“Lawyers have for far too long been unfairly isolated as the sole cause of the delay in the prosecution of cases, there is just so little a Judge or indeed a lawyer can do in certain circumstances”.

The judiciary in Nigeria has come under immense criticism over what many regard as undue delay in the prosecution of corruption cases. In this regard, instances of the inability of the prosecution to either expeditiously conclude corruption cases or secure convictions have been cited as evidence of a collusion between the judiciary and lawyers to frustrate the efforts of law enforcement agencies to bring to book those who have corruptly enriched themselves with public funds. The latest personality to make this point is none other than the President, Muhammadu Buhari who utilized the opening ceremony of the 2015 All Nigeria Judges Conference to lament the delay in the judicial process. Speaking through the vice president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, SAN who represented him at the occasion, the President is reported to have stated as follows amongst others:

“Further on point of negative perception, there is both local and international dissatisfaction with the long delays in the trial process. In the past few years, this has become especially so for high-profile cases of corruption, especially where they involve serving or former political office holders.

“As my lords are undoubtedly aware, corruption transfers from public coffers to private pockets, resources required to deliver social and economic justice.

“Government’s attempts to recover such assets in accordance with the law are often faced with dilatory tactics by lawyers sometimes with the apparent collusion of judges.

 “Delay in judicial processes has cost our economy dearly in terms of much needed investment, as investors prefer other jurisdictions where the progress of court cases is such more predictable and in accordance with the rule of law. Being able to reverse this trend is largely dependent on the efficiency and effectiveness of a justice system.”

At the same occasion, the Chief Justice of the Federation perhaps in reaction to the negative comments made about the judiciary highlighted the fact that the low performance of the judiciary should be blamed on underfunding. He stated as follows:

“The constitution prescribes the institutional independence of the judiciary under Section 6 of its provisions. Sections 121 (3) and 162 (9) further guarantee fiscal independence for the judiciary, a fact now acknowledged by the other arms of Government with recent resolutions by the Federal and some State Governments to pay the judiciary its outstanding and future budgetary allocations as and when due.

“However, under the circumstances, the state Judiciaries continue to encounter a further burden of facing difficulties in accessing these paltry funds from their executives in order to function.

“It is this independence that gives credibility to the scales of justice and allows our citizens to rest assured that justice is indeed not for sale.

“For this reason, I call on the heads of other Arms of Government, in the spirit of the cooperation between us, to support the judiciary’s existence and I can assure you that it will flourish and grow”

 The above comments immediately attracted attention and some sections of the media described it as a ‘blame game’ between the judicial and executives arms of government. However, the Chief Justice of Nigeria obviously tired of the constant attacks on the judiciary again utilized the opportunity of the visit to him by the Attorney General of the Federation to pin the blame on the lack of political will to prosecute high-profile corruption cases. Again the CJN was reported to have stated as follows:

“Experience within the Judiciary shows that there is abject lack of political will to prosecute some of those cases pending before our various courts almost a decade in some instances.

“It is not because there are no special courts, but mostly for reasons of political expedience and other ancillary considerations.

“I would likewise wish to encourage you (AGF) to display a greater resolve than your predecessors in tackling outstanding cases before the courts. In times past, the Attorney General of the Federation would often lead teams of legal counsel in high profile cases so as to demonstrate the resolve of the government to enshrine the rule of law.

“Sadly, recent Attorneys-General have become less inclined to do this.  I would certainly like to see you, as the Attorney General, appear before us especially in cases of important national purport.

“There is the need for seasoned prosecutors to prepare and file charges before courts of competent jurisdiction so that criminal matters are timeously determined.”

I have taken the pains to highlight the positions adopted by the heads of the executive and judicial arms of government so that my discussion of this issue will be placed in proper perspective.

Without a doubt, there is indeed cause to worry over the slow pace of prosecution of not just corruption cases but indeed virtually all cases in Nigerian courts. Experience has shown that cases drag on for years without any meaningful product in terms of verdicts of acquittal or conviction of the accused person. In one particular instance which is often referred to as a source of embarrassment to the country, a former governor was acquitted of corruption charges by a court in Nigeria only to be convicted of charges brought on the same facts as those filed in Nigeria, by a court in the United Kingdom. In yet another instance, an accused person who had been convicted of embezzlement of billions of Naira in pension funds was sentenced to two year imprisonment with an option of fine of N250,000. Furthermore, a former governor was also convicted and given an option of fine of M3million while his co-accused was sentenced to a long term of imprisonment. According to a report titled ‘Justice of impunity’ prepared by Prof Bolaji Owansanoye, the amount embezzled and in respect of which charges are pending amount to about N1.3trillion. The cases are said to include that of 15 former governors, 4 former ministers, 5 former law makers and other made up of former federal and state public servants.

Without a doubt these indeed are worrying cases. But is the judiciary alone to blame? Do lawyers also have a share of the blame and to what extent? Is there not a need to also look at other factors including the lack of political will as pointed out by the Chief Justice of the Federation? Let me state straightway that the Judiciary and Lawyers, although not entirely unworthy of blame have for far too long been unfairly isolated as the sole cause of the delay in the prosecution of cases. As I will discuss in the coming editions, there is just so little a Judge or indeed a lawyer can do in certain circumstances.

 To be continued!

Aare Afe Babalola, OFR, CON, SAN, FCIArb.