Opinion: Crippling justice through bureaucracy -the Lagos example

by Lawrence Nnoli

The Lagos Division of the Federal High Court is located in the serene environment of Oyinkan Abayomi drive at Ikoyi in Lagos state. It is unarguably the busiest Federal High Court division in Nigeria judging by the number of cases that go through it (for determination) in a year. This division has about twelve (12) courtrooms some of which are spacious and others are more like cubicles.

The registry section of this division is sandwiched somewhere at the back of the courtrooms within the court premises and is headed by a Deputy Chief Registrar. The registry is where the bulk of the administration of the court takes place. It is also at the registry that cases are filed by lawyers and litigants for determination by the court.

The unpleasant experiences lawyers and litigants are made to go through in this division is better told than experienced. Some of them include:

  1. The tight space nature of some courtrooms which makes lawyers and litigants to either stand in the courtrooms to watch proceedings and wait for their cases to be called up or stand on the corridors of the courts and be peeping through the courtroom windows monitoring when their cases are called up,
  2. The lack of spacious parking lot for vehicles belonging to lawyers and litigants who go to conduct their cases in court or carry out official transactions at the court’s registry. This compels most lawyers and litigants to park their vehicles at unsecured places outside the court premises thereby running the risk of having their vehicles stolen or tampered with.
  • The gruelling bureaucratic processes involved in filing court processes and documents at the registry.

Of all the unpleasant experiences lawyers and litigants experience in this division of the Federal High court, the worst of them all is the grueling bureaucratic processes involved in filing court processes and documents at its registry: A graphical step-by-step process of what lawyers and litigants pass through to file a suit in this division is as follows:

