The loss of precious time spent by litigants in court on the resolution of simple and straightforward employment disputes has finally been addressed by the new The National Industrial Court Rules of 2017. This is indeed a positive development for Nigerians. These rules underscore the importance of time management in our judicial life. You will agree that no serious businessman will like to waste the kind of time Nigerians waste in court. It is my view that we will never develop as a people if we continue to waste productive time to snail-paced judicial procedures. The National Industrial Court is waking us up to be more productive as lawyers and litigants. The recent update of the National Industrial court rules is a positive development that has infused the necessary improvement into the court system.
The NIC Rules 2017 have 67 orders in contrast to the old rules which have only 31 orders. The new rules are an expanded and innovative upgrade on the old. This way the course of justice is guaranteed.
It is my opinion that law and justice will be better served and accessed by the massive improvements contained in the new rules. The Judicial process will improve if a greater percentage of lawyers were more commercially-minded than litigation-conscious. This is not to say that the new rules are perfect. My aim is to highlight the time-saving and the productive provisions in these rules:
1. Power of Court to Fast-track Proceedings
The rules aim at fast-tracking proceedings in court by discouraging unwarranted and frivolous adjournments occasioned by counsels. Rule 1 (5) (d) Order 1 has clearly stated and empowered, via rules 4 and 5, the power of the court to fast-track hearing and determination of all processes, motions, and other applications toward the speedy dispensation of justice.
Rule 6 provides that the court shall promote settlement and reconciliation. Rules 9(1) allows the court to adopt and apply any procedure as will, in its view, do substantial justice to any of the parties concerned in the matter. Accordingly, rule 9(3) allows the court to disregard any technical irregularity which is likely to result in the miscarriage of justice. Defendant-employers usually rely on the slow judicial process to naturally weaken the resolve of a Claimant-employee from pursuing his/her claim. This hurdle has been eradicated.
2. Filing in a state even when the matter of the suit is to be heard in another state (Filing in a state different from the one in which the matter of the suit is to be heard.)
Order 2 is an extensive overhaul of the former Order 2. Under the new rules, provision is made for e-filing and allowance to file in a state other than the one in which the subject matter of the suit is to be heard. This is very innovative and will put to rest administrative bottlenecks and the frequent travel from one location to the other to file processes and other documents. I recall an incidence in which a senior associate in a firm had an accident while traveling out of the state by road to file court processes. When he informed the Principal Partner of the accident, the principal muttered: “Accident is part of the job.” This is a very backward way of practicing law. Thankfully, the NIC rules have lightened the path.
3. Matters of National Interest.
Matters that would affect our industrial life as a nation will now be given priority.
Rules 9 and 11 provides for hearing of matters of national interest which was not in the old rules.
4. Additional Contact Information
Order 4 introduces the inclusion of additional contact information of the Claimant and counsel on the statement of claim or that of any law office within the judicial division. Failure to do this may qualify to set aside the process for faulty contact information; vague; fictitious or misleading. Time and resources wasted by bailiffs in locating addresses of litigants have now been reduced by this provision.
5. Departure from the Evidence Act
Most litigants hide under the provisions of the Evidence Act to introduce senseless technicalities in order to delay proceedings. However, Rule 6(1) reiterates that the court is a court of common law and equity; in the event of a clash, equity prevails. Rule 6(2) empowers the court to depart from the Evidence Act in the interest of justice.
This provision is laudable. It allows the court to avoid some outdated provisions of the Evidence Act that may be used to go against the interest of justice.
6. “The Court is not Sitting.”
This is the most frustrating part of the life of a litigation lawyer in Nigeria. Time and again, after you have adequately prepared for a matter, you drive all the way from the chambers to the court, only to be informed by court officials that the court is not sitting. It is even more alarming to find senior advocates amused, chatting and giggling at the news that a court is not sitting as if it is alright. What a huge waste of productive time! Order 7 of the new NIC rules contains improvements made to forestall such situations – like the use of electronic mail addresses in sending processes OR NOTIFICATIONS via sms (for hearing notice), calls as well as any other electronic communication and messaging platform. We hope the court officials will live up to this provision.
7. Improving Electronic Mail Culture
Order 9 in the new rules replaces the old order 8. It provides that electronic mailing addresses and telephone numbers should be included in the memorandum of appearance. The NIC is passing a strong message to Nigerians (lawyers and litigants) that in order to be productive, you must have a functioning e-mail address that you have DAILY access to. I have heard foreigners deride Nigerians that we do not have a culture of checking or returning mails. This could be a major discouragement for foreign investors and international business partners. You must have a functioning e-mail!
8. You Should have a Will
It is ironic that Nigerians spend their productive years working for a company without any plan for their families and loved ones. Order 10 provides for the entitlement of a deceased employee who died testate. This is a humanitarian and compassionate effort. This provision allows for the payment of only 25% (twenty-five percent) filing fees for processes to claim entitlements, outstanding salary, gratuity, pension or other benefits of a deceased person. This benefit accrues to a deceased person if he had a Will before his demise. This means that by this provision, the court is encouraging you to draft your Will. The morale of this provision is that companies should encourage their staff to draft their Wills. It saves everybody’s time.
However, when you don’t have a Will, Order 11 regulates the procedure for the claim of entitlement of a deceased person who died intestate. The procedure includes the means of proving the next of kin and observing customary law as regards inheritance. There is no rebate attached to this, though. Full filing fees are to be paid.
9. Settlement is better
The new rules allow the judge to encourage an amicable settlement of matters. Order 24 provides for reference to the ADR Centre, with a 21 working days deadline and an extension of 10 days if necessary. Counsels should encourage their clients to settle where the opportunities arise. Do not waste the precious time of the court.
The conclusion of the matter is for Nigerians (Lawyers and Litigants alike) to be more conscious of time in the conduct of proceedings. The onus for decongesting the court lies equally on lawyers and litigants. We need to strive to be a developed nation and our greatest currency for development is the judicious use of our time. The National Industrial Court, by these new rules, demonstrate that it will no longer respect time wasters.
Kayode Adeniji is a legal practitioner and arbitrator. He is a Senior Partner at Lawracles LP.