By Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN

Generally, justice connotes a system put in place for the resolution of disputes, to determine rights and wrongs, leading to the award of benefits or the imposition of burdens. According to the learned authors of Legal Information Institute of the Cornell Law School, JUSTICE “is the ethical, philosophical idea that people are to be treated impartially, fairly, properly, and reasonably by the law and by the arbiters of the law, that laws are to ensure that no harm befalls another, and that, where harm is alleged, a remedial action is taken – both the accuser and the accused receive a morally right consequence merited by their actions. Justice is a legal structure or system that is designed to judge in a general sense who should be accorded a benefit or burden when the law is applied to a person’s factual circumstances.” The idea of justice springs from the fact that human beings are not created equal and that by reason of personal strength, status, wealth or influence, one person may be placed in a position of advantage more than the other such that if they were to plead on any matter in dispute between them, the strong may lord it over the weak. The idea of justice is meant to create a balance for society, in order to avoid the rule of self, to abolish any preference for arbitrariness and the regime of might over reason. Justice creates the forum where persons who have grievances can table them for resolution, so that the wrong person can be corrected and the right person justified and appeased. Society thrives on the principle of justice because it gives a sense of assurance to everybody, be it the weak, the strong or the handicapped that given all variables, the system will work to correct all wrongs and offer a remedy to the aggrieved.

The principle of justice is encapsulated in section 6 (6) (b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended, in the following terms:

“The judicial powers vested in accordance with the foregoing provisions of this Constitution shall extend to all matters between persons, or between government or authority and to any persons in Nigeria, and to all actions and proceedings relating thereto, for the determination of any question as to the civil rights and obligations of that person.”

In another language, section 6 (6) (b) above creates access to justice, granting to every citizen and every person the right to approach the court for the determination of all disputes. The right of access to the court is granted unfettered, subject in some cases, to certain legal limitations. The point to note about section 6 (6) (b) is that it brings everybody and every person under the law, to the extent that a poor man can dispute with the richest mogul, a citizen can dispute with the government and a local government can dispute with the federal government. With a fine linen woven across the face of justice, she recognizes no one and she dispenses her trade without ill will or affection and without fear or favour. In this regard, the concept of justice is meaningless without access as its denial is akin to absence of justice. This is why there is constant advocacy for the government to subsidize access to justice. It is for this reason also that the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules has its own schedule of fees to make it accessible to all. It amounts to double jeopardy, for the weak who has been robbed of his basic rights or entitlements by reason only of his weakness to be denied the right to ventilate his grievance. Lack of basic infrastructure, such as electricity can lead to denial of access to justice, especially when the court is locked up and the judge is unable to sit to dispense justice. In jurisdictions where e-filing is the norm, the absence of a functional internet will lead to denial of access to justice when the victim is unable to file his case in court. Recently, the Lagos State Judiciary published a notice on the effect of power outage on the courts, entitled: “Notice on the Operation of Generators”, wherein the following information was passed to the public. “This is to bring to the notice of all members of staff that with effect from Monday, 18th March, 2024 the use of Generators in all our CourtHouses shall be operated within the following specified periods: A) Monday – Wednesday: Generators shall be between 10am – 2pm; B) Thursday – Friday: Generators shall be on by 10am – 1pm. Consequently, all ACRs are enjoined to disseminate this information to all Hon. Judges and Magistrates within their jurisdictions.”

In many of the Courts, public power supply is irregular, resulting in massive disruption of the schedule of the Courts. This in turn leads to unplanned adjournment of cases, thus prolonging the agony of litigants and their lawyers. The Courthouses are built in such a way that they cannot operate without electricity. By denying the courts of needed infrastructure, the government has invariably denied the citizens of access to justice. The circular on generator usage from the Lagos State Judiciary means that the courts will sit for cases for four hours (10am-2pm) Monday to Wednesday and three hours (10am-1pm) Thursday and Friday. Pray, what can a court of justice do in four hours? Let us take a case with multiple defendants and different lawyers. In such a situation, only a single witness would have taken all the four hours available, with the consequence that all other cases would be adjourned. In some cases, witnesses travel from far and wide, costing time and money in travel tickets and hotel bills. This is worse in criminal cases where suspects are in custody, awaiting trial. Quite apart from adjournment of cases as one of the fallouts of lack of electricity supply to the courts, there are other associated deprivations that litigants suffer. In some cases, even when your case has been heard and determined, you may not have access to the order or judgment of the court for weeks, by which time the mischief that was the target of judicial intervention may have been consolidated, thus imposing a fait accompli or a situation of complete helplessness on the court and the aggrieved litigant. There are some bizarre cases in which judges sit to conduct proceedings with rechargeable solutions such as lamps, touch lights and even telephones. The legal system was conceived and it thrives on intellectual exercise. The taking of witnesses, to lead them to give evidence in chief and to cross examine them and to watch their demeanour to determine the veracity of their testimonies all require rigorous mental engagements. If the atmosphere is not right, if the conditions are not conducive, lawyers, judges and litigants will find it difficult to operate to their full potential. The male counsel for instance has an inner singlet, a white shirt on top of it, a black jacket and the black gown or silk, as the case may be. Thirty minutes in a courtroom without ventilation will suffocate anyone conducting any business in such an atmosphere. This ugly development portends grave danger for the society at large beyond the litigants and their lawyers.

The judiciary is the third arm of government and its impact is felt mostly in the courtrooms. There can be no excuse for such an important institution not to function for the benefit of the citizens. From my own personal observations and experience, most of the cases in court are against executive actions, such as unlawful arrests and detentions, wrongful termination of employment, wrongful acquisition of land, wrongful intervention in chieftaincy disputes, arbitrary and inconsistent policies and backlog of criminal cases. As I have always maintained, it pays the executive for the judiciary not to function, as was the case in Osun State until recently. Civilian dictatorship thrives in the face of a powerless judiciary, impunity reigns in an atmosphere of lawlessness and a helpless judicial system and the rule of might succeeds in a society where the wheels of justice grind slowly. The economy suffers from a judicial system that has been rendered comatose because the swift resolution of commercial disputes is one of the factors that wise investors consider before taking any decision on investment.

As we cannot afford a system that celebrates failure or promotes lawlessness, concerted efforts must be made to ensure unhindered access to justice by all and sundry. The peace and stability of any society depend largely on the effectiveness of its judicial sector.

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