Alternative courthouse in Lagos speeds delivery of justice

by Stella Dawson | https://twitter.com/stelladawson | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 22 May 2013 08:03 GMT

Kehinde Aina on May 15, 2013, outside the Lagos High Court, where he started the Multi-Door Courthouse to improve efficiency of the judiciary. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Stella Dawson

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Nigeria's lawsuits can languish 15 years in corrupt courts. Kehinde Aina began mediation services at Lagos’ High Court - breaking a logjam of cases and reducing chances for bribery.

LAGOS (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Muddy rainwater fills the potholed courtyard of the colonial-era High Court of Lagos. Plaster crumbles from the mouldy walls of a dark-panelled courtroom. Holes are punched in the ceiling tiles. Three-blade fans edged in rust and grime hang immobile from high ceilings.  

Getting justice from the Nigerian courts is little better. It is an inefficient, time-consuming system, beset by corruption.

Files get lost. Power failures are daily, while backup generators sit idle, their diesel pilfered. Court clerks expect bribes to pad their earnings. Records in many courts are written in longhand, and their storage is haphazard. A cat gave birth to kittens in one dingy record room. Computers sit unused. Judges finish work early, exhausted by the heat and humidity in their long gowns and wigs.

The backlog of cases is huge. About 3,500 cases are filed each month in the Lagos High Court, the busiest in the nation, 2013 data show, but fewer than 50 percent get resolved each year. Ten to 15 years for case disposal is commonplace, Nigerian lawyers said. Parties die before justice is served.

Delays invite corruption at every level of the judicial system just to get a case moving - from bribing a clerk to scheduling the case to paying off a judge for a favorable verdict. It causes a rot that spreads deeply throughout public institutions in Nigeria, eating at the very fabric of governmental authority, officials say.

“Corruption in the judiciary is not limited to Nigeria. Nonetheless, corruption in the judiciary may turn out to be the most harmful because it undermines the credibility, efficiency, productivity, trust and confidence of the public in the judiciary as the epitome integrity,” the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime said in a report on the integrity and capacity of the judicial system.

ALTERNATIVE JUSTICE

Kehinde Aina  decided to do something about it.

A respected lawyer who had won multimillion-dollar commercial cases, he formed Negotiation and Conflict Management Group in 1995 from the offices of his law firm Aina Blankson in a modest building in central Lagos and developed the idea of using mediation to settle cases out of court.

He cajoled then-High Court Chief Justice Ibitola Sotuminu to give him a small room in the courthouse in 2002, arguing that mediation would quicken the delivery of justice.

Aina called his experiment the Multi-Door Courthouse to represent the different paths that parties could choose to resolve their disputes. Mediation and arbitration is commonly used in the United States and Europe but this was a first for Africa.

“Having spent most of my early practice years in courtrooms, it became crystal clear to me that the justice system was in desperate need of an overhaul. I envisioned a comprehensive justice centre where both the consumers and providers will be collaborators and co-creators of a streamlined and agile process,” Aina said.

His first case proved its worth. Fifty-three laid-off bank workers had been suing their former employer for three years and had begun protesting outside the bank offices. The case threatened to drag on for a decade or more, causing bad publicity for the bank and significant legal expenses on both sides. Aina offered to mediate the case, and within two days of talks, the parties had settled.

Another victory came in a 17-year-old land dispute involving former Nigerian Vice President Alex Ekweume and seven other parties. The case had been winding its way through the courts when a fire gutted the courthouse and destroyed all records. Testimony and evidence would have had to begin all over again. Instead the judge referred the case to Aina, mediation talks began at 10 a.m. one day and by 8:30 p.m. that night, the case was settled, he said.

STREAMLINING JUSTICE ACROSS AFRICA

By the end of 2012, the Multi-Door Courthouse had handled 1,708 cases, settling 708 of them outside the courtroom. In the process, it expanded from a roughly 350-square-foot room in the dilapidated High Court building to occupy half the courthouse. Staff work on computers in spotless, air-conditioned marble-floored offices. The mediation rooms are light and airy, in contrast to the dreary courtrooms next door.

