*Photo:A cross section of Federal High Court judges with the Chief Judge, Justice John Tsoho and former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen at the church service to mark the 50th Anniversary of the court*
*Photo L-R:Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola and Chief Judge of Federal High Court, Justice John Tsoho during the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the court in Abuja*
The Federal High Court (FHC) which was established on April 13, 1973, is one of the Federal superior Courts of record in Nigeria.
It has coordinate jurisdiction with the High Courts of the States of the Federation, including FCT and is located in Shehu Shagari Way, Central District Abuja.
According to the Federal Government Official Gazette No. 62, Vol. 60 dated Nov. 29, 1973, the court began with five pioneering judges.
They included Justice Jemonu Omoigberai Eboh; Justice Adeitan Ayinde Adediran; Justice Mahmud Babatunde Belgore, Justice Frederick Okwudi Anyaegbunam and Justice Sigismund Olanrewaju Lambo as president of the court.
The court was, however, renamed the “Federal High Court” by Section 228 (1) and 230 (2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1979.
While Justice Lambo was the first president of the then FRC and served between 1973 and 1975, Justice John Tsoho is the 10th and current head of FHC, now known as chief judge (CJ).
Speaking during the celebration of the 50th anniversary, the CJ of the FHC, Justice Tsoho, said the occasion was an opportunity to felicitate with one another, “as we reflect on the milestones achieved this far within the 50 years of the court’s existence.”
He said the initial lofty idea which started in Lagos in 1973 had grew and metamorphosed into FHC whose jurisdiction had increased tremendously over the years.
Tsoho, who commended the efforts of those who championed the enhanced jurisdiction of the court from what it was when it was established, said the enhanced jurisdiction did not just come on a platter of gold.
“It is a product of positive, persistent and consistent efforts by those who believed in what the court could offer,” he said.
The CJ took the audience through a brief history of the court, the giant strides made and its efforts to achieve excellence.
“The FRC was then saddled with handling cases and matters relating only to the revenue of the Federal Government of Nigeria, more particularly customs and excise duties, banking, foreign exchange, taxation of companies, currency and fiscal measures.”
According to him, the court was also conferred with jurisdiction to hear and determine cases and matters arising from the operations of the Companies Decree 1968 as well as enactments relating to copyright, patents and designs, trademarks and merchandise marks and admiralty.
“However, upon the return to civil rule and under the 1979 Constitution, the Federal Revenue Court came to be known and called the Federal High Court of Nigeria.
“Matters hitherto handled by the Federal Revenue Court, thenceforth fell squarely upon the Federal High Court,” he said.
Tsoho stated that the jurisdiction of the court was at different times expanded in 1993 by Decree No. 107, as well as in 1999 by Decree No. 60 of 1999.
“Presently, Section 251 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, (as amended) prescribes the exclusive jurisdiction of the court,” he added.
He said the court had recorded huge growth and is now a significant pillar in the hierarchy of the Nigerian judiciary.
“It is noteworthy that this court which started in Lagos with one court and five judges, now has 38 judicial divisions with 95 judges.
“Since its inception, the court has recorded huge growth and is now a significant pillar in the hierarchy of the Nigerian judiciary.
“From the pioneer five judges, the court now can appoint a maximum of one hundred judges.
“The court moved to its present headquarters in Abuja in 2010 and now owns court buildings in all the 36 states of Nigeria,” he said.
Tsoho said another most significant and indeed a remarkable achievement was about 95 per cent completed ultra-modern 20-courtroom complex on Bourdillon Road, Ikoyi, Lagos.
According to him, the court complex will be made ready for commissioning soon.
He acknowledged the sacrifices and contributions of all the chief judges, serving and retired judges, those alive and those that had proceeded to the great beyond.
“What we enjoy today as the premier court was actually voted against by the conference of Chief Justices of Nigeria.
“It is little wonder that the court continues to attract envy and antagonism from various quarters, perhaps due to our unique and expansive jurisdiction.
