On delayed court cases

Justice Walter Onnoghen

Chief Justice of Nigeria Walter Onnoghen has spoken, with considerable truth, against the singling out of judges for vilification over failed or delayed court cases.

Justice Onnoghen, who is commendably taking on the war on corruption in the judiciary from where his predecessors have left off, effectively pointed out that it is not only the judiciary that makes up a country’s justice system.

And “there has never been [a] situation,” says the CJN, “in which any case was taken to court and decided upon and the judge was not there to listen to the case or having finished hearing, he refused to deliver judgment.”

Whatever the extent to which Onnoghen’s statement is true, and given that there are many other (extra-judiciary) factors that can lead to delay in the delivery of justice, it is still important to note that the duties of a court are not limited to hearing cases and delivering judgment.

There are some less conspicuous but very important court-dependent activities that do not seem to be always properly discharged.

In Lagos State for example, stories abound of how plaintiffs, after having filed actions and paid the required service charges, are asked to “mobilise” bailiffs before their legal adversaries get served.

While some, especially stakeholders in the judiciary, might wish to explain this away as part-manifestation of the rottenness in the country’s civil service, it is a rather simple truth that the action of court bailiffs and other support staff cannot be put down as being outside the jurisdiction of the courts.

But then, can judges and courts purport to be truly efficient and squeaky clean even with regard purely to the hearing of cases? It does not appear so at all.

Indictment of judges in this regard have come, in fact, from no less than two former CJNs, Justice Dahiru Musdapher and Justice Mariam Alowa Mukhtar.

For the former, judges aid the delay in the delivery of justice “by failing in their duty to be firmly in control of criminal proceedings in their courts, thus allowing [legal] gimmicks to go on unabated.”

The result of this, according to Musdapher, is that “almost every criminal trial, especially on serious charges of corruption, is now preceded by endless objections and applications to quash charges.”

If it is mostly a matter of the lack of control on the part of the bench for Dahiru Musdapher, Justice Mukhtar is of the opinion that judges play a more active role in the entrenchment of judicial delay.

“The judges adjudicate anti-corruption and criminal litigation,” says Mukhtar, “but they allow litigation to continue indefinitely, while the criminals walk away and the people forget.”

The fact that the delay is deliberate is evidenced by the relatively swift judgments meted out to suspects and criminals with lesser financial might. Justice Mukhtar puts it succinctly: “If you steal a goat or a thousand naira, you go to jail, but if you steal crude oil or a billion naira, you plea-bargain and walk away scot-free.”

All of the foregoing observations merely serve to show that judges and courts cannot be totally exonerated from being culpable in the country’s judicial rot. It is also obvious, on the other hand, that the problem is part of a bigger national malaise.

There are many cases, to begin with, that should not even get to the judge’s bench.

But the entrenchment of corruption in the polity and the preponderance of largely inept officers in the police force have made sure that the most frivolous of cases make their way to the courts, thereby clogging the system.

Lawyers for example, all for the sake of receiving appearance fees, institute unworthy cases that they should properly have advised their clients not to pursue.

In light of the comprehensive nature of these problems, it is clear that nothing short of a holistic approach can ameliorate the country’s justice system. The rot in the judiciary needs to be addressed, and the CJN must be commended for doing his bit in this regard.

The decay in the general polity, however, needs also to be addressed. The tendency towards corruption must be curbed by an insistence on probity, accountability, and efficiency.

Those (policemen, lawyers, bailiffs, magistrates, professional sureties) who are profiteering from people’s misery should be brought to book.

The bureaucratic monster, which the nation’s civil service and institutions have become should be reformed into efficient systems.

One truth that eludes a lot of sanctimonious Nigerians is that even better than a near literal taking up of arms against “corrupt” individuals, systemic efficiency is a vital antidote to corruption.

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