Buhari gives courts 12-month deadline for conclusion of criminal cases

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President Muhammadu Buhari has expressed concern about the slow pace of criminal justice delivery in Nigeria and resident and recommended that criminal cases from the high court to the Supreme Court should be concluded within 12 months.

The president who made the commendation at the opening ceremony of the 60th Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) yesterday stated that the advice was necessary given the current and pre-existing challenges confronting the system.

Buhari who was represented at the event by the vice president, Prof Yemi Osinbajo also recommended that civil cases should not last longer than 15 months.

“Why can’t we have time limits for all cases? Why can’t we put in place the rules that will say that a criminal trial all the way up to the Supreme Court must end in 12 months, and that a civil trial must not exceed 12-15 months? I think that, for me, will be stepping forward,” the president said.

“Step forward means taking responsibility. It may also mean making progress, boldly taking on the challenges of the future.

“I believe we need to step forward and resolve some of the nagging problems of our systems of administration of justice,” he said.

The president recalled how it took so long for the courts to decide and eventually dismiss the election petitions he filed to challenge his losses in 2003, 2007, and 2011 presidential elections, adding that the Nigerian justice system should be reformed urgently.

He noted how it took so long for the courts to conclude the election petitions he filed to challenge his losses in 2003, 2007, and 2011 presidential elections.

“I am not a lawyer but I have been both a casualty and a beneficiary of the judicial process. I was before the courts for two and a half years- 27 months from 2003 in the now-famous case of Buhari and Obasanjo. It took me two and a half years to fight for a four-year presidential mandate.

“In 2007, I was again in court for 20 months, almost two years, also as petitioner and later then appellant in the case of Buhari and INEC. And in 2011, again as petitioner in the case of CPC and INEC, I spent another eight months in court.

“In the end, I lost all three cases. I wondered then, why it needed to take so long to arrive at a verdict and if I had won the case, someone who did not legitimately win the election would have been in office all that time.

“In 2019, I was no longer petitioner; I had now become a respondent in the case of Atiku vs Buhari and the whole process took barely six months – just over six months.

“What was the difference? The law had changed since my own in 2003, 2007 and 2011. You had now introduced time limits for election petitions. Everything must be done within a six to eight-month period.

“My question then is why can’t we have a time limit for criminal cases? Why can’t we have a rule that will say a criminal trial all the way to the Supreme Court must not exceed 12 months?

“And why can’t we do the same for civil cases? Even if we say that civil cases must not go beyond between 12 and 15 months. I think that for me will be stepping forward,” said the president.

The president also condemned multiple and conflicting court orders, judicial technicality rather than “clear common sense,” as well as what he described as the opaque process of appointing judges.

Commenting on the issue of technicality, Buhari said: “Justice must make sense to lawyers and non-lawyers alike; as a matter of fact, more to non-lawyers because we are in the majority.

“Triumph of technicalities opens a door for all sorts of speculations about the true motives of the court and can only detract slowly but surely from the authority of our courts.

“My fourth issue is on the appointment of judges. I believe that you must continuously improve on the selection processes for the appointment of the men and women who will serve as judges. We must cast our nets wider in search of judges, especially at the appellate level. We must put in place primarily merit-based selection processes, including mandatory tests and interviews for all applicants for judgeship.

“While our constitution urges federal character for ballots in appointments generally, this is not an excuse for mediocrity,” he said.

Meanwhile, documents from the National Judicial Council (NJC) showed that over 155, 757 cases were pending before the courts as of April, 2020.

Records show that judges in the entire country handling the increasing number of cases in the country are less than 2,000 in number.

Again, although Section 230(2) (b) of the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 provides for the appointment of 21 justices for the Supreme Court, the court currently has only 12 justices. Two justices; Justice Rhodes-Vivour and Sylvester Ngwuta are expected to retire next year.

Eight justices were elevated from the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court but none has been confirmed by the Senate. They are: Justices Adamu Jauro (North East); Emmanuel Agim (South South); Samuel Oseji (South South); and Helen Ogunwumiju (South West).

The others are Justices Tijjani Abubakar (North East); Mohammed L. Garba (North West); Abdu Aboki (North West); and Mohammed Saulawa (North West).

While there are 81 justices of the Court of Appeal, which complies with the provision of Section 237 (2) (b) of the Nigerian Constitution, 1999, which provides for not less than 49 justices, there are 80 judges presiding over thousands of cases at the Federal High Court.

The FCT High Court has less than 35 judges handling about 22,000 cases, and same with Lagos with 61 judges having over 30, 000 cases to deal with. Most of the other high courts in the country have less than 40 judges each.

With the growing number of cases in the country, there are calls for more courtrooms, more judges, ICT, enhanced welfare of judges and consensus by lawyers to build a sustainable judicial system in Nigeria.

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