Restore public confidence in judiciary, lawyers charge new CJN
Undoubtedly, the newly inaugurated acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen has a big and very serious job at hand. He is coming at a time the judiciary is in the eye of the storm, following allegations of manifest corrupt practices against judicial officers, including justices of the highest court in the land.
The expectation is that he just has to arrest the vice and restore public confidence in the sector, known with the hackneyed phrase, ‘the last hope of the common man’.
Onnoghen assumed office, following the retirement of his predecessor, Justice Mahmud Mohammed who clocked 70 on Thursday, November 10. His appointment is in line with the age-long tradition of appointing Chief Justices based on seniority and in accordance with section 230 subsection (iv) and section 231 subsection (I) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Subject to the confirmation of the Senate, he would be in office in acting capacity.
At his inauguration last Thursday in the Council Chamber of State House, President Muhammadu Buhari, expectedly, sought the cooperation of the judiciary in the fight against corruption and insecurity as a way of boosting the economy. The president’s remark gave credence to the fact that the new acting CJN is faced with daunting challenges, which he must fix as his new office demands.
Apart from the issue of corruption, which has placed the third arm of government in serious opprobrium and lately in conflict with the executive, there are other issues that the new helmsman must tackle.
They are issues such as the total reform of the justice system, ensuring compliance to code of conduct for judicial officers, continuing with positive reforms initiated by his predecessors among others.
On account of those daunting challenges, The Guardian sought the views of some senior laws, in an agenda-setting endeavour, on their expectations as well as the steps the acting CJN should take in repositioning the judiciary.
In his opinion, former president of Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba admitted that the new CJN will face a daunting task and advised he should be firm in his effort to ‘shake the tree for the bad leaves to fall off’.
He said: “He must really face the challenge of changing the public perception about the judiciary as the last hope of the common man”.
He also said the new CJN must be aware of the fact of the incompetence of the National Judicial Council (NJC) and the justice system, which according to him is very slow and the need to take steps to right the situation.
On the issue of corruption, most especially as it affects the sector, the SAN urged the new CJN to do his best in resolving the problem, so that public confidence can be restored back to the judiciary.
Also speaking in the same vein, another senior advocate, Moyosore Onigbanjo raised the issue of public confidence as one of the major problem that the third arm of government is facing. He advised the new CJN to do the best to ensure the restoration of public confidence in both the judiciary and the legal officers.
The former attorney general and commissioner for justice in Delta State, Dafe Akpedeye, in his contribution urged the new CJN to work to ensure speedy trials of cases, ensure that the Judiciary is well equipped with up-date legal materials for their work as well as the training and re-training of judges.
According to him, Justice Onnoghen must ensure that the welfare of the judges are improved, while at the same time, see that judges who are found wanting in the discharge of their duties are disciplined. He said: “He has to ensure technological improvement in filing of processes in superior courts of records wherein soft copies of processes can be filed by counsel and hearing notices and enrolled orders/judgments of courts sent to counsel. It is also his duty to ensure that judgments must be delivered within the 90 days period constitutionally provided for after final addresses.”
However, another senior lawyer believes that the new CJN has little to do going by the fact that he is operating in acting capacity. Mr Abiodun Owonikoko (SAN) said he has to wait for the next three months before his confirmation, adding that upon such situation, not much is expected from him.
“Though he has all our support but there is less the new CJN can do in three months. He cannot be in office as an interim CJN. Until he is confirmed, we cannot really talk about setting an agenda for him or suggest to him on what to do,” he stated.
Also, a Principal Partner with Paul Akhere Chambers in Lagos, Paul Omoijiade, suggested that the first agenda for the new CJN is pay greater attention to developments in both the bar and the bench.
“The popular opinion is that some judges are corrupt, but then it is not only judges alone, lawyers are always involved. They influenced them through frivolous injunctions and other unprofessional conduct which are not obtainable in civilized climes such as England,” he said.
Omoijiade also raised the need for the CJN to improve the state of the welfare of judges as the best way to fight corruption. “If the basic needs of judges are not taking care of, corruption will come in. That is why the CJN has to look seriously at the bar and the bench and ensure they work together in this regard to enable the resolution of issue of corruption and professional misconduct,” he suggested.
In his own contribution, a human rights lawyer, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa said, there is urgent need for intervention in the welfare of the judges and other judicial officers.
According to him, the last time judges salaries were increased in Lagos State was in 2007, not to talk of other States now that costs of living have been moving higher. He queried why there will be no corruption among some judges, if their welfare is not taken into account.
Adegboruwa therefore urged the new CJN to start where is predecessor stopped. “I see an epitome of courage and incorruptible courage in Justice Mahmoud. His valedictory speech was a reminiscence of the likes of Kayode Eso,” he stated.
Apart from the issue of welfare package for judges, Adegboruwa urged the new CJN to ensure that there is financial autonomy for the judiciary. “Though we have been on this for a while, we have not achieved the needed results. States and most governors have been sitting on funds meant for the judiciary and nothing has happened,” the courageous advocate said.
He also urged the CJN to look into the rot in the appellate court to put an end to the unwarranted delay associated with cases and conflicting judgments. Suggesting a central judicial platform to access decisions of appellate court, the lawyer noted that such would help to arrest the recurrence of conflicting decisions.
His words: “The CJN must address the rot in the appellate court jurisdiction in most appeal courts. I have an appeal filed as far as 2006 which is yet to be concluded. Appellate courts have become the burial ground of litigation. Also there is need for the new CJN to address issues of conflicting judgments, especially on political matters as recently experienced by setting up a central judicial platform to access decisions and there should be more panel in the Supreme Court to clear backlogs.”
In order to facilitate quick conclusion of cases, Adegboruwa suggested a consideration of developing an ICT that will aid filing of cases online and delivery of judgment online by judges. “This will also help curb corruption, since it is no longer necessary to see judges one on one before getting judgment,” he declared.
He also urged the CJN to ensure both the NBA and NJC work together in the fight against corruption and allow merit to prevail in appointment of judicial officers.
Another lawyer, Chris Akiri urged the new CJN to follow the foot steps of his predecessor. His words: “The new CJN, who is also the Chairman of the NJC should not only follow after the footsteps of his predecessor, he must improved on them by being tougher with members of the bench because discipline flow from the top. He should subject himself to Spartan self-discipline.
“He should set the example of divesting himself from at least one of the commissions, federal Judicial Service Commission and National Judicial Service Council because it is untidy for him to be CJN and chairman of these Commissions.”
He also suggested that in handling the alleged corrupt judges, the new CJN should follow the rule of law such that erring judges are prosecuted and dealt with as a deterrent to others.
According to him, paragraph 21, sub paragraph (b) of the third schedule to the 1999 constitution (as amended) provides that NJC may recommend to the president the removal of erring judges. “That should not stop there. They should not only be removed from office but tried and if found guilty given condign punishment.
“The new CJN should re-emphasize the provisions of the code of conduct for judicial officers in such a manner that a judge should not accept a bribe neither should his body language suggest that he wants a bribe.
“The CJN must make it a must for judges not to answer an invitation by any layman for any discussion,” he counselled, urging Justice Onnoghen to restore the simile concerning judges, which reads: ‘as sober as a judge’.