Time for a Multi-Sector Approach for Fundamental Reform of Legal and Judicial Systems in Nigeria

The rationale for justice administration and the rule of law is the desirability and indeed necessity of resolving conflicts within, and not outside, the legal and judicial system and framework. In the absence of a properly functioning legal and judicial system, force rather than law would rule and anarchy would result.
But the much-sought-after functional judicial system requires an enabling environment made up of certain features. First and foremost, all persons and authorities no matter their status must be subject to the law and equal before it. Second, the judiciary must be truly independent and totally free from executive or other interference.
The courts must have capacity and freedom to apply principles of justice without let or hindrance. Access to the courts to air genuine grievances and seek redress should be open to all without unnecessary constraints. (In the case of the poor, adequate arrangements must be made for legal aid.)

In recent years, law and justice systems have been increasingly recognized as vital aspects of a comprehensive development framework. The law has to give voice to the poor by access to Justice. Nigeria will need to build a huge infrastructure to encourage economic development. This will not happen unless and until the legal and institutional frameworks are fundamentally modified, and in some cases, completely overhauled, and the rule of law firmly established. The climate of stability and certainty so necessary for investments would thus be created. But this will not happen without access to justice and transparent economic and social laws.
In addition to its other functions, a legal and justice system must also comprise a framework that consolidates democracy. Over the years, many constraints have steadily crept into the legal and judicial systems in Nigeria. Nigeria is at present faced by a critical failure of justice. Criminal and civil justice administration has all but collapsed.
Confidence in the judicial system has eroded to dangerous levels. Studies and surveys, reports and findings, have mostly been unanimous as to the causes of these problems.
Those causative factors as have been identified include under funding of judicial administration, poor and unrealistic remuneration of judges and other personnel including police and court officials, lack of modern facilities, corruption, inadequate staffing, poor training including virtual absence of continuing education programs, court congestion, executive interference with the judicial function, dated prison systems and conditions, prison congestion, poor record keeping in courts, prisons and police stations, the awaiting trial syndrome, outdated criminal and civil procedure regimes, etc.
The Obasanjo Administration must engage these problems and reform the legal and judicial systems in a fundamental way. To do this, although the problems have already been identified in general terms, a scientific diagnosis will be required, very quickly and efficiently, to assess these constraints in a manner amenable to specific remedial steps. Following such an assessment, a radical and comprehensive program of reform of the legal and justice programs must begin. To execute this vital project, everybody will need to get involved. I salute the work of the Attorney General of Lagos State.
I think that professor Osibanjo’s reform programmes need our support. I am also aware that our new Attorney General of Nigeria, Bola Ige, SAN has a very ambitious reform project. I propose that this reform program should be designed to include rebuilding and expanding physical structures and facilities, modernising procedural rules including especially case management, automating document management and court records, expanding popular access to legal aid and the justice system, establishing continuing judicial education curricula and programs, to name a few. Nigeria will need aggressively to confront the failing legal system, to formulate remedies and apply them. The reform program should include immediate impact remedies, medium term solutions and long term transformations’. The Ministries of Justice in Nigeria should seek contribution from various stakeholders in this agenda of justice administration reform. Although much of the work should be centralized in the Office of the Attorneys General, for reasons of administrative convenience and coordination, the issue is much too important to be left to government alone. The private sector, business, financial and industrial communities, civil society, and indeed all sectors of the Nigerian polity should join. Research grants, donations, and memoranda will help. All will benefit from the rule of law dividends that will accrue, and so it makes sense for all to contribute from the outset.
We have in the country, at this time, a multi donor international team led by the World Bank on a mission to assess Nigeria’s justice administration system with a view to contributing materially to the programming and implementation of reform. This is an altogether happy development. It is a good start in the pursuit of our common goals. The Mission’s concern is in tune with the participatory and inclusive approach I recommend for this project. All branches of government, the Nigerian Bar Association, law faculties, academia, the business community, NGO’s and civil society are stakeholders in our legal and judicial system. Participation should also include those at the grassroots. Legal and judicial reform processes should not overlook the needs of the vulnerable and marginalized society who cannot be heard.
I know that legal and judicial reform is a long term process, but benefits can begin to accrue immediately, if sequenced in stages, taking into account the most urgent priorities. I look forward to the success of this process with great enthusiasm.

Dr. Olisa Agbakoba SAN.

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