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Onnoghen: Stakeholders on how to transform the judiciary

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Justice Walter Onnoghen shortly being sworn in as the Chief Justice of Nigeria at State House, Abuja on Tuesday, March 7, 2017. PHOTO: TWITTER/PRESIDENCY

Unless tangible reforms are quickly done in the judiciary, it might be pretty difficult to redeem the image of the institution that used to be highly revered at home and in the sub Saharan Africa. The judiciary has been so battered that its debasement is now a public scorn. Therefore, only a state of emergency in the sector may do the magic.

It initially started as rumour that judicial officers were corrupt. Suddenly, the two most powerful judicial officer – the Chief Justice of Nigeria and the President of the Court of Appeal got embroiled in corruption and counter-corruption allegations over election petition matter. This act brought the system into public opprobrium.

Somehow, the storm was calmed and everybody moved on as if nothing happened. Though, many have argued that judicial officers are product of the corrupt society, others have taken to task the process and procedure of appointing judicial officers, as well as, the mode of disciplining corrupt and erring officers. For some, the mode of appointment needs to be more transparent with competence and integrity as the benchmark. There are also others who believe that erring judges are treated with kids gloves, as none before now has ever appeared before any court to give account of his misdeeds.

That is why Nigerians received with mixed feelings the invasion of the residences of judicial officers at midnight and the subsequent revelations that culminated in the trial of few of them today. The argument is that since the self-regulatory posture of the system was not enough to rid it off the cankerworm of corruption, other agencies of government have to step in.

Worst still, the anti-graft agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) began to identify movement of cash between sitting judges and some senior lawyers, such that some of those involved are now before the courts to answer to the charges of helping to corrupt the system.

Going by the anti-corruption mantra of today’s Federal Government and the known disposition of the man at the helm of affairs – President Muhammadu Buhari, nothing less was expected, especially with the president fingering the judiciary as the major obstacle in his bid to make the country corruption-free.

With the coming on board of a new Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, who during his screening by the Senate disclosed that he would pursue judicial reforms that would make dispensation of justice faster and rid the arm of corrupt practices, there seems to be hope. He also promised that he would maintain the independence of the judiciary.

A constitutional lawyer, Sebastine Hon (SAN) believes a specialised court for trial of corruption related matters would do the magic. By doing that, he said, there would be speedy trial of suspects, in addition to decongesting the courts. He also harped on the need to increase the salaries and emoluments of judicial officers as according to him, lower pays increase the tendency to be corrupt.

He said: “I will suggest that we create specialised court for the trial of corruption related matters. By doing that, we ensure speedy trial of suspects and we ensure specialisation, so much so that lawyers would become specialised in prosecuting and or defending matters that border on corruption. And by so doing, we decongest our courts. It will also make the judges also to become specialised and more knowledgeable. It is a different thing to have general knowledge of the law and another to specialise in a particular area of the law.

“By the way, we have customary courts, election petition tribunals, Customary Court of Appeal and other family courts. In Lagos we have family courts, criminal division, etc. Lagos is already enjoying such a status. It will now decongest the docket of the courts. Secondly, I want the salaries and emoluments of judicial officers to be increased, in fact tripled. It is the poor salaries and emoluments that at times expose them to corrupt tendencies.”

He also wants the Federal Government to take charge of financing state high courts, state customary court of appeals and state sharia court of appeal. “Under the constitution, they are supposed to have been doing that, but they are not doing it. Erroneously, the state governments think they are state courts, they are not. If you go to section 6(5) of the constitution, the judicial powers of the courts are vested in the courts that are named under the subsection. And the state high courts are also named. So, the judicial powers of the federation are vested in those courts.

“If you also look at some other provisions of the constitution, you will see that the salaries and emoluments of judges of those courts are paid by the Federal Government through the National Judicial Council. So, they are federal courts in all ramifications. If you also look at the schedule that defines the function of the National Judicial Council, you will see that part of its function is to undertake capital and recurrent expenditure in all these courts. So, it is a federal matter. Without taking care of these courts, they become the appendages of the state governors. And that breeds corruption and inefficiency,” he stated.
A Case For Regional Supreme Courts

Hon also makes a case for the creation of some regional Court of Appeal and regional Supreme Court, just as it is done in America. “Because of our history as British colony, we have moved in 1979 from parliamentary system to presidential system, but we still have the vestiges or the colonial era. So, in the presidential system, you don’t concentrate too much power at the centre; you devolve power. So, if we have some of these courts it will reduce some of the appeals that go to the Supreme Court, you will see that the dockets of the Supreme Court would be freed and it would ensure more efficiency and sound delivery of justice.

“But in a situation where all manner of appeals, including interlocutory appeals go all the way to the Supreme Court, they diminish the ability of the Justices to deliver qualitative justice. I will also want the anti-corruption court to be established in the constitution, just as we have the National Industrial Court, which used to be established by mere act of the National Assembly. It is now a constitutional court, as a court of record, so that nobody goes to challenge its jurisdiction anyhow to say that it is conflicting with the powers of the federal or state high courts. If we have a specialised court for labour and related matters, why can’t we also have a specialised court for anti-corruption? These are the things I think if pursues, both institutional and constitutional reforms, the judiciary would come out better,” he declared.

