TUNDE AJAJA examines how delay in justice delivery frustrates litigants and most often, makes a mess of the court’s processes and quest for justice by many Nigerians.
On Sunday, March 10, 2019, Dr Washington Osifo finally heaved a sigh of relief.
He was elated that his years of toiling in politics finally came to a glorious end, when, after two previous failed attempts, he won the primary and general election to represent his Uhunmwode Constituency at the Edo State House of Assembly.
“It was my first time winning the primary and a general election,” he noted in a recent interview with our correspondent.
Out of the eight parties that participated in the March 9, 2019 election, Osifo of the All Progressives Congress won with 12,453 votes, while the Peoples Democratic Party candidate came a distant second with 5,475 votes.
“I put in everything because I was in the race to win,” he averred. “No election or ambition is small, and we all know how expensive elections are in Nigeria – and by the grace of God and the support of the people, I won. As a Christian, I even went to Church for thanksgiving.”
Such was the excitement and fulfilment that greeted his victory. But unfortunately, his hard-fought victory and overwhelming joy were short-lived and paled into insignificance over time.
For the four years he was to represent his constituents at the hallowed chamber of the Edo Assembly, he was never sworn in as a member, thanks to a protracted court case that lasted the four-year tenure of the Assembly. The matter, which has still not been concluded, became “academic”, a classic testament to the slow pace of justice delivery in the country.
Interestingly, Osifo, who holds a PhD in Law, wasn’t the only victim of the protracted court case; the same ugly fate befell 13 other members-elect, making the 24-member Assembly to run for four years with only 10 members.
The drama that eventually shut out the 14 members began on June 17, 2019, when the Assembly was inaugurated following the proclamation issued by Governor Godwin Obaseki. But following political disagreements over how the inauguration was done, in which case 14 members-elect were not present during the exercise, the excluded members swiftly took the matter to court.
On one hand, Osifo and the 13 others said the inauguration was done at 9:30 pm without their knowledge. “They didn’t communicate to us but a nocturnal inauguration was held, which they have also admitted. Three days after they did the shady inauguration, they made publications in three national newspapers that there would be an inauguration. By the time their letter came out in the paper, we were already in court seeking to be inaugurated,” he added.
On the other hand, Frank Okiye, who emerged as the speaker of the 10-member Assembly, alleged that the 14 members stayed away because of their loyalty to former governor Adams Oshiomhole, who had become a rival to the incumbent governor.
The 14 members approached the court, demanding their inauguration. They also approached the Federal High Court seeking an injunction to bar the Assembly from declaring their seats vacant, and bar the Independent National Electoral Commission from conducting any election to fill their seats.
Sadly, for the four-year tenure of the Assembly, the cases were never resolved, plunging the 14 members into depths of despair. Likewise, other related cases filed were placed on hold pending the determination of the same delayed, substantive suit.
Lamenting the stalling of the case about three years after it was instituted, the then APC chairman in the state, Col David Imuse (retd.), stated, “The case has been taken to all eight high courts in Edo State with no solution in sight. The case starts afresh when it gets to a new court.”
Speaking on behalf of all the excluded members, Osifo stated, “What you and I have seen is a travesty of justice. It’s inhuman, wicked and unbelievable. It’s also sad that the judiciary came up as an accomplice, yet they were supposed to be the last hope of the common man. That a matter which required urgency could drag on for four years is unfortunate. The most painful thing is that they didn’t allow us to represent our people within those four years.
“When we filed the case, there was an affidavit of urgency filed alongside it, but the matter didn’t go beyond the stage of hearing. We went through four Chief Judges and several courts, but they came with all manners of stumbling blocks. At the end of the day, the judiciary helped to trample on democracy and justice delivery.”
The counsel for the 14 members-elect, Prof Job Odion, said that the suit was filed in June 2019 shortly after the botched inauguration but that it was soon plagued by adjournments. “The series of adjournments stretched into 2023. As of March, 2023 when elections were conducted to elect another set of persons into the Edo State House of Assembly, the suit became abated,” he added.
On what caused the delay, Odion pointed out, “The defendants’ lawyers filed all manner of Interlocutory Applications just to delay the hearing of the substantive suit and ultimately wind down the tenure of the plaintiffs (the lawmakers). Furthermore, the defendants’ lawyers kept writing petitions against the judges assigned to hear the suit. More than three judges were forced to hands off the suit and this meant the suit had to start afresh each time.
