The House of Representatives has voted out a bill seeking to limit the category of litigations that can be appealed at the Supreme Court. The bill was to reduce the workload on the apex court, thereby fast tracking justice delivery.
Critics of the bill, however, argued that the proposed amendment to the Constitution would be counterproductive as it might lead to justice denial to would-be litigants.
At the plenary on Thursday, the House considered for second reading, ‘A Bill for An Act to alter the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999; the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (First Alteration) Act, 2010; and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Second Alteration) Act, 2010, to make appeals to the Supreme Court to be by leave in order to reduce workload on the court, expedite hearing and determination of appeals, and encourage efficiency and quality; and for related matters.’
Chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary, Onofiok Luke, who sponsored the bill, said its objectives were to expedite hearing and determination of both civil and criminal matters and appeals by the Supreme Court; eliminate unnecessary delay in justice delivery and administration by the Supreme Court; and expedite justice dispensation and boosts people’s confidence in the judiciary.
Luke further said the proposed amendment would save litigants from unnecessary and avoidable costs, delays and pains; encourage foreign investment and bolster economic development; stabilise the polity and reduce the risk of citizens, residents and investors resorting to self-help; and encourage sound decisions and grant the Supreme Court room to focus on its primary duty of legal policy formulations.
He said, “The slow pace of justice delivery in Nigeria, occasioned partly by excessive workload on the Supreme Court, is a serious problem which hinders easy and speedy access to justice, and it requires drastic, urgent solutions.
“This bill provides the needed solution by limiting the appeals that reach the apex court. Something must be done about the pace of our justice delivery so that we do not have a situation where the people will entirely lose faith in our justice system and resort to self-help.”
The lawmaker noted that the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is unlimited, expanding to all cases ranging from different areas of law including constitutional, electoral, administrative, tax, entertainment, copyright and labour laws.
He also noted that the Constitution pegs membership of the court at 21 and the court has not since its inception reached its full membership complement. “At the moment, the court is composed of only just 18 justices. It is these 18 justices that handle all appeals and deliver justice to the population of over 201 million Nigerians,” he said.
The lawmakers were, however, divided on the bill. While those who spoke admitted the good intention of the sponsor, they warned that it might eventually lead to the breach of the rights of Nigerians to seek redress in any court.
The Deputy Minority Leader, Toby Okechukwu, said it was understandable that Luke, as chairman of the judiciary committee, would seek a better justice system. “We also have to juxtapose that with the need to look at other alternatives to encourage efficiency,” he added.
Okechukwu stated that there were “prudent alternatives” regarding reduction of workload on Supreme Court justices. He cited the example of parliamentary election matters where the “Appeal Court becomes the Supreme Court for that purpose.” He also said cases could be categorised based on the weight of their penalties.
The lawmaker said, “We may not know the real legal issue to be determined in any matter. For example, for close to 30 to 50 years, a matter of inheritance regarding women in Igboland was subject to adjudication – for a long time. I think about last year or two, the Supreme Court ruled that it offends the fundamental rights of women for them to be discriminated against in matters of inheritance.”