‘Fast-track procedure should be extended to matters commenced by Originating Summons’
The judiciary is a very important arm of government. This is as a result of the indispensable role it plays in maintaining peace, orderliness and progress in a society. In fact, most economies are rated based on how efficient its justice system operates. Without compromising the quality of decisions, the speed with which conflicts are resolved is of primary concern to both investors and disputants in any given society and Nigeria is not left out. As a reuslt, in order to curtail the delay usually experienced in the dispensation of justice, the Lagos State judiciary in 2012 introduced a fast-track system in the civil procedure rules. This is provided in order 56 of the Lagos State High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules 2012 . The aim is to ensure that cases are resolved quickly and to ameliorate the burden of crowded court dockets. In this interview with YETUNDE AYOBAMI OJO, a Lagos-based lawyer, IKECHUKWU IKEJI examines the impact of the process so far and suggests that fast-track process should be extended to matters commenced by originating summons too.
Do you think that the introduction of the fast-track process has enhanced justice delivery system in Lagos?
The fast-track procedure in Lagos under Order 56 of the Lagos State High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules 2012 (Lagos Rules) was meant to ensure that certain species of matters are given accelerated hearing from the onset of the case.
The objective of the process is to reduce the time spent on litigation to a period not exceeding nine months from the commencement of the action till final judgment. The fast track procedure was a project developed to take care of commercial, business, mortgage and revenue disputes. It was therefore commenced with the Commercial Division of the Lagos State High Court help instill some level of confidence in business operations and transactions as they pertain to the judiciary so as to aid the economic development of Lagos State. Investor confidence was key in the decision to create the fast-track procedure.
Experience has however shown that very few fast-track matters in Lagos get final judgment within nine months. There will always be reason for delay the end result of which defeats the objectives of the procedure. By Order 56, Rule 2 of the Lagos Rules, a suit shall qualify for the fast-track where: (1) (a) the action is commenced by Writ of Summons (b) an application is made to the Registrar by a Claimant or Counter-Claimant; and (2) (a) the claim is for liquidated monetary claims or counter-claim in a sum not less than N100million; or (b) the claim involves a mortgage transaction, charge or other securities; or (c) the Claimant is suing for a liquidated monetary claim and is not a Nigerian national or resident in Nigeria and such facts are disclosed in the pleadings. From the above provisions, the fast-track procedure can only be commenced by a Writ of Summons.
This means that it must involve contentious matter or matters where parties are expected to disagree on facts and law, in other words, where parties are to join issues. There is no reason why the fast-track procedure should not be extended to originating summons. This is because we have seen that, though originating summons are in themselves meant to be fast and expeditious, involving interpretation of instruments and or documents, yet experience has shown that matters commenced by Originating Summons have not been immune from unnecessary delays sometimes caused by litigants and sometimes caused by excess workload on the courts or failure of judges to take control of their courts to ensure quick dispensation of justice. It is suggested therefore, that the fast-track procedure be extended to matters commenced by originating summons.
The procedure is also only for liquidated sum of at least N100million. This means that if you are suing for a liquidated sum (assured sum of money owed you by the defendant), you cannot go by way of fast track.
This is not quite right. The amount ought to be far less than N100million. Surely, there are persons who may have lesser sum claims who would jump at the opportunity of accessing the fast-track procedure. Such people are shut out by the limitation of N100million. There is every need for the amount to be reduced to as low as N10million or even removing the base sum entirely to grant access to every and any litigant who wishes to use the procedure even for higher fees than normal fees charged. I am sure most lawyers will like this situation more than the way it presently is.
What do you think of Rule 4, Order 56 of the Lagos Rules, where the Originating Processes is provided to be served within 14 days of filing?
Again, this is an unnecessary waste of time, an unnecessary indulgence of the Claimant to take all of 14 days to serve a court process when seven days could have served the purpose.
It is suggested that time of service be reduced to seven days or less failing which the Claimant can run back to court for an immediate order of substituted service within a further seven days so that at the end of 14 days, preliminary hearing should have commenced. This helps it answer to its name of fast track.
Furthermore, the requirement of 42 days given under Rule 5 of the Order to the Defendant to file his Statement of Defence is too long as it defeats the very aim of fast track. There is no difference between this and the normal procedure, which still gives the Defendant the same 42 days to respond. It should be reduced to between 21 days and 30 days. A Defendant that has a good defence should be able to respond within twenty one 21 and 30 days otherwise, it will raise the question whether indeed he has any defence. Rule 7 puts a 30-day Case Management Conference (Alternative Dispute Resolution platform) period for fast track procedure.
This can be reduced to between 14 and 21 days on a day to day hearing basis. Extensions of time for Case Management should not be for more than seven days as against the present provision of 14 days. By Rule 14, written addresses are to be filed on a 42 day window for both parties.
This again is too long. It should be reduced to between 22 days and 30 days. Rule 15 of Order 56 should be amended to give the judge a maximum of 30 days within which to deliver judgement after trial and written addresses.
The present period of 60 days is unduly indulgent of the judges. If fees for fast track procedure need to be increased to achieve the above objectives and key amendments, it pays and gives the Claimant the option to choose fast track or to remain on the line of normal procedure. Litigants are sometimes more interested in the quickness with which their matters are heard than the fact that it may cost them a little bit more money than the usual procedure.
What can the judiciary do to improve the system?
What they can do to improve the system is to strictly adhere to the time frame provisions of the Lagos Rules on fast track procedure. Often times, you find that the judges deviate from the strict requirement of timing because of the load of cases before them or because of laziness on the part of some judges. Another way to go round this is for the government to appoint more judges into the judiciary. The judges will also do well to dwell more on substance than on technicalities. Judges should also explore the option of referring such matters to mediation or arbitration, which are a lot quicker. They should do this by way of orders and not leave it to the discretion of parties who would usually pick if it suits them and reject it if it does not.
How can the process be streamlined?
There should be regular capacity training and building for the judges in addition to equipping them with all latest technological equipment to record and respond to cases. For the government, they need to give more support to the judiciary to fulfil the aims of the fast track procedure. One of the clogs on the wheel of the fast track procedure is the poor quality of the operation of the Judiciary Information System (JIS) that aids filing of cases and uploading processes online in real time.