“In addition, the courts were not firm and refused to grant the plaintiffs’ application for interlocutory injunction. This would have protected their rights as validly elected members of the ninth Edo State House of Assembly.”
Interestingly, an element of the suit is still in court as of November, 2023. “For the sake of setting the law straight and ensuring that these 14 elected persons get their emoluments for the four years they ought to be in office, we are still pursuing the suit,” Odion noted.
A disturbing trend of delayed justice
The popular maxim ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ is a fitting illustration of the travails of the 14 lawmakers-elect. While the seeming distrust that triggered the crisis was political, the failure of the courts to adjudicate in time denied the plaintiffs justice and violated their rights to justice.
It also made a mockery of Latin maxims like Justitia nemini neganda est, meaning ‘justice is to be denied to nobody’; and Boni judicis est judicium sine dilation mandare executioni – ‘it is the duty of a good judge to cause judgment to be executed without delay’.
The delay in justice delivery that has characterised the judiciary in Nigeria has not only frustrated litigants and denied many people justice, it also eroded confidence in the courts. People who waited for years without justice now describe the courts as the lost hope of the common man.
Speaking at the Wole Olanipekun & Co Summit in 2021, with the theme ‘Implementing Justice Sector Reforms’, the then vice president and professor of law, Yemi Osinbajo (SAN), described the gridlock in processing cases through the courts as an elephant in the room.
Osinbajo, previously the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Lagos State, stated, “Regarding delays in Nigerian courts, the United Kingdom Court of Appeal had an occasion to comment in the case of IPCO vs NNPC in 2015. The court referred to the delays in the parallel proceedings in the Nigerian court as catastrophic and noted that it would take another 30 years to resolve. Incidentally, the expert witness who testified on the delay in Nigerian courts was a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, who testified that it could take 20 to 30 years to resolve a case in the Nigerian courts.”
Indeed, across the country, there are instances of plaintiffs or appellants who have spent years waiting for justice. Some have died in the course of waiting for justice, while some others languish in detention facilities with their cases ‘forgotten’.
On November 1, 2023, two correctional centre inmates were released by the Lagos State High Court after four years in detention without appearing in court throughout. On November 16, three inmates were again released by the court. After their arrest in early 2018 for “sundry offences”, their matter was heard once and adjourned since then, until the court ordered their “immediate and unconditional” release on 16th.
As of November 8, information on the website of the Nigerian Correctional Service showed that out of the 80,704 inmates in the country, a whopping 68 per cent are awaiting trial – some suffering serial adjournments or neglect by the courts, while 32 per cent have been convicted. In its bid to help, the Legal Aid Council said it undertook 17,255 criminal cases and 7,808 civil cases between 2019 and 2022.
For the criminal cases, it undertook 5,065 cases in 2019; 2,450 in 2020; 3,837 in 2021; and 5,903 in 2022. For the civil cases, 247 cases were handled through mediation; 3,185 were given legal advice; and a massive 4,376 offered legal representation.
Many reasons have been adduced for the delay in justice delivery, including the volume of cases pending in the courts, the inadequate number of judges and justices (in the case of the Supreme Court), poor remuneration and welfare of judicial officers, a disincentive that could lure some into corruption, writing proceedings and judgments with longhand, structure of the judiciary and excesses of lawyers who deliberately frustrate speedy dispensation of justice.
A lawyer and public affairs analyst, Mr Jiti Ogunye, expressed sadness that while many cases languish in court, some are eventually overtaken by events. He stated, “Take the Edo Assembly case as an example, even if they go to court now, it is said that the court doesn’t treat dead matters; or that the matter has become academic or it has been overtaken by events; all sorts of very terrible adjectives that confess helplessness.”
“Whereas the mantra of justice delivery is that justice delayed is justice denied, or let justice be done though the heaven falls (Fīat iūstitia ruat cælum), those maxims are there, but in reality and in our contemporary situation, how well are they respected?” he queried.
He said the Federal Government ought to have gone to the Supreme Court on the matter to preserve democracy and defend the Constitution, given that a legislature had been corrupted. “That (Edo) example spoke to the issue of dilatory justice delivery, but it spoke also to the irresponsibility of the custodians of the Nigerian state,” he added.
