end of the day, nothing was done.
When contacted for a full–blown interview, the Chief Registrar of the State High Court, Mr. Silas Bakfur surprised The Guardian that a formal request should be made in writing, saying that getting information is not automatic.
Even when the reporter drafted 10 on the spot questions, thinking that the next day the answers would be ready, it was the same answer when the reporter called the next day.
By Ibe Uwaleke, Joseph Onyekwere, Godwin Dunia and Yetunde Ayobami-Ojo (Lagos), Isa Abdulsalami Ahovi, (Jos), Lawrence Njoku (Enugu) and Anietan Akpan (Calabar)