Gateway to judicial compromise The judgment of Justice Adebiyi in respect of Nwobike’s case and that of Justice Lawal-Akapo in the case against Rosulu give an insight into the nature and scale of corrupt practices that are possible in the court registries. What can be deduced from Justice Adebiyi’s findings in Nwobike’s case is that an honest litigant or lawyer, who is up against another crooked litigant or lawyer, who has access to the judge through the court officials, may never get justice. The registry of the court, being the gateway to the court, could also be rightly described as the gateway to justice. But the registry of many a Nigerian court is bedevilled with the twin evil of unethical practices and inefficiency. The result is that the wheel of justice in the country not only grinds too slowly, the outcomes of the judicial proceedings, in some cases, are blatantly skewed in favour of the corrupt. The findings depict a scenario where unethical or corrupt court officials, aiding the compromise of a judge, can make the quest for justice of ordinary people a mirage. Oil or clog in the wheel of justice By their actions and inactions, court administrative staff can either oil or clog the wheel of justice. Long before coming in contact with a judge or magistrate, a justice-seeking litigant or his lawyer would have to relate, for at least days, with administrative staff working in the court registry. Early December, our correspondent accompanied a lawyer to the registry of the Federal High Court in Lagos to observe the processes involved in the filing of a lawsuit. A similar trip was made to the registry of the Lagos State High Court in Igbosere. Findings showed that there are six basic stages involved in the filing of a lawsuit – initialling; assessment of filing fees and assignment of suit number; payment of filing fees; deposition on oath; assignment of case to bailiff for service on the party sued; and assignment of case to a judge for hearing. In addition to these six general stages, at the Lagos State High Court, there is electronic filing of court processes at stage two, where the court processes are uploaded in the court’s electronic archive to serve as a back-up in event of missing court processes. This initiative was introduced by a former Lagos State Chief Judge, Justice Ayotunde Phillips (retd.), in response to incessant incidence of missing court processes, usually caused by disorganised or compromised court officials. Through all the six stages highlighted above, a litigant or his lawyer interfaces with different court officials, crossing several hurdles before the suit is finally set for hearing by the judge. Two things, in particular, worry litigants and lawyers the most while going through these six stages – the long hours spent waiting in queues and the unofficial or non-receipted fees they are being made to pay at specific stages. Wasted hours At the Federal High Court in Lagos, the chunk of the hours spent in the court registry is spent to “initial” the court processes and pay the filing fees. The initialling or signing of the court processes takes place in the office of the Assistant Chief Registrar. Typically, as observed on a day of the visit, the officials there seem to prefer to let the court processes pile up before dealing with them, rather than take them as they come. So, once a litigant submits his processes, he finds a place to sit and wait. This wait may last one hour, depending on the volume of the processes one meets. After crossing this hurdle, one proceeds to the desk of the officer assessing the filing fees and assigning suit number. The officer here is dutiful. She takes the cases as they come and within minutes one is done. The next stop is the cash office, where the assessed fee is paid. Following the Federal Government’s cashless and Treasury Single Account policies, payments of cash are no longer accepted in the court registry. Payments are made electronically. The problem here is that the Internet network to generate the Remita Retriever Reference payment code before making payment with POS machine is virtually non-existent. As a result, three out of every five litigants are forced to go to the court’s car park, where a private operator helps them generate the RRR code and make payment at a cost of N300. However, where the payment is above N2,000, the litigant has to journey to the bank. After the payment is made, one returns to the cash office for the cashier to stamp the court processes. This requires waiting in a queue. On the day of the visit, the lawyer accompanied by this correspondent spent exactly one hour to get this done. In the same office, the filing time was registered by another official, before the lawyer proceeded to the office of the Commissioner for Oath next door. Here, there was no crowd and the dutiful, no-nonsense Commissioner