Precisely on 30th September 2018, I did an article titled: LAMENTING THE SLOW DISPENSATION OF JUSTICE. On 17th October 2018, the Lagos Sate Judiciary organized a seminar to shed light on the proposed amendments to the Lagos State High Court Civil Procedure Rules 2012 as part of the activities marking its 2018/2019 Legal Year. Although I have not been opportune to see the draft of the proposed new Rules, but from the available information here and there one can deduce some features which the new Rules are coming up with. While I am adopting my earlier submissions contained the said article, I want us to here look at some of these proposed amendments. But first let me link this article to the previous one where I had said:
“…Some years later, precisely in 2012, Lagos State Judiciary further improved on its frontloading rules wherein it changed the Pre-Trial Conference (PTC) under the 2004 Rules to the Case Management Conference (CMC) under the 2012 Rules. With all these changes and innovations made to improve on the speedy dispensation of justice, the desire for quick dispensation of justice is still found wanting. You can only know when you institute an action but cannot be sure when it will actually come to an end.”
The desire for quick dispensation of justice must be a serious concern to everyone. Among the proposed amendments to the 2012 Rules are that
- failure to comply with the Pre-action protocol will render the originating process null and void;
- a party that is not ready to participate in a matter already fixed for trial without valid reason will have a cost of not less than N100,000 awarded against him;
- if a lawyer frustrates the hearing of an interlocutory application, he will have a cost of not less than N50,000 awarded against him;
- a case that is abandoned by a lawyer for six months can be struck out by the Court suo motu;
- daily default payment will increase from N200 to N1000;
- a matter of extreme urgency may not need to comply with the Pre-action protocol if the Court is satisfied;
- substituted service by electronic means especially in fundamental human rights matters is now acceptable;
- video conference is now allowed during the taking of evidence;
- page limit is now introduced as final addresses of each party should not be more than 20 pages while reply on point of law should not be more than 5 pages.
The above are just the tip of the iceberg that I have been able to come up with. While one must still accept the fact that the Lagos State Judiciary is usually the pacesetter in most things that are innovative in our judicial system in Nigeria, it must be noted that some of these proposed amendments have been in practice in some other Courts like the increased daily penalty fee, service by electronic means and page limit which are now in vogue at the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, Federal High Court and the National Industrial Court. If all these would checkmate and put an end to all the lamentations against slow dispensation of justice, that will be a very welcome development.
If the truth must be told, one of the problems that confront the successful operation of some of these Rules of Courts is lack of unanimity in the understanding of a particular set of Rules. Now let us start with the Pre-action protocol. By the amendment being proposed, it seems the status of Pre-action protocol as it is today under the 2012 is not certain, that is to say whether failure to comply with it is an irregularity or a nullity; hence the proposal being made that failure to comply with it as set out in Form 1 would render the Court processes null and void. In reality, some Courts before now have struck out cases that they believe did not comply with the said Form 1.
For instance, I was involved in a case where a customer sued his banker on the allegation that the Bank manipulated his account on a loan transaction between him by the Bank building into his account illegal interests that could not be justified. The customer got a forensic expert to audit his account with the Bank. The expert eventually came up with a comprehensive report which was sent to the Bank with the demand to rectify the same but the bank ignored the demand. When I was briefed by the customer and I read through the forensic report as well as other correspondences, I wrote to the Bank clearly stating our demand based on all the documents made available to me and that if the Bank failed to meet our demand, we would be left with no option than to approach the Court of law for appropriate remedy.
The Bank despite being in receipt of our letter did not reply the same. We subsequently filed an action in Court against the Bank. In the processes we filed before the Court, we accompanied them with the Pre-action protocol stating all the steps we had taken before coming to Court but did not attach to the sworn Pre-action protocol form, the last correspondence which was the letter summarising all the steps we had taken before filing the suit since we believed we have pleaded them in the Statement of Claim, listed and frontloaded them as part of the documents we were to rely on at the trial. The Counsel to the Defendant filed Preliminary objection with written address along with their Statement of Defence contending that we did not comply with the Pre-action protocol and that as such the Court lacks jurisdiction to hear our case. The Court did not buy our arguments contained in our Counter-Affidavit and written address in support that when issue of jurisdiction is raised the appropriate process to look into is the Statement of Claim and that the Defendant rather than allowing the matter to proceed to trial and put up their defence were indulging in technicality. Even our reference to Order 3 Rule 2 (2) did not save our suit from being struck out by the presiding Judge on the ground that our suit was a nullity and incompetent. There are Courts that do not entertain such preliminary objections and will have such objection dismissed.
