Lagos State Chief Judge declares state of emergency following the discovery of 2,886 old case files, including a 70 year-old-case

Lagos State Chief Judge, Justice Opeyemi Oke has described the discovery of about 3,000-backlog of cases in different Courts across the State as alarming, promising that the Judiciary, under her watch was determined to reverse the trend in order to restore public confidence in Lagos Judiciary and make administration of justice quicker and more efficient.

According to her, the Courts in the State are presently in a state of emergency following the evaluation of 2,886 old case files, including a 70 year-old-case, under its Backlog Elimination Programme (BEP).

Justice Oke, who disclosed this while launching “The Lagos Backlog Elimination Programme 2018 (BEP)” at the Foyer of the High Court of Lagos State, Igbosere, said the programme is designed to decongest the courts by re-evaluating old cases and finding ways of resolving them through Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) or accelerated hearing.  She maintained that the BEP initiative was conceived as part of her desire to substantially tackle inordinate delay of court cases, court congestion and fulfilment of her promise to redress these two problems on assumption of duty.

The Chief Judge lamented that “Delay has led to public ridicule of the judiciary which is supposed to be the hope of the common man. This delay, coupled with the continuous filing of new cases has led to congestion in Courts with a ridiculous number of a backlog of cases, the result of which the courts are now in a state of emergency. Presently there are hundreds of cases in the court dockets aged over 5 years, the oldest of which is a 70-year-old case. This is a far cry to what can be said to be a reasonable time. Ideally, the matters ought to be concluded in weeks, months or at most a year. Many of these cases ought not to be in court at all as they could have been resolved through ADR”, she noted.

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Citing Section 36(1) of the 1999 Constitution as amended, she emphasized that the rights to fair and reasonable timely trial before a court or tribunal is one of the fundamental rights of Nigerians.  This, according to her, necessitated the need to urgently revert the status quo and redress the situation through the BEP and Alternative Dispute Resolution, ADR. Justice Oke averred that the first phase of the BEP which is on-going, involves the evaluation of old cases in batches by volunteers from different law firms, adding that they are through with the first batch involving case files between five years and above; the second batch involves case files of 10 years and above while the third batch comprises of case files from 15 yrs and above. She said work is on-going on files involving case filed aged 25 years and above.

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“After evaluation, facts of each case are summarized, causes of delay identified and recommendation would be made as to efficient means of disposal whether by ADR or accelerated hearing”, she said.  Giving details of the cases involved, Justice Oke informed that land matters accounted for majority of the backlog cases, followed by commercial matters which are based on breach of contacts, debt recovery, mortgage matters, bank and customers related disputes, matrimonial causes, probate and enforcement of judgments, adding that many of the cases are at trial stage.  On the possibility of settlement, the Chief Judge stated that while some of the cases are not suitable for ADR, others could be resolved through the mechanism; the remaining cases would either be struck out.

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She added that some of the parties have reportedly settled matrimonial causes but that settlement to ancillary reliefs would be referred to ADR. Oke further disclosed that inefficient case management by counsels accounted for 59 percent of the delay in the backlog cases evaluated so far, stressing that other causes included delay occasioned by court indisposition, protracted settlement period, court not sitting at various intervals due to official assignments, interlocutory appeals and numerous interlocutory applications brought before the court.

She revealed that under the second phase, the re-evaluated cases would be referred back to the court for Case Management Conference (CMC) by a special order of the Chief Judge of High Court of Lagos State and based on individual recommendation, referred to Lagos Court of Arbitration (LCA) and other ADR institutions for resolution by mediation or arbitration as the case may be.

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