  1. The lawyer/litigant visits the office of the Deputy Chief Registrar (DCR) with his court processes/documents and meets the clerk of the Deputy Chief Registrar (DCR) who receives his processes/documents and that of other lawyers for the purpose of taking them for ‘initialling’. (‘Initialling’ as they call it, is another name for signature approval of the documents intended to be filed in court.)
  2. After about 5 minutes of collation of processes from lawyers and litigants, the clerk carries all collated documents from the office of the Deputy Chief Registrar (DCR) to the office of the Assistant Chief Registrar (ACR) who actually does the initialling.
  3. After about 10 minutes or more depending on the number of processes/documents the clerk took in to the ACR, the clerk comes out with the entire documents and starts calling out the names of the owners of the documents for collection.
  4. Having collected his processes/documents from the DCR’s clerk, the lawyer/litigant proceeds to the Assessment officer for ‘assessment’ of his documents (the assessment officer determines how much fees the lawyer or litigant will pay as court fees). It is noteworthy that before you reach the entrance of this office (which is a cubicle), the lawyer/litigant joins the queue of people waiting for assessment of their processes/documents. There is always a queue here because only one court official assesses all documents brought to be filed in this division of the Federal High court.
  5. After about waiting for about 15 minutes or more depending on the number of people on the queue, the court processes/documents belonging to the lawyer/litigant are eventually assessed as to the fees payable; he then proceeds to pay the fees.
  6. Fees are paid into the Federal Government Consolidated Revenue Account popularly known as “REMITA ACCOUNT” either at any of the commercial banks far away from the court or through the use of the Point of Sale (POS) terminal within the registry. However, the easiest form of payment is using the POS. For the POS, the lawyer/litigant enters a long queue of persons waiting to use the POS and spend at least 5 minutes or more depending on the number of people on the queue.
  7. Then when it gets to his turn, he ‘prays’ that the POS does not misbehave (due to network problem) otherwise his period of waiting will be extended or worse still, he will be forced to make his payment at the banks (which will take a minimum of 2 hours). Assuming the POS works well, he makes the payment with his ATM card and thereafter makes a request for a (special confirmation hardcopy A4 paper size) receipt from the POS operator which must be attached to the court processes/documents intended to be filed.
  8. Having made the request, the POS operator takes about 3 minutes (if the computer and the printer do not misbehave) to print same from a nearby computer and hands same to him.
  9. From there, the lawyer/litigant goes to join another queue for official stamping of his court processes/documents by another clerk. (When it gets to his turn, he has to ‘pray again’ that the clerk has not become tired and wants to go for break or for lunch or to use the restroom otherwise his waiting period on that queue is jerked from 15 minutes to 60 minutes or even more. This is so because there are just about 3 or 4 clerks assigned to stamping thousands of pages of court documents brought by lawyers and litigants each day).
  10. After his documents have been stamped, the lawyer/litigant goes and joins another tortuous queue at the cashier’s cubicle to obtain ‘filing time’. (Obtaining ‘filing time’ is the act of the court cashier merely writing the time the lawyer/litigant filed the documents at the registry. On the average, it takes 5 minutes during non-peak period and 60 minutes during peak hours just to get the cashier to write the filing time on the documents sought to be filed.)
  11. After getting the filing time, the lawyer/litigant goes back and submits his documents back to the same clerk who had earlier stamped his documents.
  12. This clerk carries all the documents (together with the documents of other lawyers/litigants and all necessary deponents in the suits sought to be filed) to the office of the Commissioner for Oaths (CFO).
  13. At the office of the CFO, the commissioner questions the lawyer/litigant and his accompanying deponent (s) on certain facts relating to his case and then refers them to his clerk who will lead the deponent(s) on an oath-taking exercise.
  14. After leading the deponent(s) on an oath-taking exercise, the clerk refers the lawyer/litigant and his deponent(s) back to the commissioner for oath.
  15. The commissioner for oaths signs all the affidavits in the space provided for him to sign and sends copies of those affidavits back to his clerk for stamping. (This process takes at least 5 minutes if the lawyer/litigant did not come with bulky documents otherwise if the documents are bulky or even of medium size, it will take at least 10 minutes or more).
  16. Having completed step 15, the lawyer/litigant takes his processes/ documents to the ‘PROCESS ROOM 1’ where particulars of his process/documents will be copied into another court diary after which one of the designated clerks in this process room collects the main copy of the court process/ documents (which thereafter becomes the judge’s copy) and another copy or copies depending on the number of defendants (which same will be handed over to the sheriff for service on the defendants).
  17. The lawyer/litigant goes home and waits for at least one week to enable the registry complete further bureaucratic processes and subsequently sends his court processes/documents to the Administrative Judge. (It is the sole duty of the Administrative Judge to assign newly filed cases to other judges for determination).
  18. Upon expiration of one week, the lawyer/litigant comes back to the registry and enquires from the ‘PROCESS ROOM 2’ to know which of the judges and courtrooms the Administrative Judge has assigned his case to.
  19. Upon getting this information, the lawyer/litigant proceeds to the registrar of that particular court and informs him of the pendency of his matter in that court. Depending on whether there is an affidavit of urgency filed together with the court process/documents, if there is an affidavit of urgency filed together with the process, the registrar issues a ‘Hearing Notice’ stipulating a date and time the matter will be heard in court.
  20. When a Hearing Notice is issued by the court registrar, the court registrar himself takes the hearing notice together with the lawyer/litigant’s case file to one of the process servers specially assigned to that particular court in the GENERAL PROCESS SERVER’s ROOM.
  21. The special process server assigned to that court writes down the particulars of the newly issued Hearing Notice in his big diary after which he takes the hearing notice to the court sheriffs for dispatch to the defendants or the other party.
  22. The lawyer/litigant goes to the bailiff section to ‘sort out’ the bailiff that will serve the process/documents otherwise his documents will not be served as at when due.

The twenty-two (22) processes mentioned above graphically illustrate what lawyers and litigants go through to file a single case at the Lagos division of the Federal High Court, Ikoyi, Lagos.

The point to take home in this write-up is that with the above-illustrated system, easy access to the courts for justice which is guaranteed by the constitution has been hampered. The mindset of most lay litigants in this division is that if instituting a matter takes this long and involves a lot of bureaucratic complexities, then the determination of the dispute must be longer and more complex. The danger inherent in this snail-slow system is that getting justice in matters of extreme urgency will be defeated by those bottlenecks created in form of bureaucratic controls. If the judicial system in this division must work, this registry must be reformed for efficient service delivery. A system that mandates litigants and lawyers to pass through the desks of more than ten (10) government officials and twenty (20) bureaucratic processes just to initiate a single suit cannot be said to be efficient. Such a system does not only foster inefficiency, it also creates room for corruption.

The Chief Judge and the Chief Registrar of the Federal High Court are urged to look into this matter and provide a better alternative for lawyers and litigants instituting cases in Lagos division of the Federal High Court. Also the leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association especially the Lagos Branch is advised to wake up to their call of duty to ensure (through robust engagement of the leadership of the judiciary) that lawyers and litigants are not subjected to time-wasting bureaucratic processes in filing of suits at the Lagos division of the Federal High Court and indeed other courts within its jurisdiction for justice delayed is justice denied.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

This article is written by Lawrence Nnoli Esq, the Managing Partner of Nnoli Lawrence & Associates (Excel Law Chambers).

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