I am personally of the view that the requirements expected to be complied with by the Claimant under the preamble to the Rules as far as pre-action protocol is concerned seem to put the Claimant at the mercy of an arrogant Defendant. It is more or less asking the Claimant to be begging the Defendant to have settlement with the Claimant on a matter of obligation on the part of the Defendant. Perhaps this is the reason why the amendment is being proposed that some urgent matters may be exempted from complying with the pre-action protocol forms if the Court is satisfied that compliance will occasion great harm.
Before the introduction of Pre-action protocol form, there are laws that make it mandatory for a Claimant who wants to institute legal action against statutory bodies to issue out pre-action notices to such bodies before Court proceedings are commenced. In an action for the recovery of debt, the Claimant is expected to first issue a letter of demand. This has now become settled law as in the case of Kolo Vs. First Bank of Nigeria PLC.
“It is trite law that in an action for the recovery of debt, the cause of action accrues upon demand for the payment of the debt. If no demand is made, a cause of action does not arise and no action can be commenced.”
Also in tenancy matter where the landlord wants to recover possession of his premises from the tenant, he is expected to issue statutory notices as prescribed by the law. Where all these are done as stipulated by law and relevant materials are placed before the Court, I am of the view that there should be an easy access to the Court for those who desire justice through court proceedings without further hindrance. For a Court to insist that a suit is null and void merely because those materials are not particularly attached to the Pre-action form will amount to nothing but a high level of technicality. Can a Pre-action protocol form take the place of Writ of Summons, Statement of Claim and the accompanying processes in a suit? Such an omissionn should be seen as mere irregularity rather than for the action to be declared null and void.
While people should be encouraged to embrace the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanism, the right of people who think otherwise must be equally respected. There are several instances where parties go to the Mediation Centre and after arriving at settlement and come up with Memorandum of Understanding, you later see some of them defaulting by refusing to discharge their part of the obligations. You then see the aggrieved party going back to Court seeking for the Memorandum of Understanding to be entered as the judgment of the Court for the purpose of enforcement.
Another aspect of the 2012 Rules on which there seems to be is no unanimity on its proper application is Order 6 Rules 6 and 7 relating to the life span and the renewal of a Writ. While some Judges are of the view that the application to renew a Writ can only be brought before the expiration of Writ and not thereafter, some Judges are of the view that a Writ can equally be renewed after its expiration upon application to the Court. The Judges in the former category will never grant any application brought after the expiration of the Writ. I have extensively discussed this issue in a paper yet to be published wherein I submitted that a proper understanding of the position of the Supreme Court in the case of Kolawole Vs Alberto on the interpretation of Order 5 Rule 6 of the Lagos State High Court Civil Procedure Rules 1972 which is similar to Order 6 Rules 6 and 7 of the Lagos State High Court Civil Procedure Rules 2012 now in force will clearly show that the decision in that suit is still applicable and binding today as far as renewal of Writ is concerned, that the application for renewal can be brought after the expiration of the Writ. All the learned Justices of the Supreme Court in that case were unanimous on this point. Hon. Justice Craig in his lead judgment observed that:
“I think the provision about applying for renewal within the valid life of the Writ may have led many to assume that unless the application is made within twelve months, it cannot be made afterwards but it is obvious that if the Rule were interpreted in that manner, it would work hardship on the Plaintiff. It seems to me that the provision has been inserted in the Rule in other to distinguish a vigilant Plaintiff from the lethargic one. Obviously a vigilant litigant would in accordance with the Rule, apply before the Writ actually expires, but this does not mean that a litigant who applies soon afterwards should not be heard”.
