Quicker judgments – The Nation

Reps should expedite action on bill to raise number of appeal court justices to 150

The 9th House of Representatives has commendably been quite active in recent months, churning out bills that would have far-reaching consequences should they become law. One of such is: “A Bill to Amend the Court of Appeal Act, Cap. C36, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, to increase the number of Justices of the Court and Provide for Appointment of a minimum of six Justices in every Judicial Division of the Court for speedy and efficient justice delivery and to improve citizens’ access to justice, and for related matters.”

The bill is sponsored by Onofiok Luke, chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary, and when it was put to voice vote after the second reading by the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, it received overwhelming support from the members. The bill seeks to raise the number of justices of the Court of Appeal from the current 70 to a minimum of 150. Presently, most of the divisions of the court have three justices, which by law constitutes a single panel.

But the bill seeks to have a minimum of six justices in every division of the court, so as to have at least two panels which can sit simultaneously.

We agree with the House of Representatives that there is untoward delay in our courts, and welcome whatever can be done to ameliorate the delay. After all, the saying that justice delayed is justice denied is factual. Presently, the average time a case lasts at the Court of Appeal is about 10 years, and that is not expeditious at all.

Therefore, the bill is a welcome development. Of course there are other challenges plaguing the judiciary in Nigeria. Right now, the courts are shut down, and it appears the political authorities have taken it as normal. The issue at stake is the financial autonomy of the judiciary guaranteed by the 4th alteration to the 1999 constitution. Despite the clear provision of the constitution, governors have refused to grant state judiciaries financial autonomy, which is a sine qua non for the much desired efficiency.

By proposing an increase in the number of the divisions and justices of the Court of Appeal, our representatives must bear in mind the need to increase the budgetary allocation of the judiciary. There is no gainsaying that the legislature and the executive use the advantage they have over the appropriation act to their own benefit. Even when the judiciary is an important arm of the tripod in a presidential system, it suffers neglect because its leaders are circumspect in jostling for advantages.

Again, an increase in the number of justices will require the expansion of the appeal court divisions, and the recruitment of manpower. An increase from 70 to 150 justices is significant and a lot of them would come from the high courts; which in turn would require new recruitments to fill the vacancies that will be created. We hope there will be enough judges who have distinguished themselves at the high courts to fill the openings that a passage of the bill will create.

A related challenge will be selecting the judges to be elevated to the Court of Appeal. Experience has shown that the appointment of judges or their elevation to higher bench, is affected by prevalent culture of tribalism and nepotism. Will there be a way to stem the recent experience of leaving out more qualified personnel and appointing those who are less qualified? Of course, while increasing the number of justices may aid speed, such speed will be catastrophic in the hands of incompetent judges.

Perhaps, it is necessary for the legislature to tinker with the procedure for appointment of judges, so as to make members of the bar who know their colleagues, an integral part of the screening of judges for higher appointments. After all, it is those who get appointed to the high courts – whether the federal or state high courts – that eventually get elevated to the Court of Appeal. To enrich the higher bench, appointing authorities should consider appointing members of the bar who have distinguished themselves in legal practice.

The argument in support of the bill as credited to Luke is apt. He said: “the bill is seeking to increase the number of justices of the Court of Appeal … to expedite justice dispensation and eliminate delay in justice delivery; to increase the quality and soundness of judicial decisions by making available more hands in adjudication process at the appellate level; to confer on citizens greater access to justice delivery … and to decrease the workload on the shoulders of the justices of the appellate court and thereby extend their life expectancy.”

We agree with the sponsor of the bill and therefore urge the House of Representatives to expedite action on it, as well as seek the cooperation of the senate to make it a law.

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