for Oath insisted on seeing the deponent to the affidavit. The lawyer called in his client who was waiting in the passage. The client was asked for his religion to which he answered Islam and he was made to swear by the Holy Quran. He signed the affidavit promptly and left the room. The Commissioner for Oath signed and the process was over. But the Commissioner for Oath would not let the lawyer go just like that. “What are you giving me? And it must be substantial,” she demanded authoritatively. The lawyer readily rummaged in his pocket, produced a N1,000 note and gave it to her. He later explained to our correspondent that this was a ritual, adding that where one fails to oblige the demand, the official looks for one fault or the other to disqualify and delay the court processes. Next, we proceeded to Litigation Process, where the lawyer was promptly attended to as there was no crowd. He was asked to go and make photocopies of the court processes. When he returned and submitted the copies, he was told to go and come back in four days to check if the case had been assigned to a judge. The time was 1.59pm. The tour started at about 9.30am. Lamenting the hours spent, the lawyer said, “Since 9.30am that I have been here! I had thought I would just quickly come and be out by 11am, but by that 11am they had not even initialled the processes. “What really wastes time are the persons upstairs initialling the court processes. You can spend one hour there. Not because people are many but they abandon the processes to accumulate. “The woman that is assessing the filing fee is working every second and you will get your work done within minutes and get out of that place. It is the same person that will give you the suit number; you will then go and pay. But in the cash office, they will say there is no network. It’s either you go to the bank or to the people that are over there (pointing to the car park).” As we stood chatting outside the registry, the lawyer parted with another N500, demanded by an official who had earlier stamped his court processes in the cash office. Handing out the N500, the lawyer told the official, “Look at us very well, those of us who take care of you and always treat us well.” Days earlier on the court premises, our correspondent had encountered a litigation clerk working with a law firm in Lagos, Lucky Akilapa (pseudonym), who was in court to get the certified true copy of a court order made by one of the judges. Akilapa, who craved anonymity in order to shield himself and his employer from possible victimisation, described the process as hectic. He said, “Filing here is very hectic. Since 10am that I submitted this process, I am just getting it now, 12.20pm. The fight now is when I get to the cash office to get the cashier’s stamp; I will spend another three hours there. “The crowd is one factor and sometimes, they will say there is no network to generate the Remita Retriever Reference code. Without it, nothing can be done. And if you go outside this gate (pointing to the court’s car park) to generate the Remita payment code, they will charge you N400 extra. “So, now, for this order, I am supposed to pay N207.50 but outside there, I will pay N607.50. It’s crazy and it is the same thing at the Court of Appeal.” Showing this correspondent some court papers, Akilapa added, “This is the brief I filed at the Court of Appeal this morning. The cashier at the Court of Appeal assessed N2,100 but how much did I pay? N2,507.50! It is burdensome.” In court, bailiffs are kings Though he had been asked to go and check back in four days, our lawyer friend was not done for the day. He said he needed to proceed to the sheriff section and pay an “unofficial and non-receipted” service fee to the bailiff that would serve the court processes on the persons sued. Findings by our correspondent showed that an unwilling lawyer or litigant may escape payment of unofficial or non-receipted fee at any stage of the filing process but never at the penultimate stage where he interfaces with the court bailiffs. The bailiffs are the court officials responsible for serving court processes or papers on the parties in a suit. They are also responsible for enforcing the orders and judgments of the court. With the exception of ex parte applications for interim orders, usually, a judge will not hear a case unless satisfied that the party or parties sued have been served with the originating processes. This is in deference to the time-honoured principle of fair hearing. Whenever a bailiff goes out to serve court papers on anyone, he returns to court to put in the case file a “Proof of Service,” to convince the judge that the necessary party has been served. It is not until then that the judge assumes jurisdiction and commences the hearing of the suit. The bailiffs know this much and they use it as a weapon