Hon. Justice Nnamani in his own contribution to the judgment held that:
“I am of the view that by the combined effect of Order 5 Rule 6 and Order 47 Rule 3, a Plaintiff can apply to the Court for renewal of a Writ of Summons either before or after the expiration of 12 months. Such an interpretation accords too with my conception of doing substantial justice between the parties, for in a proper case in which a Plaintiff has good reasons for having not served the Defendant, it would seem to be inequitable if the Court were to refuse renewal and shut out a Plaintiff because the Plaintiff perhaps applies for renewal one day beyond the 12 months.”
Apart from those areas where amendments have been proposed, there are some other things we need to address if we truly want to achieve quick dispensation of justice in our judicial system. If N100, 000 is awarded as costs against a lawyer for his refusal to participate in a matter set down for trial or N50,000 is awarded against him for frustrating the hearing of an interlocutory application, then what happens to the presiding Judge who refuses to sit to conduct the proceeding or ask you to come back another day when the parties have shown readiness to go on with the trial? I was in a Court in May this year and was given a trial date in October on which day I brought all my witnesses telling the Court that I was ready for trial only to be told by the Court that I would have to be given another date as my matter was just on the list of cases awaiting to be allotted a trial date. I was again asked to come back in March 2019 for trial. Then if I may ask, who should I complain to? Now let us say a matter is pending before a Judge and the parties are ready for the matter, but suddenly his Lordship goes on official assignment, say for instance Election Petition Tribunal only to return after about 6 months, then what should happen?
There is no doubt that the Lagos Sate Judiciary is living up to expectation and its vision to improve the training and welfare of its judicial officers and staff through organizing of seminars, workshops and retreats. But it needs to be suggested that such activities should be done in such a way that they would not have adverse effect on their primary duty of dispensing justice. If programmes being organized are allowed to affect Court sittings, this will equally contribute more to the delay in the dispensation of justice. The retreat being organized for Judges overseas could be shifted to the period when the Court is on vacation. One wonders sometimes that in those foreign jurisdictions where we borrow some of these innovations like the frontloading regime, cases are concluded within a very short time unlike here where cases take several years before being concluded. We may equally need to critically look at how they are doing it and incorporate it into our judicial system. I think it is high time we assigned time within which categories of cases must be concluded, as if such thing can work in election petition cases, why not in the other categories of cases?
Remarkable pronouncement on speedy hearing of cases
“The best Judge in trial proceedings is undoubtedly the trial Judge. He sees it all because he closely watches the proceedings and all that. He feels the pinch when parties try to dilly-dally the proceedings or adopt tricks to overreach or outsmart the adverse party. If the trial Judge fails to take a position in the light of the Rules of Court and takes or tows the line of sympathy, then he will have a plethora or load of cases in his cause list to the extent that he cannot get out of a mounting backlog of cases. That will reflect on him adversely, and in these days of continuous assessment of the performance of Judges he will be in for it. While a trial Judge cannot throw away the constitutional provision that parties should be given a hearing in a matter before the Court because of repercussion of performance assessment, a Judge owes the administration of justice a duty to facilitate and ensure the speedy hearing of a case before him. The notoriety that delayed justice attracts to the Judiciary is such that Judges must work towards the speedy dispensation of justice. Judges must do their best to facilitate the speedy hearing of cases.”
On purpose and status of Rules of Court
It is well settled that a rule of Court regulates the practice of the Court in the exercise of a power derived ali unde and does not confer a power. In that sense, it seems that the rule is adjectival and its purpose is auxiliary: to give effect to the specific provision of the law conferring power in much the same way as the inherent powers of superior Court of Record.
Abdulrasheed Ibrahim may be reached on 08055476823, 08164683735 or email:firstname.lastname@example.org.
 (2003) FWLR (Pt. 179) 1315G
 (1989) 1 NSCC 213; (1989) 1 NWLR 382
 Per Tobi, JSC in Banna Vs. Tele-Power (2006) 15 NWLR (Pt. 1001) 200B-E.
 See Ogunremi Vs. Dada (1962) 1 ALL NLR (Pt. 4) 663, 670-671; Guinness Vs. Udeani (2000) 18 WRN 50.