One of the major hindrances of access to justice has always been delays. Simple matters become prolonged as a result of unforeseen circumstances and long adjournments. Delay is also used as a tactic for frustrating a claimant to eventually abandon his claim. When a matter is unnecessarily prolonged, the defendant benefits but the claimant loses interest. He becomes frustrated and dissatisfied. His witnesses becomes cold and may begin to lose interest.
This is what often encumbers the interest of prospective litigants from seeking redress from the court for justice. Hence, the introduction of small claims procedure in Lagos State by the world bank as a choker for delayed and prolonged debt recovery trials.
Although, small claims debt recovery is a court proceedings in a magistrate court, interestingly, the procedure is quite easy and faster for businesses and individuals who want to recover small and simple debts. It is often said that Justice delayed is justice denied. This dictum cannot be more true especially when it comes to the pursuit of small debts from an unyielding debtor who would rather twist the hands of justice at all cost than settle his creditor. Such megalomaniac and self serving debtors could make it a distasteful venture to opt into litigation for the recovery of debt owed. Without much consideration, most prospective litigants would hitherto abandon the course of justice and rather than proceed with a debt recovery action hang the turn of events unto the hands of faith.
However, with the small claims practice direction implemented in Lagos State under the aegis of the world bank and the presidential initiative on ease of doing business in Nigeria, the hope of litigants may have been revved up a little bit.
According to the small claims practice direction, the objective of the small claims procedure is:
to provide easy access to an informal, inexpensive and speedy resolution of simple debt recovery disputes in the Magistrates’ courts.
The word small claims as can be derived from the practice directions means a claim for a liquidated debt not exceeding N5million excluding interest and costs. Thus a prospective litigant planning to recover a debt that exceeds N5million would consider other alternatives or may be forced to concede the excess.
Taking a holistic look at the small claims practice direction, it will become very obvious that when it comes to recovery of debt, the small claims procedure is setting an unprecedented standard in the area of commencing and concluding civil suits. The reason for this assertion is simply because Article 12 (1) provides that the entire period of proceedings from filing till judgment shall not exceed sixty days. Sixty days is about two months, not too long a time for recovery of a small or meagre debt.
Also, before a matter is set down for trial, the magistrate hearing the matter must foster amicable settlement between the parties.
Article 9 (1) states that at the first appearance of the parties before the court, the Magistrate shall promote, encourage and facilitate amicable settlement of the dispute among the parties by mediating and providing settlement options to the parties as he deems fit.
If however amicable settlement fails, parties must then go into full trial.
What makes the small claims procedure a better choice?
As stated earlier, the main focus of small claims procedure is to cure the defect that comes with prolonged trial. The entire proceedings of a small claims trial ought not to last for more than thirty days from the first date of hearing. Although this is far from reality, the practice direction also provides that a decision of the court shall not be invalidated merely on grounds that it was given after the expiration of sixty days.
Also there is room for parties to represent themselves, however this may not be advisable because of the intricacies of leading evidence in a courtroom. Article 11 states that parties may testify on their own behalf and tender all necessary documents and they may call other witnesses to give evidence at the hearing. Parties who are not versed in laying foundation, tendering evidence and the general rule of admissibility and relevancy may miss certain crucial steps to their own detriment.
Thus it is expected that litigants engage the services of a legal practitioner especially once it appears that the matter will be set down for trial.
As previously mentioned, the small claims procedure is strictly for debt recovery. Thus the procedure cannot be adopted for other forms of dispute settlements. Article 3 designates the Assistant Chief Registrar or any person in charge of the small claims registry as the gatekeeper for ensuring that only matters within the limits of the provision of the practice directions are marked “qualified for small claims”.