Opinion: Trivialising justice – a culture of shaming litigants

by Ugochukwu Nnamdi Ukamba

I do not know if these events and narratives hereunder are a standalone rare occurrence or if it is an increasing pattern of judicial aloofness to the plights of the ‘common man’. As an aside, I loathe that expression. Why would one individual be referred to as ‘common’? Does that mean there is an ‘uncommon’ man?

…I digress!

Yesterday, I was at the National Industrial Court for a matter on behalf of a client. After my matter was heard and adjourned, I stayed back in court to allow my colleague sort out sundry issues at the court Registry before we headed back to the office. While waiting, I was, quite naturally,listening, albeit passively, to other proceedings in the court.

A particular proceeding piqued my interest. A Claimant, whose employment had been terminated, had sued his former employer claiming to be entitled to payment in lieu of notice.

The following conversation ensued shortly between the judge and the Claimant’s counsel:

Judge: ‘What is your client’s claim before this court?’

Counsel: ‘He is claiming the sum of N35,000.00 as payment in lieu of notice’

Judge: ‘You mean you filed this action because your client had not been paid N35,000.00? There are certain matters you should seek amicable resolution rather than saddle the court with claims such as this. You have paid the sum of N6,210 as filing fees and would expend considerable resources in pursuing the claim. Is it really worth the hassles?’

Counsel: ‘My Lord, we are conducting this case and other cases against the same employer on pro bono basis. The employer has shown a pattern of trampling on the rights of his employees by arbitrarily determining their employment and refusing to pay their entitlement. The employer has also refused to respond to several letters we sent to him.’

There was then a back and forth exchange between the judge, the claimant’s counsel and the Defendant’s counsel. The conversation ended with the judge advising the parties to try and resolve the matter before the next adjourned date or else the court would be constrained to refer the matter to ADR. The same Counsel appeared for another litigant who was claiming the sum of N25,000.00 as payment in lieu of notice from the same employer.

Observing the proceedings, I had the uncanny feeling that the judge’s real preoccupation was not the resources that would be expended by the litigant but the needless inconvenience that the court would be put through to adjudicate over a case worth a paltry sum of N35,000.00, in the first case, and N25,000.00 in the next.

Today, at the Federal High Court, two cases caught my attention. The first, a litigant who had been convicted and sent to prison sued the prison authorities for keeping him in prison beyond his prison term. In the main his contention was that the prison authorities were wrong to have kept him in prison beyond his prison term and that he was entitled to damages. In the circumstances of this case, one would have expected some sort of outrage from the judge particularly considering that the prison authorities had not deemed it fit to file a response to the claims despite being served with the court process. The judge asked the Claimant’s Counsel a rather worrying question: ‘Was he (the litigant) not eating while he was in prison? Who will pay for the food he ate?’

In the second case, a litigant had sued the court bailiffs for exceeding the Orders granted by the court. The litigant was a judgment debtor in a previous proceeding wherein the court had Ordered the court bailiffs to attach his moveable properties in satisfaction of the judgment debt. Rather than attach only his moveable properties as directed by the court, the bailiffs also attached his immovable properties and locked the litigant out of his property for more than one week. The court, again, asked ‘you were locked out for a week? Have you been allowed to enter your property?’

The questions in both cases were asked flippantly!

It is instructive that judgment has not been entered in any of the cases referenced above and when entered, may well be in the favour of the ‘common men’ in the cases against their ‘oppresors’. However, it is troubling that the attitude of the judges under reference appear to suggest that the Claimants were pestering the courts with these trivial claims that could have been easily overlooked.

The judges sentiments are not without basis. If you have the faintest knowledge of the arduous conditions under which they work, you would sympathise with, and appreciate their reluctance to be weighed down by seemingly ‘mundane’ claims. However, this does not justify the disdainful, almost irritating, disposition to these ‘small claims’ by the courts. It is a common mantra that the courts are the last bastion of hope for the ‘common man’ [that loathful expression again] . If there is any truth to this mantra then it is an irony that the men who preside over this ‘bastion’ consider the ‘trivial’ claims of the common man as a needless irritation that should be avoided.

The bigger challenge with this attitude is that when the ‘oppressors’ find that this is the disposition of the guardian angel of the ‘common man’ they will be further emboldened in flagrantly infringing the rights of the oppressed. Again if a poor litigant -who perhaps have put himself through considerable strain to pay for the services of a legal practitioner -is made to feel like a burden to the court, this may create a sense of apprehension in the litigant to approach the court in the event that there are future infractions on the rights of the said litigant.

One hopes that these events are not indicative of a pattern but merely coincidental events that are one-offs.

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

Ugochukwu Nnamdi Ukamba is a Legal Practitioner based in Lagos. He tweets @NnamdiUkamba

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