The courts’ annual vacation

Towards or by the end of July, 2021, most courts in Nigeria will be on break, to observe the usual ritual of the annual long vacation. All over the country, superior courts of record, from the High Court to the Supreme Court, will be closed, starting from July to September or August to October, as the case may be. This is covered by most Rules of the Courts, that of Lagos State being Order 49 Rule 4 (d), which defines “… the long vacation being the period beginning by the middle of July and ending on a day not later than 42 working days as the chief judge may by notification in a public notice appoint.” Although most judges will be on official vacation, some courts will remain open to attend to very urgent cases, especially criminal cases that may involve custody. I don’t want this year’s vacation to be the usual annual ritual of formal absence from duty, which is the reason for this piece. Good enough, other sectors have since embraced this policy as the National Assembly proceeded on its recess last week to resume in September.

 

The judges

They are human beings with flesh and blood, they need sleep as the rest of us do, they go to the market, they wash their clothes, they have families to attend to and some still have children in school, to cater for. The record from the Law School shows that there are many more female lawyers graduating every year and this has been extended to the Bench where, for instance in Lagos State, female judges outnumber their male counterparts. The judges have to sit in court everyday, from 9am to about 4pm, some of them writing in long hands. Let me use Lagos State where I practise as a case study. I know of a judge who became sick only by reason of not experiencing sunlight, having to leave home very early to beat the traffic, go into court and sit on cases all day, and then close very late, by which time the sun has set already. I do not want to go into personal details, but the truth is that a lot of the judges nurse varying degrees of ailments, on account of the hazardous nature of their job, sitting in one position all day, all week and for months on end. The judges read and study volumes of record of proceedings and written addresses, they analyse cases, prepare and deliver rulings and judgments, on them all. So, the long vacation is then built into the courts’ calendar to give room for rest.

For the Judges, it should not just be about rest and fun, but also personal introspection. How have we fared so far? Are we just delivering judgments without justice? Has it just been all of technicalities bereft of substance? Have we now improved the law more than the way we met it? What is the efficiency scorecard? And the utility value of the efforts? My Lords must take stocks and be self accountable. We must improve ourselves to improve public perception, which is presently very low, though largely instigated and influenced by powers outside the courts, for other motives. Can we take part of this time to reflect upon our cases more deeply? Do the judgments that we churn out everyday, satisfy the expectations of our people concerning justice? Or are we just working to the answer in satisfaction of NJC quarterly returns? In which particular area of law have we made an appreciable difference? What innovation have we brought to the judicial table, the whole of this year? My Lords, Bairaman J.S.C. did not cite any authority in the landmark case of Madukolu v Nkemdilim, which has become the Bible of jurisdiction, since 1962. Is that the way we want to leave it, just to be quoting and adopting previous decisions, without any substantial impact or improvement?

What about the health factor? Can we take out time to do a comprehensive medical check up? Since early diagnosis is key to recovery, why not just walk into the lab and check! Judicial work is both mental and physical and very tasking and energy sapping. Can you still cope? In what area can we improve on knowledge? Technology is taking over virtually all aspects of human existence. Are you compliant? Can anything be done in this regard? How can we use technology to improve justice administration? In some courts now, judges direct their registrars to compile a database of all lawyers who have cases in their courts, in order to open effective channels of communication, through emails, whatsapp, etc. What courses are we attending, to improve justice delivery? After all these My Lords, please do family, family and family. They are the ones that you truly have, so please use this time to bond with them. Don’t ever leave them behind from those jollification trips this time. Please create time to bond with your people.

