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Is the judiciary beyond redemption?

By Sonnie Ekwowusi
25 August 2022   |   2:47 am
To affirm that the judiciary is corrupt is an understatement. The judiciary is not just corrupt; the men and women entrusted with the affairs of the judiciary are suffering from a huge character deficit.

PHOTO: lagosjudiciary

To affirm that the judiciary is corrupt is an understatement. The judiciary is not just corrupt; the men and women entrusted with the affairs of the judiciary are suffering from a huge character deficit.

It is painful that our judiciary has been constituted into an object of derision by the very people who should labour to maintain its prestige.

The level of official corruption and moral degeneracy at both the Bar and the Bench is alarming. It seems as if the judiciary is beyond redemption. 

While the Bench sickens for lack of moral renaissance, the Bar fairs no better. Regrettably, many members of the Bar lack the lowest common denominator of acceptable character. 

As regards the judiciary workers often loosely referred to as the judicial personnel-court bailiffs, Chief Registrars, Assistant Chief Registrars (ACR), court clerks, court messengers, court cashiers, court stenographers and so forth- their lives are ruled and governed by the civil service bureaucratic extortion.  

 
Oftentimes whenever corruption of the judiciary is mentioned, our thoughts first go to the magistrates and judges, forgetting that the judicial personnel who play an essential role in the administration of justice are damned too corrupt.

A corrupt court staff can ruin your case before it even gets to the Judge. He can, for instance, hide away your case file for refusing to accede to his extortionist bid. So, the judicial personnel who perform administrative tasks in the judiciary play an indispensable role in the dispensation of justice.

I am sure you have watched the video clip circulating on social media, exposing the day-to-day extortion and shady practices perpetuated by the judicial personnel in our courts. Judicial personnel extort money from lawyers and litigants before rendering them services which they rightly deserve.

For example, at the time of filing his case in court, a litigant usually pays for the service of his court processes on the other party. But the court bailiffs would not serve the court processes on that party until the litigant pays them extortion ranging from N4,000 to N7,000.

This explains why Busola Aro, a creative investigative journalist by profession, volunteered to go to the Federal High Court, Ikoyi Lagos, Agege Magistrate Court and the Ikeja High Court, Ikeja, Lagos with her hidden camera in order to expose the layers of corruption in our judiciary.
 
Busola recounts how she got to Ikeja Magistrate Court and applied for a certified true copy (CTC) of a particular court judgment. Thereafter Alhaja Khaijat first directed her to see the Assistant Chief Registrar. 

Upon her return, she (Khaijat) said to her: “If you want to get the CTC today, you would have to mobilize people to help you look for it…You ought to know what to do. Those people won’t work for free unless you are ready to come back in two weeks”. 

Anyway, the journalist ended up giving Khaijat the sum of the N2,000 extortion fee. Of course, her hidden camera captured Khaijat collecting the money from her and counting it in the open. Busola also narrated how she applied for a CTC of a court judgment at the Federal High Court, Ikoyi, Lagos, and, how the court official on duty at the material time looked at her and said to her: “You came from a newspaper company. You people are rich.

Pay N20,000 or no judgment”. She also narrated how she went to the Federal High Court, Ikoyi, a second time, and how one Olubodun, a staff of the court, extorted the sum of N4,000 from her. She also narrated how she got to the Ikeja High Court and was commanded by the staff of the court on duty to pay the sum of N200 for photocopies. She promptly did and thought the extortion transaction was over. But she was wrong.  No sooner had she quit the court premises than the court registrar called her and told her that she should pay the sum of N5,000 to him for “hospitality”.

She promptly did and made sure that her hidden camera captured it.
 
Sad. Isn’t? Do we even need a Busola to tell us what we already know about our judiciary?. I don’t think so. The high-level corruption and shady practices in the judiciary are notorious facts requiring no proof by Busola. Not infrequently, some court bailiffs refuse to serve court processes simply because they were unable to extort money from the litigant or his counsel.

Many litigants and their counsel get to court only to discover to their chagrin that their case files had either been misplaced or are completely lost. These are administrative injustices which beget legal injustice or even social injustice.

It is sad that under the watch of the bar and bench, court registrars, court clerks, court bailiffs, court 
messengers etc, who play a vital role in the administration of justice in Nigeria continue to set up layers and layers of corruption structures in order to extort money from litigants and lawyers.  

For instance, to obtain a certified true copy of a court judgment or a court ruling, a court registrar would extort not less than N5, 000 from you. To secure a hearing date at the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court, the court officials at those courts will extort about N15, 000 from you otherwise they would inform you there are no more available hearing dates in the year.

To get the court bailiff to serve your court process on the other party, you must give him not less than N5, 000 otherwise he will never serve your process and even if he grudgingly does so, he will not put the affidavit of service in the court file until you pay him the extortion fee.

The most tragic is the inability of judgment creditors to reap the fruit of their court judgment. After a judgment creditor had spent a gruelling 6 to 10 years in court litigation, he gets a favourable court judgment. But he cannot even levy execution against the judgment debtor because the extortion fee for levying execution, at least in Lagos State judiciary, ranges from N2.5 million to N4.5 million. 

 
As has been repeatedly re-echoed, corruption optimi pessima (The corruption of the best is worst). The judiciary is not just any arm of government: it is arguably the toast or lifeblood of other arms of government.

The corruption of the judiciary is the worst tragedy that can befall a nation. So, it is high time the Bar and the Bench resolved to rid the judiciary of corruption. It is not rocket science.

It is doable. To begin with, the court personnel who extorted money from Busola should not only be relieved of their jobs but prosecuted as well in the law court. Salus populi supema est lex. The welfare of the people is the supremacy of the law. 

Like Caesar’s wife, judges and Magistrates should learn to live above board and not smear their hands with corruption and dirty dealings. Judgeship should be reserved for the best and the brightest, not for never-do-wells or for those who find it difficult to eke out a living in private legal life.

The current process of appointment and removal of judges in Nigeria is overdue for a review. First, the process should be transparent. It should not be shrouded in secrecy. Whenever a vacancy for the appointment of a judge exists in any Judicial Division, it should be widely advertised to the public so that interested lawyers should apply for consideration.

As done in some countries, candidates applying to be appointed judges should be made to sit for a compulsory rigorous Bench examination. The yearly continuing education program for Judges and Magistrates should include such courses as basic logical reasoning processes, basic psychology, legal ethics, basic writing skills and basic philosophy.
 
Lawyers should represent their clients ethically and professionally as officers in the temple of justice. 

Corrupt judiciary personnel such as court bailiff, court clerks, court messengers etc should be punished or disciplined regularly to serve as a deterrent to others. Each NBA Branch should regularly compile the names of corrupt judicial personnel for punishment. 

It makes no sense to shield them because they portray the judiciary in a bad light. Only an incorruptible and irreproachable judiciary will steer us out of the muddy water presently reaching our knees and threatening to drown us.

Ekwowusi, a lawyer, is a member of The Guardian Editorial Board.