An Overview of Nigeria Case Management: Judicial/Legal/Research Assistants in Perspective by Najeeb Mahmoud, Esq.

Introduction

Case management generally connotes the entire set of actions that acourt takes to monitor and control the progress of a case, from initiation through trial or other disposition to the completion of all post-disposition court work, to ensure that justice is done properly [1] .

Courts have been adopting several methods in the effort to improve efficiency, service delivery and dispose of cases promptly. Over time, this effort of improving efficiency and case disposition in a timely manner resulted in the development of several case management techniques and their operational procedures. Judicial Assistants are necessary in facilitating such techniques.

Around the globe, the negative aspects mentioned most frequently in diagnosing the systems of court administration are delays, uncertainty, excessive complexity and inaccessibility. In some legal systems, most of the proposed solutions are almost always to increase the number of judges, administrators, and equipment, or to write new codes.

Frequently, it is believed that these measures will automatically produce the expected results. Meanwhile, the size and structure of the Judicial Branch grows irrationally, creating new conflicts and new difficulties. [2]

However, a great many of the problems are rooted in the models for managing and handling cases. Many of the changes that could resolve these problems could be generated from inside the Judicial Branch without necessary recourse to legislative reform. [3]

The American legal system was the first to introduce clerical help of trained personnel to lend assistance to judges in researching legal opinions due to the increasing number of backlogs in the 19th century.[4] For clarity purposes, it should be noted that these trained personnel need not to be legal practitioners but should at least have some certain form of high school education.[5] They were commonly referred to as law clerks in the US but termed differently in some areas that borrowed the practice of engaging their services. In the United Kingdom they are commonly identified as Judicial Assistants while in places like Australia they are termed as Judicial Associates.[6] Their terminology may differ according to different corners of the globe but their functions and the purpose for which the judiciary employed them remain the same.

In Nigeria, the terminology is used interchangeably but to avoid confusion and intricacies we shall refer to them in this paper as “Judicial Assistants”. 

It wasn’t until quite recently that the Nigerian Legal System joined the trend of engaging young lawyers to lend assistance to judges with the aim of reducing backlogs and improving efficiency to the legal system. It wasn’t until quite recently that the Nigerian Legal System joined the trend of engaging young lawyers to lend assistance to judges with the aim of reducing backlogs and improving efficiency to the legal system.

Definition of Terms

According to Justice H.A.L Balogun, in his book titled Court Case Management (A Handbook for Judges of Lower Courts), “Case flow management” is defined as the coordination of court processes and resources to move cases in a timely manner from filing to disposition to assure that justice is provided in a prompt and affordable manner.[7]

According to Wikipedia, “Case management” refer to a subset of law practice management and cover a range of approaches and technologies used by law firms and courts to leverage knowledge and methodologies for managing the life cycle of a case or matter more effectively. Generally, the terms refer to the sophisticated information management and workflow practices that are tailored to meet the legal field’s specific needs and requirements.[8]

“Judicial Assistant” on the other hand, sometimes referred to as Legal Assistant, Research Assistant, Research Associate, or Law Clerk is a state employee who performs administrative tasks for federal or state judges. The duties associated with this career can vary based on where the assistant works, but they may include making copies, transcribing court correspondence, drafting court documents, filing documents etc.[9]  

Importance of Case Management

Case management is one of the main management activities used within courts around the globe. It is aimed at improving the primary processes of courts, which is processing filed cases to adjudication. The procedure for managing filed cases from initiation to conclusion connotes a series of processes, which judges embark upon until final determination of the case. Therefore, it is a means to pursue the institutional mission of resolving disputes with due process and in a due time. Case management is not only relevant for courts with backlogs but also courts that are not currently experiencing delays or backlogs. 

Effective use of case management techniques and practices improves the efficiency in the use of justice system resources, hence reducing the costs of justice operation. By reducing the time required for resolving disputes, the appropriate use of case management may also help build public confidence in the effectiveness of the courts and the accountability of judges.[10]

The principle of fair hearing within a reasonable time contained in the
1999 Constitution [12] is apt in emphasizing the importance of Case Management.

