PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari has called for urgent reform of the judiciary in view of the delay tactics employed by judicial officers, lawyers and judges, to stall corruption trials and hinder the recovery of proceeds of crime in high profile corruption cases. The president, who was represented by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, made the call at the opening session of this year’s All Nigeria Judges’ Conference held in Abuja.
He also regretted that the judiciary is fast losing the trust and esteem of most Nigerians due to alleged corruption in the system.
Buhari also called for the eradication of the practice of indiscriminate granting of perpetual injunctions as well as the reduction in the workload of Supreme Court in order to reduce the delay in the adjudication of justice.
The reforms the president canvassed for include the reviews of laws, institutions, processes and procedures that inhibit speedy delivery of justice. He called for the re-orientation of the attitude of legal practitioners in general and stressed that judges must not be weak in sanctioning lawyers and litigants who deliberately stall and frustrate the judicial process.
We commend the President for speaking out and at the right venue thereby giving vent to the innermost feelings of most Nigerians who feel frustrated by the slow pace of the adjudication of justice in the country.
The damage is not just limited to the administration of justice alone. This malady explains Nigeria’s bottom ranking in the world index of the ease of doing business. The World Bank has recorded that whereas it takes a country like Singapore 150 days to enforce a contract at the level of a court of first instance, in Nigeria the same process takes 510 days.
Undoubtedly, the delay in our judicial system tends to provide an added encouragement for the corrupt elements in our society, who are aware that all they need to hold up their trial for many years is a clever lawyer and a willing judge.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has shouted itself hoarse, enumerating scores of corruption cases that have been held up in the court system for between 10 and 12 years. Judges have often used the complexity of our laws as a convenient excuse. But how does anyone account for the recent decision of the Supreme Court to grant an application for a stay of proceedings which has been abolished by Section 306 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act of 2015?
The law is clearly unambiguous: “an application for stay of proceedings in respect of a criminal matter shall not be entertained.” We urge Nigerian lawyers to be true agents of the law and not agents of the obstruction of justice. They should endeavor to assist the courts and not confound them. They should strive to win cases fairly and not by hook or crook.
We think the Nigerian Bar and the Nigerian Bench with the National Judicial Council should sit down and draw up a manual for trials with sentencing guidelines as many countries have done. For a country without jury trial, leaving every decision at the discretion of the judge seems imprudent.
Seventy-two per cent of people in Nigerian prisons are awaiting trial. It is either that the judges are too few or that the judges are not doing quite enough. How many judgments are required of the Supreme Court in a year? In the United States, the number is 80; with nine justices.
How many judgments are expected from each court of appeal panel, a high court judge, a chief magistrate, in a month? It is no more persuasive to argue that the productivity of the Bench cannot be measured. Other countries do.
Nigeria cannot realistically fight corruption with the present pace of its judiciary. Society is gravely harmed by corruption. And corruption tends to fight back when it is attacked. We must continue to see the law as a means to a better society and not a subterfuge to allow evil doers to escape just punishment.
We appreciate the right of accused persons to engage the best lawyers they can. It is a different matter when through ridiculous adjournments, stay of proceedings, obstructionist motions; the courts become a pawn and an accomplice in the obstruction of justice by the corrupt. We support the reform of the judiciary because justice delayed is justice denied.