“I make bold to say however, that the Federal High Court has used these oppositions to spur it to greater height in the judiciary and has become the premier court in Nigeria,” he said.
The CJ said though the court had never at anytime solicited or canvassed for increased jurisdiction, he stated that it was the lawmakers, as representatives of the people, who in their wisdom, heaped jurisdiction on the court.
“Therefore, for us in the Federal High Court, this feature is a reflection of acceptance and commendation of the court’s performance by the Nigerian people.
“For instance, Sections 295 (5) and 84 (14) of the Electoral (Amendment) Act, 2022 have foisted exclusive jurisdiction on the Federal High Court in respect of pre-election cases, which hitherto, were entertained by the State High Courts and the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory.
“It is understood that this law was deliberately designed by the political class to cure a vexed mischief.
“Thus, those who have launched sustained scathing criticism about the expansive jurisdiction of this court should deeply reflect on this particular development,” he enjoined.
He said the court had faced difficulties and likewise, welcomed change during the previous 50 years, developing as a pillar of justice in the country.
According to him, the court has had a significant influence on how the law is interpreted; how the legal system is shaped, and how justice is dispensed and perceived.
Various chief judges of the court had made series of rules of the court, practice directions and innovations as a guide and to ensure speedy and quality administration of justice in the court.
Justice Tsoho is not left out in this feat.
Tsoho said in the year 2020, when the world was ravaged by the coronavirus, he promptly issued a Practice Directions for the COVID-19 period.
This, he said, was to ensure that the FHC was not shut down during the period.
“Issuance of Practice Directions for the exemption of payment of Default Fees for filing of Court processes during the prolonged JUSUN strike.
“Issuance of Practice Directions on payment of default fees on late filing of fundamental rights enforcement court processes.
He said he released Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) Practice Directions in 2020, a Practice Direction on Pre-Election Matters in 2022, a Practice Direction on Tax Appeal Cases and Practice Directions on Trial of Terrorism Cases, 202, among others, to ensure quick dispensation of justice.
The CJ said he equally designated courts for expedited dispensation of matters relating to AMCON, Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) and Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
He said the special task force set up to handle the influx of pre-election matters, in the build-up to the 2023 general elections, was a timely intervention that saved the country from a possible political collapse.
“A special task force has recently been set up to handle the trial of terrorism cases,” he added.
He said from landmark judgments to progressive legal reforms, the court had been at the forefront of legal innovation, setting standards that inspire and guide the legal community.
“The court has evolved from a one specialty court to a world standard court, adjudicating justice on matters constitutionally placed before it.
“We have infused technology into our system of operating and we are still in the process of introducing several other innovations.”
Tsoho said as part of the growth, the court introduced e-filing system, changed the orthodox notice period to electronic display system on all the floors of the court with verbatim reporters, known as stenographers, now deployed and used in the courtrooms.
“The Federal High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules 2019 is a fundamental milestone in dispensing justice. We have also established Alternative Dispute Resolution Centre.”
The CJ, who recalled the very first case filed in the precursor court in Lagos in 1973, said presently, 12, 870 cases were disposed of, in the 2022/2023 Legal Year of the court.
He said as against the five judges that pioneered the court, the FHC now had 95 judges, the highest number since its inception, to ease the ever-growing workload of the court.
He restated his desire of taking the number to the maximum limit of 100 judges.
“I therefore urge us that just like Caesar’s wife, we must strive to be beyond suspicion.
“We must dispense justice with integrity and without bias; we must display utmost competence and courage as well as dispose of cases speedily,” he urged brother judges.
An Abuja-based legal practitioner, Yunusa Ibrahim, described the 50 years of FHC in justice delivery as a milestone in the administration of justice.
He said the court had contributed in no small measure to justice delivery through its several judgments and decisions.
Besides, Josephine Ijekhuemen, also a legal practitioner, said the importance of the court in the Nigerian judiciary cannot be over-emphasised.
