Many Nigerians seeking for justice in law courts have to spend a lot of money in form of legal fees and other charges before they succeed, findings by the Daily Trust revealed.
The development has forced many citizens to abandon their cases midway even when they have all the evidence at their disposal to prove their cases.
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Some litigants told one of our correspondents that if you don’t have money to hire a lawyer and then process court documents, there is nothing you can do when you are cheated.
Victims said it is not always pleasing to have a case that would require going to court because of the encumbrances leading to justice.
“My prayer is never to have anything to do with a police station or a court because it would involve spending money even if you don’t have it,” said Fatima Yusuf, a trader at Utako Market.
“My N12 million is trapped somewhere and I have spent over N2 million to recover it to no avail. Your travails start from police station where you have to sponsor detectives to trace the culprit. After arresting him, they will process the case and then take you to court where a new layer of spending will start,” she said.
Fatima said the trouble with seeking for justice in the courts of law is partly responsible for what she called “self-help” syndrome in Nigeria.
Engineer Mohammed Dahiru, who filed a case to recover his Abuja property from a tenant in 2019, said he had spent N2 million in legal fees without any headway in the process as he has been unable to evict or get rent from the erring tenant occupying the apartment.
“My legal fees were around N150,000, and payment for filing of certified true copies among others has cost over N1m,” he said.
“Every day you go to court, if something is wrong either with the judges or the process, you don’t even get to hear about it until you get to court, and you are told to come back on another date.
“As long as you have gotten to court, you still have to pay the appearance fee because the lawyer has done the proper thing – the lawyer has gotten to court.”
Like Dahiru’s civil suit on premises recovery, an ex-banker, who pleaded anonymity, says he has spent about N500,000 without any headway on a case seeking payment of his benefit.
The ex-banker, whose case is before the National Industrial Court in Abuja, said he has been in court since 2013 and the case has suffered from one adjournment to the other.
Lawyers charge, courts charge
Daily Trust checks in the FCT show that both lawyers who will represent the litigant and the court where the matter would be heard, have different charges before the commencement of any action.
The average charge for magistrate/district courts is N250,000 while cases at the High Court is N500,000 to N700,000.
In Lagos State, litigation at the magistrate court and other lower courts may cost between N50,000 and N500,000 which may end within a year, while at the High Court with coordinate courts, such as National Industrial Court, military tribunals, tax tribunals and others, litigants may pay between N500,000 and N5m. Also, depending on the complexity and duration, it may be as high as N15m, especially with political cases.
In Kano State, cost of litigation and legal fees is not fixed, according to checks by Daily Trust. A lawyer received N100,000 as legal fee for a case which ran for almost two years, with an appearance fee of N3,000.
Further checks show that charges for regular cases at the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court can get up to between N1m and N20m, particularly for Court of Appeal in Abuja and Lagos. This does not include appearance/transport fees which may range from N3,000 to N50,000 depending on the court and distance. If they are political matters, the cost is between N100m and N750m.
Lawyers generally believe that the legal fee depends on the nature of the case. Some cases are high profile cases. Some are also handled pro bono (free of charge), especially when indigent clients are involved.
Filing fees in court has also risen these days with litigants demanded to pay as much as 10 percent of the value of their claims, this is irrespective of whether the matter succeeds or fails in court.
Free legal services are available
Malachy Nwekpe Esq said free legal services are offered by lawyers especially for the indigent. He said lawyers are encouraged to do so for those who cannot afford legal services.
This was confirmed by officials of the Legal Aid Council (LACON), the official free legal service for Nigerians under the Federal Ministry of Justice.
According to the Press Unit of LACON, 6,189 cases were handled by the agency in 2016 and the agency has continued to assist indigent members of the society in their civil and criminal matters.
Courts behaving like revenue agencies
Lawyers and litigants are worried that the increase in charges for filing cases in court is fast turning the courts into revenue-generating agencies like the Nigerian Customs, Federal Inland Revenue Service and others.
Speaking on this, a contractor who has spent many years seeking to recover his payment, Dr Chudi Chukwuani, said the law court was not designed as temple of money-making but as a temple of justice and for “social organization and peaceful co-existence of people in a society.”
“At the Federal High Court, if you want to file a suit that somebody is owing you N30m or above, you will have to pay filing fee of N50,000 irrespective of every other thing. Which means if you are a small business owner or small contractor who did business valued at N30m and you were not paid any money, for you to get hearing in a court in Nigeria, you have to become a bandit by stealing N50, 000 for your case to even be mentioned,” he said.
“The cost of going to court is so high and the outcome doesn’t show satisfaction because what you have in Nigeria now is justice for hire. That is why you hear stories about politicians and judges. Why would a judge be struggling or lobby to be put in an election tribunal if not to go and do justice for hire?”
Senior lawyer Murtala Abdulrasheed Esq said with the cost of litigation being high, there’s the prospect of justice not being dispensed in Nigerian courts, citing the various criminal cases where individuals are detained for many years for a simple offence.
On lawyers’ professional charges, he said there are lawyers who charge in millions and others who charge as low as N10,000 for same case, just like in the medical profession where some consultants charge higher, while other doctors don’t.
“Fortunately, or unfortunately, we believe that the courts must not be a revenue-generating agency. In a state like Kaduna or Osun, you pay as much as 10 percent of the value of your claims. So, you can pay as much as N10m filing fees and you don’t know whether you are going to win the case or not, and nobody will pay you back,” he said.
“Please help me ask if the money being generated by the courts is accounted for? Is it also subject to appropriation like those generated by agencies like FIRS and Customs?”
But Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Adeniyi Akintola, said justice is not cheap anywhere in the world, maintaining that criminal justice is relatively cheaper in Nigeria than other countries because in some jurisdictions, awards are built in for the plaintiff or defence to pay at the end of the matter.
He added that there has never been any situation where an individual is denied justice due to lack of legal representation with LACON and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
“I had recovery case against Barclays Bank in the UK, it took me four and half years. It is not correct to say that cost of litigation or delays are more in Nigeria than it is abroad. We tend to generalize and exaggerate things here,” he said.
“We agree that our cases take too long to dispose, but cases are even faster heard in our trial courts than most jurisdictions outside this country.
“It is just that our appellate courts are congested by cases that ought not to go there. Imagine chieftaincy matters, divorce matters getting to the Supreme Court; things that have nothing to do with fundamental human rights or constitutional matters should not get there.”
John Chuks Azu, Adelanwa Bamgboye (Lagos) & Habibu Umar Aminu (Kano)