The accountability of judicial officers has remained a challenge in the delivery of justice in Nigeria. While other arms of public safety and security, such as the police and the prisons service have received scrutiny from civil society, very little has hitherto been done to watch what happens within the judiciary. A recent pilot project on court monitoring and observation in Kano and Abuja is beginning to show positive signs of change.
“The justice and security sectors of a society are the pillars of either good or bad governance. Where the society is in default of due process, known for violation of rights, access and affordability of justice is to a certain class, with procedures and process of governance unknown and unclear to the public, then such society cannot be said to be practising good governance.” These were the words of Justice Olufunlola Adekeye, at the closing of a court monitoring and observation project undertaken by Partners West Africa-Nigeria (PWAN) to promote social accountability in the judicial sector.
This was done in collaboration with the U.S. government to develop what is called the Access Nigeria project to support efforts to build more accountable institutions in Nigeria by enhancing institutional transparency and preventing impunity for those who engage in corruption. The judiciary, among other institutions, is key in achieving this goal.
At the beginning of the project, the Director, International Narcotic and Law Enforcement Affairs, United States Embassy Nigeria, Ms Rosalyn Wiese expressed how excited the US is about the opportunity to work with the High Court of Abuja and Kano on the judiciary monitoring program. She expressed hope that the partnership will mark the beginning of productivity and mutually beneficial partnership between the US, Nigerian civil society and Nigerian justice sector.
The project was first of its kind in Nigeria. It espoused the obligation of enshrining social accountability and uprightness in the judiciary. It is intended, with the project of social accountability, deeply rooted judicial reforms which will range from the quality of legal education to the quality of legal practice would be generated.
The court monitoring and observation took place simultaneously in courts in Abuja and Kano. A total of 74 observers were deployed across the FCT and Kano State, to work closely with judges. The monitoring included time of court sitting, recess, resumption and closure. Others are: support available to judges (staff, power supply, AC/fan, security details, microphone, electronic recording among others). At the end of the project, Partners blamed some of the lapses experienced in the dispensation of justice to heavy workload on the judges, the number of civil and criminal cases listed on the daily cause list, among others.
Over the years, there has been a general perception by the public that the judiciary is corrupt, leading to delay in court proceedings and other fraudulent activities among judicial officials. Findings from the court monitoring and observation, however, indicate there has been great improvement in judicial activities as there are judges and magistrates that are doing good work. They strive tirelessly to ensure that cases on cause list are attended to. Though court sitting, according to the monitors’ findings, revealed an average of about 2 hours 58 minutes, judges in FCT were rated high in the manner of dressing, addressing or speaking in court, respect and courtesy to court users, control of their courts, respect and courtesy to layers.
The findings also revealed the limited availability of legal aid for people seeking justice; this, therefore, gave birth to a Public Defender’s project in Kano. The project which is titled: THE GREATER ACCESS TO DEFENCE AND JUSTICE PROJECT is aimed at aiding the people of Kano in accessing justice via legal and paralegal representation.
During the presentation of court observation, PWAN (also known as the Rule of Law and Empowerment Initiative) recommended that the National Judicial Council and State Chief Judges should agree on a standard time frame for the courts. Partners stated that such a time frame could, for example, set the time for judges to sit, go on recess, and to close for the day. The Executive Director of PWAN/ROLEI, Ms Kemi Okenyodo said this should not be left to the discretion of individual judges or magistrate.
While decrying the effect of analogue court recording on justice dispensation, the organisation further recommended that an urgent step be taken to adopt and secure funding for an automated, transparent and real-time system of recording and disseminating records of court proceedings among others.
Since the project took off, there has been a remarkable improvement in court sitting in Kano and Abuja. Judges sit more close to 9 am unlike when the monitoring started when judges were sitting between 10 am and 11 am. They now averagely sit for about four hours daily.
It is therefore not a coincidence that the federal government now beams its search light on the judiciary and for the first time in Nigeria judges were prosecuted for corruption after monitoring and observation began. This can only point to one thing that the project of judicial accountability is yielding the desired result and judges in our courts are ready to play by the rule if given the right environment to operate.
The rate of court satisfaction is high though there is a slight dissatisfaction when people feel they pay for services they ought not to pay for. The court ought to move a step further in this regard by publicly displaying within the court premises the amount people have to pay for specific service. This is also in line with the Freedom of Information Act, 2011.
One major implication of this project that I observe is the promotion of good governance, accountability and transparency by expanding opportunities for citizens to engage duty bearers. Government responsiveness to her citizens in Nigeria is getting better by the day.
The organisation worked closely with Abuja and Kano branches of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Kano and FCT Judiciary, Federal High Courts, as well as Industrial Courts in carrying out this job.
The major objective of the project is to increase civil society’s access to government information as a tool to fight corruption, increase access to justice and expand citizens’ engagements with the government. This can only be achieved by increasing the capacity of civil society to access information on the judicial process. I feel hopeful that a lot more can be done in this regard.
By Emmanuel Onoja Ameh, a public affairs commentator, works for Isu Media Ltd, Abuja.