She said due to its indispensable role, the new Electoral (Amendment) Act, 2022, conferred additional jurisdiction on the FHC to hear and determine pre-election complaints.
Ijekhuemen said the court had become a beacon of hope for those seeking justice, a guardian of the constitution, and a defender of the rule of law.
The President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr Yakubu Maikyau, SAN, also commended the judges in their effort at delivering justice.
He said it was, however, disheartening that Nigerians, as a result of the action of some members of the bar, had continued to cast aspersion on the judiciary.
“We have failed in our responsibility in providing direction to the people of this country with respect to the things that the courts do,” he said.
Maikyau, therefore, called on members of the bench to ensure that appropriate punishment is meted out to any erring lawyer culpable of such misconduct.
Speaking on behalf of the body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, Mr Alex Iziyon, SAN, urged judges of the court not to be afraid to be dynamic.
“I call on you judges to be creative and stand tall to the call of duty. Where reforms are required, do not be afraid to take up innovations that will speed up the dispensation of justice,” Iziyon said.
The Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mr Lateef Fagbemi, SAN, enjoined the judges to reaffirm their commitment to upholding the ideals of justice, integrity and the rule of law.
“Let us envision a Federal High Court that will continue to be a beacon of excellence, the principles of ideas and a haven for jurisprudential growth,” he said.
Fagbemi, represented b Mr Alkali Tijani-Gazali, SAN, commended the judges of the court for their dedication and commitment to the justice system, while acknowledging the significant challenges faced by them.
According to him, while you are confronted with voluminous workload, your diligence, dedication and unwavering commitment in upholding the law have remained resolute.
On his part, the Archbishop of the Catholic Diocese of Abuja, Ignatius Kaigama, urged them to always deliver justice with the fear of God.
Kaigama gave the advice while delivering his message at the FHC’s 50th Anniversary Thanksgiving Service at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Maitama, Abuja.
Kaigama, who was represented by Rev. Father Christopher Nnubia, the Judicial Vicar of Catholic Church in Abuja, urged the judges to be committed to discharging justice in the face of challenges.
He said it was their responsibility to give hope to the hopeless and strengthen the weak in the society.
“It is your responsibility to make firm the feeble knees.
“And as you do that, you need to do that with the fear of God knowing that at the end of the world, we will give account to the divine judge where we will render account of what we have done,” Kaigama enjoined.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, who described the FHC as the largest court in Nigeria, said it was the best of the courts of trial.
“The jurisdiction of the court has kept being expanded. It is the only court that has originating jurisdiction on electoral matters,” he restated.
He said though FHC was not the only federal court, it was, however, the best of the federal courts.
Justice Ariwoola stated this while declaring open the 50th Anniversary Lectures of the court in Abuja.
He advised the judges not to take their appointment for granted, urging them to be hardworking and diligent in justice delivery.
“Anyone that is lucky to be appointed to this court, without mincing words, is indeed very lucky and should not take that for granted.
“I implore you all to please continue to work very hard; work hard and harder and go extra mile each time.
“Do not assume that what then are the gentlemen at the appellate court doing. No, let that (appellate) court affirm your decisions.
“Always write your judgments that the appellate court will have no choice than to affirm your decisions.
“Don’t leave any loophole,” he said.
According to CJN, to be a judge, certainly, is not a child’s play, particularly at your court where you don’t sit as panel; you sit as a lone ranger.
“You sit all alone, you are the lord of the court. Please, always go extra mile even in what you consider a simple application.
“It is your court. You are not there to impress anyone at all. If you need to take a break to consult your note, to consult your books before you rule, no application by counsel is simple.
“Make relevant consultations and come to give your ruling,” he said.
Ariwoola, who said the judges should not feel threatened if lawyers opted to go on appeal, said “an appeal is an entitlement.
“That is what the Appeal Court is there for.”(NAN)