Recounted by the former Administrator of the National Judicial Institute, Justice Olatawura (JSC as he then was) was a classic case of delay which he narrated he received as a court clerk in 1957 and was reassigned the same case as a judge in 1971, 14 years later.[13]

Deducing from the above discussions, we learn that two (2) fundamental issues are salient in projecting the importance of case management in Nigeria. Those issues are:

  • Timely Disposition of Cases
  • Preservation of the Sanctity of Courts

TIMELY DISPOSITION OF CASES

Timely disposition of cases not only uphold the principle of fair hearing but also builds the citizen’s confidence in the judiciary. As a public institution, the courts must be accountable for their use of a nation’s resources. The institutional independence of the judiciary from political influences and the decisional independence of individual judges in specific cases are intended not for the personal benefit of judges, but for the benefit of the society as a whole and of all those who come before the courts. Indeed, the very legitimacy of government as a whole can be powerfully reinforced by the effective operation of an independent judiciary.[14]

Therefore, the independence of the judiciary is not likely to be achieved if a court does not manage itself, measure its performance[15] accurately, and account publicly for its performance. If a court has the leadership and commitment required for the successful introduction of case flow management improvement efforts, an important element of day-to-day court leadership will be to do the actual management of all its cases. 

If one of the objectives of court and case flow management is to promote “prompt” justice, then it is desirable to have measures of what constitutes “prompt” justice. 

Preservation of the Sanctity of Courts

Because the judicial branch relies heavily on public support to perform its role in our system of government, public trust and confidence is a precious commodity for the courts. While most people have at least a moderate amount of trust in the courts, this is unequally distributed, as less privilege members of the society tend to express less confidence due to their assessment of fairness within court procedures.[16] Furthermore, contact with the courts appears to make very little difference in court perception, as most opinions about the courts appear to come from the media, including news reports and television dramas.

Similarly, a sluggish court gives an impression of incompetence or laziness when there is a consistent rise in the number of backlogs. In such situations the sluggish nature of how the court handles cases affects litigants adversely. This provokes an impenitent loss of confidence in the judiciary, which may not be recovered easily. Without a doubt this conforms to the saying of popular French novelist who opined that;

“To distrust the judiciary marks the beginning of the end of society. Smash the present patterns of the institution, rebuild it on a different basis but don’t stop believing in it.”[17] -Honore Balzac, quoted in 0. KIRCHHEIMER, POLITICAL JUSTICE 175 (196I). 

Where however cases are decided more quickly, the results will be more apparent. The public will build confidence in a judiciary that carries out its functions promptly and effectively. People will know they can always rely on the courts as the last hope of the common man.

The Need for Judicial Assistants in Nigeria Judiciary

The first aspect that determines the judicial assistants’ role is the

reasoning behind employing them. With regard to U.S. law clerks, the rise in caseloads is the most frequently cited reason for the creation of law clerk positions and for continuing to expand their number.[18] It is also cited as a motivation for the increased allocation of duties to law clerks. This is essentially a motive based on efficiency, as employing assistants is assumed to save judges time. It enables them to handle more cases than would be possible without assistance. A backlog of applications for leave to appeal was also cited as the main reason for starting to employ Judicial Assistants in England and Wales.[19] The Dutch judiciary is increasingly focused on the efficiency of adjudication too and the creation of models with which to delineate the time that judges and assistants spend on cases reveals a consciousness about the economic benefits of employing assistants. 

