The President of the Court of Appeal (PCA), Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem, in this interview speaks on the challenges confronting judges, the 2020 Annual Judges Conference, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and other issues.
Why was the meeting of Appeal court justices moved to Lagos?
For the past six months, our court has been highly depleted. Instead of 90, we have had a little over 70 justices, and just last week, eight other justices left us. Then with the COVID-19 lockdown, many cases were not going on so we felt we should come to Lagos and decongest the Court of Appeal. That is why we came to Lagos. We normally have the annual meeting in Abuja but I thought we should come to Lagos and work and also meet.
The scheduled cases that the justices were supposed to handle in Lagos, were they all attended to?
Unfortunately, we were going to hear 385 appeals but some of the appeals in the panels were not ripe for hearing because there were many applications and applications take a lot of time. So, we were only able to take 156 which I think is not too bad. We were a little bit disappointed but I am glad that 156 appeals and several motions were taken. So, by that, we have prepared over 200 appeals for hearing by taking the motions, it is not too bad.
Our judges still write in longhand, what is the Court of Appeal doing to computerise the judiciary?
All the justices of the Court of Appeal are computer literate, but being computer literate is not enough, computerizing the courts needs a lot of infrastructure and you know that we have issues with resources; we depend on what we are given as federal allocations and what we are given is not sufficient. We are hoping that with time we will be able to get all the infrastructure to fully computerize our courts.
We want to assure you that we are very ICT compliant. The 2020 Annual Judges Conference was fully covered, people viewed the conference from all over the world live and the people who organised this are being considered to establish our digital court sitting.
When is the Court of Appeal having its first ADR session?
We actually have an ADR section in the Court of Appeal. People are welcome to approach our mediation centre which we have in four Divisions: Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kaduna (Unfortunately the Lagos division court was vandalised). So, you can come to any of these divisions if you would rather have your appeals determined by mediation which we highly recommend. You are welcome to approach our mediation centre and we would address them.
The Court of Appeal building was among the buildings vandalised by the hoodlums that hijacked the #EndSARS protest, what is the status now?
Well, many of the facilities vandalised are still there and we do everything by budgeting. Without a budget, we cannot make reasonable progress. We were able to fix one of the courts and it is now functional but most of our infrastructure that were vandalised need total replacement.
What are the major challenges confronting the Court of Appeal, and the way forward?
The work of a judge is very involving. You need a conducive atmosphere, we need functional court facilities, reasonably comfortable homes to live in, good vehicles and the Court of Appeal is in all zones in Nigeria. We are in most states with the 20 Divisions so we have to travel, travelling in Nigeria is a bit challenging now and then we need training.
The judges sit day in day out and the volume of work is so much that we don’t even have time to self-develop, and time is moving on. We don’t have time to do the cases before us let alone to acquire information.
As to the conflicting decisions, people do not understand that the Court of Appeal sits in 20 Divisions all over Nigeria. Facts may be similar but may not necessarily be the same but we are conscious of the fact that we do not contradict each other. With ICT, our judgments when delivered will be placed on the internet so that Divisions will be served. So that each Division will have an idea of what decision the other Division has taken. Don’t forget that we have a lot of work to do and it takes time to read and comprehend what the other person has done so we inform each other of at least summaries of our decisions and also activate our newsletter so that whatever decisions we are taking in the Division will be highlighted so that each Division will be well informed.
What changes do you want to see in the judicial system?
I will appreciate it if Nigerians change their attitude towards the judiciary. Each judge, especially of the Court of Appeal sits down to hear appeals in the court, goes back to sit down and write judgments, it is not a matter of sending a note to a subordinate officer to go and do something. We write the judgments ourselves; we do research. I started work in the judiciary, proof-reading the judgments of judges of high courts. Today, I write my judgments and proof-read, correct and pass it over to my colleague. So, you have to share your judgments with your colleagues to read; it’s a collective decision. So, there are a lot of demands on the judge and I expect the lawyers to be a little bit more committed. The court cannot function well without the lawyers and we appreciate the efforts of a good number of them who are totally committed, but a few more can do better for the judiciary to move forward. People should stop insulting the judiciary, we deserve a lot better.