Before delving deeply into the factors that cause delayed justice delivery – except in election cases made possible by timelines through an isolated amendment by politicians in the National Assembly – several other examples abound of how the delayed justice delivery had frustrated plaintiffs and denied the litigants of justice.
Onnoghen, a CJN who fell victim
In 2019, delayed justice, a monster wreaking silent havoc in the nation’s temple of justice, caught up with the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, when the Court of Appeal delayed judgment in his time-bound appeals until after the Code of Conduct Tribunal, a lower court, had sacked him. The appellate court later said the matter had become academic.
On January 25, 2019, former President Muhammadu Buhari announced the CJN’s suspension, citing a CCT order dated January 23. The Code of Conduct Bureau had filed a six-count charge against the CJN at the CCT over allegations of false assets declaration.
The embattled CJN filed four different appeals at the Court of Appeal in Abuja to: challenge the validity of the CCT’s ex parte order ordering his suspension; the arrest warrant against him; the refusal of the CCT to decide on his motion challenging its jurisdiction before going ahead with the substantive suit; and CCT’s decision to continue with the hearing despite orders from the Federal High Court and National Industrial Court directing it to suspend sitting.
The three-man panel of the Appeal Court, led by Justice Stephen Adah, on February 27, 2019, heard the appeals and reserved judgment, even though the CCT continued with the trial.
Worried by the delayed judgment months after it heard the matter, Onnoghen’s lead counsel, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), in an interview with The PUNCH, said, “We are highly disappointed that the Court of Appeal has not delivered its judgments on the appeals by the CJN despite the far-reaching constitutional implication of the appeals.”
The prosecuting counsel, Mr Aliyu Umar (SAN), who also argued against the appeals on behalf of the Federal Government, told The PUNCH, “The Court of Appeal has three months within which to give judgments, and they are still within their right, as long as they don’t exceed three months.”
By the time the Court of Appeal delivered its ruling on May 10, 2019, the CCT had since April 18 convicted and ordered Onnoghen’s removal from office, rendering the belated judgment of the Court of Appeal inconsequential.
“The Court of Appeal refused to deliver its ruling in the matter for about three months,” Chris Uche, one of Onnoghen’s lawyers, said on behalf of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria.
In its eventual ruling, the Appeal Court struck out the four appeals, saying three had become academic since the trial had been concluded by the CCT while noting that the fourth appeal was incompetent.
Despite striking out the appeals, the court admitted that the CCT’s ex parte order suspending the CJN was obtained in a manner “shrouded in secrecy and clandestine manoeuvre”.
Belatedly, the Appeal Court also lamented that while all the parties to the case during the January 22, 2019 trial agreed with the tribunal to have the case adjourned till January 25 for the hearing of pending applications, the prosecution went behind the defendant to obtain the ex parte order on January 23.
Furthermore, the court held that the CCT ought to have been bound by the various court orders from the National Industrial Court and the Federal High Court stopping the trial, noting that the tribunal ought to have “tarried a while” and filed an appeal at the Court of Appeal to have the orders set aside, instead of ignoring the orders.
VAT case continues in perpetuity
Another classic case of delayed justice is the protracted case between the Rivers State Government and the Federal Inland Revenue Service over the appropriate authority to collect Value Added Tax. Since August 2021 when the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt gave its ruling, the matter has stalled at the Appeal Court since September 2021.
In the case instituted by the Rivers State Government, the court, in suit no FHC/PH/CS/149/2020, ruled on August 10, 2021 that the state government, and not the FIRS, should collect VAT.
Dissatisfied with the ruling, the FIRS filed an appeal at the Court of Appeal in Abuja, after which over 10 states applied and joined Rivers State as respondents in the appeal. The appellate court on September 10 asked all parties to maintain status quo ante bellum as it also transferred the matter to its Port Harcourt Division.
Given the heated public debate and huge interest the issue generated nationwide, and to avoid confusion among taxpaying entities, many Nigerians expected an expedited hearing in the matter. But to date, the Appeal Court has yet to deliver its judgment on the matter, more than two years after.
Bothered by the impact of delayed justice in the business environment, the former Fiscal Policy Partner and West Africa Tax Leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Mr Taiwo Oyedele, had told our correspondent in a January 2021 interview that the judiciary needed to ensure speedy justice delivery to assure investors that disputes could be resolved timeously.
