'With 10000 Pending Appeals, the Supreme Court is Overworked' – THISDAY Newspapers

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The Apex Court, despite being the highest court in the land is not without its own challenges, particularly underfunding and understaffing. In addition to these acute problems, their Lordships are overburdened with frivolous appeals that should not be clogging up their dockets. Between 2007 and 2019, over 10,000 appeals were filed at the Apex Court. For the outgoing second Female and 17th Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, Mrs Hadizatu Uwani Mustapha, these are important issues that require urgent attention, in order to make the Supreme Court operate at an optimal level. Having enjoyed a successful and fulfilling career, as she bows out on the attainment of the mandatory retirement age of 60, Mrs Mustapha shared her life’s story and experience from her robust career with Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi, narrating how she managed to put in place, numerous innovations and drive several initiatives while at the Supreme Court, despite the paucity of funds. And, going forward, among other endeavours, how she intends to establish an NGO devoted to the Girl Child
Kindly, tell us about yourself, your journey from the beginning to your qualification as a Lawyer, and finally to the position of not just Chief Registrar (CR) of the Supreme Court, but to being the second female ever to hold that position which you assumed on May 31, 2017? Over the years, CRs are hardly seen nor heard. Kindly, let us into what your role entailed as the Head of the Supreme Court Registry.
I became the 17th Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court when I was appointed to the seat on the 31st of May, 2017. Since the appointment of C.O. Madarikan in 1958, until my ascension to the seat, it was only Mrs. G.O. Jackman who was female, making me the second female Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court.
I was born on the 8th of August, 1961 at Bukuru in the old Plateau State, into the family of Alhaji Mohammed Mustapha and Hajia Rakiya Mustapha. I am the second of his eighteen children. He had two wives, one of whom was Hajiya Rakiya Mustapha, my mother. My father, Alhaji Mustapha was an employee of the Borno State Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources until he retired, but before then, he had worked in the same capacity in the old Plateau State.
At the age of seven, precisely in 1968, I got enrolled at the Local Education Authority (LEA) Primary School in Bukuru where I went through primaries one and two, before my father transferred his service to the Government of the then North-Eastern State, his home State. Back at home, I was enrolled in Primary two at Yerwa Practicing Primary School. In September, 1974, I gained admission to Government Girls Secondary School, Maiduguri after completing her primary education same year.
In 1980, I was admitted to read Law at University of Maiduguri, where I graduated with a Bachelor of Law Degree (LLB) in 1984, and was subsequently called to the Bar in 1985.
After my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in 1986 in Kano, I joined the service of Borno State Ministry of Justice as State Counsel II in 1987, where I rose to the position of Acting Director, Citizen Rights Department in 1999.
At the Borno State Ministry of Justice, I handled several duties, such as public prosecution which involves preparing and filling trial documents in respect of suspects before the appropriate court. Other duties carried out were writing legal advice to the Police, attending to petitions submitted by members of the public, vetting of legal documents, drawing of contract agreements between the State Government and contractors, and prosecuting civil cases. It also included the prosecution of election petitions before the Election Petition tribunals; and I had been member of various Committees, for instance, the Local Government Assets Sharing Committee, Borno State.
In 2000, I was appointed Chief Enterprise Officer of the Bureau of Public Enterprises(BPE) in Abuja, and by 2004, I returned to the service of the Borno State Government, and this time around, as the Acting Director of the Public Prosecutions (DPP). After a little stint in the position, in 2005, I was appointed as the Senior Special Assistant (Admin) to the then Governor of Borno State. By 2007, I became the Director of Legal Services for the Borno State Independent Electoral Commission (INEC). And, between 2007 and 2011, I was the General Manager of the Maiduguri International Hotel.
Before the end of 2011, I was appointed the Deputy Chief Registrar (Works and Services) for the Sharia Court of Appeal, Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, and also as the Deputy Chief Registrar (Procurement), a position I held till she I was elevated to the position of the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court in 2017.
I retired from this current position on the 8th of August, 2021, after attainting the mandatory retirement age of 60. I am married with children and grandchildren.
As the CR, how did you cope with the daunting task of running the Apex Court Complex, especially as the N110 billion budget allocated to the Judiciary has remained stagnant since 2019, while Nigeria has been faced with spiralling inflationary rates?
Inflation has been a major challenge, in managing funds appropriated to the Supreme Court. In fact, our budgetary allocation has witnessed marginal increase from 2020 to 2021 as can be seen below:
2018 – N9,631,309,652.05
2019 – N9,106,309,652.05
2020 – N10,201,646,285.76
2021 – N12,880,824,019.00
However, the inflation rate which rose from 11.4% in 2019 to 13.25% in 2020, and to 15.79% in 2021, rendered useless any increase in budgetary allocation to the Court. Besides, the increase in allocation has been for the Capital sub-head, only leaving other sub-heads to suffer lack of funding.
