… Burdened with over 5,000 appeals, Supreme Court keeps cases on cause list for 10 years
In this first of a three-part investigative report, ADE ADESOMOJU reports how the Supreme Court of Nigeria currently with 16 Justices is perpetually burdened with over 5,000 appeals and renders the quest for justice by many Nigerians hopeless
In 1989, a dispute ensued concerning the right to fish in Nyawal pond which passed through the Kunini and Jengo villages in Taraba State, North-East of Nigeria.
According to the Supreme Court which resolved the dispute over the pond in 2015, the water body ran through many communities and emptied in River Benue, one of Nigeria’s two major rivers.
The dispute over the pond was between Ibrahim Sakati of Jengo village on one side and Jabule Bako and Sabo Bawuri, both of the Kunini village, on the other side.
Sakati was said to have “taken over” the pond “by force and sold same” to a third party.
Bako and Bawuri filed a complaint before the Area Court sitting in Jalingo, Taraba State, alleging that Sakati forcibly took over the pond and sold it for N1,000 to some “people”.
The Area Court in Jalingo ruled that the “the water in dispute (Nyawal) is the property of the plaintiffs – Bako and Bawuri – all of Kunini because they have established their title of the water before this court.”
The court, therefore, ordered Sakati “to leave the water for the plaintiffs immediately.”
It also ordered the defendant to, in addition, “refund to the plaintiffs all their processes fees”, that is, the cost of prosecuting the case.
Dissatisfied, Sakati appealed to the Upper Area court, which in its judgment delivered on August 2, 1990, affirmed the decision of the Area Court.
The Upper Area Court also ordered Sakati to refund all the proceeds to the respondents – Bako and Bawuri.
Dissatisfied with the decision of the Upper Area Court, delivered in August 1990, Sakati appealed to the High Court of Taraba State.
It took 17 months for the High Court to hear and deliver a judgment on the appeal.
The then Chief Judge of the state, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, who later retired from the bench as the Chief Justice of Nigeria in 2016, was the head of the three-man panel of the Taraba State High Court that heard the appeal.
The appeal panel in its judgment delivered on February 13, 1992, also affirmed the decision of the Upper Area Court in favour of Bako and Bawuri.
Nwayal pond matter meets ex-CJN Mohammed again
Later in the year 1992 after the panel which he headed delivered the February 13, 1992 judgment in respect of the Nwayal pond dispute, Justice Mohammed was elevated to the Court of Appeal bench.
Sakati appealed to the Court of Appeal in Jos, and on July 13, 2000, the court affirmed the judgment of the appellate High Court by granting the right to fish in the pond to Bako and Bawuri.
Still dissatisfied, Sakati filed a notice of appeal against the judgment before the Supreme Court on October 9, 2000.
Nothing happened in the appeal marked SC. 202/2002, until over 13 years when the appellant filed a further amended notice of appeal on February 14, 2014.
In between when the Court of Appeal delivered judgment in the case in July 2000, and February 2014, Justice Mohammed had been elevated to the bench of the apex court.
On November 20, 2014, Justice Mohammed took over as the 14th Chief Justice of Nigeria as he emerged as the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court when the then CJN, Justice Aloma Mukhtar, retired.
Eventually, the appeal was heard by a panel of five Justices (Justice Mohammed not on the panel members) in February 2015.
On June 5, 2015, the Supreme Court panel delivered its judgment which affirmed all the judgments of the four courts that had previously declared Bako and Bawuri to be those with the right to fish in the pond.
The judgment finally rested the legal dispute which lingered in court dockets for about 29 years.
Of the 29 years life span of the case, it spent 15 of it at the Supreme Court.
The value of the N1,000 which Sakati took from the people he sold the pond to was worth about $142 (USD), at the exchange rate of $1 to N7 in 1989.
As of June 2015 when $1 was exchanging, on the average, for about N200, the value of the N1,000 which Sakati took in 1989 had crashed from $142 to $5.
