The Bar and Bench faced many daunting challenges in 2020. Top on the bill was the problem of adjustment to new technology in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a near split of the NBA by aggrieved lawyers, perceived corruption, destruction of judicial infrastructure by hijackers of the #EndSARS protests, non-payment of judges and magistrates’ salaries in Plateau and Cross River states, lack of judicial autonomy and the ever-present problem of young lawyers poverty, among others. Lawyers tell ROBERT EGBE what they expect of the sector this year.
Last year, President Muhammadu Buhari raised eye brows when he interfered in the appointment of judges and altered the recommendations of the National Judicial Council (NJC).
In one of such instances, President Buhari, during the year, scaled down NJC’s recommendation for the appointment of 32 judges to 11, with many law experts arguing that neither the President nor state governors has the power, under the constitution, to review the recommendation for judges’ appointment made by the NJC.
Another instance was when President Buhari withheld from the Senate, the recommendations by the NJC for the appointment of Justices for the Supreme Court.
The National Judicial Council is an executive body established in accordance with Section 153 of the 1999 Constitution as amended to protect the Judiciary from the whims and caprices of the Executive.
Last Tuesday, Cross River State Acting Chief Judge, Justice Eyo Effiom Ita confirmed the non-payment of salaries of over 30 magistrates in the state.
One of the magistrates, Richard Bassey, collapsed earlier same day at the gate of the governor’s office in Calabar during a protest over the unpaid salary.
Justice Ita who spoke with newsmen in Calabar said he was aware of the situation but he did not know for how long the Magistrates had been owed.
“I was appointed Acting Chief Judge two and a half months ago and I heard that some Magistrates were appointed but the governor said he did not give clearance for their appointment and so will not pay them,” he said.
The Acting CJ explained that there was nothing anyone could do to change the situation until Governor Ben Ayade changed his disposition.
He said all interventions had been made but the governor insists he never approved their employment.
‘Judiciary must assert its independence’
Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Jubrin Okutepa, attributed situations such as these, to the judiciary’s timidity before the executive arm of government.
For Okutepa, the judiciary must focus on itself and assert its independence.
“In 2021, the judiciary must, of a necessity, free itself of the shackles of the executive and become independent indeed so that Nigeria can benefit more from the justice system,” he said.
According to him, the National Judicial Council (NJC), “must bite rather than continue to bark. There should be a decision that an end has come for such impunity. The NJC must, of a necessity, insist that it asserts more of its powers and avoid a situation where it becomes a toothless bull dog.”
Referencing the Cross River State situation, he urged the Judiciary to give justice to Nigerians no matter whose ox is gored.
He said: “When you see a statement from a Chief Judge that a governor claimed not to have given approval to magisterial appointments in Cross River State, one begins to wonder whether the Chief Judge himself knows what he is saying, because under the state Judicial Service Committee, appointment and discipline of magistrates is the exclusive responsibility of the Judicial Service Commission of the state and the governor has no role whatsoever under our constitution.
“But as to why the Governor of Cross River State will now say he would not pay the magistrates who have worked in the state, because it didn’t get his approval, is a question that the Chief Judge ought to ask him where he derived his powers from and direct the payment of salaries from the judiciary, because the judiciary ought to have its budget and its money.”
He advised the judiciary to seek to enforce its own decisions concerning judicial officers’ welfare.
The SAN said: “I understand that there is a judgment by retired Justice Ademola in which an order was made that money meant for the judiciary ought to be paid to it upfront; that judgment has not been enforced.”
Mr Kunle Adegoke SAN also canvassed judicial autonomy/independence as a major target for the judiciary this year.
He urged stakeholders to “assist the judiciary to achieve its independence.”
Adegoke said: “This independence requires that the Judiciary should not go cap in hand to the Executive for funds. Judiciary can only be independent when it is not begging for survival from other arms of government.”
Calabar-based lawyer, Daniel Mgbe, also voted for judicial autonomy/independence.
He reasoned that this would help to curb situations such as arose in the Cross River State judiciary.
Mgbe said: “I was embarrassed that Magistrates had to take to the streets in Cross River State to protest non-payment of their salaries to the extent that one of them collapsed. There cannot be a more humiliating desecration of the temple of justice. If a magistrate has to beg to be paid his legitimate earnings what will the ordinary civil servant do?
“These magistrates preside over people’s affairs on a daily basis and I feel doing so on an empty stomach may result to shallow judgments. Dispensation of justice will be slower than it is now. Judicial autonomy will be further eroded as they may not be able to resist manipulation and bribes to tilt justice in favour of the highest bidder.”
‘Greater reliance on technology’
Mr Kunle Adegoke SAN noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has made reliance on technology a must for the judiciary to function properly.