The reasoning behind employing Judicial Assistants in the Nigerian judiciary is not far fetched. It came about due to the increased workload the courts faced and the associated delays in judicial action. This made the employment of personnel, learned in the area of law quite necessary. They were for that purpose employed to assist judges in conducting legal research, drafting orders and opinions, proof- reading drafts of the judge’s orders and opinions, editing and verification of citations and generally assisting the judge during courtroom proceedings. As their functions are not contained in any statutory document,[20] their duties are not definite, and therefore the Judicial Assistants sometimes assist in library maintenance, document assembly, and run some personal errands for the judge. They also attend conferences in chambers with the counsels in a case and also engage in conferences and discussions with the judge regarding pending cases.[22]

They also offer valuable assistance by spotting the most important issues of a case, summarize the arguments, give an impression of which arguments are most persuasive, and thus identify the aspects of a case that should have an impact on the final decision. With this assistance, the judge can get to the heart of the case and be prepared to highlight the most important issues at oral argument or at a conference afterwards.

A Judicial Assistant performing such functions renders a valuable service, but it is hardly the equivalent of decision-making. After cases are argued, it is the judge who casts the vote on a tentative disposition, based partly upon a Judicial Assistants impressions and recommendations, but more dis- positively upon the judge’s review of the briefs and related materials, oral argument, and, ultimately, his own conclusions. 

It should however, be noted that the work done by Judicial Assistants is supervised, approved, and adopted by the judges who initially authorized it. A judicial opinion is not that of the Judicial Assistant, but of the judge. Judicial Assistants are simply extensions of the judges at whose pleasure they serve. [22]

Role Judicial Assistants

Though Judicial Assistants have no statutorily defined duties they serve at the direction of the judge and perform a broad range of duties. Such duties may differ according to each judge’s directive, but generally Judicial Assistants perform administrative tasks to help judges manage their workload and court schedule. 

Primarily Judicial Assistants perform complex paralegal and legal secretarial support to judges. They edit, proofread, and reviews opinions and court orders for correctness with respect to grammar, spelling, punctuation, content, and organization. They calendar cases for oral argument. Prepares final opinions by checking facts referenced against all documents from the lower court such as the clerk’s and reporter’s transcripts, administrative record, exhibits, and correspondence.

They also verify legal authorities cited using resources found in the law library and computer data bases such as state and federal statutes, textbooks, handbooks, restatements, and legislative intent materials. They proofread and carefully inspect galley proofs of all published opinions for complete accuracy. Maintains and updates chambers library. Organizes and routes work, sets priorities, and follows up to ensure coordination and completion of assigned work. They exercise skill in setting priorities that accurately reflect the importance of assigned responsibilities. They work closely with Clerk’s Office and file room staff to ensure that materials are received and sent out in timely fashion.[23] 

They may also be responsible for managing scheduled trials, motions and court hearings, as well as supervising interns, volunteers or other judicial assistants. Some judicial assistants draft basic court documents to be reviewed and approved by the judge, such as notices that a hearing is scheduled or that another document has been received.[24]

Future Role of Judicial Assistants

Recently, the Nigerian Judiciary has taken strides in embracing appropriate technologies that are believed to further eliminate backlog of cases and consolidate ease of access to information within the judiciary. With the help of the United States National Centre for State Courts, a non for profit making organization set up by the state courts of the United States to support their functions, the Nigerian Judiciary obtained a Case Management System Software whose proprietary equivalent is worth over $48 million.

The software is meant to automate processes pertaining to filing of cases, case assignments, delivery of judgments and generation of statistics and reports. The Case Management Software is presently in 3 modules. The Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal Modules: fully customized but yet to be commissioned at the moment, and the Trial Court Module (Federal High Court, Industrial Court and High Court). 

Once fully deployed and commissioned, the Case Management System will automate case flow management in the courts and will ensure a safe, smooth and secure electronic exchange of documents between the different levels of courts. On the other hand this automation will provide Judicial Assistants a rapid shift from the conventional method of pen and paper tracking system using the case log to electronic case tracking, electronic service of court processes and accessing automated cases from case files. Furthermore, additional categories of case information are entered into the system to provide judges, judicial assistants and other staff with more detail on case progress and case events.[25]

Here, Judicial Assistants are offered the opportunity through this novel medium to synchronize the case management system software with their calendar and activate their reminder where necessary on their mobile phones or other devices for ease of work. Another cutting edge solution conceived to address the perennial problem of service of notices and other processes of courts is the introduction of Legal Email Software by the judiciary, aimed at providing official E-mail accounts for all Judicial Officers, Court Staff, and all Legal Practitioners.[26]

The main purpose is to facilitate service of court processes and ultimately electronic-filing of cases. The legal email functions along side with the Nigerian Case Management System Software in the sense that it affords judicial officers, court staff and all legal practitioners an extra edge of access to things the public may not be able to go beyond. Like the filing of cases via the Nigerian Case Management System Software, tracking of the status of cases, service of court processes via the e-mail and direct access to communication with court staff.

