I have been on reflection mode since the judgment of the PEPC few days ago and as I watched an Instagram interview of BRF by Morayo Afolabi-Brown on February 1, 2023, it struck me that the mere fact that all the 2023 presidential election petitions were able to be concluded by the PEPC in less than 180 days stipulated by the Electoral Act 2022 was ironically because of a legacy of then Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu!
What Fashola said about how the judicial reforms carried out by Bola Ahmed Tinubu were eventually adopted at the Federal level is completely true. In the 2003 general elections, election petitioners typically spend between 30 to 34 months before the election petition tribunals.
Mr. Peter Obi for example, who contested for Governor of Anambra State under the Ojukwu-led All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) had to wait for more than two years before the tribunal declared him the winner of the 2003 Anambra Governorship election.
This was due to exploitation of the many loose provisions of the Federal High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules 2000 by respondents, defendants, petitioners and plaintiffs through their counsels to frustrate any speedy completion of civil litigations. There were no strict timetables guiding civil litigations, especially election petitions.
The then newly elected Governor of Lagos, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu saw the need to totally overhaul the judiciary upon assumption of office. In 1999, Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu, created a Justice Policy Committee to review the entire legal system of Lagos headed by Prof. Yemi Osinbajo.
Prof. Yemi Osinbajo and his committee members carried out a study that showed the judicial system to be suffering from rampant corruption and severe backlogs of cases due to inefficiencies and inadequate judges. Governor Bola Tinubu eventually was appointed the Prof. Yemi Osinbajo as the Attorney General of Lagos in June 1999, and thus commenced the reforming of the entire judiciary.
The objectives of the reforms, as they related to commercial cases, were to:
1. Reduce the backlog of cases in the High Court.
2. Extend the accessibility of the legal system to the wider population.
3. Reduce the average delays and duration of commercial cases before the civil courts.
Between 1999 to 2005, many of those reforms came in force. In 2000, as part of the Access to Justice Programme, five free Citizen Mediation Centres were opened in Lagos as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism. In May 2001, the Lagos Judicial Service Commission appointed 26 judges to the High Court, bringing the number of judges to 50 (that is a more than 50% increase in judicial personnel in one fell swoop).
In early 2002, a Rules Committee was formed to review the existing High Court rules and suggest reforms that will quicken justice delivery. This culminated in the Lagos State High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules of 2004, which introduced landmark new provisions collectively known as ‘frontloading’.
In January 2005, the Court Automation Information System (CAIS) went live and began to assign cases randomly to judges, and to calculate court fees automatically. This system helped to reduce the case backlog and the court delays as well.
As BRF pointed out in the interview, apart from increasing the number of judges in the State High Court, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu also quadrupled the salaries of the judicial officers despite opposition from the PDP-led FG back then.
Court buildings were renovated and modernised. Judges and magistrate quarters were erected. These were all geared towards ensuring judges are incorruptible by providing adequately for them. The corrupt ones were disciplined via Constitutional means.
As pointed out by Fashola in the interview also, the frontloading innovation (a variant of that which was introduced in England in 1998 following the Woolf Reports) was the cornerstone of BAT’s Lagos judicial reforms.
Let me explain what frontloading means for the benefit of my fellow laymen. Frontloading describes the requirement in civil litigation whereby both the plaintiff and the defendant or petitioner and respondent are compulsorily expected to completely reveal their entire case before trial by filing not just the originating or the defence processes and the pleadings but also the documents to be relied on together with the witnesess’ statements on oath.
This is simply to save time and also avoid all forms of springing of surprises. Before then, all you needed to do is to file your writ of summons and statement of claims or statement of defence as the case may be. There was no list of documents to be relied upon in trial or list of witnesses you choose to call to testify. In fact, witness testimony was done orally in court. What we call written addresses today were oral arguments by counsels. Everything was cumbersome.
For example in election petitions, you will see respondents calling on witnesses, including many whose testimony has no bearing whatsoever in their defence, as a way of delaying trials. However the Lagos reforms changed all that. FCT adopted these Lagos reforms later in the same 2004. Many states followed suit. In fact the Anambra State High Court (Civil Procedures) Rules 2006 was a replica of the Lagos 2004 rules.
The federal government eventually amended the Federal High Court (Civil Procedure) rules 2000 to incorporate the Lagos template and that subsequently formed the basis of election petition processes that we have this day with frontloading of documents as the key innovation. Pre-trial conference became a mandatory requirement where all parties meet with the judge(s) to straighten out how the case will proceed since all that needed to be pleaded has been pleaded by the parties.
Without these crucial reforms, election petition cases would probably still be taking up to two years. These reforms notwithstanding, counsels to litigants always attempt to play clever tricks and most of the times they are neutralised by the judges. In the just concluded petitions of Mr. Peter Obi and Atiku Abubakar at the PEPC, Obi’s counsels felt the wrath of the Justices for going outside their pleadings and frontloaded list of witnesses and documents.
Ten (10) out of the thirteen (13) witnesses of Mr. Peter Obi were dismissed with all their testimonies and depositions struck out. This was simply because Obi’s counsels failed to include the depositions of these witnesses as part of their petition from the beginning. The same fate befell many of the documents they sought to tender before the court. The Atiku camp equally felt the judicial hammer of PEPC Justices for trying to circumvent frontloading.
In essence, it is pertinent to note that President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s judicial reforms 19 years ago in Lagos was partly responsible for the collapse of the petitions of his two opponents in the 2023 presidential election. What a legacy!