Should the National Judicial Council (NJC) continue to regulate the affairs of a state judiciary in a federal system? This and many more were discussed at a two-day conference during the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Lagos Branch Law Week, reports JOSEPH JIBUEZE.
Legal experts have called for a review of the powers and composition of the National Judicial Council (NJC) to make it more effective. They said the framers of the 1999 Constitution did not take into consideration the fact that the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), who chairs the NJC, could also err.
According to them, with his enormous powers to single-handedly appoint up to 10 members of the NJC, he could choose only those who would be loyal to him. To some lawyers, this arrangement does not allow for efficiency but could be subject to abuse.
This was one of the issues discussed at a two-day conference during the Law Week of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Lagos Branch, with the theme: Judicial Independence and the Democratic Process.
Leading discussions on the topic: “The Cult of a judge: Judicial Accountability in a modern democratic society”, Mr Tayo Oyetibo (SAN) said constitutional reforms were needed to have an independent regulator for the Judiciary. To him, it is not ideal for the CJN to head a disciplinary organ of the Judiciary that he is also subject to.
“Why should the judiciary be answerable to itself? If a CJN is accused, he sits as a judge in his own case. This provision needs amendment,” he said.
NBA Lagos Branch chairman Mr Martin Ogunleye believed the NBA must demand NJCs reform. Besides, he said the functions of the NJC and Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) overlapped, saying one of them could be scrapped.
“My call will be for the scrapping of the NJC totally and the FJSC will be concerned with issues concerning all federal courts, while states deal with high courts,” he said.
No independence without autonomy
The keynote speaker, Mr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), said judiciary would not be truly independent until it attained full financial autonomy.
He said the judiciary was still too dependent on and emasculated by the executive, which he said, hampers its independence. “The courts are institutionally enslaved to the executive. This should be the first point of intervention of the NBA,” he said.
He said the judiciary would not be truly independent until its funding is totally removed from executive control.
Chairman of Bi-Courtney Group, Dr. Wale Babalakin (SAN), recalled that in the 60s, a judge earned about 3,500 pounds, far more than a Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor earned.
“Then, the judiciary attracted the greatest of minds. You can’t have a system where judges are not appropriately remunerated; it’ll remain difficult to attract the best minds to the Bench,” he said.
Chief Joe-Kyari Gadzama (SAN) said that while judicial autonomy could not be divorced from adequate remuneration for judicial officers, the NBA must rise to the challenge of fighting for judicial independence. He decried poor funding of the judiciary, adding that while judges cannot speak for themselves, the NBA must fill this gap by spearheading the quest for judicial autonomy.
Chief Emeka Ngige (SAN) decried the poor state of judges’ remuneration. He said only a few judges could boast of a roof over their heads after retirement, and canvassed for the appointment of ad-hoc judges to assist in decongesting the courts and fast-tracking justice delivery.
Ngige said vibrant and agile persons should be appointed to the NJC, not retired jurists who are too old to climb a staircase.
Former Supreme Court Justice, George Oguntade, who narrated his predicament while on the Bench, painted a gloomy picture of the travails of the average judicial officer. According to him, judges who dared to pronounce against the Executive arm of government were often marked as targets for harassment or denial of perquisites of office.
He urged udges not to relent, adding that one of the noble virtues of a judge is courage. “Your conscience must at times be your key compass,” he said, noting that judicial independence must not be sacrificed on the altar of pecuniary benefits.
Mr. Chijioke Okoli (SAN) harped on the need for meaningful judicial reform, while Mr. Kemi Balogun (SAN) said lawyers who deliberately abuse the judicial process by employing delay tactics should have their practice licences withdrawn.
Judges are like orphans
A judge of the Lagos State High Court, Justice Kazeem Alogba, said those nominated as judges must be made to write examinations before appointment, he said.
He called for more transparency, saying where judges were appointed based on recommendations alone could lead to judges being compromised. Alogba said when upright judges are victimised by the political class, no one stands up for them. To him, judges are like “orphans” in such circumstances.
“If you know that people will stand by you if you have done nothing wrong, then you will be ready to fight the fight to the last by abiding by your oath of office,” he said.
‘21st century judges needed’
A Kogi State High Court judge, Justice Alaba Omolaye-Ajileye, who gave a lecture on admissibility of electronic evidence, said judges must be computer literate so as not to occasion a miscarriage of justice.
He recalled that an “analogue judge” once acquitted a person accused of fraud because the judge was not convinced that the suspect was in possession of a mail as it was not found on him.
Immediate past Inspector-General of Police, Solomon Arase, called for synergy between the judiciary and investigating bodies.
“The judiciary has to hasten prosecution of cases,” he said. He recalled that the police under him presented what he thought was water-tight evidence in the kidnap case involving elder statesman Chief Olu Falae, but regretted that not much progress has been made in the suspects’ trial despite the investigators’ best efforts.
He advised prosecuting agencies to avoid the practice of arresting suspects and then shopping for evidence. He said there was the need to increase capacity for more intelligence-based investigation.
“Our investigation of bribery and corruption cases must be intelligence-driven. We need to train our investigators. Again, there is overlapping, duplicity of functions among agencies, so we need to harmonise our anti-corruption laws,” Arase said.