For renowned Maritime lawyer, Chidi Ilogu (SAN), the length of time it takes to hear cases at the Supreme Court needs to be addressed. His words: “Everybody is concerned about the length of time it takes to hear appeals at the Supreme Court. Appeals take on the average six to eight years to be heard. That is a source of great concern. I know that it is all about the volume of cases going to the Supreme Court. So, I advise that they look for a way of reducing the number of cases that go to the Supreme Court or increase the number of Justices of the Supreme Court by amending the number as allowed in the constitution. Justice delayed is justice denied.

Reforming the court system such that it will be devoid of unnecessary interlocutory injunctions, which often breed delay in justice delivery among others, is the primary concern of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and former Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Delta State, Dafe Akpedeye.

According to him, there are many issues facing the judiciary, but the most important of all is automation of the sector. “We are in an Internet age and it is very important that the sector is not left behind. I know the CJN is a progressive man and if he can accomplish the automation of the judicial sector then, a lot of other issues will be resolved. Most especially the challenge of dispensation of justice,” he said.
Akpedeye believes that if this is done, the judicial sector would have put an end to a lot of problems facing it.

Also, former Attorney General of Delta State and Commissioner for Justice, Charles Ajuyah (SAN), is of the view that Justice Onnoghen has what it takes to make the change happen.  According to him, the CJN is an upright judge and has all the qualities and attributes of a judge. “He is fair minded. He listens to parties and their counsels fairly and is courteous. As the CJN, he is not just an ordinary judge. He holds both the administrative and head of the judiciary in the country. And so, there is enormous responsibility on him. To succeed, he has to watch his judges; not in how they decide cases, but in their relationships with parties who have cases before them.

“Petitions would come, but he should carefully look at those petitions, consider them and treat them with high sense of responsibility. That is the only way he can fight corruption in the judiciary. With his own experience from the lower courts to the Supreme Court, he can tell the body language of his judges in the way they handle matters. He must be calm and circumspect because corrupt practices affect the integrity of the judiciary. So, he should not rush to take hasty decisions in matters that concern corruption, but such matters should be properly investigated. He should spare no one; I mean the judges that are found to be corrupt. He should not hide them or cover them, but expose them in such a way that others would learn from it,” he counseled.

Ajuyah also advised him to be involved more in judicial activism to expand our laws. “He has done very well as a Justice of the Supreme Court in the cases he has covered, particularly in political cases to stabilise this country. Everybody looks up to him to hold the sword and the scale to dispense justice to all manner of persons without fear or favour. Though he has been doing so, he should not relent with the enormous responsibility on his shoulder. It is not the way you drink water you drink pepper soup! Now, in his new position, he is a different person. So, he has to do things with caution and listen to all in taking decisions. I pray that he dances with the sword and put it down safely in this period we are in because it is a taboo to let the sword fall on the ground,” he warned.

Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Partner, Jireh and Graeys Attorneys, Norrison Quakers, also expressed his confidence in Onnoghen as a man that has the capacity to move the sector forward.

“I listened to him during his response to questions from the National Assembly and he depicts a man with experience and who knows the problem of the judiciary,” he said. He called on the CJN to ensure that the constitutional provision on the number of judges for the Supreme Court Judges is adhered to, so that the backlog of appeals will be cleared.

Quakers also called on the CJN to ensure that there is discipline in the National Judicial Council (NJC) and that appointment is done based on merit and discipline. He also advised that the judiciary must ensure constitutional guarantee of impartiality.

Similarly, Dr. Paul Ananaba (SAN) said Onnoghen must take as priority, the need to change the use of ‘long hand’ in writing of judgment and court proceedings by judges and ensure it is replaced with new technology. “The practice of judges using long hand in writing judgment and proceedings must be a thing of the past, if we want to tackle lingering cases and dispensation of justice,” he stated.

Ananaba stated further that though, the new CJN is a ‘progressive man’ and the fact that he is coming at a time the sector is facing many issues to contend with and among them is the issue of corruption. He said: “I therefore, urged him to ensure that the fight against corruption in Nigeria is successful. And not only that, he must ensure judiciary is free of all forms of corrupt practices.”

And to accomplish this, he urged him to also “reconsider the welfare of judges,” saying by so doing, the level of corruption in the sector will be a thing of the past. He also urge the CJN to ensure that appointment of judges is based on competence and merit, so that the quality of judgment can improve than what is obtainable now.

Another lawyer and director Institute of Trade, Finance Management and Practice in Nigeria, Paul Omoijiade called on the CJN to address the issue of dispensation of justice in the courts. His words: “Honestly, the issue of dispensation of justice is very important for the CJN to take as priority and this will rid the sector of corruption”.

He also added that the CJN should revisit the welfare of judges, as well as, members of the bar, otherwise the fight against corruption in the judiciary will be defeated.

For Abiodun Dabiri, the problem of the judiciary started with the annual award of SAN title to members of the profession.  “The award of SAN is responsible for the delay in cases in most of our courts and this also is affecting the fight against corruption. There is no acceleration of cases again despite the enactment of Administration of Criminal Justice Acts (ACJA),” he noted. He therefore called on the CJN to consider the cancelation of the senior advocate award as a priority.

A partner with Simmons Cooper Partners, Babatunde Irukera, said of all the challenging issues facing the sector, delay in dispensation of justice is what is very important. He therefore urged the CJN to take it as priority. “One thing that is very pertinent is reforming the court procedure, such that there will be no interlocutory injunctions that hamper quick dispensation of justice,” he declared. He urged the new CJN to instill transparency and discipline in the judiciary.



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