Justice Tanko Ibrahim, a Justice of the SCN, made the statement penultimate Friday while presiding over a panel of justices of the apex court that delivered 11 judgments in a day, including a traffic appeal over dangerous driving. He said the SC justices are also human beings.
“Every Friday you find out that the SCN delivers 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 judgments. There was a month where the SCN delivered about 32 judgments. The work is too much. There is urgent need for a solution to reduce the work load.
“Lawyers will have something to say to the legislature to stop this kind of a thing. There is no Supreme Court in the world that works as the Nigerian SC works.
“Traffic jam cases! Let it (SCN decisions) be on policy issues and on law only, but if a judge (someone) coughs and someone does not like that cough, the matter goes to the SCN.
“Landlord and tenant cases go to the SCN which could be determined by magistrate courts. The work is too much; we better start thinking of what to do,” Justice Tanko Ibrahim said in the open court.
Daily Trust investigations revealed that the Supreme Court of United Kingdom delivered a total of 38 judgments between January 1 and May 22, 2015. The breakdown shows that in UK Supreme Court delivered two judgments in January, five in February and 15 in March, seven in April and 15 in May.
On the other hand, the Supreme Court in USA delivered a total of 38 judgments between January and May, 2015. A breakdown of the judgments shows that 11 judgments were delivered in January, three in February, 12 in March, five in April and seven in May.
In his reaction, a lawyer who does not want his name in print said that the SCN should not be pitied because they are the same persons who made it a condition for every lawyer aspiring to become a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) to get a minimum of three cases at the SCN and there are hundreds of thousands lawyers in Nigeria aspiring to wear the silk.
Another lawyer pointed out that one aspect of the problem is “the fact that judges hardly talk (in public) as they just seal their mouth. They don’t make comments. They cannot be heard complaining. To who? But lawyers can assist. Where the lawyers do not canvass for a constitutional amendment, it will invariably affect them.”
Section 233 of the 1999 Constitution spells out the jurisdiction of the SCN. In addition to its appellate jurisdiction, the SCN also has its original jurisdiction conferred upon it by the constitution.
A Nigerian lawyer, Barrister Seni Adio, who has practiced law in the United States of America for over 15 years however agreed with Tanko Ibrahim, adding that “there is obviously too much work for the SCN.”
He said: “When we say that there is too much work, it is an understatement; they handle averagely 35 cases per month and even if we trim that down to 25 cases per month multiplied by 12 in a year that is outrageous and too much work.”
Adio said that in order to reduce that work load it will require fundamental over hauling of the system because the way our current jurisprudence works is that persons still have their right of appeal regardless of how meritorious or not their cases are, whether civil or criminal.
One of the ways the work load for appellate courts can be reduced, according to him, has been through having stringent requirements in order to appeal.
“In the USA where I practice extensively for over 15 years before I came to Nigeria, you don’t have a right of appeal from the appeals courts to the SC. You have to apply for the writ of certiorari and the justices of the SC in USA sit together as a committee and look at all the applications for writ to have the appeals heard by the SC and they select and determine what cases they want to hear.
“Invariably, not only that the cases they select are first impression, but they are recondite, even the lawyers that actually take the matters to the SC do a lot of self-filtering themselves as they don’t just file a writ for pedestrian cases, they only file a case at their SC when a case involves constitutional import and one in which we don’t have a plethora of authorities that make it empirical as to what the outcome of the case will be.”
He said further that most lawyers can practice for 50 years in the USA and would not even have any reason to file a certiorari to the USA SC.
“Invariably even the cases that end up in the USA SC are cases that involved the government and states or cases between states, US citizens and foreign institutions and sometimes cases having to do with policy issues and constitutional matters.
“Cases that have policy consideration and not cases of land lord tenants. You open your law reports and you find the same decisions going one way so you already know what the answers would be at the end of the day and there is no need filing an appeal to the SC in such instances,” Adio said.
Joe Gadzama SAN said that it is a timely issue and the starting point should be that it shows our level in terms of development compared to other jurisdictions.
“The average age of a justice of the SCN is 65; before you get there you are already in your 60s and you retire at 70, plus or minus, the average age is 65. At such age when we have so many litigations that demand urgent attention of the SC we allow traffic offences appeals to go from the Magistrate Court, Customary Courts, Area Court through the High Court, to Court of Appeal and get to the SC.
“Such a matter should not go beyond the Court of Appeal. Secondly there are similar matters that even if they have to go to the SC, leave must have been sought and obtained at the Court of Appeal level and such cases as traffic cases should terminate completely at the Court of Appeal level,” Gadzama said.
It was further gathered that another reason why the SCN is congested was the finality removed from the Court of Appeal in some political cases, in which governorship election petition matters that hitherto terminated at the Court of Appeal would now end up at the SCN.
The matter has also agitated the mind of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Justice Mahmud Mohammed and Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC) who has stressed the need for Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).
Overtime, according to the CJN, the process of litigation has become more and more time consuming, complex, expensive and cumbersome.
“Increase in the number of cases in our courts has led to congestion and delay in their resolution. Some disputes are sensitive and confidential in nature and disputants may prefer settlements in private to one in public glare of court. The complexity of court litigation tends oftentimes towards increase in costs which disputants are naturally anxious to reduce. On the other hand, there may be claims involving small sums, which may not be worth the cost of litigation. All these have led to the development of alternative methods of resolving disputes. The method in use in many parts of the world is called, ‘Alternative Dispute Resolution’, which I intend to encourage in the federal and state judiciaries,” the CJN said.
A practical example of this can be found at the US Federal Courts, where the 2003 Case Load Report states that out of the over 250,000 cases filed, only 4,206 or 1.7 percent, were decided through the trial process.
Another justice of the SCN, Justice Gabriel Oguntade, expressed worry over congestion of cases in courts, describing the situation as scandalous and disgraceful in a country which, he says, boasts of world acclaimed legal luminaries.
Meanwhile, major stakeholders in the justice sector believed that the solution lies with the National Assembly as it will require a constitutional amendment to address the issue.