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Opinion: A Good Omen For The Bench

By Adewale Kupoluyi – Recently, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed, disclosed that the era of appointing persons considered to be unfit, questionable and improper as judges had gone. He said the National Judicial Council’s newly revised guidelines of appointment of judicial officers had provided for a more detailed, robust and transparent method of appointment in the Council’s new Extant Guidelines and Procedural Rules for the Appointment of Judicial Officers of All Superior Courts of Record in Nigeria.

The Nigerian constitution generally provides that a person shall not be qualified to hold the office of head of the respective courts unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been so qualified for a certain period of time. In the new NJC guidelines, Rule 4 (i) (a) specifically provides that the candidates seeking to be appointed as judicial officers must be of good character and reputation, diligent, honest, hardworking, and versed in the knowledge of law and consistently adhering to professional ethics.

Justice Mohammed added that the new guidelines would ensure that only best legal minds with high moral standards serve as judges in our revered temples of justice. He described the guidelines as merit-based, adding that appointment of judges would no longer be based on sentimental reasons such as god-fatherism, “fraternal connections” and nepotism because the guidelines in force would provide a mechanism which would ensure that only qualified, intelligent, astute, morally sound, meritorious and deserving candidates were appointed as judges.

Due to the uniqueness in the duties of judges – administration of justice and interpretation of the laws – their mode of appointment has remained one of the most debated issues in the legal profession. Hence, selecting men and women of integrity, who would sit at the Bench to interpret the laws, uphold the rights and frameworks within which the state functions, should certainly attract more than a passing interest. To say the least, judicial corruption desecrates the temple of justice, undermines the rule of law, allows impunity to flourish, leads to unfair trials and makes fighting of corruption unnecessarily herculean and even impossible. Routine perversion of the course of justice has been damaging to the image of the judiciary.

It has been argued at various fora that the Nigerian judiciary has been compromised largely due to alleged corruption, lack of autonomy and the over-bearing influence by the government. The executive arm – both at the federal and states levels – has been largely accused of suppressing judicial independence in spite of the principles of separation of powers enshrined in our constitution and court rulings, including those of 2012 and 2013, which reaffirmed the autonomy and financial independence of the judiciary. Unfortunately, this important provision remains unimplemented.

Above all, the one of most serious devastating problems facing our Bench is corruption. This comes under various shapes and sizes in a bid to pervert justice. Nothing could be more criminal and damaging to a society than having a situation when justice is purchased by the highest bidder. For instance, judges were found to have granted frivolous orders and applications that simply lack merit. Not only that, Justice Mohammed’s predecessor, Justice Mariam Aloma-Mukhtar in 2013, had decried the prevalence of indiscipline in our courts, saying “some judges didn’t deliver up to four judgements in a year, and wouldn’t open their courts by 9am. Some even travelled abroad without permission”. Similarly, some retired senior members of the Bench, who cannot practice as lawyers again, under the guise of being “legal consultants,” allegedly became middlemen between the litigants and tribunal members, for monetary gains.

No doubt, there are many hardworking, respected and honest judicial officers in the country. Better still, many people still believe that the image and reputation of the Nigerian judiciary may not be the best at the moment. That is why the decision of the NJC to allow ordinary Nigerians to contribute to the appointment of judges, is appropriate. At this time as this would reduce the likelihood of allowing questionable characters from infiltrating our Bench. This idea is not going to be peculiar to Nigeria alone but also it is operational in other climes and democracies like the United States of America.

Beyond public advertisement in the appointment of judges, there is the need to embark on an overhaul of the system due to these observed lapses. It is not a secret that litigants still undergo excruciating delays despite the fact that they are in the courts to seek succor and be lifted out of their nightmares bearing in mind that justice delayed is justice denied. The CJN should do his best to fast-track and revive our justice delivery system. The advent of digital technology is meant to help courts around the world to deliver rulings in record time. It is imperative to modernise the system to be current with. The judicial system needs to adopt integrated technology network that will aid the judges in discharging their duties.

Nigeria should also work hard towards having a vibrant Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanism as obtainable in several European courts, as a way of decongesting the courts and seeking judicial redress. Justice Mohammed once decried the worrisome and very high volume of pending cases at the registry of the Supreme Court, which he said had 5,000 cases waiting to be decided. Not only that, cases that were instituted as far back as 2005 or even earlier, were yet to be decisively concluded!

Hence, the decision of the CJN to subject the appointment process to members of the public, is laudable. My only advice is that the process should not be allowed to go the usual way in which public advertisements are placed merely for formality sake. This is because oftentimes, job vacancies are tailored to suit preferred candidates. In otherwords, by the time the advertisement comes out, vested interests would have had their way and wrong persons get appointed at the expense of qualified and credible candidates. So, who is deceiving who? That is where the CJN would have to do more work to ensure that the lofty intention behind the reform is not defeated. Besides, members of the public should not abuse the policy by raising unsubstantiated, fictitious and malicious claims against unblemished nominees.

To clean the Augean Stable, there is an urgent need to take some radical decisions even though the problem facing our judiciary may not be fully exhausted in this piece. For example, judicial officers found culpable of abusing their positions should be investigated, put on trial and sanctioned, if found wanting as deterrent to others. The NJC should truly assist in enthroning a virile judiciary by flush-out from the Bench, judicial officers whose actions or inactions had impaired their objectivity, credibility and impartiality. The CJN should ensure that there is a pragmatic system in place that would regularly assess the performance of judicial officers with a view to identifying indolent judges who are only kept in office without justifying their pay. In addition, the CJN should ensure that previous reports of panels, committees and commissions that were constituted to look into how to transform our judiciary should be revisited for implementation, where necessary. Judicial financial autonomy should be allowed to be.

Finally, to save the system from itself, the NJC needs to weed out judges who have tainted their robes alongside other judicial personnel that have also been indicted for being accomplices in corrupt practices. When this is done, it would send the right signal that we are getting it right as a nation and this would undoubtedly go a long way in restoring public confidence in the Nigerian judiciary.

Kupoluyi writes from Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB), adewalekupoluyi@yahoo.co.uk, @AdewaleKupoluyi, adewalekupoluyi.blogspot.com


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