Frustrated by the snail's pace at which Nigerian courts operate, Bola Fajemirokun is improving the court reporting system and enabling lawyers, judges, and others to respond more effectively to pressing legal issues, especially those in the field of environmental law. In the process, she is restoring public confidence in the Nigerian judicial system.
The New Idea
A lawyer with extensive experience in litigation, Bola sees an opportunity to improve Nigeria's judicial system dramatically by developing an online database that is efficient, transparent, and accessible to public officials, researchers, lawyers, and the public. Until now, all court proceedings in Nigeria have been recorded on paper, a system that lends itself to information being lost, catalogued incorrectly, or obscured through damage and deterioration of the paper. To address these problems, which conspire to slow an already chaotic system, Bola is introducing a database that offers an appealing alternative to the existing paper-based system of keeping court records. Using the public records that she has entered into her database, judges, litigants, legal advisers, and researchers can access court records and easily and quickly reference what precedents exist to inform their work. Bola sees this database as a first fundamental step in improving the management of court records–a step that is critical to ensuring a properly functioning legal system. In part because of her professional background, Bola is working initially in the area of Nigerian environmental law, but she is developing an approach and set of tools that she plans to apply more broadly to other fields of law and in other geographic areas.
At present, all court records in Nigeria are maintained on paper. This includes proceedings from the Magistrate Courts and Federal and State High Courts, as well from appellate courts such as the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. In the absence of a national electronic database, records are misplaced or catalogued informally in ways that preclude quick access. For a legal system that relies on precedent, this is especially problematic, as inaccessible information translates into protracted and inefficient court proceedings that leave lawyers and their clients frustrated and render legal proceedings vulnerable to corruption. In some cases, poor paper quality makes records illegible. The current system does not afford prompt access to information by judges, litigants, and legal advisers–all of whom may need to conduct search inquiries. On the average, it takes over three years to conclude a claim on its merits at the trial court level. If an appeal is filed, it can take an additional six years at a minimum to come to the final appeals court, the Supreme Court. If access to information in court records is not improved through a more efficient system of document management, litigation management and legal research will continue to be adversely affected, and the public will progressively lose confidence in the judicial option.
This situation is worse for environmental cases that lack any precedent in Nigeria and are highly contentious because they often involve oil companies and their host communities. Without easy access to court proceedings, rumors of court decisions replace responsible reporting. In a few extreme cases, this has led to outbreaks of violence.
Bola's approach to improving the judiciary system has three primary thrusts: ongoing research and monitoring of the system currently in use; introduction of an effective electronic records center; and consultation with lawyers, judges, and others to bring them up to speed on using and expanding the resource database she has created.
Bola initially examined the current practices and problems of the Nigerian judiciary. Her research pointed to the clear need for an improved system of tracking information as a fundamental first step in fixing the system. Having determined the problem is widespread, she has focused her energy on compiling all environmentally relevant court documents. At present, she is doing this with a team of three professional staff, three consultants, and four support staff.
The target audience for the Web site ranges from local to international entities. It reaches researchers and attorneys in the for-profit and citizen sectors, as well as journalists, legislators, academics, students, and community groups. As an information and resource tool, the site will be useful to any member of the general public who requires information about environmental law and policy in Nigeria. She has designed a work plan and list of critical tasks and has secured cooperation from judicial authorities at the Federal High Court.
Currently, the Web site is set up as a free resource for users. However, as the site gains popularity and becomes a critical resource for all players in the process, access to certain types of information will be available on a fee basis, especially as the volume of information increases. Profits will be reinvested in the organization to cover increased administration costs and to mobilize local funding for other programs and activities.
In addition, Bola is offering consultations in the form of interactive workshops aimed at training others in how to use the resource. She and her team are disseminating knowledge and experiences in generating the Web content, training staff, and obtaining funding for other private and public sector entities who are interested in replicating the Web site initiative for other fields–for example, criminal law, human rights, civil liberties, and corporate law.Bola sees that the Web project needs the cooperation and support of public officials. Apart from obtaining official approvals, she recognizes the urgent need to catalyze improvements in information management systems in courts through better training for public officials. To meet this need, Bola plans to train public officers in the Federal High Courts.
Bola expects that her efforts will support legal reforms in environmental governance that will emphasize unrestricted access to public records and citizen participation in decision-making, and that they will rely on an independent judiciary or other alternative forms of dispute resolution. Through these efforts, Bola hopes to improve the training of public officers and the management of legal information and documents.
Bola's current interests stem from her time at the Common Wealth Secretariat in London where she worked on the harmonization of trade and investment regulations in the preferential trade areas of East and Southern African States. Upon returning to Nigeria, she cofounded the law firm Fajemirokun & Fajemirokun, which took on many cases, including those related to the environment. This exposed her to the problem of environmental pollution and degradation in the Niger-Delta region of Nigeria, making her realize that one effective way to protect the Nigerian environment was to have an efficient court system to provide quick redress to communities threatened by the harmful practices of oil companies. This need was particularly apparent when she conducted a review of oil compensation litigation records in 1999 and had to conduct searches in the registries of the Federal High Court. Getting the court records proved tedious. To overcome this, she decided to make a professional shift to the civil sector because she believed that the sector had been significantly undervalued as an engine for development in Nigeria.
To aid her current work, Bola has attended several courses, including the Harvard Business School Executive Program on Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management. She is also a member and volunteer of various citizen sector organizations including COPE, the Breast Cancer support and awareness group, and Oxfam. Based on her work in the environment, she was appointed a member of the National Committee on Forestry Policy Review and given an Award of Excellence for contributions to commerce and industry by the Akure Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture. With her background in business, law, and citizen organizations, Bola established the organization she now runs from Lagos, the NGO Development Initiatives Network.