Law News
Pains of lawyers, litigants at Lagos Federal High Court

In terms of capacity, the 42-year-old Lagos Division of the Federal High Court on Oyinkan Abayomi Drive, Ikoyi can no longer cope with the present day reality. It has continued to be a tale of daily agony for lawyers, litigants and other categories of court users, who must now count themselves lucky if they, at least, find a space to stand in the small and usually overcrowded courtrooms. To get a seat in court is a privilege that one must also now guard jealously, because all it takes to lose it is to stand up for only a moment. For those who are able to get into the courtroom at all, it is best to remain there till your business is done, because if you step out for anything, coming back is literally like passing through the eye of a needle, as there is a huge crowd standing in the space that is meant to be the passageway.

Of late too, in most of the courtrooms, the docks and the witness boxes, meant for accused persons and witnesses, have now been converted into file shelves, and are already spilling over with case files and court documents.

Speaking with our correspondent last week Wednesday on the court premises, a legal practitioner, Mr. Damien Musa, captured the current situation at the Lagos Federal High Court when he said, “Sometimes when you get to court, there is this hesitation in most of us to even enter the courtroom.

“If you are lucky to get a space to sit, you just want to stay there because before you even stand up to do anything, someone else has taken over your seat. The current situation is that a lot of times, if you, as a lawyer, manage to enter the courtroom, the litigant you are appearing for is unable to do so. And there are many times when your case would have been called and adjourned or even struck out without you realising it, while you are just standing on the corridor because the courtroom is filled up.”

This was exactly what happened the week before when, to the frustration of the prosecutor who was only standing with the accused persons on the court’s corridor, Justice Mohammed Yunusa adjourned the arraignment of some suspected pipeline vandals, before the prosecutor could successfully fight his way through the crowded passageway into the courtroom.

Sharing his experience, another lawyer, Mr. Gbenga Kushimo, said it would sometimes take announcing your appearance from the door to save your case from being adjourned under the impression that you are not in court.

“Sometimes, when your case is called, you have to rush in from outside, fighting your way through and from the door you’d be shouting ‘With respect, My Lord, my name is O.O. Kushimo,’” he said.

This situation could be particularly worse when the judges do not call the cases as they are arranged on the cause list.

“Some judges call cases out of turn, and if you think your case is number 10 and you wait outside hoping that before it gets to your turn, the courtroom would have been decongested, it could turn out that your case has been called and adjourned or struck out without you even knowing it,” Mr. Tope Alabi, also a lawyer, said.

Observers said the courtrooms were not built to accommodate the volume of cases and the numbers of litigants that are now going there. They said the courtrooms were built at a when most disputes were settled at the police station or military barracks. They noted that since the return to the civil rule, the court has begun to witness a rise in the number of litigation that must now be settled in court.

“The situation is that in those days when most of these courts were built, the government did not envisage that people will be coming to court. And when you look at it in reality, at that time, people didn’t patronise the court; the belief was that people would use the police and the military to seek redress or justice then. But now, since the return of the civil rule, people now have a level of confidence in the court and that is why we see series of cases in court and I think that is exactly what led to this congestion,” Mr. Usman Adewuyi explained.

Lagos, the former capital of Nigeria, has been described as the economic nerve centre of the nation. Mr. Olukoya Ogungbeje said the crowded state of the Federal High Court in Lagos is a direct implication of the huge human population.

A former Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Abdullahi Mustapha, said this much when a new arm of the court was opened at Ikeja in 2009.

The good thing is that the inconvenience currently being experienced in the court has not escaped the notice of the authorities. Work is currently underway on a nine-storey, modern courthouse under construction at Bourdillon, Ikoyi. The project, which began in 2012, is billed to be delivered for use next year and the judges are expected to relocate there. This new courthouse, still under construction, is seen as the only thing that would bring relief to both lawyers and litigants who are presently experiencing daily agony.

Many of the lawyers who spoke with our correspondents described the new project as laudable and expressed the hope that when it is completed the present crowded state of the court would be a thing of the past.

“As you can see, a new court is now being built at the other phase of the Lagos Federal High Court, where construction is in progress. We look forward to the speedy completion of the new court,” a lawyer, Mr. Balogun Akeem, said on Friday.