You stepped down as CR about two weeks ago. In your four years in this role, you were responsible for several laudable projects including the remodelling and computerisation of the Supreme Court Library, construction of the Ceremonial Court, furnishing and modernisation of the Supreme Court Clinic (I personally witnessed the rapid response of the Clinic’s personnel complete with resuscitation equipment, when I was at the Supreme Court recently, and another visitor collapsed on the premises in my presence), digitalisation of the court rooms, employment of high definition audio/video recording equipment to compare with international best practices, to mention a few. What is the level of automation at the Supreme Court Registry? How compliant are the staff and their Lordships in the use of IT? Tell us about these and other initiatives you may have instituted as CR, and the legacy you have left for your successor to build on.
From January 2020, every court process filed in our Process Unit, is being uploaded and stored in a shared folder by the Litigation Department and ICT Unit. This will ultimately be used by the Nigeria Case Management System (NCMS), one of the processes of court automation being deployed by the Judicial Information Technology Policy Committee (JITPO-COM) of the National Judicial Council (NJC).
The Supreme Court is one of the pilot sites of JITPO-COM because, as of today, the Committee has executed three projects in the Supreme Court, and is currently executing another one.
The executed projects are:
1. Data Centre
2. Retrofitting of Court One
3. Establishment of the Legal mail.
As I speak, Court Two is being retrofitted by the same JITPO-COM; the projects being executed are sine qua non for the ultimate automation of the judicial process in Nigeria through the Nigeria case management system.
JITPO-COM was inaugurated in 2012 to chart a course for the introduction of Court Technology in Nigerian Courts, to enhance the efficient and speedy disposal of cases.
To complement the efforts of JITPO-COM, the Supreme Court has taken over the maintenance of the retrofitted Court One. The Court has also started an ambitious program of digitising the entire archives of the Court, as well as pending live appeals.
Capacity building for our ICT and Litigation staff for the implementation of the NCMS, is being vigorously pursued.
Once the uploading of the pending Appeals is completed, the ICT Unit will put the Hon. Justices through the use of the NCMS, which is seamless. Supreme Court will then go fully electronic, doing away with papers.
You were also interested in staff welfare, ensuring that salaries are paid as at when due, facilitating foreign workshops for staff training when funds were available, creating new office spaces for more Justices. Do you believe that the Judiciary is underfunded? Do you believe that if the Judiciary was allocated more funds, it will be more efficient, and the wheels of justice will move faster? Did you support the JUSUN Strike? Has it had any positive impact on judicial autonomy or on the Judiciary as a whole? Many have complained that our Judicial Officers from bottom all the way to the Supreme Court Justices are grossly underpaid. Kindly, share your views with us
The Judiciary is seriously underfunded, because of the envelope budgeting policy in use for the Judiciary. Funds appropriated for the Judiciary under the envelope budgeting policy, are a far cry from what the Judiciary needs to operate efficiently and optimally.
For example in 2020, eight Honourable Justices were appointed for the court towards the end of a financial year, so that there were no funds to rent residential accommodation and procure official card for them. There were not enough offices for all the Honourable Justices, and the additional offices we provided for them could not be provided with the relevant books needed for the them to function effectively.
In fact the skeletal services being rendered to the new Justices was only made possible, based on financial intervention from the National Judicial Council (NJC).
Yes, I believe that for a faster and more efficient Judiciary, the funding of the Judiciary needs to be reviewed.
I supported the JUSUN strike because the Judiciary is one big family, and when a part is affected, the whole is affected.
But, to be fair, in respect of the Federal Judiciary, the Federal Government of Nigeria has fully complied with the provisions of the 1999 Constitution, with respect to autonomy and independence for the Federal Judiciary.
Unfortunately, our Judicial Officers are poorly paid because the law regulating their salary (Certain Political, Public and Judicial Office Holders Salaries and Allowances ETC) Act 2002, needs to be amended after the last amendment in 2008. Inflation has rendered the salaries of Judicial Officers absolutely inadequate to cater for their needs.
You are only the second female Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, the first being Mrs Jackman who held the position almost 40 years ago. Why is this so? Is it that gender discrimination discrimination exists in our profession? Why does there seem to be a paucity of women holding positions, not just at the highest levels of our profession, but in Government, in the Legislature, and in most walks of life in Nigeria? What can be done to change this narrative, to get a fair deal for women? Do you think that like Rwanda, affirmative action laws should be passed to bridge this gap, so that women can take their rightful place in governance?
I do not think that there is discrimination against women in our profession, but I also think that affirmative action is required to increase the participation of women in our legislative and judicial sectors.
