Concerns have continued to mount over the depleting number of justices on the bench of the Supreme Court.
Following this development, some senior lawyers have called for the immediate appointment of judges to fill the vacant positions.
By law, the apex court is supposed to be composed of 21 justices.
But the last time the court came close to realising that feat was in 2020 when the bench had 20 justices.
At the beginning of last year, there were 17 justices on the bench of the apex court.
However, between May 2022 and September 2023, about six justices of the apex court either retired voluntarily after attaining their mandatory retirement age or died.
Currently, there are only 11 justices in the court, including the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola.
Others are justice are: Musa Muhammad, Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, John Okoro, Uwani Abba-Aji, Garba Lawal, Helen Morenikeji Ogunwumiju, Ibrahim Saulawa, Adamu Jauro, Tijjani Abubakar and Emmanuel Agim.
THISDAY gathered that by the time the CJN would constitute the seven-member panel that would hear the appeals filed by the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, and his Labour Party (LP) counterpart, Mr. Peter Obi, the remaining four justices of the court would not be enough to form a quorum to adjudicate on any matter.
While Justice Ariwoola had in a recent function lamented that the bench was over-laboured partly because of the litigious nature of Nigerians, a newly retired justice of the apex court, Amina Augie, disclosed that the apex court, because of some of the kinds of cases in its docket, was being distracted from its primary function.
According to Ariwoola,” political cases, especially, are taking a monumental toll on our dockets. Indeed, the times we are in are not pleasant, to say the least.
In the same vein, Justice Augie at a valedictory court session held in her honour last Thursday, argued that: “Something must change. This court is the apex court, and its final decisions shape society’s social order. Justices should be able to focus on what truly matters”.
Meanwhile, some senior lawyers have argued that the excruciating conditions of the justices of the apex court would only be ameliorated with the appointment of more justices to fill the vacant positions.
Speaking on the issue, Prof. Yemi Akinseye-George, (SAN), said the depletion of the court does not augur well for the administration of justice.
He noted that there are many excellent justices of the Court of Appeal who should be elevated to the Supreme Court.
“The justices are obviously overworked. The CJN and Justice Augie who has just retired highlighted the problem associated with the depletion of the court. The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Lateef Fagbemi has equally hinted that efforts are underway to fill the vacancies. I’m aware that the process has started.
“There are many excellent justices of the Court of Appeal who should be quickly processed for elevation to the Supreme Court. The depletion of the court does not augur well for the administration of justice.
“The names being considered are well known to the bar. These are excellent individuals who will strengthen the court, make weighty contributions to the administration of justice and make the legal profession and the nation proud. The earlier the processes were concluded the better for the administration of justice.”
Also, Mr. Ahmed Raji (SAN), described the situation as unfortunate.
He, however, pointed out that the appointment of justices to the bench of the apex court follows some processes and procedures.
Raji expressed the hope that relevant authorities are currently in the process of doing the needful.
“It is a bit unfortunate because of the heavy workload on the remaining justices. But appointment to the court entails a process which must be on by now. I believe the relevant authorities are fully aware of the situation,” Raji said.
Another senior lawyer, Mr. John Baiyeshea (SAN), said this depletion is not good for the adjudicatory system at all.
“The truth is that even if the court has the full strength of 21 justices, it is still not enough for the tremendous workload in that court”, he said.
While describing the development as a catastrophe, he expressed concern about the welfare and well-being of the justices.
“Imagine the election cases alone are taking a toll on them because as you know, Nigerians don’t let go of anything until they end litigation at the apex court.
“The present election cases from 36 states on election will go up to the Supreme Court, on appeal, so also the presidential appeal. The justices certainly cannot cope.
“The normal cases are no longer being heard at the Court because of the priority given to election cases that are time-bound. And before we conclude the election cases for this season, another election year will set in, and the vicious cycle continues”.
While calling for immediate reform of the system, Baiyeshea charged the President and the National Judicial Council (NJC) to immediately start the process of appointing more Justices to the Supreme Court, adding that otherwise, the whole legal system of the country would collapse.
“We don’t want our Judges and Justices to die prematurely because of the horrendous pressure of litigation.
“Former President Muhammadu Buhari promised to upgrade the welfare of justices and judges before he left but he failed woefully as he ran the country to a ‘failed’ state on all fronts”, he said.
On his part, Mr. Abdul Balogun (SAN), called on the NJC to do the needful by replacing the justices to aid speedy dispensation of justice.
According to him, the apex court justices already have so much in their hands and can no longer afford to have their numbers reduced.
“The NJC should do the needful by screening and appointing more justices to the apex court to aid justice delivery. Already, they are not many, and to further have them reduced is a problem to justice delivery in the country for the apex court”, he said.
On his part, Mr. Aham J. Nweke said the problem created by the vacuum cannot be quantified.
“The vacuum should be quickly filled in the interest of justice for all Nigeria,” he said.
Also, a former Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Judiciary, Onofiok Luke, appealed to the federal government to appoint more justices to the Supreme Court.
Luke said the decrease in the number of Supreme Court justices has taken a toll on justice administration and delivery as it has stalled the determination of matters of importance with adverse effects.
He noted that with the sad demise of Justice Centus Nwezeh, the number of justices of the court has again dropped; making it nine short of its full complement of 21 justices.
The former lawmaker, in a statement in Abuja, noted, as it stands, the docket of the court is full and parties cannot have new dates for matters this year.
Alex Enumah in Abuja with agency report