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Judges retirement age and effective justice system

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A proposal to extend the retirement age of judges of superior courts of the record is not unduly outlandish, given the peculiarities of their Lordships’ pre-occupation, and the fact that wisdom, which has a strong affinity with age, is an invaluable asset in interpreting the law and administering justice.

Before it is approved by lawmakers, it is important however to thoroughly dissect also the inevitable distraction of weakness of the body as well as the mind in men and women saddled with the sacred duty of adjudication. Above all, the judges concerned should be able to retire voluntarily at any point in time, if they so desire.

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The National Assembly is considering a bill that seeks to amend the 1999 Constitution to extend the retirement age of Supreme Court justices from 70 years to 75 years and those in the High Court from 65 years to 70 years. According to the sponsor of the bill, Chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary, Mr. Onofiok Luke, this will protect judicial officers from pressure, and promote experience and quality in justice delivery in Nigeria.

Indeed it is said that wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days. While this may be presumptive, it is without a doubt that the justice sector will be better served with the wealth of experience of these classes of judges who by virtue of the nature of their job, become more seasoned by age on the Bench.

Perhaps this will also discourage the idea of age falsification by some judges in an attempt to extend their stay in office, a ground for which a number of them, particularly at the High Court level has been recommended for retirement by the National Judicial Council (NJC) in recent times. In 2016, two judges of the Niger State High Court were sanctioned for allegedly falsifying their dates of birth; while another judge was recommended for compulsory retirement. In April 2020, the NJC recommended the compulsory retirement of yet another judge, an Acting President of a state Customary Court of Appeal, alleged to have falsified his date of birth and avoided his retirement which was due five years earlier.

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While the wealth of experience brought to bear by these judges is to be cherished, it should also be appreciated that with age comes mental fatigue and other infirmities, which may impair judgment. And while advocates for the extension of retirement age may be quick to cite jurisdictions such as the United States Supreme Court which does not have a retirement age for its justices, this should not be in isolation of the fact that the working environment and other social-economic conditions of judges in developed climes are much more conducive to graceful ageing than those of Nigeria. Thus, age on the bench should not be a substitute for periodic training and mental evaluations, adequate remuneration and due supervision by the National Judicial Council (NJC).

By extension, another bill being considered by the House, which seeks to amend the Constitution, to set time within which civil and criminal cases and matters are heard and determined at trial and appellate courts is important. If passed, it has the potential to eliminate unnecessary delay in justice administration and delivery. It is no longer news that the courts are congested with cases that are slowing down the pace of justice delivery to snail speed. Nevertheless, the stakeholders would need to do more in order to ensure the effectiveness of the law. The Police, the Judiciary, Lawyers, the correctional service and litigants who constitute the major players in the justice administration system are all complicit in the poor state of the justice delivery system which does not inspire the confidence of the common man.

According to the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica B. Dongban-Mensem, there are over 4,630 Appeals and 6,207 Motions pending in the Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal alone as of 1st December 2020. Litigants now have their matters adjourned for extended periods running close to two years, a situation that has a direct negative impact on the nation’s economic development.

Lawyers have often been found to aid litigants in the abuse of court processes by instituting frivolous actions or applications to delay the course of justice. This also must be discouraged, along with the ineptitude often displayed by the Police in the prosecution of criminal matters. To enable judges of courts of superior record to enjoy their work at old age, the government needs to provide relevant facilities, including the electronic recording of proceedings.

Ultimately, the primary focus of justice administration should not only be the number of years spent by a judge on the bench but also the number of cases concluded during those years. Without the required facilities to perform their jobs, even the most experienced judges could become overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases and lack of favourable working environment. Considering the critical role of the judiciary in ensuring the sustenance of a democratic government, and the development, peace, and stability of any nation, the government must lead other Nigerians to ensure effective administration of the justice system.

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