33 years land dispute
In 1984, the Anglican Church, Lagos Diocese, filed a suit before the Ikeja Division of the Lagos State High Court, claiming ownership of a vast portion of land, at Iwaya area of the state.
The church’s claim to the land was based on deeds (title documents), while members of Iwaya community, the defendants, claimed direct purchase of the land from the Oloto chieftaincy family.
It took the court 14 years to deliver judgment in the case.
The victory went to the church in the judgment delivered in 1998 by the then Justice Fatai Adeyinka.
Dissatisfied with the judgment of the High Court, the Iwaya community, through its representatives, appealed to the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division.
This was another legal journey that took another four years.
In 2002, the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal.
With 18 years already spent on the case, the Iwaya community which had lost at both the court of first instance and the Court of Appeal proceeded to the Supreme Court.
In their appeal, filed in 2002 through their lawyer, Mr. Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, the appellants contended that the plaintiff before the trial court was an unregistered entity, which could not own land.
They also argued that the unregistered entity could not file a case in court or be a beneficiary of the judgment of a court of law.
The apex court agreed with the appellants and nullified the judgments of the two lower courts.
The judgment of the apex court, which finally settled the matter, was delivered on June 23, 2017, about 33 years after the dispute started.
Of the 33 years, the matter was in the Supreme Court for about 15 years.
Describing the judgment coming 33 years after the dispute, as a sad commentary on the plight of litigants in Nigeria” the appellants’ lawyer, Adegboruwa said that as of the time the Supreme Court’s judgment was delivered “most of the original parties who were involved in the suit 33 years ago had died”.
Marriage dissolution matter lingers for 12 years at apex court
For about 12 years the fate of the marriage between Dr. Roy Ugo and Mrs. Augustina Ugo remained in the realm of speculation due to litigation.
The matter was in the Supreme Court for nine out the 12 years life span of the case.
Roy had on March 1, 2005 filed a petition before the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory to divorce his wife, Augustina.
On June 19, 2006, about 15 months after commencing the action, the court in a ruling dismissed the notice of preliminary objection filed by the wife to challenge the jurisdiction of the court to hear husband’s petition.
Following her appeal against the ruling, the Court of Appeal in Abuja upturned the decision of the FCT High Court ruling that the lower court lacked jurisdiction to hear the petition.
The Court of Appeal’s decision dismissing the appeal was on the grounds of the doctrine of res judicata, the Supreme Court of New York in the United States of America, having earlier dismissed Roy’s petition for divorce in 2002.
In December 2008, Roy further appealed against the Court of Appeal’s judgment to the Supreme Court, which was only able to hear the appeal on February 8, 2017, nine years after it was filed.
On April 28, 2017, a five-man panel headed by the incumbent CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen , dismissed Roy’s appeal and affirmed the judgment of the lower court.
29 years battle over a vehicle
The case of Chief V.C Obumeseli and Vinco Engineering Services (NIG.) Limited against Chinyelugo Uwakwe started in the High Court of Anambra State in 1989.
The case which has a certain “vehicle” as its subject of dispute is still pending before the Supreme Court and will not be heard until December 2018.
The appellants (Obumeseli and Vinco Engineering Services), who were judgment creditors in the matter, had secured judgment at the High Court of the defunct Bendel State (now Delta State).
They registered the judgment at the High Court of Anambra State in Onitsha.
While they were executing the judgment, the appellants seized “a vehicle” from the respondent.
But the said vehicle was alleged to be owned by one Madam T. Uwakwe, a third party.
The said Madam Uwakwe then opted to institute interpleader proceedings with case number O/2NRJ/89 for the recovery of her vehicle.
In its judgment, the trial High Court found out that the vehicle genuinely belonged to Uwakwe and ordered that it be released to her.
Dissatisfied with the judgment, Obumelesi and his company appealed to the Court of Appeal, which also on October 16, 2008, dismissed their case.