This will not only aid seamless communications between the courts and court users but will substitute the conventional means of service of court processes which could save time, cost and substituted services. The email comes along with a feature that notifies the court when service of court processes is delivered and when the recipient of court processes has received (read) the mail. Thereby giving the court the opportunity of generating proof of service containing the date and time the process is served.

CONCLUSION

To be able to design changes from within, it is necessary to have basic Statistical information available that can be analyzed jointly by judges and administrators, and be compared to experiences in other jurisdictions. The Judicial Branch should devise a means of constantly analyzing its administration, and look for a way of improving it, while imparting justice at the same time. 

Increasing productivity and efficiency requires the redefinition of each one of the tasks, eliminating unnecessary procedures, and making technology, which is increasingly accessible, available to the administration of justice. It is also necessary to improve mechanisms of control, streamline judicial proceedings, and facilitate communication. 

In many instances, the reform of judicial administration requires changing the judge’s role in the process. These changes arise generally from new procedural norms, but in some cases it is also possible to change the frequency, intensity, impact, and the way judges can intervene, by modifying the guidelines on case management and the information flow in the judiciary, thereby achieving greater control of the process.[27] 

In this field, the concrete objectives of judicial reform aim at reducing delays and Case backlogs, improving case management and follow-up, and identifying the problems or types of cases that occur most frequently so that special or automated procedures can be developed for them.[28] 

Another vital issue judicial assistants ought to be very mindful of at all times is the fact that as court employees, they are bound by all the articles contained in the Code of Conduct for Court Employees. Therefore, the issue of confidentiality is fundamental in discharging their official responsibilities. Once handled loosely, it could utterly mar the administration of justice as can be seen in recent times. Allegations and counter allegations spewing of leakages in judgments of mostly high profile cases and election petitions.

Though, mostly unsubstantiated, nevertheless situations abound were judicial panels had to be dissolved and reconstituted for cases to begin ab initio. The effects of such eventuality are not only devastating to case management in the administration of justice but to the litigants and confidence of the public towards having a simple fast and efficient justice system.  

Similarly, the judiciary is aware of the challenges Judicial Assistants face in the discharge of their responsibilities and it nevertheless remained committed to foster a better working condition to its employees despite challenges of inadequate allocations to meet its running costs and lack of financial autonomy in state judiciaries. But it should also be noted that there are enormous competing interests that take precedence in the administration of justice. I therefore, make bold to say despite all the challenges we must do our utmost best to ensure that cases are managed appropriately and timely. 

Finally, it is my humble opinion that the Judiciary ought to consider for judicial appointments from the pool of Judicial Assistants who have been working closely and mentored by judicial officers of superior courts of record for the overall improvement of the justice sector in Nigeria.

Thank you.


