For as long as society has existed, conflict has equally existed in tandem. Flashback to the garden of Eden, God was the unbiased judge in the dispute between the Serpent on the one hand and Adam and Eve on the other.
Arguments from both sides were heard, judgement was given, and then enforced. And that was the first court case.
Before colonial rule introduced a formal system for handling dispute resolution in Nigeria, there was a communal system in place for dealing with conflicts.
The communities at the time were headed by Chiefs and Obas and had a value system that guided their dealings. And though there weren’t written laws, members of the community knew what went against custom.
Leaders in the community heard and settled disputes between disagreeing parties. There was a fair system where punishments were meted out for wrongdoings and accepted by the parties involved.
After colonization, a more formal judicial system was established. Laws started getting codified. We had the Constitution and today, we have different sets of laws that guide our operations as a nation.
Dispute resolution got a little bit more complicated. The laws became technical and to a largely illiterate society, unknown.
There became a need for a professional third party, who is learned in the law to make representations in court before a judge. The lawyer is expected to know the laws, understand the doctrines of court, and argue his client’s case capably before a judge. The judge is also no longer just an ‘elder’ in the society, but someone who himself is learned in the law and expected to dispense justice after hearing all the facts of the case from both sides.
Dispute resolution was no longer informal and self-representation was no longer encouraged. The society has expanded and evolved very quickly, faster than the system put in place to guide it.
As the society grew and human relationships got even more complicated, the judicial system got clogged and weighed down by the bulk of cases at its door and gradually, only a few cases were seen to a fair conclusion. Cases are more likely to languish in the hallowed chambers of the court, pass through several judges, and ultimately get lost.
The limitations of the court system became apparent and this necessitated seeking an alternative to going to court and waiting endlessly for justice to be served.
Recourse was made to Alternative Dispute Resolutions (ADR), reminiscent of a simpler time when matters were settled between parties by an unbiased umpire without too many legalities.
These alternatives include Arbitration, Conciliation, Negotiations, and Mediation and though ADR is a commendable option, it has its limitations.
There are certain cases that are beyond the purview of ADR – criminal cases, cases that involve any arm of the government, election cases, custody matters in matrimonial disputes.
This means that these cases still have to be heard by a judge with the relevant jurisdiction.
As noble as ADR is, it still isn’t accessible to everyday Nigerians, who seek redress for the injustice they have suffered.
Here is where the small claims court comes in. Lagos state has established the small claims court as an informal, inexpensive, speedy option for disputes centered around recovery of debts of up to 5 million Naira. The court also encourages self-representation which reduces the cost of legal fees significantly.
The proceedings of a small claims court are presented on Judging Matters, a reality TV show currently airing at 6:00 pm on Mondays on Africa Magic Showcase (DStv Channel 151). On Judging Matters, everyday Nigerians present their cases before presiding judge, Justice Olusola Williams (Rtd.) with Ebuka Obi-Uchendu acting as Counsellor.
Disputes that have been settled on Judging Matters range from debt recovery to breach of contract.
Although the proceedings in a small claims court are semi-formal, the decisions of the court are binding. And in a judicial system where many differing parties are seeking redress, the small claims court comes as a reprieve for Nigerians who may otherwise not have such easy access to courts.
Hiring a lawyer is expensive, going through endless adjournments can be discouraging, following the slow pace of the court might not always invoke great faith in the system, but the Nigerian judicial system keeps evolving to keep with the times.
The evolution might have to occur faster to ensure that the doors of justice are always open to every Nigerian.