to fleece litigants and lawyers by demanding amounts far higher than the official service fee already paid by the litigant or lawyer as part of the filing fee. Many lawyers, interviewed by our correspondent said without paying the bailiffs unofficially, court processes would be abandoned “till Thy kingdom come.” Explaining the bailiffs’ modus operandi, the lawyer accompanied to court by this correspondent said, “Ordinarily, by law, I am not supposed to go and meet the bailiffs; it is their job to go and pick the court processes and serve appropriately. But if you have to do that, your processes will be there till Jesus comes. But if you ‘mobilise’ them, they will pick it and serve. “And if you question them, they will say they have many things to do and are busy. So, they will abandon your papers.” The lawyer explained that though he paid about N2,500 in total as the official filing and service fee for the fundamental rights enforcement suit which he filed that morning, he did not expect the bailiffs to charge him less than N20,000 as ‘mobilisation fee’ to serve the court papers on the appropriate parties. The litigation officer, Akilapa, whom our correspondent spoke with earlier, had given the same explanation. He explained that the bailiffs had no standard price; they charge the litigant or lawyer based on negotiation. He said, “There is no standard price. It depends on how friendly you are with the Deputy Sheriff. After negotiating with him and paying, he will assign the processes to a bailiff to serve. “For service in Abuja, sometimes, we pay N80,000, sometimes N100,000, depending on the number of places they are serving. They have to lodge and we have to pay for their lodgment which is discussed with the Deputy Sheriff. It is the Deputy Sheriff who determines how much to mobilise them with. “Your own concern is that in three days’ time, the processes have been served and the Proof of Service is ready and put in the case file.” An activist lawyer, Mr Tope Alabi, narrated to our correspondent how his court processes were once abandoned for eight months at the Lagos State High Court for failure to “mobilise” the bailiff. Alabi said, “There was a time that I filed a suit in my name and I paid the official service fee and was expecting the bailiff to do what he was statutorily employed to do, which is serving court processes. This bailiff did not serve my process for good eight months. He would tell me that he went to look for the respondent, but he had not been seeing the man. I kept saying that this man resumes to work before 8am, how come you don’t see him? Then, the other bailiffs said, ‘Lawyer, our friend has spoken; he doesn’t see the man, you are the only one seeing him.’ “So, at that point, I gave the bailiff N2,000. I had not reached PWD (about five minutes drive from the high court) when that bailiff phoned me that he had served the process on the man. Then I asked, ‘How come you saw him now?’ He then told me that after I gave him that money, the scale that covered his eyes just fell off and he was able to see clearly.” A lawyer, who spoke to our correspondent on condition of anonymity, said payment of “unofficial service fee” to the bailiff was a norm at the Federal High Court and the Lagos State High Court. He said the only exception was the National Industrial Court, where the bailiffs do not demand “mobilisation” to do their job. He said, “Part of the statutory fees paid when filing a suit is the service fee. But it is a known fact that these papers do not get to the parties sued if further non-receipted payments are not made to the assigned bailiff. They charge between N5,000 and N10,000, depending on the location of the parties sued within the state and they charge far higher when the parties sued are located outside the state.” The lawyer said it would worsen if the parties could not be served physically and the litigant had to apply for substituted service. He said, “In the event that a bailiff, for some reasons, is unable to deliver the court papers to the parties sued, you have to approach the courts for an order to serve the court papers by substituted means, e.g. pasting on the wall of the residence of the party sued. “To have access to that simple court order, you have to pay the court registrars, sometimes the judge’s secretary too, to have the order typed and drawn up to enable the judge to sign it. “They charge between N5,000 and N10,000 for such a simple order. The order is just one hurdle, as you have to scale through the hurdle of the bailiff again to effect that service, despite having paid for the personal service that was unsuccessful. “The bailiffs charge twice higher than what was paid for the failed personal service.” Another lawyer, Mr Alli Adah, said the bailiffs at the Lagos State High Court were the worst to deal with. He said, “They will even negotiate