Magistrate courts are not inferior, says Odeyemi-Ayeye
What challenges do magistrate courts face in Nigeria, using Lagos state as your case study?
The greatest one is the status of inferiority imposed on it, and that is a lacuna in the Constitution.
The Constitution says the courts created for the federation shall be the only superior courts. So the Constitution states that apart from the listed superior courts, there shall be other courts created by the National Assembly or State Houses of Assembly as they deemed fit. It didn’t say they shall be referred to as inferior courts, but it said they should have subordinate jurisdictions. So naturally, the status of inferiority was attached to them. If you are inferior, everything about you will be inferior. But we don’t have an inferior Bar certificate. Therefore, the status of inferiority is the greatest challenge we face. We are not treated like other judicial officers. As they attached inferiority to us, it means we will be having inferior pay; inferior pension, and inferior condition of service. So, we need to be re-enacted as a court of limited jurisdiction and renamed district judges.
Our courts should be named district courts, while we are properly recognised as judicial officers. When that happens, every state can now set their standard, such that when you retire, maybe at 20 years or 50 years, you will retire on your life pension.
We need our salaries taken away from the civil service structure and have a judicial scale of funding for courts like court infrastructure and other things. We need all the monies that we spend in lower courts domiciled under the Chief Judge of every state. Magistrates are not paid from Abuja. It is only the federal courts and the state high courts that take from the consolidated revenue of the federation. Every magistrate is state paid. I want magistrates’ money placed under the head of courts right from the National Judicial Council (NJC), so we can have a proper scale. It is when we restructure the system that we can now say we have a final grade of quality of judgment coming from this court, else it’s going to be ‘what do I have to lose?’ The magistrates are going to be continuously demoralised. Those are the things affecting us. People are scared to say these things because it looks like insubordination or something.
But the magistracy has appellate jurisdiction over other lower courts?
Appeal flows from the customary courts to the Magistrate courts only in states that don’t have a customary court of appeal. The customary court of appeal is designated a superior court. It is established under the Constitution. The Constitution provides that the customary court of appeal would be created for any state that wants it. Lagos State does not require it, so that means appeals coming from customary courts are coming directly to the magistrate court, yet they are calling us inferior. I am not inferior, but then, it is not me telling myself that am not inferior, it is the system. So, we need to restructure the system and be renamed a court of limited jurisdiction. Every level of court deserves its own respect and its own condition of service improved, not for us, but for the quality of justice that would be dispensed.
Magistrate courts are not courts of records. If your nomenclature changes, will that alter this position?
They said we are not a court of records, yet we have rules and procedures. The magistrate has rules and procedures. You cannot just say to someone “I find you guilty.” You must give reasons for your judgment, you must read your judgment within 90 days and there are rules you must follow. We do returns like judges and they are still saying we are courts of no records. You can’t keep increasing our jurisdiction, increasing our workload, and decreasing us in stature. It is wrong.
If the reform takes place and the magistrate court is renamed, what would be its jurisdiction?
Even the high court is not the mate of the Court of Appeal. The court of appeal is not the mate of the Supreme Court. Members of those courts know their levels, which does not mean anyone is lesser. We are still going to have jurisdiction that is lesser than that of the high court, just as the high court has a jurisdiction lesser to the Court of appeal.
The lawmakers are in the process of amending the 1999 Constitution. Will you propose an alteration to section 6 of the Constitution to accommodate the magistrate courts?
Section six has to be amended, no doubt about it. In line with the federal system of government, section 6 depicts a unitary system of government in federalism. We took after England, a unitary system, but we operate the U.S federal system. So, section 6 needs to create a dual court model. That means judicial powers must rest in two entities – the federal and state courts. It must rest first in the court created for the federation and in all the courts created for the states. The courts created by the states must also be created with some level of refinement. Inferior appellation is a no-go lexicon if we want to move forward. Magistrate law of Lagos state just like all other laws created magistrate courts, but if it is in line with section 6, they won’t go contrary to the Constitution. I am proposing constitutional review and statutory review. Statutory is for the state, while constitutional is federal.
