For those observant enough to notice, a revolution is silently going on in the nation’s judiciary. One after the other, States of the Federation are announcing the establishment of Multi-Door Courthouses to supplement the work of existing conventional courts. As at the last count, more than sixteen States spread across the geographical zones have embraced this 21st Century dispute resolution strategy. I was therefore elated when a fortnight ago, the Director of the Edo State Multi-Door Courthouse (ESMDC), Mrs. Mary Itsueli sent me an invite to attend the maiden Sensitization/Public Awareness programme of the Courthouse. It was an invitation I found difficult to turn down despite other pressing engagements in Lagos. I am glad I attended the event which took place at the Conference Centre of Imaguero Girls College in Benin City and has triggered today’s discuss.
The participants at the Edo Multi-Door Courthouse meet were an interesting mix of the high and the low. The hall was packed full, spilling over to the foyer. Courts in the State Capital adjourned sitting to enable Judges to attend the programme hosted by the State’s Chief Judge Hon. Justice Esohe Ikponmwen. Other noticeable groups were members of the legislature led by the Speaker of the Edo State House of Assembly, Hon. Kabiru Adjoto, members of the Nigerian Bar Association, an array of traditional Chiefs from the Palace of the Oba of Benin and Market Women resplendently dressed in their uniform attires. Deputy Governor of the State, Rt. Hon Philip Shuaibu, represented the Governor and declared the event open.
At the question and answer session, an Enogie (Chief) of the Benin Palace, asked what perhaps is the most critical question and dilemma that confronts every new patron of mediation and or the multi-door courthouse system. He asked what to do, where for instance a respondent (defendant) desires that a matter is resolved at mediation and the claimant (plaintiff) insists on filing a lawsuit. It is a dilemma which any party to a dispute can face. Quite often it is defendants that decline mediation, knowing that they can use the complex systems of litigation to cause delays or defeat the course of justice through legal technicality. When faced with such a dilemma it is not advised that the party in dispute should directly approach his opponent for a change of heart. Emotions can flare during such contacts, leading to verbal or physical assaults. Best bet is to engage the services of a lawyer trained in mediation advocacy or directly approach the multi-door courthouse whose officials are trained to assist you to persuade the other party to try out mediation. It is also best if you approach the multi-door courthouse before your opponent files his lawsuit. Though it would appear inauspicious that you who are the respondent should be the one to drag the claimant to the courthouse, he will get to understand during the process of mediation that your action was done in good faith and intended to resolve the tension between you. Multi-Door Courthouse processes are designed to assist you to resolve your matters even where you do not have a lawyer representing you or know a thing about law.
Basically, there are three ways of commencing an action in a multi-door courthouse. The first is by a process called the ‘Walk –in’ process. In this process, the disputant or his legal representative walks into the Multi-Door Courthouse to lodge his or her case. S/he is made to pay an administrative fee and given a set of forms to fill. After this is done, the opponent is notified about the complaint and urged to respond by filling another set of forms which are forwarded to him or her along with the notification of the referral. By the way, commencing an action at a multi-door courthouse is not called a suit but a referral. There are also no plaintiffs and defendants but claimants and respondents. Therefore when the respondent returns his or her appropriately filled forms and response, a date is set aside for the first meeting. Another way by which an action may be commenced is through the process of court referral. Here a matter which is already undergoing a court trial may be referred by the Judge to mediation, where the Judge thinks it is the most appropriate way to resolve the issue. Referrals from the courts may be made independently by the judge or at the request of any party in the case, who through his lawyer requests a stay of proceedings in court to allow parties first try out amicable resolution in the multi-door courthouse. Where parties resolve at mediation, the court pronounces it as the consent judgment of the court. Where however, the mediation fails, court trial continues from where it last stopped. The third method which is rarely used is the ’Direct Intervention’ method where the multi-door courthouse is empowered to offer to assist feuding parties to resolve a case of public interest. I should not conclude this piece without a word on self-help. Although it is said that a disputant can institute a case and go through mediation without the need of a mediation advocate (lawyer trained to represent client at mediation) it is best advised that this should be done seldomly. Nothing equates professional guidance. Think through the implications of self-medication and be the judge of this position.