{INTERVIEW} “We Need Punitive Fines For Lawyers Causing Delays In Trials”- Ofodile Okafor, SAN

What Kind Of Lawyer Are You? - By DANIEL BULUSSON
Sir G. Ofodile Okafor (SAN) is a Life Bencher with over 40 years post-bar experience. In this interview, he speaks on calls for decentralisation of the Supreme Court, the criminal justice system and delay in trials, among others. Excerpts:

Recent calls for the decentralisation of the Supreme Court, as a means to reduce the workload at the centre, seem to be gathering momentum among lawyers, what is your opinion?

At this period of our development I do not think that we need to decentralise our Supreme Court. We are not yet mature for that, no matter the level of our training we still have regional and ethnic idiosyncrasies. The Supreme Court is the only stabilising factor of the third arm of government. Without which a lot of things in this country would have gone into pieces. Their judgments, pronouncements have brought stability to the system.

However, if Nigeria decides to restructure to maybe six regions, then it may be advisable to have six Supreme Courts. And we will have the Federal Supreme Court which will only be concerned with very important constitutional matters while the other regional Supreme Courts can handle every other matter.

Some lawyers said the criterion that lawyers must have cases at the appellate courts before being considered for the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) is one of the factors contributing to the clogging of the dockets of these courts.

While the appointment of a senior advocate of Nigeria is done by the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC), in actual fact it is the Supreme Court that appoints those who are to have that rank. It is the practical thing that we must have conducted very important cases before the Supreme Court

Yes, there are lots of delays but they are explainable. Politics is coming, every other criminal or civil matters may be put in abeyance to give chance to the political cases because they are time bound and those are some of the things which with progressive amendment of the laws, i.e. the Electoral Act, most of these political cases should stop at the Court of Appeal level.

There is need for constitutional amendment to put a bar on some of the cases that get to the Supreme Court. Our Supreme Court is the busiest in the world. The  judges are working day and night in an environment that is not even conducive because of these too many cases.

Some civil cases in particular, because for criminal cases when it concerns life and death they must pursue their right to the apex court.

The Administration of Criminal Justice Act (2015) is intended to fast-track justice delivery. However, two years since its enactment, legal commentators say much has not been felt, especially in cases of politically exposed persons. Where lies the problem?

Most of the problem is institutional. We don’t have enough judges to take care of these cases. In the olden days when a witness comes to court, he is paid an amount, an allowance for coming to court to give evidence, but these days, nobody still remembers that it is still part of our law, so people are reluctant to come. Why I say it’s institutional, some of the court rooms are even nothing to write home about, but people are there trying to make the best of the situation.

What I think is needed is a total overhaul of the criminal justice system. Government must be bold enough to vote a lot of money for justice delivery system. The state must make sure that the investigators, prosecutors and witnesses are well paid, and the court rooms and judges are well taken care of.

Apart from the state’s contribution, do you see lawyers playing any role in addressing this delay?

Lawyers too have a lot of blame because some of them will tell you they have not been properly briefed, thus asking the court for an adjournment.

It is a shame for any lawyer to say ‘I have not been properly briefed’ in a case he is putting up appearance. Why should you put up appearance if you have not been properly briefed?

I think we should also impose punitive fines on lawyers who cause delay of cases, be it criminal or civil. Like the Federal High Court, every day you fail to file your papers, you pay a punitive fine of N1,000. This is just to make us to sit up to do our work because lawyers contribute a lot to the delays.

Do you think the government should consider adopting civil rather than just criminal litigation of corruption cases to fast-track their determination and record more successes?

We have been hearing of plea bargain and the like, but most criminals are very clever, they don’t leave behind traces; as such, for such cases, proving to finality may be very difficult. So, if you are able to extract some undertaking from them (accused persons) to return parts or all of the loots, rather than prosecuting and losing everything, you can accept that, so as to save the state of the loss.

What is your opinion on Prerogative of Mercy, as enshrined in sections 175 and 212 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria, as a means to decongest prisons?

In every civilized society, there is always that right for the chief executive of the state to exercise prerogative of mercy. I think this should continue, provided that is not used to shield criminals in the society. But if somebody is to serve life sentence, and has served 15 to 20 years, the state based on recommendation can grant him pardon, or where someone on awaiting trial list has served more years in prison than he would have served if convicted of the offence, the chief judge can pardon such.

If this is done purely on merit and corruption is kept out of it, I think it is a laudable thing, provided it is not abused.