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To Mitigate Trial Delays, The Judiciary Must Urgently Address Its Own Role In Causing Them

From Monday, November 20 to Friday, November 24 2017, Nigerian Judges had their bi-annual Judges Conference in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.

These Conferences have become institutionalized, and bring together a cross-section of superior court Judges and Justices of Appellate courts in a week-long programme of activities.

The effect of Judges and Justices of Appeal being away from their Benches during a period when Courts should normally be sitting is of concern to us.

Our representatives visited some courts (the Lagos Division of the Federal High Court, the Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal, and the Lagos State High Courts) and observed that in the courts presided by Judges/Justices attending the Conference, there were cases in the courts’ dockets slated for hearing this week.

The obvious consequence of the absence of the Judges/Justices from courts is that the cases scheduled for this week would necessarily suffer “no-show” adjournments.

In the courts we surveyed, we also found that litigants/court users whose cases were scheduled to be heard this week were not informed before hand that the courts would not be sitting; therefore, these court users would turn up to court and then be told that no business will or can be conducted by their respective courts because Court Judges are away on Conference. This, again, is not right.

There would be many litigants/witnesses who would have given up important commitments in order to come to court, and it is no comfort to them to be told that Judges are attending some Conference.

Timing of Judicial Conferences

We have no objection to conferencing amongst Judges or anyone else.

However, we may observe that there is nothing inevitable about how those meetings are scheduled, and no legal requirement that such conferences take place on court users’ time.

Once courts open for business, the time available to be applied towards adjudication of disputes technically belongs to court users and the satisfaction of their needs, and not the Judges themselves, since it is to meet the needs of court users that the Judiciary owes its existence.

The Judiciary therefore, is accountable to the public, particularly to court users, for the use of that time.

It therefore stands to reason that a Judge’s primary function and overarching responsibility is to attend to the business of the court.

Conferences should, on this basis be re-timed to take place during Court Vacation to minimize the impact it has on the business of the courts – the same way the Nigerian Bar Association does.

It is instructive to note that in quite a number of countries, Judicial Conferences are held on weekends or public holidays in order that the conferences do not affect the official businesses of the courts.

In India for example, judicial conferences have been held on Easter as well as on its Independence day.

Reforming Use of Judicial Time

The Judiciary is interested in cutting trial delays but it must now walk the talk and introduce reforms that remove all the factors that occasion delays in the trial system.

Any talk about reforming the speed at which justice is administered must include a commitment, indeed a Covenant, not to place any other duty on Judges above the duty to adjudicate over their various dockets.

As a matter of fact, the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers specifically states in a preamble that the “... the judicial duties of a Judicial Officer, which include all the duties of his office prescribed by law, take precedence over all his other activities”.

To reduce court delays therefore, the Judiciary must prioritize the rendering of a Judge’s adjudicative functions above every other activity of its Judges.

The scale of the impact which a Court’s closure for even one day has on the life of any single case is significant, and not miniscule or marginal as may be assumed: the fixture of any trial date often involves participatory forensic planning to ensure a date is suitable for every party in the case – i.e. the court, the litigants, legal counsel and witnesses.

Therefore, one adjournment can trigger a series of further adjournments in an effort to get a suitable trial date for all the parties.

Preventing one adjournment can, therefore, can save a significant amount of time available for trial and improve court users’ experiences with attending courts.

In any event, taking a stand that Judicial Conferences will no longer disrupt courts’ adjudicative functions will set a worthy example for every stakeholder in the justice system: it will amplify the message that it is no longer business as usual in our courtrooms, and that the Judiciary expects Judges to no longer superimpose other responsibilities over their primary adjudicative duties.

If the National Judicial Council fails to do this, the current paradigm of adjudicatory delays will not change and will continue to create unpleasant experiences for court users and an unfavourable perception of courts and justice in Nigeria.

It is instructive to note that at opening of the ongoing Judicial Conference, President Buhari himself lamented that: “Regrettably court cases can drag on for years and years, sometimes decades without resolution.”

We urge the National Judicial Institute, the organizer of these Conferences as well as the Chief Justice of Nigeria to review again the timing of these conferences in the interest of the timely administration of justice in Nigeria.


Dr. Adenike Aiyedun,
Deputy Director, Access to Justice.





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