The popular take out there is that adjournment of cases slated for hearing is “the unprepared” lawyer’s escape route for running away from expeditious trials.
Nigerians generally perceive lawyers who apply for adjournment of cases as lazy or unserious because it is widely believed that if the lawyer is sure about the genuineness of his client’s claim or defence, he should be anxious to prosecute the matter diligently.
While this mistaken slant remains arguable or could have been true in the times past, it is indeed not the correct storyline now given the current trajectory of the law.
The new Civil and Criminal Procedure Rules of Courts and extant Laws governing judicial proceedings do not tolerate that kind of pedestrain “escape route” again as cases must now be determined expeditiously.
The days of walking into the Court room to apply for adjournment for the sole purpose of delaying the trial are certainly over but laymen are not aware, hence this intervention.
For instance, in criminal matters, the Courts are now mandated to take on the trials from day to day under the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, (otherwise called “ACJA”) 2015.
In some civil cases, the Rules of Court or Practice Direction may also forbid interlocutory appeals like in election petition cases because they are time sensitive.
However, it is not totally correct to surmise that adjournments are applied for or granted only on frivolous grounds or as delay tactics.
Court room experience disclose that adjournments of cases can be occasioned by sundry reasons, some of which are solid, inevitable or unassailable.
First point to note is that adjournments are at the discretion of the trial Court.
This is a judicial discretion that must be exercised judiciously, that is reasonably and responsibly.
Thus, an application for adjournment by a party to a suit and its eventual grant by the Court is not automatic.
Cogent, credible and convincing reasons must be adduced by the applicant to satisfy the Court why a matter slated for trial should not go on.
If the Court is satisfied that it is in the interest of justice to grant the application, an adjournment may then be granted by the Court with or without cost or Cost may be in the Cause.
These options are all at the absolute discretion of the trial Court.
Succinctly stated, adjournment may not be frivolous in some of the following seven easily identifiable scenarios.
■ 1. Circumstances around the Judex may warrant an adjournment such as where the Court is indisposed like on health grounds (Judges and Magistrates are also human) or if he is otherwise engaged on official reasons.
■ 2. Again, the Cause List may be heavy or the Diary of the Court for the day may be full or jampacked necessitating postponement or adjournment of cases that have slim prospect of proceeding to trial to a future date.
Needless to say the energy level, motivation and comfort of the Judicial Officers are also determinant factors here because the unconducive work environment in most of our court rooms negatively affect their outputs.
■ 3. Aside the above which centre around the Judicial Officer, the necessity to comply with the sacred rule of fair hearing may also lead to an earned and lawfully unopposable adjournment.
An adjournment must be granted where it will amount to denial of the right to fair hearing under section 36 of the 1999 Constitution as amended not to do so.
■ 4. Rules of Court, Practice Direction and certain substantive laws sometimes provide timelines for completing or replying to an important part of a process after service on the other party.
Except where the Court in its infinite wisdom abridges the time with the consent of the parties, a party served processes must have the full benefit of time allowed him to respond.
The need to allow parties time to respond to processes as provided in the Rules can lead to an adjournment although an anxious party may not like it.
■ 5. Case management techniques adopted by Counsel in the matter may also lead to adjournments.
This is where experience counts!
A Plaintiff is usually more anxious than the Defendant for the case to proceed to trial especially where the Defendant is in possession of the res or subject matter of the litigation like land or other moveable property.
Where there is an order of interim or interlocutory injunction restraining parties in the matter from interfering with the subject matter in dispute, an otherwise recalcitrant Defendant may become more anxious that the matter be diligently prosecuted than the Plaintiff.
■ 6. Filing of Preliminary objections or other arresting processes may delay the commencement of hearing and this could lead to adjournments.
Of course, filing of frivolous applications including preliminary objections can also delay trials but the experienced and eagle-eyed Judicial Officer has every right to curtail time wasting tricks.
■ 7. Where Counsel on both sides are highly experienced and knowledgeable court room advocates, legal fireworks exuding from both of them, especially on novel issues, may lead to an adjournment.
At all material times, the Court is in charge of the proceedings and should be in a position to control or regulate the speed of the trial by many reasonable devices like ordering accelerated hearing, reserving ruling on preliminary objections or other forms of innocuous objections to judgement stage.
Other means include but are not limited to imposing heavy costs on the delaying party or directly on Counsel or even outrightly overruling the application for adjournment by insisting on continuing with the trial if it will not lead to miscarriage of justice or denial of the right to fair hearing.
No mattter the theatrics and drama in court during trials, the Judge never gets involved unnecessarily.
In the excersie of his adjudicatory powers, the Judge remains as patient as a dove and as wise as a serpent.
Therefore, he sees all and says little except in his considered rulings or judgements.
An application for adjournment is always an invitation to a Judicial Officer to strike a delicate balance between two contending concepts namely- justice delayed is justice denied and justice hurried is also justice denied.
The Judge applies tact and wisdom to navigate through the case of an anxious Plaintiff and a recalcitrant or halting Defendant by ensuring that though the wheel of justice may be slow, it must grind to a halt.
Whether secured as an “escape route” or on germane ground, an adjournment is a temporary delay in the proceedings or what may tantamount to merely postponing the evil day in court because justice must eventually be done even though the heavens fall and one party to the case must win and the other must lose as there is no provision for draw in judgements of the court.
Now you know…As The Court Pleases.
A new normal is possible!
*Prof Obiaraeri is my name, the ☆☆☆☆☆ 5-Star Civilian General etc.