Oyedele, who is now the Chairman of the Presidential Committee on Fiscal Policy and Tax Reforms, set up by President Bola Tinubu, had said in the interview, “If you violate our contract and I go to court, I shouldn’t spend 15 years to find out whether I was right or wrong, but this is what happens in Nigeria.”
A Lagos-based lawyer and public affairs analyst, Liborous Oshoma, said while it is convenient to say the wheel of law grinds slowly but surely, some people tend to forget that justice delayed is justice denied.
He added, “A lot of people have even forgotten these cases you cited. In the Edo case, the matter passed through nine judges and they kept recusing themselves for one reason or the other. In the case of Onnoghen, he was to be removed, and when that was done, the matter could be warehoused as long as it was necessary.”
Reasons or Factors responsible for delayed justice explained
One of the factors found to be responsible for the slow justice delivery is the huge number of pending cases in the courts at all levels. This, in conjunction with the inadequate number of judges, has crippled quick justice delivery.
For example, at the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Olukayode Ariwoola, said in November, 2022 at the investiture of new SANs that the apex court had a whopping 6,884 pending cases, including 4,741 appeals and 751 moribund appeals.
Interestingly, at the time he made the disclosure, the apex court had only 13 justices instead of the 21 full complement prescribed by the Constitution. As of the time of filing this report, the number had dropped to a measly 10, and conversely, the number of cases had sustained a rapid rise.
The latest justice to retire from the apex court, 70-year-old Muhammad Dattijo JSC, said on October 27 during the valedictory court session held in his honour that there was no justifiable reason for not appointing more justices, noting “that this avoidable depletion has affected and will further affect the court and litigants is stating the obvious. Appropriate steps could have been taken to fill the outstanding vacancies in the apex court. Why have these steps not been timeously taken?”
Same quandary at Court of Appeal, FHCs
While the situation at the apex court is deeply disturbing as cases spend years at the final court without being sat on, the situation at the Court of Appeal is equally horrendous, denying people access to justice as well as violating their rights to justice.
The President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica Dongban-Mensen, said on September 25, 2023, that there were 39,526 pending cases at the court, with only 81 judges.
What obtains at the Federal High Court is just as appalling. The Chief Judge, Justice John Tsoho, said in December 2022 that 135,592 cases were pending, with some judges having over 1,000 cases in their dockets. There were 75 judges instead of the 100 recommended.
The pending cases comprised 41,788 civil cases, 31,832 criminal cases, 39,799 motions and 22,173 fundamental rights enforcement applications. For the latter, it means people could have died without justice while some of those whose rights had been trampled upon might have to endure the violation.
“There is a crying need to speedily increase the maximum number of judges for the court, in the interest of the litigating public and the general society,” he had noted.
Meanwhile, at the various state High Courts, the situation is the same. For example, in the case of the two suspects, Friday Uche and Sulaman Isah, released by the Lagos State High Court in Ikeja, they had been in custody for four years without trial and the day they were released was their first appearance in court. This explains the abysmal record of 68 per cent of inmates awaiting trial.
The trial judge, Oyindamola Ogala, released them on the grounds that they had been in custody and by law must have served the terms for their offence; keeping unlawful society.
Poor remuneration as disincentive
The poor salaries and allowances of judicial officers have also been identified as a disincentive for judicial officers who are constrained to contend with many cases. While the advocacy for improved pay has continued for years, nothing concrete has been done to make it better.
Dattijo, the recently retired Supreme Court justice, pointed out that justices of the apex court earn a niggardly N751,000 monthly, while the Chief Registrar of the court earns N1.2m monthly, saying it’s unjust and embarrassing for the Chief Registrar to earn more than the justices.
The President of the Court of Appeal had in September 2021 disclosed that she earned a meagre N206,425 monthly, while other judges on the bench earned N166,285 monthly, noting that both in Africa and other Commonwealth countries, Nigeria ranked poorly in terms of salary structure for judicial officers.
Notably, while judges and justices earn peanuts, senators receive about N13m monthly as a mere running allowance, excluding their humongous salaries and allowances. Those in the executive, including even advisers, also earn a lot more than even the Supreme Court justices.