About three years ago, the Supreme Court held in the case of C.E. & M.S. LTD v PAZAN SERVICES NIGERIA LTD, that service of court processes by SMS, email or any other electronic means is valid. To what extent has the Apex Court ensured compliance by Lawyers?
An important aspect of the implementation of information Technology into the Judiciary in Nigeria, is the introduction of the legal mail in Supreme Court.
The JITPO-COM, in conjunction with the NBA, is ensuring every registered Lawyer acquires the legal mail free of charge, before filing any process in the Supreme Court.Once processes are served, the Lawyers receive messages electronically via the legal email and notification through text messages, informing them of the service. In fact, proof of service is automatically generated by the system, printed by the Registrar and put in the court’s file; and this is good and proper service.
The NBA recently expressed serious concerns over the several names found missing from the Supreme Court Roll. For the past few years, many Lawyers have been unable to process and obtain their Stamp and Seal, on account of the fact that their names couldn’t be found on the Roll. It was also alleged that it is a problem of the Registry. How is your office addressing this serious complaint?
To the best of my knowledge, there is no case of missing name on Roll for Lawyers in Nigeria domiciled with the Court. My attention was recently drawn to a problem in the Credence and Enrolment Unit of the Litigation Department, which handles enrolment of Lawyers. I set up a Committee which resolved the issues within two weeks, and the Lawyers called to Bar in 2020 who did not get enrolment numbers, can now come to the Unit and obtain their numbers.
For many years now, it has been suggested that their Lordships at the Apex Court should be supported with Legal Research Assistants, like we have in other jurisdictions. This suggestion does not seem to have been well received, and the volume of work of the Honourable Justices keeps growing, while adjournment dates are given far into the future. What is the way out, to reduce their workloads?
In the Supreme Court, we have been assigning Registrars to assist the Honourable Justices with research. I agree that they do need legal Research Assistants, but, the surest of way reducing their work load in the court, is to cut down on the number of Appeals coming to the Court by amending the blanket right of appeal as contained in the Constitution, and vesting the Appeal Courts with power to grant leave for appeals only in deserving appeals that present novel issues to be determined.
It has also been suggested that the Supreme Court should be unbundled, to create at least three Divisions in the three regions of the country. Others have suggested that there should be a Division for Election Petitions, and even a Division for constitutional matters only, so that justice at the Supreme Court will be more swift. Still others have suggested that not all matters should go on appeal to the Apex Court, especially flimsy interlocutory appeals which can be taken with substantive matters. Do you subscribe to any of these ideas? Others say that more Justices should be appointed to the Apex Court. What suggestions do you have, to make justice swifter there?
From 2007-2019 alone, we have about ten thousand appeals pending. The Honourable Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, are the most overworked Justices of any Supreme Court in the entire globe. The way to reduce this burden for the Justices, is not by creating a proliferation of more Divisions of the Supreme Court, or by increasing the number of the Justices of the Court. With respect, the surest way to reduce congestion in the Supreme Court is as follows:
(a) Amend the Constitution and restrict the Right of Appeal, so that similar issues already decided upon by the Court should never be allowed to come before the Court on appeal again.
(b) Amend the Constitution and restrict both pre and post-Election Appeal matters for Governorship, State and Federal legislature to terminate at the Court of Appeal. Only appeals on Presidential election, should come to the Supreme Court.
If the above is done, a full compliment of the Justices of the Court, that is, 21 Honourable Justices should be able to dispense quick, efficient and effective Justice.
You also double as the Secretary to the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee. Recently, some veteran Senior Advocates made a call, that conferment of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) should be deferred for the next couple of years. What reasons did they give for their position? Do you agree with them? Should those who qualify for the rank be denied conferment?
BOSAN is of the view that the criteria for conferment of the coveted Rank of SAN has been weakened by the extant guidelines and watered-down the standard and core requirements of excellence and distinction, because from 2015-2019 we witnessed 100% increase in the number of those conferred and 600% increase from 2020 to 2021. With respect, I do not agree that the standard has been lowered. I am however, sure that the LPPC will give a dispassionate consideration to the submission made by the respected body.
Going forward, what are your plans for the future having stepped down?
My parents cared for the Girl Child, and gave me every opportunity and assistance to achieve my full potentials. To pay back to memory of my parents and society, I will, in my retirement, set up an NGO that will cater for the Girl Child in Nigeria. Along with my NGO, I will pursue farming, as I have already set up poultry. I am also engaged in fish farming.
Additionally, I will establish a consultancy firm, as well as a law firm that will focus on being a Solicitor and corporate consultant.
Thank you very much. We wish you the very best, as you begin a new chapter in your life.

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