By Onozure Dania
As Nigeria celebrated its 60th independence anniversary last week, lawyers in the country in this edition of Law and Human Rights, gave an assessment of the country’s judiciary so far.
They noted that though it has faced a lot of challenges, it has done well in playing its role of settling disputes between individuals, states, organisations, and governments.
Dr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN
The Judiciary can do a lot better to gain public confidence by resolving people’s problems and disputes and I call on them to assert their independence more forcefully, especially on funding.
Chief Solo Akuma, SAN
The Judiciary in Nigeria has done creditably well in the last 60 years under the circumstances it has operated. In most cases, it has been confronted with a lack of judicial officers, judicial staff, inadequate infrastructure, lack of modern equipment to aid the administration of justice but it has done well.
John Odubela, SAN
There is still room for improvement in terms of the independence of the Judiciary. We still need strong legislation that will truly grant autonomy to the arm in all ramifications. On the appointment of judges, we also need improvement more especially on qualifications as a guarantee that the most qualified are appointed.
In terms of remuneration, there is a need to increase their salaries and other emoluments as the present pay is nothing to write home about. I am also of the view that private legal practitioners should be appointed into the higher bench such as the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. Another area of concern is the issue of conflicting judgments coming from our higher courts which are not good for our jurisprudence. I believe our higher courts need to harmonize the system to prevent such conflicts. But in all, we must give it to the judiciary for still flying the flag of being the hope of the common man.
Adeniji Kazeem, SAN, Former Attorney-General and Commissioner of Justice, Lagos State, said: “The Nigerian Judiciary has grown in leaps and bounds in the last 60 years. From the great jurists who served in the Supreme Court and Lower Courts in years past till present, these noblemen and legal giants helped create the necessary platform for social engineering which has greatly assisted in giving ordinary Nigerians greater access to justice.
Recently, the Supreme Court made a landmark pronouncement that quelled the controversial issue of virtual hearings and access to justice that had arisen in the course of the recent global public health crisis.
One must also concede that over the years, there has been massive infrastructural improvements with the building of new courts, the creation of new judicial divisions, and the appointment of more judicial officers and staff. However, I must be frank that there has not been a commensurate improvement in the welfare of the judiciary both for serving and retired officers.
If you take a comparative survey of the perquisites of office for the judicial sector compared to the executive and legislative arms you will find that there is a huge gap. This gap has led to low motivation and sadly but inevitably, cases of corruption in that sector. The quality of life of several of these judicial officers especially retired ones, many of whom are corruption-free, continues to diminish daily. To make matters worse, the Judiciary has slowly become a public whipping boy, that is largely overworked and over-vilified supported by sometimes decrepit and outdated tools.
At 60, Nigeria has and continues to produce fine jurists and judicial workers but there must be a massive overhaul of its remuneration across the board. There must also be a more transparent selection process devoid of bias and prejudice so that we can have the finest upright minds to dispense justice without fear or favour.
There must be more infrastructural development in order to provide for better administration of justice. For instance, the number of courtrooms and inevitably, judicial officers manning both Courts of the first instance and Appellate Courts must be considerably increased especially in places like Lagos and other major cities to enhance the quality of justice and timing of delivery.
This will largely reduce the period in between adjournments and workload of the Honourable justices. As you know, justice delayed is justice denied.
Notwithstanding the challenges, the Judiciary has made remarkable progress in many ways over the last 60 years and has lived up to its reputation as a just and fearless last defender of the common man. However, we must be truthful that its sterling reputation at independence in 1960 has been considerably whittled down by so many factors including bouts of military dictatorship such that an unwholesome halo has unjustly begun to hover over both the good and bad eggs in its midst.
In my opinion, the assessment of the judiciary since independence is in two phases. Firstly, the period immediately after independence up to the early 90s. During this period, the Judiciary has done relatively well. It has produced eminent and renowned jurists like Justice Oputa, Kayode Esho, Karibi Whyte to mention but a few. These are Judges whose judgments are full of depth, wisdom, and logic.
I could remember that many young lawyers in those days go to court even though they don’t have any matter but just to listen to the proceedings and sound judgments of these eminent jurists. They are transparent and not subject to executive influence. However, the position changed by the mid-’90s. The quality of judges being produced at this time began to dwindle. The Judiciary which used to be the pride of the nation and last hope of the common man is no more the case. There is a high level of Executive influence on the Judiciary, cases last forever in our courts and the judiciary had become very timid and a tool in the hand of the executive.
The reason for this is not farfetched, the decadence in the society has also infected the Judiciary. The high rate of corruption, dishonesty, and mediocrity in high places prevalent in the larger society has also affected the Judiciary. This is very unfortunate. The lack of independence of the Judiciary that is very prevalent now is one of the major causes of the inability of the Judiciary to hit the required standards.
I would assess the judiciary’s performance in the period under review cautiously. I say cautiously because a number of factors are responsible for my mixed reactions to your question.
On the one hand, I would score the judiciary high because given the massive socio-politico-economic and technological transformations the world has witnessed in the last 60 years, which have massively impacted justice delivery, especially in the last 20 years, and particularly given the rather slow response of Nigeria as a state to adapting to these sweeping lifestyle and living advancements, our judiciary has kept performing commendably.
Many times, we have had to rely on the judiciary to save us from the brink of collapse and disaster as a nation and the judiciary has come through for us. On the other hand, we cannot close our eyes to the depressing experience we encounter these days of judges who are grossly incompetent and fantastically corrupt. This is a growing concern. We need to strengthen the selection process for our judicial officers so as to see that we get the best.
We need to better fund them and avail them technology and resources so as to equip them for expeditious and just delivery. We must cater for their welfare better so as to insulate them from the wiles of politicians and other corrupt elements. We need to step up quality monitoring structures to ensure that decisions are audited for bias and incompetence. Finally, we must ensure their support staff like judicial assistants, registrars and clerks are also competent and accountable because most judges can be ‘reached’ and breached through this support cadre.
On the whole, I would say the judiciary has performed creditably, considering all the variables. But there is room for improvement. Plenty of room.
The judiciary has come a long way. In the terms of the advancement of the rule of law and maintenance of stability in the polity, it has done well. The judiciary must be commended given the harsh conditions under which judges operate across the country. Infrastructure is poor, fewer judges compared to cases that come to the courts, zero automation, and poor remuneration.
After independence and even during military rule, the judiciary became the bulwark against tyranny and misrule and gave hope to the common man with momentous decisions boosting our legal jurisprudence and bringing succor to the downtrodden.
Like everything else, however, the majesty of the court has been reduced in recent times by perceived bias, corruption, clanism, and in some cases, improper appointments of judges. Politicians are seriously undermining the independence of the judiciary. We must invest in the judiciary and appoint competent and fearless judges through a competitive process to restore what may be termed the waning glory of the judiciary.
We must confront the evil of delay in justice administration and empower the system to create commercial courts for the resolution of commercial and contractual disputes. Today, many litigants justifiably think that our justice administration is a huge joke.