Two years ago, the justice system in Rivers State was in bondage, Justice was definitely out of the reach of both the rich and the poor people of Rivers State. The gates to the citadel of justice were under lock and key, with big chains holding down the key. Many lawyers went through a lot, as their clientele depreciated seriously, there were no cases to file, neither were there disputes to settle in or out of court. Some converted their vehicles to ‘kabu-kabu “(private taxis) just to make ends meet, many up and coming lawyers who had teamed up to open up chambers had no option but to shut down their law firms as they could not meet up with the payment of rent. Many also had to relocate to other states whose judiciary and courts were still functioning. As a matter of fact, most of the cases in Rivers State were either taken to Bayelsa State, Imo State, or Akwa Ibom State to seek redress.
While waiting for the courts to re-open, some claimants and even defendants lost their lives, which means that such cases were already lost without justice being served.
What about the inmates on trial? The prisons were bursting in their seams as the cases were not being heard, many died without being prosecuted. For two years, a lot of injustice was meted out to every Rivers man as well as other well meaning Nigerians residing in the State.
Then came May 29, 2015, when the present administration came into power and in the first few days liberated Rivers people from the shackles of injustice, by breaking the chains and locks holding the judiciary and the court captive.
The chains were not just broken, but the judiciary was steadily revitalised and strengthened to ensure access to an efficient justice delivery system.
The judiciary was obviously not going to escape the sector transformational agenda of the Governor Nyesom Wike-led government. There was massive reconstruction, construction and renovation of Blocks A, B, and C of the High Court Complex, all thirty-two Customary Courts in the 23 local government areas were given a face-lift. Ten out station High Courts, Obio Court of Appeal and all the Magistrate Courts in the thirty-eight Districts were all renovated, so were the Magistrate Court building and the Judges quarters.
The Central law Library of the High Court was remodeled and upgraded. A new High Court building comprising two storey and a court complex of four magistrate courts, the Judicial Service Commission office, Family Court and a Multi-door Court House was built.
An ultra-modern building was constructed, furnished and given to the Port Harcourt Division of the Federal High Court. So also was the Customary Court of Appeal, which was not only renovated but had its clinic expanded to serve the Appeal Court better, other Divisions of the Appeal Court across the state, were not left out, as they were also renovated.
The Port Harcourt Division of the National Industrial Court is currently under construction. A new Federal High Court Complex was completed and handed over to the Federal Government.
It’s not just the structures that are being renovated, staff welfare matters are also taken into consideration. The new High Court building designer took cognizance of the fact that it was not easy to be a working nursing mother, hence, the incorporation of a Creche, where nursing mothers can take care of their babies, this will obviously take off the heavy load of keeping the children from the mothers, during working hours. There is a Gym for them to keep fit and a cafeteria to take care of stomach infrastructure during working hours.
The Governor went further to purchase and distribute 35 Posh Ford Explorer for the 35 Judges in the State Judiciary. Believing in training and re-training, the Governor sponsored both magistrates and judges to local and International conferences and workshops and also both in and out of the country all in an effort to boost their knowledge and enhance their capacity for bigger assignments in the judiciary.
The Chief Judge’s quarters were renovated, rehabilitated and furnished for the new judge to move into. There was also the foundation laying ceremony for the judges quarters which was carried out by none other than the Vice President of Nigeria, who nicknamed the Governor ‘Mr. Project’. The Governor also built and handed over to the lawyers the NBA House for their relaxation, as well as venue for other recreational activities, meetings, as well as other serious events that the Rivers State Branch of the Nigerian Bar Association may deem fit to hold intermittently.
To strengthen the judicial work force, approval was given for the recruitment of staff to fill existing vacancies in the judiciary, this will in turn improve service delivery in the judiciary.
Most worthy of note is the important aspect of granting the judiciary financial autonomy, a gesture that will make the judiciary dispense justice without fear or favour. By this act, the judiciary is now self accounting in the current dispensation as they administer funds released to them from the consolidated revenue fund, this is commendable.
The Ministry of Justice which is an arm of the Judiciary has also recorded notable achievements in the last two years, they are saddled with the responsibility of executing the policies and programmes of the state government as it concerns the rule of law and the administration of justice.
This, they have achieved in many ways, such as actively defending and concluding many high level cases in the different courts within and outside the state, thereby reducing liability on the state government.
The government also set up Administrative Panel of Inquiry into Chieftaincy Classification in the State, with a view to re-classifying them, thereby correcting the anomalies existing before the setting up of the Administrative Panel.
The supervision of the issue of the White paper of the recommendation of the judicial commission of the Sale of Assets in the state by the previous Administration.
It also initiated a judicial Commission of Inquiry to investigate killings and violence and other related matters as it concerns the December 10 re-run elections.
Ensured pardon for nine convicted inmates through the Prerogative of mercy Committee in the state.
Influenced, granted and signed 328 applications for reduced time and consent for land and mortgage transactions.
The construction of New Nigerian Bar Association Law Centre was supervised by the Ministry of Justice.
They have also successfully hosted various conferences as well as national Executive Committee meetings, like the NBA NEC meeting 2015, International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) NEC meeting/Annual General Meeting, Magistrates Association of Nigeria Conference 2016.
The Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (UK) Nigeria Branch Conference 2016 etc.
The judiciary also successfully enacted some Executive, bills, such as the Rivers State University Law that changed the name from Rivers State University of Science and Technology to the Rivers State University. The Rivers State University Teaching Hospital law, The Reserve Fund Law, which was repealed, the Return of Schools Amendment, which empowers the state to provide financial support to the returned schools. The Amendment of the Chieftaincy Law, the Anti-kidnap Law. The Repeal of the High Court law, which empowers the Chief Registrar to exercise the powers and functions of the Chief Judge. The Port Harcourt Polytechnic , The Ignatius Ajuru University of Education Amendment Law 2016 and the Rivers State Administration of Criminal Justice Law of 2015.
With these notable strides in the judiciary, there is hope that the dispensation of justice and other judicial activities in the state judiciary will be free, fair and quick.