Corruption at the temple
While many judges and justices work under difficult circumstances and live on their meagre income, there have been allegations that some judicial officers involved in corruption, often in cahoots with some lawyers, frustrate cases, ultimately denying people justice.
The Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission reported in December 2020 that a survey it conducted between 2018 and 2020 indicated that a whopping N9.4bn was paid as bribes for justice. “The money involved in the high-level corruption in this sector was categorised into money demanded, offered or paid. Demands are made by court officials, including judges, while bribery offers and payments are made by lawyers and litigants,” the ICPC said.
The 2016 raid of some judges’ houses by the Department of State Services on the evening of October 7 till the early hours of October 8 also indicated that sums of money were found in some homes. The cases, bordering on corruption, filed against those found culpable were all dismissed by the courts on technical grounds.
Oshoma noted that administration of justice, in most cases, is about remedy and restitution, which should be done swiftly “but corruption is a big impediment”.
Another factor that has also been identified as causing the delay in justice delivery is the archaic manner judicial officers record proceedings and write their judgments manually, which leads to fatigue and slows down justice delivery.
Oshoma added, “Sometimes, the judges handling these matters are sent on national assignment or training and so there are adjournments upon adjournments, yet the courts are daily overwhelmed.”
Current judicial structure, an avoidable bottleneck
According to Ogunye, the current structure of the judiciary promotes delay in justice delivery. He said further, “For example, you have many high courts in Nigeria, court martials, etc, that feed the Court of Appeal, and all the divisions feed the one and only Supreme Court. The constitution says the Supreme Court could have 21 justices but for years they never had their full complement.
“So you have cases at the Supreme Court that last eight to nine years. How can that be justice? So what is the remedy? It’s to restructure the judiciary. Unfortunately, most people appointed into political offices don’t want to shed power.”
He explained that in South Africa, for example, the Constitutional Court is separate from the Supreme Court. Our correspondent’s findings showed that countries like Italy, Thailand, Turkey, Romania, Korea and Indonesia also have constitutional courts distinct from the Supreme Court.
Ogunye added, “In the United States, the 50 states have their own Court of Appeal and Supreme Court and there is the Supreme Court of the United States taking only important cases involving the state and the Federal Government. You will never hear that the US Supreme Court is deciding a murder case or a case of theft. So, there are institutional obstacles that frustrate quick dispensation of justice in the country.”
Way out of the woods
According to the counsel for the 14 Edo lawmakers, one of the ways to prevent “this kind of injustice and travesty” is to enforce judicial autonomy granted to the judiciary by the constitution and re-enforced by the courts. He said if this was done, the influence of the executive over the judiciary would have been dealt with.
Also, the CJN had tasked Nigerians to embrace alternative dispute resolution as they would free the courts of case overload.
Ogunye also advocated the need for the Legal Aid Council to be well funded so it could aid more people in getting justice. “The lawyer people expect to take over cases pro bono also wants to earn a living, and without being incentivised professionally by any fees, no matter how little, they are not motivated to do the job,” he added.
While lamenting that poor people were worst hit by the impact of slow justice delivery, he noted, “Ordinary litigants who do not even have litigation strength and stamina and whose cases languish in the courts for years suffer so much from slow delivery of justice.”
Oshoma also advocated the need to create more courtrooms and segment the courts, which he said could be simply done with practice direction, in addition to appointing more judges.
He added, “Despite the amendment of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act that says criminal matters shall be heard every day, there are other cases in the same courts that want to be heard every day. So, sometimes, you get to some courtrooms and everywhere is jam-packed with lawyers and nowhere to sit. As the population is rising, the disputes are swelling and the number of courts is not increasing.
“With all the courts in Nigeria, you have divisions of the Court of Appeal across the country and they all feed only one Supreme Court, with three courtrooms. Why shouldn’t we have regional Supreme Courts? Why should all manner of cases get to the apex court? We need to create more courtrooms.”
Speaking on the implications of the delay, he stated, “If the delay is not addressed, gradually people will lose hope in the judiciary. Delay breeds frustration, and there is no limit to the extent a frustrated man can go to get justice, especially when the society cannot guarantee him justice.”
Indeed, until the challenges are addressed, delayed justice will continue to rob litigants of justice, people’s rights trampled upon perpetually, while the beneficiaries mock their victims and plunge the respected institution of judiciary into ridicule.