The appellants appealed to the Supreme Court with a notice of appeal filed on November 11, 2008 but due to delays in the processing of the case, was only given the appeal number SC/65/2009 in 2009.
Nine years after, the case has yet to be heard by the Supreme Court.
It has now been adjourned till December 11, 2018 for hearing.
‘Long overdue cases abound’
The Supreme Court on April 11, 2014 delivered judgment in a case of disputed kingship stool of the Akire of Ikire town in Osun State, South-West Nigeria.
The dispute was between Prince Tajudeen Olanrewaju and Sikiru Oyesomi & 11 others.
The judgment was delivered in the appeal marked SC.65/2001 about 13 years after the case was filed before the apex court.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of the refresher course for judges on ‘alternative dispute resolution and criminal justice reform’ held at the National Judicial Institute on March 16, 2015, the then CJN, Justice Mohammed (retd), lamented the delay suffered by the case.
Mohammed said he was “struck” by the fact that “the claim commenced in 1987 and reached the Supreme Court in 2001”.
Voicing the yearnings of Nigerians for change in the judicial system, Mohammed said, “No doubt, other horror stories of such long overdue cases abound and portray a judicial system, which is underfunded, understaffed and clearly in need of change.
“Indeed, we cannot expect to get different results when we keep doing things the same way.”
Court burdened with 5,000 appeals, keeps cases on waiting list for 10 years
Prominent human rights lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Femi Falana, said the Nigerian Supreme Court was “the busiest Supreme Court in the world due to a number of factors”.
One of the factors, according to him, is that “the simplest case can travel from the Customary Court or Area Court all the way to the Supreme Court”.
Averagely, over 500 appeals are filed before the Supreme Court, while less than 400 (sometimes less than 200) are determined by the court annually.
The number of pending appeals, many of which have not been mentioned in court since 2005, was over 5,000 as of 2016.
Some of the court’s officials suggested that the figure could be as high as 8,000 but there was no record to corroborate the claim.
Justice Mohammed, the then CJN, said in his valedictory speech as he clocked the retirement age of 70 years on November 20, 2016, that some of the appeals pending before the apex court “have become academic”.
Earlier on February 4, 2015, about nine months before his retirement, the former CJN had, while speaking in Abuja at the Nigerian Bar Association’s ‘public dialogue on the future of the administration of justice in Nigeria’, told his audience that the apex court was “burdened with over 5,000 appeals”.
He said over 800 appeals were filed in 2014, a pre-general elections year, with another 10 appeals already filed in 2015.
“The court registry is currently burdened with over 5,000 appeals, and the panels of Justices are still hearing appeals filed in 2005,” the then CJN had said.
The ex-CJN’s disclosure did not imply that there were no earlier appeals filed before 2005 still pending before the Supreme Court as of February 2015.
It would be recalled that the Nwayal pond dispute which arrived the Supreme Court in 2000 was only disposed of in June 2015.
Investigations by our correspondent, as confirmed by Mohammed’s statement, show that the congestion of cases in the Supreme Court is due to the fact that on the average, an appeal has to wait for a period of 10 years to be heard and judgment delivered in it by the court.
On September 19, 2016, while reviewing the Supreme Court’s one legal year-long performance, Justice Mohammed said the court heard 1,489 matters, consisting and 581 substantive appeals, and delivered 268 judgments.
The upsurge in the number appeals determined within the period was largely due to the flurry of political and polls-related disputes related cases filed in respect of the 2015 general elections.
Because such cases are time-bound, they are usually given priority ahead of other cases as they are heard and determined within the shortest possible time.
Ten months after Mohammed retired, his successor, Justice Walter Onnoghen, reeled out figures which showed that despite the court’s loaded schedules, the burden in terms of number of pending appeals did not reduce.
