Akpabio’s Prescription for Legal Reforms in Nigeria, by Ola Awoniyi

The justice sector is a critical area of ​​governance in Nigeria that requires reforms. It is not that there has never been any form of reform in the sector. The point is that much more needs to be done. There is ample evidence that in Nigeria today, both the poor and the rich are crying out for justice.

It is against this backdrop that the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Lateef Olasunkanmi Fagbemi, SAN, convened the National Summit on Justice 2024 with the theme: “Repositioning the Justice System.” The Justice Department was not alone. The summit was held in collaboration with the National Judicial Council (NJC) and the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).

The two-day event, which was declared open by Vice President Kashim Shettima (representing President Bola Ahmed Tinubu), kicked off on Wednesday, April 24, 2024, at the auditorium of the National Judicial Institute, Abuja. The keynote speaker was a former Chief Justice of Kenya, Dr. Willy Mutunga.

Shortly after Justice Mutunga delivered his speech virtually, the Senate President, Godswill Akpabio, ascended the podium. Akpabio was a lawyer before becoming a lawmaker. He was therefore well versed in the legal profession and was very much at home on the forum, with his learned colleagues.

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Akpabio did not just give a Goodwill address. His speech undoubtedly set the tone for the summit. His presentation left no doubt that even the rich are crying out for justice in Nigeria. He urged Summit participants to consider what he called a bottom-up approach in expected reforms.

In the course of his speech, Akpabio narrated the case of a senator, who found himself in Kuje Prison as if he were dreaming. He told his audience, including the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Olukayode Ariwoola: “I like a kind of bottom-up approach to judicial reforms. For example, who suffers most if the right reforms are not implemented?

“Very recently in one of our courts a Senator of the Federal Republic appeared before Your Honor. My Lord was excited and said: for respecting the court, I grant you bail on the basis of self-recognition, but come back next Thursday. That’s why he showed up on Thursday. Friday holiday. Monday Holiday.

But suddenly, around 3:30 PM to 4:00 PM, My Lord changed His mind and said, ‘I hereby revoke your bail on self-recognizance. You now need to bring two sureties. Each of them must have properties worth N50 million in Abuja. Bring proof of occupancy. In addition, provide us with written certified reports from AEGIS, knowing full well that AEGIS is closed at 3:30 PM. And the two people with the Certificate of Occupancy had to be civil servants, no less than the rank of Director, and in the meantime they had all gone home.

“So by the time he was struggling to find directors with certificates of occupancy, AEGIS had closed. And then he struggled and struggled and struggled. And then, Your Honor, realizing that this Senator might never be able to meet the bail conditions, he immediately ordered the submission of a form and signed for a pre-trial detention at Kuje Prison. Therefore, the senator was taken to Kuje Prison.

“From there a guard called me and said: ‘Mr. Senate President, one of you has just arrived in our prison and there is no hope that he will get out because tomorrow is a public holiday on Friday and work on Saturday and Sunday we don’t. And Monday is also a public holiday and the matter cannot be discussed until June.’ We are talking about freedom. We are talking about delivering justice that must be transparent.

“Long story short, the Attorney General of the Federation had even canceled the Fiat. So there was actually no case in court, but the senator was there for many days. When he finally came out he wanted to file a petition, I said no. That if I get the chance and we are like this, I will also use your case as part of what we are going to reform, because it was a clear case that if we do not reform properly, even the rich will also cry. ”

Akpabio, in his interventions, has identified some vital but worrying areas that need urgent reforms. These include interlocutory appeals, the requirement for the consent of the Attorney General before executing judgments and abuse of ex-parte orders in political cases.

His words: “It is essential that we reform our approach to summary judgment in civil cases. Currently, these appeals often cause unnecessary delays, prolong court proceedings and burden our courts.

“As was done in criminal case law during the enactment of the Criminal Justice Act 2015, we propose that all appeals in civil cases be heard only after the substantive case has been concluded. This change will speed up judicial processes, reduce backlogs and ensure that trials are not unnecessarily prolonged by interim appeals.

“Another area that requires urgent reform is the need to obtain consent from the Attorney General before executing sentences. This requirement often acts as a bottleneck, delaying justice and undermining the autonomy of our legal system. We propose to amend this requirement to allow for more rapid execution of judgments, thereby increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of our justice system.

“We are not ignorant of the rationale for obtaining the Attorney General’s consent as provided for in sections of the Sheriff and Civil Process Act, which is intended to avoid the embarrassment of not knowing that funds are being used for specific purposes are intended, have been siphoned off to settle a judgment debt that the government may not know about.

“Our intention is to increase efficiency while maintaining the necessary controls. We propose to replace the requirement for permission from the Attorney General with a mandatory reporting system. Upon receipt of a judgment against the government, the relevant authorities will immediately inform the Attorney General in writing.

“After notification, the Attorney General has a certain period, for example thirty days, to respond. The response may include an appeal or the case being dealt with directly. This timeline ensures quick action and avoids unnecessary delays in the administration of justice.

“If there is no response from the Attorney General within this period, the judgment will be automatically enforced. This measure is crucial to avoid stagnation and ensure that judgments are respected and executed in a timely manner.

“In cases where the ruling comes from a final court, the option to appeal is not available. The attorney general’s response would therefore primarily be aimed at a settlement. This approach ensures that the government acts responsibly as a litigant and respects the decisions of our highest court in the land. Reforms such as these promote confidence in the justice system and improve the overall efficiency of legal proceedings involving government.

“Finally, we must try to curb the abuse of ex-parte orders in political cases by our judges. To curb this, it is imperative that the National Judicial Council (NJC) exercises strict supervision. We recommend swift and decisive punishment for judges who abuse their authority in this way.”

Akpabio specifically proposed to the National Judicial Council (NJC) to establish clear and detailed standards for the issuance of ex-parte orders, accompanied by a defined set of sanctions for violations. According to him, these sanctions must be strict enough to deter future abuses.

The Senate President’s recommendation was that the NJC should conduct regular audits and reviews of ex-parte orders issued by judges to ensure compliance with established standards. According to him, this proactive approach would help identify patterns of abuse early and implement corrective measures quickly.

In addition to punitive measures, Akpabio also stressed the importance of continued training and education for judges on ethical and responsible use of judicial discretion in issuing ex-parte orders.

He recommended that the outcome of the summit would be translated into effective policies that would address not only current inefficiencies but also future challenges.