Akeem’s response mirrored the expectation of other lawyers and litigants who are enduring and patiently waiting for the new court house to be ready.

“The situation now is far from proper, however, if you notice, there is a new structure under construction at Bourdillon. We believe that once that one is completed, the present difficulty being experienced in court, where lawyers and litigants are standing in court, will be a thing of the past,” Ogungbeje said in a voice laced with expectation.

A visit to the site on Friday showed that the nine-storey building was at the second floor. The project is being handled by Telisol Limited, according to the signboard placed outside the fence. As of the time of the visit around 1.30pm on Friday, the project manager was not on ground. But one of the workers on site, when asked how the project was going and if it would be delivered for use in 2016 according to plan, smiled and replied, “This project began in 2012, the contract is for the building to be ready by 2016 but the truth is that we are very far behind.

“This is a nine-storey building, but as you can see, we are only on the second floor.”

The worker, who asked not to be named because he did not have the authority to speak, explained that since 2012 when the project started, it has been a case of off and on.

“This is a Federal Government contract; I think the work is being delayed because of fund. For example, throughout that period of election, we stopped working,” he added.

Some of the court users may, however, already be losing patience. Musa said that when the old structure at the same site was demolished in 2012, the expectation was that work would be expedited on the new project in view of the hardships that informed the decision to embark on the new project.

“When the annex court at Bourdillon was demolished, we had expected that the project would be done expeditiously, but the reality is that the project has been lingering, with no definite end in sight as to its completion.

“I believe that the work has been slow because of paucity of funds or non-release of fund. The truth is that the Chief Judge has tried a lot for facilitating the project at all; he should indeed be commended. At least there is hope that in the near future the current inconvenience that is being experienced now will be a thing of the past,” Musa said.

Earlier on Friday, the Deputy Chief Registrar of the court, Mr. Bello Okandeji, told our correspondent that he did not know when the project is expected to be delivered. He said the much he knew was that the Chief Judge, Justice Ibrahim Auta, was interested in the timely completion of the project so as to alleviate to the current inconvenience being experienced by court users.

While all hope is hinged on the completion of the new courthouse, some stakeholders have, however, advised the authorities to pay attention to management of cases in court, which they have identified as a major factor contributing to the overcrowded state of the courtrooms.

Kushimo observed that there may not be much difference when the judges move to the new courthouse if cases are not well managed. He is of the view that judges waste too much time on individual cases, most especially by trying to write down in longhand everything being said in court lawyers or witnesses.

He would like to see a situation where lawyers are assigned specific period or time in the day to appear for their cases, which according to him will forestall a situation where all lawyers whose cases are slated for hearing come to court at the same time, with others sitting or standing around while a particular case may be going on for about five hours.

He said, “Well, a new courthouse is under construction and one expects the rooms to be bigger, but even with bigger rooms, it still would not solve the problem of court congestion, if the cases are not well managed. Even if you have large courtrooms and the court does not know how to manage its own time, there will still be congestion. The court needs to learn how to manage its time and time management boils down to the use of technology, like the electronic voice recorder.”

He added, “Say there is a new courtroom which is bigger but there are still 20 cases on the cause list, now imagine a situation where a minimum of 40 lawyers, one for both sides, come to court at the same time and the judge still spends about five hours on one case, as is being done now, how will there not be congestion? So, the court needs to manage its time and that can be done by adopting the use of technology.”

Another lawyer, Mr. Segun Onikoyi, will like to see a situation where fewer cases are listed for hearing on a day. He suggested that some cases should be transferred from the Lagos division of the court to the Ogun State division, which he believes is less busy but has same jurisdiction as any other division.

“The number of cases that are slated or scheduled for a particular date are too many. If a courtroom is expecting about 20 cases to be heard on a particular day, you should be expecting a minimum of 80 people in the courtroom, because each party would come with at least a lawyer and a litigant. In this kind of situation, there is no way that the court will not be congested.

“The Federal High Court is one and the same all over the country. If litigants are many in one division of the Federal High Court and we don’t want the courtrooms to be overcrowded, the Chief Judge can assign some cases to other states that are less busy.

“There are some Federal High Courts in some states that are lying fallow, while the Lagos division is overwhelmed. For instance, some of the Federal High Court cases in Lagos can be taken to the Ogun State Division. Both are courts of equal jurisdiction,” he said.

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