By Christiana Ekpa
The House of Representatives, on Thursday, rejected a bill seeking to reduce the workload on the Supreme Court by limiting certain cases to the court of appeals.
Sponsored by Hon. Onofiok Luke from Akwa Ibom State, the bill was presented to be read for a second time.
Essentially, the bill sought the amendment of the 1999 constitution to make appeal granted by the leave of the court.
Giving the background of the bill in the debate at Thursday plenary, Luke said the Supreme Court of Nigeria, established by sections 6 and 230 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, is the apex court in Nigeria with general civil and criminal jurisdiction that spans across all states of the Federation.
He said that the jurisdiction of the court was unlimited, expanding to all cases ranging from different areas of law including constitutional, electoral, administrative, tax, entertainment, copyright and labour laws.
According to him, the Constitution pegged membership of the court at 21, and the court has not, since its inception, reached its full membership complement.
He recalled at the moment, the court is composed of only just 18 justices, adding that the18 justices that handle all appeals and deliver justice to the population of over 201 million Nigerians.
He said: “It is reported that the Supreme Court docket is full for about two years. This means that litigants who file cases at the Court will not have a date for hearing of their cases within two years. It is worthy to note that the date for hearing of cases does not mean the date for determination of the cases. As a matter of fact, the cases may be adjourned for a couple of times before final adjournment for judgment. After adjournment, it takes another couple of months or years before judgment is finally delivered.
“The Supreme Court is overburdened. The Constitution grants unlimited jurisdiction on the court to handle all cases and gives litigants the unfettered right in most cases to approach the court on any issue. Some litigants and lawyers have exploited this loophole and filed all manner of undeserving and unmerited cases and interlocutory applications before the court.
“This has bogged down the operations and efficiency of the court and in turn slowed justice administration and delivery in the country. Because of this, germane disputes requiring the serious and expeditious attention of the Court do not receive the same. There are many economic, social and political effects of slow justice delivery in Nigeria as occasioned by the overburdening of the Court. Business entrepreneurs, investors, organisations and governments have their financial or social fate hanged in the balance because of the long duration it takes the Court to render decisions on disputes.
“The situation is not supposed to be so; it is not all appeals that should travel to the Court. The Supreme Court is supposed to hand down important decisions on certain cases and the lower courts will follow and apply the decisions in similar cases. It is not for the court to continue attending to similar and not-too-serious cases the court had earlier dealt with and rendered its opinion in the time past. This is what is obtainable in advanced democracies like the United States and the United Kingdom.
“It is in this vein that this constitutional alteration is proposed to limit appeals to the Supreme Court. All appeals are to reach the court through leave, that is, the court is to determine by way of application whether a particular case deserves its attention. It needs to be stated that litigants still have the right to approach the court but the court will however review their cases and decide whether to hear them. Mechanisms have been set in place within this constitutional proposal to ensure that the process is not abused or genuine cases are not reviewed down.”