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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Akpabio’s recipe for justice reforms In Nigeria

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By Ola Awoniyi

The Justice sector is one critical area of governance in Nigeria crying for reforms. It is not that there has never been some forms of reform in the sector. The point is that a lot more needed to be done. Evidence abound that in Nigeria today, both the poor and the rich are crying for justice.

It is against this backdrop that the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, Lateef Olasunkanmi Fagbemi, SAN, convened the National Summit on Justice 2024 with the theme: “Repositioning the Justice System.” The Justice Ministry was not alone. The Summit was in collaboration with the National Judicial Council(NJC) and Nigerian Bar Association(NBA).

The two-day event which was declared opened by Vice President Kashim Shettima (who represented President Bola Ahmed Tinubu) kicked off on Wednesday 24th April, 2024 at the auditorium of the National Judicial Institute, Abuja. The Keynote Speaker was a former Chief Justice of Kenya, Dr Willy Mutunga.

Shortly after Justice Mutunga delivered his speech virtually, the President of the Senate, Godswill Akpabio, mounted the podium. Akpabio was first a lawyer before becoming a lawmaker. So he was well grounded in the legal profession and very much at home at the forum, with his learned colleagues.

Akpabio didn’t just deliver a Goodwill address. His speech, no doubt, set the tone for the summit. His presentation left no one in doubt that even the rich too are crying for Justice in Nigeria. He urged the participants at the Summit to consider what he called a Bottom-Up approach in the anticipated reforms.

In the course of his speech, Akpabio narrated the case of a Senator, who found himself in Kuje Prison like he was dreaming. He told his audience, which included the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Olukayode Ariwoola: “I will like a kind of a Bottom-Up approach to the judicial reforms. For instance, who suffer the most when the right reforms are not made?

“Very recently in one of our courts, a Senator of the Federal Republic appeared before My Lord. My Lord was excited and said, for respecting the court, I grant you bail on self recognition but come back next week Thursday. So he appeared on Thursday. Friday Public Holiday. Monday Public Holiday.

“But suddenly around 3.30pm to 4pm, My Lord changed his mind and said ‘I hereby revoke your bail on self recognition. You now have to bring two sureties. Each of them must have properties worth N50 million in Abuja. Bring Certificate of Occupancy. In addition, get us in writing, Certified Reports from AEGIS’, knowing very well that AEGIS has closed by 3.30pm. And the two people with the Certificate of Occupancy must be civil servants, not less than the rank of Director, and meanwhile they had all gone home.

“So by the time he struggled to look for directors with Certificates of Occupancy, AEGIS had closed. And then he struggled and struggled and struggled. And then My Lord, realising that the conditions of bail may never be met by this Senator, immediately ordered for form and signed for a remand in Kuje Prison. So the Senator was taken to Kuje Prison.

“From there, a warden called me and said ‘Mr Senate President, one of yours has just arrived in our prison and no hope of his coming out because tomorrow, Friday is Public Holiday and we don’t work on Saturday and Sunday. And Monday is also public holiday and the case may not be mentioned until June’. We are talking about liberty. We are talking about delivering justice which must be transparent.

“To cut a long story short, the Attorney-General of the Federation had even cancelled the Fiat. So there was actually no case in court but the Senator was there for many days. When he eventually came out, he wanted to petition, I said no. That if I have an opportunity and we are seated like this, I will use your case also as part of what we are going to reform because it was a clear case that if we don’t reform well, that even the rich also cry.”

Akpabio, in his interventions, identified some vital but worrisome areas needing urgent reforms. These include interlocutory appeals, requirement for Attorney-General’s consent before executing judgments and misuse of Ex-parte Orders in political cases.

His words: “It is essential that we reform our approach to interlocutory appeals in civil cases. Currently, these appeals often cause unnecessary delays, prolonging litigation and burdening our courts.

“As was done in the criminal jurisprudence during the enactment of Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015, we propose that all appeals in civil cases should be taken only after the conclusion of the substantive case. This change will accelerate judicial processes, reduce backlog, and ensure that litigations are not unduly prolonged by intermediate appeals.

“Another area requiring urgent reform is the need for obtaining the Attorney-General’s consent before executing judgments. This requirement often acts as a bottleneck, delaying justice and undermining the autonomy of our judicial system. We propose modifying this requirement to facilitate a swifter execution of judgments, thereby enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of our justice system.

“We are not ignorant of the rationale for securing the Attorney-General’s consent as stipulated in sections of Sheriff and Civil Procesess Act which is to avoid the embarrassment of not knowing that funds earmarked for specific purposes have been diverted in satisfaction of a judgement debt which the government may not know anything about.

“It is our view to enhance efficiency while maintaining necessary checks, we propose replacing the requirement for the Attorney-General’s consent with a mandatory notification system. Upon receiving a judgment against the government, the relevant authorities will notify the Attorney-General immediately in writing.

“Following the notification, the Attorney-General will have a specified period, say 30 days, to respond. The response could involve initiating an appeal or settling the matter directly. This timeline ensures prompt action and prevents undue delays in justice delivery.

“If there is no response from the Attorney-General within this period, the judgment will be executed automatically. This measure is crucial to prevent stalling and ensure that judgments are respected and enforced in a timely manner.

“In cases where the judgment comes from a final court, the option to appeal is not available. Therefore, the Attorney-General’s response would be primarily directed towards settlement. This approach ensures that the government acts responsibly as a litigant and respects the decisions of our highest court in the land. Reforms like this foster trust in the justice system and improve the overall efficiency of legal proceedings involving the government.

“Finally we must try and curb the misuse of ex-parte orders in political cases by our judges. To curb it, it is imperative that the National Judicial Council (NJC) exercises stringent oversight. We recommend prompt and decisive punishment for judges who are found to abuse their authority in this manner.”

Akpabio specifically proposed to the National Judicial Council (NJC) to establish clear and detailed standards governing the issuance of ex-parte orders, accompanied by a defined set of sanctions for violations. These sanctions, he said, should be severe enough to serve as a deterrent against future abuses.

The Senate President’s recommendation was that the NJC should conduct regular audits and reviews of ex-parte orders issued by judges to ensure compliance with established standards. According to him, this proactive approach would help in identifying patterns of abuse early and in administering corrective measures promptly.

In addition to punitive measures, Akpabio also emphasized the importance of ongoing training and education for Judges on ethical and responsible use of judicial discretion in issuing ex-parte orders.

He advised that the outcome of the summit be translated into effective policies that would address, not only current inefficiencies, but also future challenges.

Awoniyi, Media Aide to the Senate President, writes from Abuja

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