and threaten you. If you don’t pay, your process will not be served. If you don’t negotiate, your process will be there till Thy kingdom come. And when you go to court to complain, the judge will not listen to you. Some of the judges will send you back to the bailiffs. It is illegal. We’re in pains.” The litigation clerk, Akilapa, said his own law firm had developed a strategy to escape the unofficial filing fee. He said, “If we are serving in Abuja, we will send the processes by road through a commercial transport company, paying only N3,000. We then call a bailiff at the Federal High Court in Abuja, who is our friend, to go and collect the processes from the motor park. We mobilise him with about N10,000. He takes the processes and goes to serve and sends the Proof of Service back to Lagos through transport company. Under two days, the proof of service will arrive Lagos and is ready in the case file. “But if we have to send a bailiff from here to Abuja, sometimes, it can be as much as N150,000. It is expensive.” Paying bailiffs is bribery – Judge Though findings by our correspondent showed that no serious lawyer or litigant would expect his court processes to be served without “mobilising” the bailiffs, the Administrative Judge at the Federal High Court in Lagos, Justice Mojisola Olatoregun, said paying bailiff to serve court processes was bribery. The judge, on May 30, 2017, threatened to order the arrest of a lawyer who said in the open court that he “mobilised” a bailiff with N8,000 to serve his court papers. The lawyer, who appeared for a case before Justice Olatoregun, had expressed frustration that despite “mobilising” the bailiff with N8,000, the court processes were not served on the necessary parties and no “Proof of Service” was in the case file. “Did you say you mobilised them (the bailiff)? How much did you give them? Let me know if it was enough,” Justice Olatoregun baited the lawyer. “I gave the bailiff N8,000,” the lawyer said justifiably. But he was surprised when the judge accused him of bribery and threatened to call for his arrest. Justice Olatoregun explained that bailiffs were paid salaries and allowances and ought not to be “mobilised” by litigants or lawyers to do their job. She said a litigant who paid a bailiff to serve court processes was guilty of bribing a court official. She immediately summoned the concerned bailiff and the Deputy Chief Registrar, vowing that she would deal with the case in her chambers. “When you give a bribe, both of you are liable – both the giver and the receiver. We’ll get the Chief Registrar. You will be handed over to the police for bribing a bailiff. You will explain how you have been bribing bailiffs,” Justice Olatoregun told the lawyer. The Director, Access to Justice – a non-governmental organisation working as a judiciary watchdog – Mr Joseph Otteh, said judges could not claim to be ignorant of the activities of the bailiffs. Otteh said, “Court administrators often know about these illegalities but choose to turn a blind eye to them. “We once did a project a couple of years ago showing how administrative corruption was flourishing within the Lagos Division of the Federal High Court with impunity. We were told subsequently that the Chief Judge of the court at that time merely called his administrative staff and told them to be careful. So, many court leaders are indulgent of the practice.” The Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Opeyemi Oke, on December 10, 2018, described the sheriff section of the court as one of the most problematic sections of the judiciary. She said this in her remarks while presiding over the induction of 47 new court sheriffs employed by the court. Justice Oke, who assumed office late 2017, has been described as a reformer, for various initiatives to curb delays and instil discipline. The Chief Judge explained that the recruitment and training of the 47 new sheriffs for three weeks at the Lagos State Judiciary Training School were part of her efforts to sanitise the system. She described the newly-recruited sheriffs as a new breed, urging them not to blend with the system but to stand out. She explained that the recruitment of the new sheriffs was targeted at overhauling the old order characterised by “complaints of delays in service, failure to serve, falsification of affidavits of service, delays in reporting service, laziness, ineptitude, corruption, etc.” “You are a new breed. You represent a new dispensation in the Sheriff Corps, and by the grace of the Almighty God, you have come in at this time to breathe new life and, by God’s grace, to change the old order. “You cannot afford to blend with the system. You are expected to stand for what is right at all times. Shun corruption and take your job seriously,” the Lagos CJ said.]]>

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