The Federal Government has admitted that last year’s arrest of some judges for alleged corrupt practices by the Department of State Services and their ongoing prosecution by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation are controversial moves.
It noted that the “drastic action” by the law enforcement agencies was borne out of concerns about the extent of the National Judicial Council’s impartiality and effectiveness in the handling of complaints against judges and the perceived failure of the NJC’s system to bring culpable judges to book.
According to the Federal Government’s new ‘National Policy on Justice 2017,’ the concerns were caused by the domination of the NJC by judges.
It added that the concerns had recently heightened due to increase in the allegations of corruption against judges and the perceived failure to bring culpable judges to book.
It however regretted that the the “drastic measures” by law enforcement agencies had generated more concerns and controversy.
This is an indirect reference to the October 2016 arrest by the DSS and the ongoing prosecution by the EFCC and the AGF’s office of some judges.
The document stated, “Accusations of corruption and abuse of power against judges are pervasive and relate to all levels of the judicial system.
“The domination of the oversight bodies by judges has raised concerns about the extent of their impartiality and effectiveness.
“These concerns have heightened of late due to increase in the accusations of corruption and abuse of power being raised against judges and perceived failure to bring them to justice.
“Drastic action by law enforcement agencies to redress the situation has generated even greater concerns and controversy.”
The document, signed by the AGF and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN), on August 21, 2017, also expressed concerns over lack of strict adherence to the NJC’s guidelines on appointment of judges.
It stated that despite adopting guidelines for the appointment of judges and reinforcing the guidelines with the issuance of the National Judicial Policy in 2016, adhering to the guidelines and monitoring their implementation remained a challenge.
The new policy reiterated the need for judges, in a democracy, to be free from external pressure in order to guarantee impartiality and fairness in the discharge of their judicial responsibility.
It acknowledged that factors, like procedure of appointment of judges, treatment of complaints against judges, poor funding and conditions of service and lack of personal security of judges, posed challenges to the independence of the judiciary.
It stated in part, “The National Judicial Council has adopted guidelines for appointment of judicial officers which seek to address the problem, by putting in place a process to ensure appointment is done on consideration of merit, competence and integrity only.
“These guidelines have been reinforced by the National Judicial Policy issued by the NJC in 2016. The challenge that remains is in ensuring adherence to the guidelines and monitoring their implementation.”
It noted that “there have been concerns over the effectiveness and impartiality of the oversight system of the judiciary, which lies principally in the hands of the National Judicial Council and the federal and state Judicial Service Commissions.”
As its strategy for intervention, the document proposed that “the National Judicial Council will lead in the reform of the oversight system of the judiciary.”
It proposed that within six months, the NJC should set up a committee with members drawn from the wider justice sector and civil society to review the judiciary’s “oversight mechanisms.”
It also suggested the establishment and strengthening of regular inspection and reporting systems for all the lower courts.
It is not clear if the Justice Suleiman Galadima-led Corruption and other Financial Crime Cases Trials Monitoring Committee, inaugurated by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, on November 1, is a model envisaged by the Federal Government’s new policy.
The new policy stated, “Within the next six months, taking into account the critical importance of the issue, the NJC will set up a committee, with broad representation from the wider justice sector and civil society, to review the oversight mechanisms of the judiciary at all levels and recommend reform.
“The aim is to ensure greater effectiveness, independence and transparency, including the establishment and strengthening of regular inspection and reporting systems for all the lower courts.”
It also noted that “there is a general challenge of poor funding of the judiciary especially at the state level,” a development it stated “curtails the capacity of the judiciary to deliver justice effectively.”
According to the document, the complaints by judges about lack of adequate provision for their personal safety and security, either at home or in court, “is bound to undermine the confidence and ability of the judges to handle cases with a restful and objective mind.”
It also directed the Inspector General of Police, Mr. Ibrahim Idris, to conduct an assessment of the security need of judges within six months.
“The Federal Government will take action to ensure the safety and security of judges.
“To this effect, the Inspector General of Police, will, within the next six months, conduct an assessment of the security needs of the judiciary and, in collaboration with other security and law enforcement agencies, take action to close the gaps,” the statement added.
The Federal Ministry of Justice, earlier at a one-day summit in Abuja on August 10, 2017, announced the new policy.
The policy, divided into 17 themes, was subsequently signed by Malami on August 21, 2017.
Some of the themes captured by the policy are the independence of the judiciary; synergy and cooperation across justice sector; supporting fair, credible and violence-free electoral processes; legal and regulatory framework for commerce and economic activities; protection and promotion of human rights; and justice sector and national security.
The policy also seeks to address the challenges relating to a fair, credible and violence-free electoral process.
As its strategic intervention, the document promised that the Federal Government would “review and implement” the recommendations of the Justice Muhammadu Uwais-led committee submitted in 2011 and the recent ones submitted by the Ken Nnamani-led committee on May 2, 2017.