In Nigeria, the wheels of justice turn at an agonizingly slow pace, leaving litigants in discomfort, inconvenience, and despair. The seemingly never-ending journey of cases, coupled with frequent court adjournments, has pushed some individuals to take matters into their own hands.
With no exaggeration, legal battles in Nigeria can last a lifetime, leaving justice on hold. This pressing issue once prompted some members of the House of Representatives to propose a bill aimed at amending the Constitution and establishing timeframes for resolving civil and criminal cases.
Although the bill failed to pass, its rejection has sparked robust discussions among key stakeholders about the state of justice in Nigeria.
The Constitution guarantees the right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time but lacks a specific timeframe for concluding criminal trials. The lack of clarity surrounding “reasonable time” has plagued the criminal justice system, leaving defendants with mental and emotional anguish.
Criminal cases in Nigerian courts often stretch on for years, subjecting defendants to prolonged mental and emotional stress. Shockingly, some defendants not granted bail may have already served a significant portion of the punishment for their alleged crimes by the time their cases reach the Supreme Court.
The apex court has repeatedly expressed deep concern over the protracted nature of justice delivery, highlighting the need for urgent reform.
A timeous trial is a crucial aspect of the right to a fair hearing, guaranteed under Section 36 of the Constitution. The Nigerian Courts had emphasized that an accused person facing criminal prosecution should be tried promptly to ensure the exercise of their fundamental rights to freedom of movement.
The emotional stress and uncertainty faced by defendants during prolonged trials undermine the principle of justice, as justice delayed is justice denied.
Implementing timelines to resolve legal cases is not a novel concept within Nigeria’s legal landscape. Historically, these timelines have predominantly been applied to electoral disputes, resulting in notable reductions in case durations and preventing contested officeholders from
indefinitely retaining their positions. However, it is disheartening to observe that this expedited process has not been extended to criminal trials, leaving them susceptible to significant delays. Such a discrepancy raises concerns and requires thoroughly examining the factors contributing to this disparity.
It is truly surprising to witness the ease with which politicians, purportedly representing the people’s interests, fail to garner the necessary support and vote for amending the Constitution to impose time limits on criminal trials.
In contrast, they readily embrace such reforms when political gains are at stake. Recently, during the adjournment of election disputes by the court, the nation was abuzz with anticipation as the inauguration day approached.
However, this situation merely provides a glimpse of the protracted ordeal experienced by suspects under the purview of the criminal administration in Nigeria. Their longing for freedom is perpetually extended each day, instilling a sense that their hope will never materialize.
The insufficient workforce within the judiciary is also a pressing concern that deserves attention. The current number of judges needs to be revised to cope with their workload, resulting in an overwhelming burden.
This is particularly evident when judges handling regular criminal and civil cases are also assigned electoral matters with unique characteristics. Consequently, the judges are stretched thin, often neglecting regular cases in favour of time
limited electoral matters. Also, delays in the Supreme Court are a matter of concern, as cases can linger for years before they are heard. Due to a centralized system and staffing shortage, the Supreme Court is inundated with a high volume of cases.
It is imperative to reconsider the selection of cases that reach the Supreme Court to address this issue. Not all cases should automatically be escalated to this level, and if possible, establishing state-level supreme courts should be considered. This approach would expedite the resolution of cases and alleviate the backlog of pending cases burdening the Supreme Court.
Regrettably, the problem of extensive delays in criminal trials is further compounded by certain Nigerian lawyers who frequently employ dilatory tactics, impeding the progress and course of justice due to their incompetence.
It is crucial to acknowledge that it is inappropriate and unacceptable for lawyers to seek adjournments solely to allow more senior or experienced colleagues to handle their cases. The practice of buying time and deliberately prolonging justice under the pretext of assigning a senior lawyer goes against the tenets of law and established legal practices.
Based on this reasoning, the courts have consistently emphasized that legal counsel should refrain from attending court solely to request adjournments. Addressing this misuse of adjournments is imperative to restore the efficiency and integrity of the criminal justice system.
In conclusion, the shadow of court adjournments looms ominously over the right to a fair hearing in Nigeria. The slow pace of justice delivery and the absence of time limits for criminal trials have created uncertainty and frustration among litigants.
It is imperative that the National Assembly addresses this pressing and considers enacting time-bound provisions for criminal trials. This will no doubt involve amending the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, including the section relating to the appointment of judges, etc.
Another way to rectify the issue of adjournment abuse is to contemplate implementing more stringent rules and guidelines. Such measures include the imposition of limits on the number of adjournments granted, introducing penalties for repeated unjustified adjournment requests, and promoting alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to reduce the dependence on court proceedings.
Additionally, it is vital for legal practitioners and professional bodies, such as the Nigerian Bar Association, to assume a pivotal role in fostering ethical conduct and discouraging the misuse of adjournments.
Continuing legal education programs can be crucial in emphasizing the significance of timely justice delivery and impressing their responsibility to ensure efficient court processes for lawyers.
Such a progressive step would contribute to a smarter, more efficient, and more professional dispensation of justice in Nigeria. Justice delayed is indeed justice denied. The time has come to remove the ominous shadow of court adjournments and uphold the fundamental right to a fair hearing for all Nigerians. By instilling confidence in the judiciary’s ability to deliver timely justice, Nigerians would be encouraged to uphold the law, ultimately benefiting the nation.