Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, on Monday, appealed to Nigerians to be less litigious, but more disposed to alternative dispute resolution instruments to free the courts from unnecessary cases over-stretching both human and material resources in the judiciary.
Declaring open the 2023/2024 Legal Year of the Supreme Court in Abuja, being his last as CJN, Ariwoola reminded the public that there must always be a winner and a loser after every legal firework.
He said Nigeria could not import foreign laws to try local cases, as some litigants “would erroneously and desperately want us to do in the quest to get victory”. It was an apparent reference to the last presidential election litigation, where the opposition parties used evidence from courts in the United States to challenge President Bola Tinubu’s qualification to vie for the presidency.
Ariwoola said he would do everything possible to ensure that the apex court attained its full complement of 21 justices before retiring next year.
Speaking at the event, Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Lateef Fagbemi, SAN, urged the National Judicial Council (NJC) to expedite action on the process of appointing more justices to fill vacancies on the bench of the Supreme Court.
On its part, the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN) advised NJC to extend the appointment of justices to include Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) and the academia.
The ceremony, which involved the conferment of the prestigious rank of the Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) on 58 legal practitioners, Ariwoola said, “Incidentally, is the last legal year that I will be presiding over, by virtue of the provisions of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended).”
Ariwoola was sworn in last year as CJN, following the voluntary retirement of his predecessor, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, on health grounds. He is expected to retire in August 2023, upon attaining the mandatory retirement age of 70.
In his address at the opening of the legal year, the CJN emphasised the need to respect the rule of law and the holistic independence of the judiciary. He said, “The judiciary, as it is today, is more deserving of public trust and confidence than ever before.”
According to him, if the people’s faith in the judiciary is to be maintained, judges must be above board, and deliver justice without fear or favour.
Ariwoola stated, “I admonish all of us to always be impartial in all our judgements. I am saying all these now because I will never have this great privilege and opportunity to address the galaxies of legal luminaries, judicial icons and distinguished personalities in the justice sector of our dear nation in another legal year of the Supreme Court as Chief Justice of Nigeria in my entire lifetime again.”
Ariwoola assured that he would do everything possible to ensure that the apex court attained its full complement of 21 justices before his retirement next year.
Currently, there are just 10 justices on the bench of the apex court; the lowest in the history of the court.
While observing that efforts were made by his predecessor, albeit unsuccessfully, to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court bench, he disclosed, “As soon as I assumed office on June 27, 2022, I immediately got down to work on this urgent and immediate need in particular.
“Though we have not gotten them on board yet, I can convincingly assure the litigant public that within a very short while, the Supreme Court of Nigeria will, for the very first time in its history, get the constitutionally-prescribed full complement of 21 justices.
“That is one of the legacies I have been working assiduously to leave behind as it now seems that the court has been somewhat ‘jinxed’ from meeting its constitutional requirement since that piece of legislation was enacted several years ago.”
He admonished Nigerians on the imperative of being less litigious and more disposed to alternative dispute resolution methods to free the courts from unnecessary cases that over-stretch both human and material resources.
The CJN called for amendment of the relevant laws to end most appeals at the Court of Appeal, which he said was competent, dexterous and well-equipped with the right materials and manpower to adjudicate effectively and resourcefully.
He said, “In every dispute, only one party must win; and winning could come after intense legal fireworks that is transparent and based solely on subsisting laws of the land.
“We cannot import foreign laws to try our cases here, as some litigants would erroneously and desperately want us to do in the quest to get victory.
“If we really want to make progress as a nation and collectively build a virile legal framework that will serve our interest to the best of its ability, we must begin to have a change of attitude. We are not only here to celebrate the new legal year but to equally speak truth to ourselves and also purge ourselves of most of our wrongdoings and misadventures.”
The CJN called on members of the public with complaints bordering on untoward behaviour or misapplication of the law by any member of the election tribunals to channel such to NJC for prompt action. He added, “I will not condone any form of malfeasance or nonchalance from any judicial officer in the tribunal or regular court.”
He disclosed that in the last legal year, the apex court handled 1,271 cases, comprising motions and appeals.
Ariwoola stated, “Out of these, we heard 388 political appeals, 215 criminal appeals, and 464 civil appeals. Similarly, the court considered a total number of 49 criminal motions, 153 civil motions, and two political motions.
“Between September 30, 2022 and July 11, 2023, the Supreme Court delivered a total number of 251 judgements. Out of these, 125 were political appeals, 81 were civil appeals and 45 were criminal appeals. Within the period under review (precisely 10 months’ duration), a total number of 91 rulings were delivered by the Honourable Court.
“To a very large extent, I will confidently say this score-card is impressive, fascinating and appreciable in view of the unpleasant events that dotted the legal year, especially the attenuating number of justices on the Supreme Court Bench, which has to do with some challenges that could not easily be surmounted by one arm of government alone.
“I attribute the tremendous successes recorded in the course of the last legal year by the Honourable Court to the doggedness exhibited by my industrious and team-spirited brother justices and the general staff.”
The CJN urged the new SANs not to take for granted the honour newly conferred on them, pointing out that they are the successful out of 114 applicants.
While 57 of the new SANs were from the advocate, only one emerged successful from the academia.
Ariwoola told the new SANs, “As Senior Advocates of Nigeria, you now carry heavy burden on your shoulders. From the moment you leave this courtroom, everything in you and about you will now be freely scrutinised and dissected by everyone that comes in contact with you.
“There is nothing like private life for you henceforth, as whatever you hitherto regarded as private life will now be treated as public life by members of the public; and there is nothing you can do about it.
“So, watch your utterances, watch your actions and watch the kind of company you keep, because you have already assumed the role of Ministers of the Court, as you are now expected to assist the court to attain justice, equity and fairness in all ramifications.
“You must display enormous integrity, self-discipline and high standard of advocacy as custodians of justice. The privilege you are conferred with today does not, in any way, make you superhuman because humility and self-control still remain the essential tools to engage in wrestling the foibles of life.”
In his remarks, Fagbemi acknowledged that the process of filling the vacancies at the Supreme Court had begun. He said NJC should act fast to lessen the burden of work on the 10 remaining justices.
Fagbemi stated, “I would like to use this opportunity to ask the leadership of the National Judicial Council to fast-track the process of achieving a full complement of the Supreme Court and to also concurrently put in place the process of filling the consequential vacancies that will be occasioned at the Court of Appeal to avoid undue delay and minimise disruptions at that level.”
The AGF disclosed that the Tinubu administration had expressed its readiness to implement judicial reforms with the cooperation of the judiciary.
“We, therefore, earnestly await the judiciary to set the ball rolling to enable the other arms play their part in this critical aspect of nation-building,” he said.
The minister expressed concern over the backlog of pending appeals at the Supreme Court, and insisted it was a situation that must be holistically addressed.
According to him, “We must begin to develop innovative solutions towards enhancing the working capacity of the Supreme Court, cutting down on the number of appeals that get to the court, implementing critical judicial reforms, as well as adopting alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.”
Meanwhile, BOSAN advised NJC to extend the appointment of justices to include SANs as well as the academia. Professor A. B. Kasumu (SAN) made the appeal while speaking on behalf of the body.
Kasumu called for review of the guidelines for the award of SAN to deserving lawyers in a way that emphasised quality of judgement, as against quantity, required of applicants.
Alex Enumah in Abuja