Are these the issues that motivated you into writing this book?
I have been here 21 years and I just woke up and I am saying, if I retire today, I am going to be taking a fraction of my salary; I am going to be poor very shortly. I have to be selling something to survive and that is not right. I still have a lot to give. I have stayed in the system longer than some judges in the high court, but if they retire after 15 years of service, they go with their full benefits and they receive their cars and everything for life. Why should my own be different because I have dispensed justice at my own level? We have to review the Constitution and the statutes for me to be placed well enough to retire well.
What other issue would you want to be addressed in the proposed amendment?
I am looking at the ripple effects of why you are so fed up with the magistrate courts. Why are people fed up? I have just told you what is in us that you cannot get even if you cut my tommy. I am voicing out that the system is shaped in such a way that you will not get superior justice if it is not changed. It is all about the quality of judgment and affecting more people positively. Look at this #EndSARS protest! The CJ was addressing us and he told us to take a deep reflection on how people attacked the three institutions in the criminal justice system – the police, the prison, and the court. Those are the three institutions in the criminal justice system. They are telling us something. We should take a look at ourselves; are we doing well? Let us just mark our scripts. If we have not passed, then we should look at the system and change it.
You have served 21 years, what are the criteria for elevation to the high court?
What is unseen is much more than what is seen, but I can boldly say and I stand to be corrected, it is more political than what it is. That is why we say, take politics out of the appointments – whether into the magistrate or other courts, then we are likely going to get quality people into the place. You will not use a sentiment.
President Muhammadu Buhari issued an executive order 10, ordering judicial financial autonomy but some people are saying the president lacks the power to make orders for states. This is part of the reason the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) embarked on the recent strike. What is your take on that?
As far as I am concerned, the Constitution that created superior courts says judiciary money will come from the consolidated account of the federation and the money should be released to NJC, which would be sent to the head of courts of states. For us, our money is paid by Lagos state. What we are saying is that we are judicial officers too. They should have another scale for us. We should not be exempted, and that is autonomy. That is what they basically call restructuring. Maybe, because of the long military rule, the centre has got so big that to cut them to size, they will see it as a slight. So, it is like a heavy fight.
Funding of courts of superior jurisdiction comes straight from Abuja. Their funding should go to the NJC. The judiciary should self-run financially, with little checks and balances from the National Assembly, but very little interference. So, that is what we are saying. Even in the state judiciary, there should be judiciary independence. Are we even talking about judicial independence at the lower court? Am I independent as a judge? Will I be punished, if I just go against any political figure in the state? That is what we are saying. But if I am free, such that you cannot remove me, if you can’t appoint me and cannot remove me, I will say it the way it is. So, funding is one of those things that would ensure judicial independence. If the judiciary is not autonomous, they are not independent.
In comparison with the UK structure, will there be anything wrong if these reforms you are looking at, are carried out and you retain the name magistrate?
Magistrates in England where we took it from are now at the lowest level. They are like customary courts now. Laymen, who are non-lawyers, man them. Non-lawyers have re-organised that court that people who are lawyers are not called magistrates; they are called district judges, deputy district judges, which are men that depict professionalism. That is what we are saying. Everything is in a name. You cannot be calling me house girl and at the same time saying I am a governor. Call me what I am. So, I think we are done with the word magistrate. Let them reform the court and call it courts of limited jurisdiction; and call us district judges, because we are judicial officers of the state.
You have made your contribution to the judiciary with this publication, are we expecting any other of similar nature from you?
I will keep on pressing forward until we get what we are working for. I am not doing this because I think I am retiring, I am doing this because I know what is right. So, I am just putting it out there. It is for posterity to judge. I might not be a beneficiary. They might call me in London or elsewhere to be a judge tomorrow and I will finally go.
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