Endnotes

  1. Resource Guide On Strengthening Judicial Integrity and Capacity – United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime-December 2011, pg. 43.
  2. Nigeria Case Management System, By Mahmud Adamu, Assistant Chief Programme Analyst, At The National Workshop for Information and Communication Technology Staff, 24 th May 2017
  3. Case Management and Reform in the Administration of Justice in Latin America, Carlos G Gregorio, Inter-American Development Bank, Washington DC. May 19-22 1966.
  4. The Power of Judicial Assistant/ Law Clerks: Looking behind the Scenes At Courts in the United States, England and Wales, and the Netherlands, by Nina Holvast, Vol. 7 No. 2, March 2016ISSN 2156-7964URL: http://www.iacajournal.org Cite this as: DOI: http://doi.org/10.18352/ijca.200
  5. Judicial Assistant to A Supreme Court Justice by State of California Judicial Branch, Supreme Court, Class Code:2368, January 1999. http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/APPspec-2368.pdf .
  6. The Role of Judicial Research Assistants in supporting the Decision Making Role of the Irish Judiciary –
  7. Genevieve Coonan, 2006. Pg 172. 7 Court Case Management ( A Handbook of Judges of Lower Courts), By Justice H.A.L Balogun,
  8. Legal Case Management, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_case_management, this page was last edited on 27 June 2017, at 12:14.
  9. Essential Information on Judicial Assistants, http://study.com/articles/Judicial_Assistant_Job_Description_Duties_and_Salary.html
  10. Differentiated Use of Electronic Case Management Systems by Erwin J. Rooze- International Journal for Court Administration/ November 2010 –ISSN 2156-7964
  11. Resource Guide of Strengthening Judicial Integrity and Capacity- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime-December 2011, pg. 44.
  12. Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution.
  13. Court Case Management – A Handbook for Judges of Lower Courts, by Justice H. A. L Balogun. Pg. 9
  14. Time Standards As A Court Management Tool: The Experience in American State and Local Trial Courts, By David C. Steelman, National Center for State Courts (NCSC) 2, International Journal for Court Administration, 2010, https://www.google.com.ng/urlsa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=6&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=z87Ez7zVAhUDIlAKHaBeCaoQFghAMAU&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.iacajournal.org%2Farticle%2Fdownload%2F37%2F21%2F&usg=AFQjCNHQgReII93BZlI9Pi9-WfYtJW_GJg
  15. NCSC and Bureau of Justice Assistance, United States Department of Justice, Trial Court Performance Standards with Commentary (1990), Pg. 18
  16. Public Trust and Confidence- Resource Guide, National Center for State Courts, http://www.ncsc.org/Topics/Court-Community/Public-Trust-and-Confidence/Resource-Guide.aspx
  17. Public Confidence in the Judiciary: Some Notes and Reflections, By Arthur Selwyn Miller, http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3277&context=lcp
  18. The Role of Judicial Research Assistants in supporting the Decision Making Role of the Irish Judiciary –Genevieve Coonan, 2006. Pg 173.
  19. Ibid 5.
  20. Application of Professional Ethics and Code of Conduct to Judicial/Legal/Research Assistants As Court Employees, By Gilbert Tor, Deputy Director of Research, National Judicial Institute. A paper presented at The National Workshop for Legal/Research/Judicial Assistants, July 2016
  21. The Role of Judicial Research Assistants in supporting the Decision Making Role of the Irish Judiciary Genevieve Coonan, 2006
  22. The Role of Judicial Research Assistants in supporting the Decision Making Role of the Irish Judiciary –Genevieve Coonan, 2006. Pg 177. (839 F.2d 37(2d Cir.1988), at 40
  23. Judicial Assistant, State of California Judicial Branch, Class Code 2360, January 1999. http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/APPspec-2360.pdf site visited 28/07/2017 at 13:15 pm
  24. The Role of Judicial Research Assistants in supporting the Decision Making Role of the Irish Judiciary –Genevieve Coonan, 2006. Pg 177. (839 F.2d 37(2d Cir.1988)
  25. Resource Guide of Strengthening Judicial Integrity and Capacity- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime-December 2011, pg. 55
  26. Nigeria Case Management System, By Mahmud Adamu, Assistant Chief Programme Analyst, At The National Workshop for Information and Communication Technology Staff, 24 th May 2017
  27. The Role of Judicial Research Assistants in supporting the Decision Making Role of the Irish Judiciary – Genevieve Coonan, 2006. Pg 177. (839 F.2d 37(2d Cir.1988)
  28. Case Management and Reform in the Administration of Justice in Latin America, Carlos G Gregorio, Inter-American Development Bank, Washington DC. May 19-22 1966.

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