On behalf of the members of the Nigerian Bar Association, I felicitate with My Lords on this occasion of the 2018/2019 Federal High Court Legal Year Opening and also welcome Your Lordships from a well-deserved long vacation and rest period. Knowing how full and busy Your Lordships dockets are all year round, My Lords deserved the rest and vacation. It is not for nothing that the Federal High Court is described and looked upon in terms that suggests its ranking as primus inter pares in the hierarchy of High Courts in the Nigerian Federation. The gamut of its jurisdiction, both exclusive and concurrent, stands it out. But more than that, it is the only High Court in the Federation that has jurisdiction over the entire Federation, with its Divisions dotted all over the country. Your Lordships therefore have the unique advantage of being periodically transferred from one Division of the Court to another and in that process, Your Lordships get to work in, know and understand all the different component units of the Nigerian Federation and also appreciate the different quirks and idiosyncrasies of the peoples that make up this great country.
Your Lordships are therefore in a prime position to pronounce, as Your Lordships always do, through this Honorable Court’s decisions, that, though tribes and tongues may differ, we remain one great country and are strong in spite of and indeed because of both our diversity and unity. It is in that context that I specially congratulate Your Lordships for stepping forward at critical moments to reaffirm and cement the bonds of our Nigerian unity through the various pronouncements and decisions of Your Lordships’ Courts. But then, as always, the focus or direction of the body is always dictated by the head. If the head is diseased, so would the rest of the body. As far as this Court is concerned, we, the members of the Bar know that the head is not diseased howsoever. I must therefore congratulate Honorable Justice Adamu Abdu Kafarati for his recent appointment as the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court. We are certain that the qualities that recommended His Lordship for this appointment included his knack for hard work, his firmness in dispensing justice without fear or favor, his deep knowledge of the law and of course, his integrity. We urge His Lordship to maintain and deepen these landmark qualities during his tenure as the Chief Judge of this Honorable Court and indeed ensure that His Lordship’s brother Judges persist and continue as well in this path of rectitude.
There is yet another reason to congratulate Your Lordships, to wit, the recent elevation of some Judges from Your Lordships’ ranks to the Court of Appeal. Elevation of Judges to the higher Bench is always a meticulous exercise that is determined mostly by the quality and integrity of the elevated Justices. Indeed, the recent elevation of Your Lordships’ brother Judges speaks to the exceptional quality and standards of the Judges of the Federal High Court generally and it is our hope and prayer that these outstanding qualities of Your Lordships would be sustained and enhanced in the 2018/2019 Legal Year and beyond, and that, in the next round of elevations to the higher bench, some of Your Lordships will again be found worthy of such elevations.
Given the imminence of our 2019 National Elections, this Legal Year would be anything but ordinary, particularly given the tendency of our politicians to reduce the quest for office and positions as do-or-die affairs. Attempts are sometimes made by the political class to drag Your Lordships’ Courts into these murky waters of politics and in the process embarrass the Justice sub-sector. Happily, Your Lordships have always, in the main, resisted these attempts and it is our hope that Your Lordships will maintain this stance and position in the coming weeks and months, starting from the imminent cases that would be filed before Your Lordships in regard to parties’ primaries and pre-election matters and right up to the election petitions and other ancillary post-election matters. As I have already pointed out, Your Lordships’ pronouncements in these cases, far more than the handiwork of the political class, has kept this country united and prevented strife, chaos and commotion in the different States of the Federation. As we go into another season of elections with its attendant contentions and cases, we respectfully urge Your Lordships to always keep in mind the weighty responsibilities that rests on Your Lordships’ shoulders to continually save us from ourselves through Your Lordships’ pronouncements and in the process which, in no small measure, assists in maintaining the peace, unifying and welding us together as one nation.
Beyond the pre- and post-election matters, we have historically been faced with constant assaults against the rule of law and the 2018/2019 Legal Year will not be an exception. To be sure, Nigeria is not an exception in this regard; even the most advanced democracies periodically face the same dangers of rule of law degradation. Eternal vigilance at all times is the price we pay and the key to warding off these dangers to the rule of law. I of course state the obvious, to wit, that the Courts occupy a prime position in maintaining that defensive and protective bulwark against the degradation of the rule of law. And of course, for the avoidance of doubt, we must most humbly and respectfully mention here that the rule of law is that superstructure from which all other policies, governance principles, positions and rights take their compass and direction. It is super-arching in nature and determines the direction and focus of every other issue. The converse of the rule of law is anarchy. Little wonder then that the Nigerian Bar Association is wedded to the promotion and protection of the rule of law.