May I also take out time to talk to the heads of the courts? Can we plan our conferences such that some of them will fall within the long vacation and save litigants and lawyers the trouble of adjournments of cases during busy sessions? This time should also be deployed effectively to renovate the chambers of the judges, to change their carpets, tiles, furniture, computers and other tools of business. Let us make the working environment conducive and friendly. Let us attend to the dilapidated courtrooms, some of which are as hot as the oven, without any ventilation for fresh air. It is most embarrassing that there are no public conveniences in most of the courts. Yet, we bring lawyers and litigants to remain in one entity for about eight hours without any facility for their welfare. Let the entire court compound be cleaned and fumigated, the lawns and gardens properly dressed, the entire courts repainted to wear a new look for the coming legal year. Afterall, Nigerians recently fought for financial autonomy for the judiciary to be in charge of their finances, and we have since jerked up the filing fees and penalties, the costs have gone up and probate fees have all become prohibitive. So, why should things still remain the same when we are paying through our noses? And most courts have no Bar Centre, where lawyers can take pepper soup and sip drinks. Why? Should it all be about arguments and advocacy?

Now is the issue of welfare packages for judicial officers and judicial staff. You cannot fight corruption with poorly paid people. So, we need to review the salary of judges and the judicial staff. They are just too poor and abysmal. Indeed, beyond the prestige of office (which does not really exist anymore), judges are suffering, with some worrisome cases of judges driving themselves to work!

 

The lawyers

Properly speaking, the long vacation is more for the lawyers, who joggle between different courts, all year round. It is the same lawyer, who appears before the Magistrate’s Court, the High Court, the Federal High Court, the National Industrial Court, Election Petitions Tribunal, Tax Appeal Tribunal, SEC Tribunal, Sharia Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, round the clock, as all these courts have different times and schedules. But for the long vacation, by July ending, most active lawyers are already fatigued and experiencing decline in productivity. So, what does the lawyer do with the long vacation? Chief Gani Fawehinmi, (SAN), once told me that in his practice days, he uses the long vacation to read the entire practice books, such as Evidence Act, Rules of Court, Criminal Procedure Laws and such other common practice books and journals that are daily tools in the courtroom. Between now and the time of the Annual Bar Conference, take a course in computer studies, in arbitration, in business or other law related matters.

Then review your cases, altogether, to tackle all pending assignments. Take stock of the past one year. How has it been? Beyond the fat briefs, how many pro bono cases have you attended to? What about the members of staff, are you deliberately owing them arrears of salary and now planning to travel abroad with your family for holiday? Haba! What is the general impact of your practice on society at large?

Will you now in good conscience, stop misleading/extorting your clients in the name of bribing judges, when you don’t even have any communication channel with My Lord at all? Can you get back to making this legal profession truly noble, by practising it in the best tradition that we inherited from our leaders of old? Can you embrace civility and decorum in the conduct of cases, to be transparently honest and tell your client the true position of the law, so that if he/she is the wrong party, he/she can make things right, instead of frivolous applications to prolong the case?

Alternative dispute resolution is fast gaining grounds, as a veritable means of conflict management and every lawyer should embrace it and commend it to their clients. It is faster, better and even cheaper. And then you must plan for the NBA-AGC along with your colleagues from your office. Forget about the politics, the NBA is indeed a useful organ for all lawyers, in many ways and we should endeavour to be part of all activities of the Bar. What about your health? Have not heard of or read about lawyers who just slump and die? In taking and absorbing other peoples’ stress, how do you yourself offload? Having done all these, then now is the long vacation proper. You must shut down completely, away from cases, clients and briefs, even telephones. The body must be allowed to refresh itself. If God who created us could find time to rest, then you have no excuse at all. You don’t have to travel abroad if you cannot afford it or if other priorities would not permit for now. Take madam and the children to some secluded places, even in Nigeria here, and just have fun, at least for a week or two. Don’t be part of the statistics of lawyers who collapse in court, in the midst of arguments of cases. Please take a break so that you do not break.

Above all these, government must take deliberate steps to create the enabling environment for justice to thrive, for the practice of law to blossom, through improvement in facilities and infrastructure, obedience to orders of court, respect for the rule of law and human rights and indeed a determination to eliminate all forms of impunity in all spheres of our human existence. Happy vacation.

 

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