At the ceremony marking the commencement of the Supreme Court’s 2017/2018 legal year (the current legal year) held on September 18, 2017, the CJN, Justice Onnoghen said a total of 394 appeals were “considered” giving rise to 243 judgments delivered in the previous 2016/2017 legal year.
Although, Justice Onnoghen did not disclose the number of appeals filed during the 2016/2017 legal year (September 2016 – September 2017), the trend in the court in the previous years showed that the figure could not have been less than 500.
With only 394 appeals considered during the period, it implied that the Supreme Court was still grappling with the appeals not less than 5,000 in number.
Court overwhelmed by motions, interlocutory appeals
Although, the Nigerian 1999 Constitution (as amended) pegs the maximum number of Justices of the Supreme Court bench at 21, the highest number of Justices the court has ever had is 17.
With the retirement of Justice Clara Ogunbiyi in February 2018, the court currently has 16 Justices.
The Justices of the Supreme Court usually sit in the panels of five. They sit in sevens when the matter at stake borders on constitutional issues.
The Justices sit for about 11 months from September to July in a legal year.
They commence sitting in September of every year and proceed on their annual vacation in July of the following year.
Records obtained from the Supreme Court by our correspondent showed that the Justices sat for 36 weeks from September 26, 2016 to July 14, 2017 in the 2016/2017 legal year.
The records also revealed that most of the 36 weeks were devoted to hearing and determining motions, with less attention given to substantive appeals.
The overwhelming number of motions filed before the court are usually based on preliminary issues such as those attacking the jurisdiction of the court to entertain certain appeals, those seeking regularisation of appeals filed out of time and for correction of one technical defect or the other in the substantive appeal.
Many of the appeals are deliberately filed by mischievous lawyers to cause delay.
Speaking at the ceremony marking the commencement of the 2017/2018 legal year (the current legal year) held on September 18, 2018, Justice Onnoghen said a total number of 1,362 matters were “considered” in the previous 2016/2017 legal year.
But of the 1,362 matters considered, about 70 per cent of them were motions while the number of substantive appeals disposed of constituted about 30 per cent of them.
Giving the breakdown, the CJN said, “Under motions, we heard 82 political, 675 civil and 208 criminal motions, totaling 965; the court also considered a total number of 394 appeals comprising 96 political, 174 civil, and 124 criminal.
“In total, 243 judgments were delivered in the 2016/2017 legal year.”
It was the same trend of motions consuming the better time of the apex court and depriving the overwhelming thousands of substantive appeals of the deserved attention in the 2015/2016 legal year.
A total of 1,489 matters heard in the 2015/2016 legal year consisted 908 motions (constituting about 60 per cent) and 581 substantive appeals in which 268 judgments were delivered during the period.
For the 2014/2015 legal year, the Supreme Court heard 1,578 matters, consisting of 1,009 motions and 569 substantive appeals, delivering 262 judgments during that period.
The then CJN, Justice Mohammed, who disclosed this, said there were “over 500 new appeals filed in the last legal year alone at the rate of about 10 new appeals per week, most of which are interlocutory in nature”.
Expressing frustration about the trend, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Osaro Eghobamien, while speaking in Lagos in February at a public lecture organised by the law firm of Mr. Dele Adesina (SAN), lamented that the Supreme Court had lost focus of its role as a policy court, as it was being bogged down with too many cases, majority of which bordered on interlocutory issues.
“The Supreme Court is a policy court; and so when the Supreme Court bogs itself down with considering whether or not we sign our processes, the Supreme Court has stopped performing the function for which it was created,” the senior lawyer said.
Supreme Court congestion’s pivotal role
The Nigerian legal system makes it inevitable for the Supreme Court to be more pre-occupied with hearing interlocutory appeals on cases still pending at the court of first instance, rather than the final judgments of the lower courts.
Most of the appeals filed annually before the Supreme Court, as noted by the former CJN Mohammed, are interlocutory appeals against decisions made in the suit still pending before the court of first instance.
