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The Eclipse Of Justice (2)

By Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN

In Nigeria presently, no political leader is sure of his standing until his case has been determined by the final court that has jurisdiction over it. This shows the importance of the judiciary even to the political class, which unfortunately, is part of the arm of government that is emasculating the judicial sector, the most. Political cases, pre-election matters and election petitions come in very high volumes and they are to be given priority over all other cases by the court. This alone was already draining the judicial system until the recent collapse of the energy sector where electricity supply has become a rare commodity in the courtrooms.

Depending on which Band the courtrooms fall into based on the present unilateral categorization by the energy cabals, the prohibitive increment in electricity tariffs recently announced by the government will cause more hardship for the judiciary. There must be some kind of subsidy for the justice sector in order to grant unhindered access to justice for our people. If the government is able to subsidize religion in billions of Naira, there is no reason to neglect the judiciary.

The eclipse of justice is the bane of the common citizen, who is almost always at the receiving end of impunity and lawlessness. We should not operate a system that pushes people to the limits of their tolerance. So, when the powerful one has had his day with, might and power, he should allow the victim of his lawlessness the opportunity of challenging it, to avoid situations in which people are forced to take the law into their own hands.

That said, the focus of governance cannot be on the executive alone, given the campaigns for judicial autonomy and financial independence for the judiciary. In this regard, we must ask the chief executive officers of the Courts, judicial and administrative, what has gone wrong with the Court system. Where are all the funds allocated to the judiciary in the annual budget? What has happened to all the fines, penalties and default fees paid into the court registry? What about those heavy filing fees running into several millions of Naira daily? If the court cannot run itself successfully, then why waste precious time and energy in advocating for its financial independence? What does it cost to run generators for six hours in a day in order to give justice to our people? I am not oblivious of the fact that electricity is public infrastructure which is beyond the call of duty of the judiciary. The point however is that since our political leaders over the years have failed the nation on electricity supply, the judiciary should be well prepared to operate in an atmosphere of unwarranted power outages and not to use that as an excuse to deny citizens of their right of access to justice.

As if the restriction of court proceedings was not enough for litigants and lawyers, the Lagos State Judiciary last week made a public announcement of a charge of N30,000:00 payable by litigants who wish to take advantage of virtual proceedings in the courtrooms. There are many issues involved in this new commercial venture, by an arm of government. First, the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules has its own schedule of fees payable by applicants who wish to file a case for the enforcement of fundamental rights, the highest being N1,000:00. This was deliberately adopted to grant access to citizens who are victims of human rights abuses. If it takes just N1,000:00 to file such a case and the applicant is now required to pay N30,000:00 to have access to virtual proceedings, then the purpose of the Rules has been defeated.

It is even doubtful if the Chief Judge of a State has the powers to make rules for the conduct of fundamental rights proceedings. Then comes the general populace. In Nigeria presently, the minimum wage is N30,000:00, which some States are not even paying in full. How does a litigant who is a public servant for instance, forfeit his entire salary just to conduct virtual proceedings in court? The solution is to consider separating commercial cases and other cases involving monetary claims, for the application of any financial consideration for access to virtual hearing, if at all. Even at that, technology provided by the government or any of its agencies should not be subject of commercial consideration, but rather part of provision of critical infrastructure. Government should work on providing free internet in the premises of the Courts as it is done in the airports and other public places.

In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, administration of justice ranked as one of the essential services, given the critical role that judges and lawyers play in the life of the nation and its economy. Nothing has changed to warrant this situation of neglect of the judiciary. No society can exist or function without the rule of law and due process of law. Part of the solution would be to prioritize the provision of public infrastructure for the judicial sector. I do recall that in the days of Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola, SAN as the Governor of Lagos State, Independent Power Plants were developed to supply electricity to public institutions, especially the Courts and the hospitals. This is a critical investment that the government must embrace, in order to fulfill its statutory mandate of providing security and welfare for the people. It is said that the judiciary is the last hope of the common man because it offers the golden opportunity of securing remedy against all forms of oppression, denials and encroachments on the rights of the ordinary citizen.

I suggest the urgent convocation of a stakeholders’ forum by the judiciary. The Nigerian Bar Association should initiate this effort so that the various branches in the States can meet with the Chief Judges to discuss and find solutions to this problem. In order to promote the rule of law, lawyers have a duty to ensure that the court system is effective and functional. Presently, some clients find it more convenient to engage law enforcement officers to secure justice rather than brief a lawyer to file a case in court. They view it as a waste of time, as ineffective and a long route to nowhere.

I have been to some government houses, either at the Aso Villa or some government houses in the States. I have also been to the National Assembly Complex. Electricity supply in these locations is almost taken for granted and permanent and I cannot imagine a situation where generators are operated in these places for four hours in a day. The executive and legislative arms are creations of the Constitution in sections 4 and 5 thereof. That same Constitution also created the judicial arm in section 6. There is no reason why an arm of government should suffer neglect and abandonment in comparison to the other arms. It is totally unacceptable for the executive arm of government in particular to seek to muzzle the courts into ominous silence. If judges cannot speak, lawyers should speak for them. How will a judge function in an atmosphere where there is no electricity supply in the chambers, in the courtroom and even in the extended chambers at home? It is a calculated attempt to silence and suffocate the common man and it must be resisted.

The memo from the Lagos State Judiciary on operation of generators should be withdrawn forthwith as there is no basis for or logic to sustain it. We cannot afford to commercialize the justice sector, given its critical importance to the ordinary citizen. The thinking in some quarters is that this may be part of a grand conspiracy against the poor and downtrodden, who are always the ones with the short end of the stick. The courtroom must be powered to function, not only in Lagos State, but also across the length and breadth of Nigeria, and in any and all locations where justice is being dispensed. If we subsidize religion for political gain at the expense of justice, it will turn out to haunt us as a nation when the rule of self reigns supreme and lawlessness becomes the order of the day.

Every government must see the investment in the judiciary as part of measures that will lead to stability of the system, leading to peace and then development. When the rule of law is in operation and it is effective, development becomes certain but where impunity holds sway, all lovers of justice will distance themselves from such an environment. I urge the Honourable Chief Judge of Lagos State to use his good offices to power the courtrooms, ensure access to justice for all citizens and pay less attention to commercial considerations in the provision of justice to the people. Let it not be the case that the judiciary by its latest actions is unwittingly helping the executive to ride roughshod over the masses of our people by stylishly denying them their crucial and fundamental right of access to justice. It will be double jeopardy for a citizen to be denied his right and also deprived of the right to challenge that denial. God did not create mankind to suffer such brutality and inhumanity. The Courts must be made accessible to all and sundry.

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