In that regard and as it relates to Your Lordships, perhaps I need to quote from my Inaugural Address as the President of the Nigerian Bar Association that was delivered on 31 August 2018, viz:
“The lead motif or sine qua non of Bar Association worldwide, with Nigeria not being an exception, is the promotion and protection of the rule of law. In that connection, there are a number of misconceptions and misperceptions that I must necessarily clear, at this juncture. First, Judges and the Courts are not enemies of society simply because they discharge and or acquit persons who are charged before them for criminal conduct. Courts, the world over, make decisions based on the facts presented before them and based on applicable principles of law. Courts do not manufacture evidence and do not descend into the arena to prosecute or defend persons charged with criminal conducts. Judges remain impartial arbiters, even in criminal matters and our Nigerian Courts have in the main carried out these functions in a most exemplary manner. It therefore pains us, as lawyers, when the Judiciary is erroneously perceived and characterized as the problem in Nigeria. It pains us when they are vilified and demonized in a manner that would tend to cow and intimidate them. Yes, like any grouping of people, there may be bad eggs amongst our Judges, but that does not call for class demonization of our Judges and Courts. What needs to be done is to fish out those bad eggs amongst them and remove them from the pack – and there are sleuth methods and laid down procedures in this regard. We truly damage our justice administration system when we, public officials and lawyers alike, openly vilify and condemn our entire judiciary and judges – more often than not, without any proven case of infraction. We degrade the rule of law thereby and blackmail our judges and the judiciary.”
I respectfully adopt these statements for the purposes of my Address hereat. Just before concluding this Address, permit me, My Lords, to respectfully draw Your Lordships’ attention to some areas – all related to information and communication technology – which in our respectful view, may require some adjustments by Your Lordships. The first relates to electronic recording of Your Lordships’ court proceedings; such recordings would not only enhance speedy hearing and determination of matters but would confer attendant health benefits on Your Lordships. Happily, speedy trial of matters has been improved by the now entrenched practice of mandatory filings of written addresses and front-loading of processes. This has eliminated the need for hand-recording of Counsel’s submissions and examinations-in-chief of witnesses. But then, the Court is still tasked with the hand-recording of cross-examination and re-examination proceedings and indeed the proceedings of the court not to mention the adumbration of Counsel’s addresses.
These constitute a large volume of the daily proceedings in our Courts and the process of hand-recording these proceedings by Your Lordships is not only tedious and deleterious to Your Lordships’ health but is also time-consuming and often times occasion disjointed and incoherent flow in the proceedings. We believe that pervasive electronic recording of proceedings would reduce the tedium of proceedings and enhance the speed of trials not to mention the consistency that would be thereby imbued in the thought flow/process and comprehension of the proceedings by all the parties, the Bench and the Bar inclusive. Happily, the Supreme Court has set the pace in this regard and we believe that the Federal High Court, as the primus inter pares amongst the High Courts of the Federation, should follow suit and not lag behind in that regard. Be assured, My Lords, that the Bar stands ready to partner with Your Lordships in bringing this to fruition and more importantly, in institutionalizing and ensuring the integrity of such an electronic-recording process – a critical component of our proposition that would give confidence to all relevant stakeholders.
Our second suggestion is on the need to develop and publish a readily-available information, statistics and database on this Honorable Court’s activities. I raise this point because, in the course of preparing this Address, I needed to know how many cases were filed before this Honorable Court in the 2017/2018 Legal Year, how many cases were pending at the beginning of that legal year and how many cases were disposed of by Your Lordship within that Legal Year. I was, inter alia, hoping to determine from those statistics how long, in the average, a case may last before Your Lordships these days. In my search for these pieces of information, I headed to the Court’s website, the portal where publicly available information and data about the Court and its activities ought to be published – indeed, the Court’s window to the world. Alas, no such information was at the portal and no such information is publicly available. The downside to this paucity of information is that the members of the public are left with wild speculations and rumor some of which might be injurious to the Court’s reputation and integrity. Indeed, mischief-makers thrive in such climate.
The public in that circumstance have no idea and may not be aware how hard working Your Lordships truly are. They have no way of knowing with any objective certainty how long cases remain pending before Your Lordships and indeed how many matters are disposed of on a monthly and/or quarterly basis by Your Lordships. I can confirm to Your Lordships that one of the critical questions that prospective foreign investors always ask is how long matters drag before our courts. With no data and/or verifiable information from the courts, Counsel are always left to guestimate in giving answers to these questions and these answers may sometimes be entirely off the mark due to lack of verifiable information.
We strongly recommend, in the interest of this Honorable Court and indeed, in the interest of the public the publication of such material information, data and statistics relating to the Court’s activities on a regularly basis – at the minimum, at the Court’s website. Such information must also be constantly updated, and I mention this based on my observation of the Court’s website which, in my very humble and respectful view, requires considerable upgrade. To illustrate the point, I need to mention that the Court’s website, as at this morning, 17 September 2018, shows that the Easter Vacation of this Honorable Court would be “one week from Easter Monday 2017” and the Long Vacation would be in “August 2017 - September 2017” and of course, the Christmas Vacation would be from “December 2017 – January 2018”.
On a very final note, My Lords, the Bar wishes Your Lordships a most fulfilling 2018/2019 Legal Year, in good health and good humor coupled with Divine Wisdom and guidance for the dispensation of justice by Your Lordships to all manner of men (and women, of course), without fear or favor. And we assure Your Lordships that we, the members of the Bar, will remain ever loyal and faithful officers at the temple of justice, always ready and available to aid and assist Your Lordships in the arduous task of meting out justice to all parties.
Paul Usoro, SAN FCIArb
Nigerian Bar Association