Adegoke said: “Fundamentally, there are areas that I believe the judiciary should look into, particularly on the issue of equipment, equipping the judiciary to be able to face the challenges. On this, I want to talk on COVID-19 and the challenges it poses to the judiciary. Nobody anticipated it and now it has become very apparent that we must be ready to deploy technology much more than before. The issue at some point was whether it was even proper for a court to deliver judgement virtually unlike the physical approach that we are all used to. It came to a point that it was practically impossible for any court in the land to even sit and everything was suspended. There is infrastructure that must be provided which the government must be ready to deploy immediately.
‘Speed up justice dispensation’
Adegoke also identified justice delay as a problem that the judiciary must find a way around. He laid the blame for this at the feet of both the Bar and the Bench.
He said: “There are some areas where the judiciary has not fared better when it comes to dispensation of justice. You discover that it takes so long for some cases to be decided. Those on the Bench and other stakeholders like lawyers and litigants could be responsible for this. Some judges are not regularly sitting as they should do. It is important that lawyers should help the judiciary. There are lawyers who deliberately waste the court’s time by filing frivolous applications.
‘Tackling judicial corruption, a must’
The justice sector’s fragile image suffered a body blow last December 1, when the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) published statistics suggesting that the Judiciary was on top of the Nigeria Corruption Index between 2018 and 2020.
The publication claimed that about N9, 457,650,000.00 (N9.457 billion) was offered and paid as bribe by lawyers.
Six female judges, according to the agency, reported that they were offered N3, 307,444,000.00 (N3.307billion) and five male judges reported N392, 220,000(N392.2million).
The anti-corruption commission said the cases of outright demand and offer of bribes were “mostly linked to election matters.”
These details are contained in a report: “Nigeria Corruption Index: Report of a pilot survey”, which was made available on Tuesday by the Chairman of ICPC, Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye (SAN) in Abuja.
The survey was carried out by the Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria, the intellectual arm of the ICPC.
Not surprisingly, a corruption-free justice sector tops the 2021 focus for Convener, Fight Against Corruption in the Judiciary (FIACIJ), Mr Bayo Akinlade.
Akinlade advocated the establishment of an anti-corruption team comprising membership of the Bar and Bench this year.
He said: “The leadership of the Judiciary and the NBA must collaborate more, establish a joint taskforce to fight corruption, set up joint committees and develop strategic engagement protocols to combat all the ills that bedevil our profession.”
“Lawyers in the Executive, Legislature, Judiciary are all members of the NBA….The NBA must reinvent itself, return to its core values and provide leadership by harnessing the potential of lawyers in the three arms of government.
“All lawyers must be conscious of their responsibility as social engineers and give a little back to the community they earn a living from.
“Most importantly, we must agree to fight corruption at every level of governance and in our daily lives.
Better justice sector funding, better security for court infrastructure
During a budget defence session with the National Judicial Council, NJC, the Supreme Court and other lower courts last December 16, the House of Representatives Committee on Judiciary lamented that the annual budgetary allocation of N110 billion to the federal judiciary was grossly inadequate.
The committee’s Chairman, Onofioke Luke, said: “It is worrisome to note that the 2021 Budget Estimates for the Judiciary in the sum of N110 billion only, which represents statutory transfer to the Judiciary, is inadequate in view of current realities.
”The committee will engage the Leadership of the House, and indeed the National Assembly for more funds for the Judiciary to address the observed and obvious challenges of the judiciary for expedited and efficient dispensation of justice in the country.”
Poor judicial funding is a problem at state level too.
Last September, some judges of the Plateau State Judiciary accused Governor Simon Lalong of unlawfully withholding their accommodation allowances of N119,112,840 for between four and five years.
They threatened that unless he complied within two weeks, they would file a lawsuit against him.
Last October, justice sector infrastructure were vandalised in several states including the Igbosere High Court in Lagos which was razed to the ground and a prison in Benin jail-broken.
Stakeholders have canvassed better security for such facilities, which would require better funding.
Akinlade noted that this was a major problem for administration of criminal justice.
He said: “The lockdown and the #EndSARS protest stretched the limits of our Administration of Criminal Justice Sector.
“2020 exposed many loopholes in our structures in this regard, right from the police to the courts to our prison/Custodial systems, we have failed woefully in this regard and this is largely due to bad leadership and corruption.
“There are, however, some improvements brought about by a few Attorneys-General of a few states like Lagos, Ogun, just to mention a few; that have continued to update our laws and bring in some new ideas and concepts to ensure that good laws are made and enforced.
“The greatest challenge however to the Administration of Criminal Justice has been the rising insecurity without adequate funding to provide better policing, court infrastructures and prison facilities to counter the rising tide of insecurity.”