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NJC, new policy guideline and burden of implementation

By Bridget Chiedu Onochie, Abuja
01 November 2016   |   3:47 am
The ceremony, which took place at the National Judicial Institute was performed personally by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) and Chairman of NJC, Justice Mahmud Mohammed.
Mahmud Mohammed

Mahmud Mohammed

The National Judicial Council (NJC) early last week unveiled a National Judicial Policy. While the policy, which is aimed at ensuring judicial reforms and harmonization of standards was said to have been ready since April, the unveiling ironically happened at a time the judicial arm of government is enmeshed in allegations of corruption and other professional misconduct. Some Nigerians received this coincident with mixed feelings.

However, the new policy was received with warmth by the nation’s legal luminaries who graced its public presentation. Some of those present at the event include former CJN, Justice Mohammed Uwais, Justice Walter Onnoghen, President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, Administrator of the NJI, Justice R. Bozimo as well as members of the National Assembly.

The ceremony, which took place at the National Judicial Institute was performed personally by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) and Chairman of NJC, Justice Mahmud Mohammed.

Some of the highlights include issues bordering on judicial appointments, discipline, code of conduct as well as case flow management.

Also given prominence are issues of transparency and anti-corruption as well as judicial independence.

The Policy with regards to judicial appointment stated that the process must be transparent, merit-based and skill-based.

It says: “A transparent and carefully designed appointment process is indispensable to an efficient and independent judiciary, able to command public confidence in the administration of justice and capable of promoting and protecting the rule of law and human rights.

“Every aspect of judicial appointment process should, therefore, be such as would command public respect and confidence that the best persons in terms of skill, learning, integrity and courage are appointed as judicial officers.”

The Policy would also ensure that lack of comparative seniority will no longer be an obstacle in the appointment of deserving candidates of high standard of integrity and excellence.

Under the Judicial Code of Conduct, the new guideline bars Judges and Court employees from accepting gifts from other arms of government. It also insists that Judges must be accountable for public funds and property in their care and should be prudent in the management and use of resources.

On transparency and anti corruption, the Policy recognises the fact that the greatest and most damaging challenge to administration of justice is corruption. It therefore provides that tackling it must transcend mere exhortation and sentiments.

“The Policy therefore, will ensure that multifaceted streategies and guidelines that will ensure transparency in the administration of justice are put in place,” it stated.

These strategies include a working group that will study the workings of the judicial system and covering modalities of access to justice delivery as well as practices of court registrers and efficiency of services rendered to the public.

The CJN, Justice Mohammed told the gathering that the document was to provide principles and guidelines for tackling and dealing with issues affecting the smooth operations of the judiciary. He was very optimistic that the new Policy would herald a steady transformation of the Nigerian Judiciary.

According to him, the Policy was a meticulously considered and well drafted response to calls for judicial reform and harmonization of standards.

“I am therefore pleased to say that following great efforts by the Council, this policy will indeed tick the right boxes while launching this great institution, the Nigerian Judiciary, into a new level and trajectory that will signal the re-birth, re-invigoration and rededication to nobler values that distinguish us.

“The National Judicial Policy is borne out of the realization that the Nigerian Judiciary had been adversely affected by the absence of a clear, coordinated policy framework that defines its core morals, values, objects and aspirations.

“Such concerns have bordered upon the need to make qualitative and integrity driven dispensation of justice, which is transparent, honest and trustworthy, the hallmark of our transformed Judiciary,” he said.

According to him, the event was a milestone in the attainment of that noble quest. “As we seek to reposition our beloved Judiciary, the National Judicial Policy, which is the culmination of all guiding principles and ethics developed over our history, should act as a blue print and an all embracing tool for the enthronement of the highest ethical and institutional values in our Courts,” he stated.

The CJN further said that the launch of the Policy was in line with the ongoing reforms of judicial rules, practice directions and guidelines, which have in the past, led to the enactment of various innovative policies such as the Revised Guidelines and Procedural Rules for the Appointment of Judicial Officers of all Superior Courts of Record in Nigeria, 2014. Others are the Revised Judicial Discipline Regulations, 2014 as well as the Revised Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 2014.

Also speaking at the event, former CJN, Justice Dahiru Musdapher, who served as the chairman of the event, lamented that before now, the Nigerian judiciary had operated without a clear and over-reaching policy structure that defined its core ethics.

He said the new judicial policy “is a laudable and exemplary document that will set a better focus for effective judicial system in the country”.

In the face of on-going clampdown on judges and lawyers for alleged corrupt practices and other professional misconduct, the CJN had earlier in his address, maintained that the greatest single menace challengeing the justice system currently is corruption.

He expressed worries that the issue, which cuts across religous and ethnic barriers posed serious threat to the entrenchment of rule of law. “This endemic vice is not peculiar to any region and ethnic group, cutting across faiths, religious denominations, levels of education and economic status.

“Corruption has serious implications for both the rule of law and access to justice, and must be fought both institutionally and individually. This is why the National Judicial Policy contains clear provisions restating the Judiciary’s commitment to transparency and accountability”, he said.

Ironically, beyond these laudable policy frameworks, is the section which the public perceived has the tendency to shield alleged corrupt judicial officers. The section is contained under the Judicial Discipline Policy.

Surprisingly, it holds that allegation of misconduct against judicial officers or employees of the Judiciary shall not be leaked or published in the media. While placing premium on judicial accountability and ethical conducts, it states that the institutions of judiciary concerned with investigation of a judicial officer or implementation of decisions taken on a complaint shall cease where such complaints are leaked or discussed in the media.

“Where such a leakage is occasioned after the submission of a complaint, then all investigations on the complaints shall be suspended and if such leakage is from the complaint or through other parties known to such a complaints, such a complaints should be discarded.

“Where such leakage is occasioned prior to the presentation of the complaints and the source of the leakage is found to be the complainant or through other parties known to and connected with the complainant, then, such complaint shall not be accepted upon submission by the appropriate disciplinary body,” it provides.

However, it is not a story of total media blackout. The Policy however only permits media reportage of such allegation after investigation is completed.

“Upon the conclusion of any investigation, the judicial disciplinary bodies may allow public disclosure of their findings, subject to following the proper channels for such disclosure,” the document provides.

A lawyer, who would not want to be mentioned attributed the decision to keep certain issues away from the media to the recent ‘media trial’ of the clampdown on some judicial officers.

He expressed concern that the image and integrity of such judges and subsequently, lawyers whose arrests inundated the media would have been tarnished even when they are eventually not found guilty of the accusations leveled against them.

However, aware of the fact that the significance of any law or policy lies in its implimentation and enforcement, the CJN equally used the occasion to inaugurate a 10-man standing Committee on Judicial Ethics, under the leadership of former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi.

Other members of the Committee include former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umaru Abdullahi, President, National Industrial Court, Justice Babatunde Adejumo, Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Justice Ishaq Bello, President, Nigerian Bar Association, Mr. Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN), two retired Justices of the Supreme Court, as well as a former President of the NBA, Chief Okey Wali (SAN). This Committee is saddled with the responsibility of ensuring efficient implementation of the Policy.

Its terms of reference include conducting of periodic surveys on behalf of the NJC with a view to providing empirical measurements of compliance with the Policy as it affects administration of justice and the application of ethical standards by all judicial officers and court staff.

“This periodic measurement will also act as a form of oversight, ensuring that any report of laxity on the part of Judicial Officers are investigated and appropriately dealt with by the Council”, the CJN said.

With the new policy coming on the heels of a serious integrity slur on the judiciary, it is then something to cheer and hope it would not suffer the same fate with other policies before it.