In the Nigerian court system, once an appeal in a civil case has been filed before a higher court against an interlocutory decision of the lower court, the records of the appeal transmitted to the higher court, and the appeal number is given, the lower court automatically ceases to adjudicate on the matter until the higher court disposes of the appeal.
But this has been addressed in criminal proceedings with the advent of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015, which in its section 306, prohibits courts from entertaining applications for stay of proceedings in a criminal case.
But the window for stay of proceedings is still being exploited in civil cases.
Confirming this as a major contributory factor to the congestion in the Supreme Court, Falana said, “what people simply do now is to file a frivolous appeal, compile the record, and then wave the record before the lower court that since the matter is pending before the higher court, the trial judge must throw up his hands like Pontus Pilate.”
He said the principle of stay of proceedings had been abused in civil cases and there was the need to introduce the provisions of section 306 of ACJA in civil proceedings.
Falana said, “People now abuse the principle of stay of proceedings to stall cases. This is already taken of care in the criminal proceedings.
“We now need to introduce that in the civil proceedings, otherwise cases are going to remain and get stalled in the trial court for ages.”
This is the point where the congestion at the Supreme Court plays a pivotal role in slowing down the administration of justice in Nigeria.
Due to the problem of congestion, getting a date for the hearing of an appeal at the Supreme Court is a herculean task which often requires extra-ordinary diligent pursuit by a lawyer to surmount.
Sometimes, adjournments by the Supreme Court last one year.
This situation is often exploited by a lawyer that is not interested in the hearing of both the appeal and the substantive case pending before the trial court.
The appellant and the lawyer simply doze off or continue to create situations that foist adjournments on the appellate courts while the substantive matter gathers dust at the trial court.
Explaining how filing of frivolous appeals continue to cause delay cases, Justice Mohammed said on September 16, 2016, “Indeed, the opportunity cost of listing a matter that is a manifest waste of the court’s time could delay the hearing of other matters, which may involve the liberty of a citizen or protection of another from harm.”
Recently, a suit filed by a former Chairman of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriation, Abdulmumin Jibrin, to challenge his suspension on September 28, 2016 for 180 legislative days, was stalled for about 17 months because of successive appeals on an interlocutory issue.
Although, the suspended federal legislator had filed his suit before the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, on October 14, 2016, the case could not be heard until March 21, 2018, due to successive appeals filed by two members of the House of Representatives – Nicholas Ossai and Orker-Jev Yisa – who were seeking to be joined as defendants in the suit.
The trial judge, Justice John Tsoho, in his ruling delivered on April 13, 2017, had dismissed the lawmakers’ joinder application, describing the applicants as “strangers” with no interest to protect in the proceedings.
But they appealed against the decision to the Court of Appeal, a development which forced the trial court to halt its proceedings.
On December 17, 2017, the Court of Appeal in its judgment dismissed their case.
But they further appealed to the Supreme Court which implied that the trial court still had to stay further proceedings in the case.
On March 8, 2018, the Supreme Court also dismissed the appellants’ interlocutory appeal and affirmed the decisions of the lower courts.
Describing the appeal as “vexatious and frivolous”, Justice Ejembi Eko, who delivered the lead judgment of the five-man panel ordered the appellants’ lawyer, Mr. Tolu Babaleye, to pay each of the four respondents to the appeal, including Jibrin, the sum of N500,000, amounting to a total of N2m, as costs.
With the judgment of the Supreme Court delivered on March 8, 2018, the Federal High Court heard the substantive case on March 21, about 17 months after it was instituted, and adjourned till May 9, for judgment.
Commenting on the delay suffered by his clients who pursued a land dispute for 33 years, of which 15 were spent at the Supreme Court, Adegboruwa attributed the problem of delayed justice to “the backlog of cases, the avalanche of interlocutory appeals, the limitation on the number of appellate justices and indeed the manual system of administration of justice”.
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