1. The Nigerian Supreme Court
The Nigerian Supreme Court was established in 1963. Nigeria had a population of around 46 million at that time. Yet still, despite the tremendous surge in population, there has not been any significant reform in the structure of the Supreme court. As a result, adjudication could take longer than necessary. This is consequently causing many people to lose interest in the adjudication process. The situation does raises the question of whether we need state supreme courts in Nigeria.
As at 2018, Nigerian population was estimated to be around 196,000,000 and population continues to grow. We have seen an increase in the number of international airports and educational institutions in Nigeria over the years. There has also been a relevant increase in the number of law school campuses over the last decade.
The need for an increase in the number of law school campuses was premised on the fact that the two law school campuses which were previously available were no longer enough. This obviously flows from the impact of an increase in population. The two law school campuses were starting to have backlog of students who wanted to study at the law school. Eventually more law school campuses were created (Yola, Enugu, Kano, and Yenagoa campuses) to address the problem. More law school campuses mean more lawyers are being admitted to the bar.
2. SAN rank and congestion of cases at the Supreme Court
To compound the problem of severe delays in adjudication, we have the Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) rank. The rank is usually conferred on lawyers who have distinguished themselves in the practice of law. There are many requirements to be fulfilled in order to be conferred with the SAN rank. One of them is that, the applicant lawyer must have handled couple of cases at the Supreme Court. The consequent problem is twofold:
1. There is only one supreme court and there are many lawyers who are ambitious to attain the rank of SAN. Thus getting an opportunity to be heard at the Supreme Court takes time. In some cases, this could take around 20 years.
2. Since handling a case at the Supreme Court would constitute a merit towards the pursuit of the SAN rank, many frivolous appeals could end up being filed at the Supreme Court. This consequently contributes more to the congestion of cases at the Supreme Court.
3. Need for Supreme Court reform
It is necessary to reform the structure of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in order to ensure timely dispensation of justice. Section 230 of the 1999 Constitution provides that ‘the Supreme Court of Nigeria shall consist of … number of Justices … not exceeding Twenty One as may be prescribed by act of National Assembly’. The current structure of the Supreme Court for such a large population is simply not enough.
To mention a few countries by comparison: Ghana for instance, has a population of around 30 million and one Supreme Court; Netherlands has a population of around 17 million and one Supreme Court; Denmark has a population of around 5.8 million and one Supreme Court.
Although, one might be tempted to argue that the United States has a population of around 330 million and one supreme court which hear cases without severe delays. Such argument however, is untenable because the US Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to hear cases is different from the Nigerian Supreme Court’s jurisdiction.
The jurisdiction of the US Supreme Court is usually exercised in cases involving constitutional or federal law and cases involving state parties. There are state Supreme Courts in the US which usually exercise final jurisdiction in hearing cases involving state law.
4. Many cases would have been more suited for state supreme courts in nigeria
The congestion of cases at the Nigerian Supreme Court is further compounded by Section 233(1) of the 1999 Constitution which provides that the supreme court shall have exclusive jurisdiction to hear and determine appeals from the court of appeal. This in effect means that appeals involving either state law or federal law could be made to the Supreme Court. For instance, why should a case involving a private property (e.g land dispute) in one state end up at the Supreme Court?
It is expedient that the structure of the Supreme court be reformed for time efficient adjudication. Such reform would restore/strengthen people’s confidence in the administration of justice. Justice delayed is justice denied. One solution would be to establish state supreme courts in Nigeria which would have final jurisdiction in hearing cases involving state laws (typical of many cases).