The centre has an air of brisk efficiency, testimony to what careful use of resources can achieve. After four years, Aina handed over day-to-day management of the Multi-Door Courthouse, which is run as a public-private partnership between his Negotiation and Conflict Management Group and the state. He focuses on mediation training and expanding the concept to other states, not only in Nigeria, but throughout Africa.

The concept has proven sufficiently successful that the Lagos legislature, under new rules to speed up the delivery of justice that took effect this year, requires all civil cases be considered for mediation. In the first quarter of 2013, the court referred 600 cases to the Multi-Door Courthouse, which determined 298 were suitable for negotiated settlement.

At first jurists were skeptical, but gradually they came around, Aina said.

“There was more ignorance than resistance. They did not understand it, and there are some who feel threatened: ‘If this takes hold, what am I going to be doing?’”

Sheriff Oluwo sees its value. Overlooking the Bight of Benin from the modern, eighth-floor offices of the 50-year-old commercial law firm Olaniwun Ajayi LP, the lawyer called mediation a “fantastic idea”.

Its streamlined processes are in sharp contrast to the six steps it takes to file a case in the regular court, and removing layers lessen opportunities for corruption, Oluwo said. As such, it is a beacon for change in the Lagos court system.

“It’s working for a large number of commercial matters. It’s important because this country is highly litigious and wants to go to court for everything as a constitutional right. The Multi-Door Courthouse brings some sanity to that,” he said.

INCHING PAST GRIM STATS

Development theory posits that justice denied and extreme poverty can lead to a collapse of the rule of law and state instability. Nigeria displays the symptoms.  

President Goodluck Jonathan on May 14 declared a state of emergency and sent troops into three northern states where Islamists seeking to spread sharia have killed thousands of citizens since 2009. Kidnappings once limited to oil-rich delta states are spreading. Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s 82-year-old mother was kidnapped in the southeast and then released in December. This past month in the heart of Lagos’ business district, two or three foreigners each week were kidnapped for ransom.

Security is a thriving industry. Armed security guards drive foreigners and dignitaries from barricaded office buildings to gated hotels, where more guards patrol 24 hours a day. Nigerian dignitaries bring their personal retinue as extra guards. After dark, military police carrying rifles and driving white pickup trucks escort foreigners on the roadway.

Oil has enriched a tiny elite in Nigeria - the 10th most populous country in the world - and left two-thirds of its approximately 162 million people to live on less than $2 a day, World Bank and United Nations data show. People live in alleyway shacks in Lagos between houses of the rich, cook on the road and wash in drains.

Transparency International ranks Nigeria 139 out of 174 countries in its 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, on a par with Pakistan and Kenya. The World Bank Governance Indicator puts it in the bottom 10th percentile for rule of law when measured against other countries. The World Justice Project Rule of Law Index likewise measures Nigeria at 25th out of 100 for absence of corruption; only two out of the 97 countries in its index are worse.

Despite the grim statistics, Nigeria is inching forward. It is the fastest growing economy in sub-Sahara Africa, expanding annually at 6 percent or better over the past few years. For all its manifest problems, Nigerians and foreign business people alike say that infrastructure, courts and economic opportunities have improved over the past decade.

DANGERS OF JUSTICE DENIED

Bismarck Rewane, an economist and consultant to investors at Financial Derivatives in Lagos, said Nigeria would need to deliver 15 percent annual growth if it is to make real progress and meet the United Nations’ 2015 international development goals for lowering poverty and improving healthcare and education.

“Also because of the fragility of its infrastructure and its vulnerability to outside shocks, there is a need to be more efficient in resource deployment and allocation,” he said.

Reducing corruption and improving access to justice are among the institutional reforms that would make the country more resilient. Otherwise growth will continue to benefit a sliver at the top and fail to bring broader development.

Olufunke Akinsode, the legal officer to the University of Lagos, said Aina’s success with the Multi-Door Courthouse shows there are ways to break the cycle of corruption and inefficiency - for those with the courage to act.

“It is a lesson in doggedness. To have a vision and go for it, if it is good for humanity,” she said.

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