By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA — The Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, yesterday, cried out that allegation of judges collecting bribes before granting bail to accused persons had become rampant, and vowed to fish out such judges and administer appropriate sanctions on them.
The CJN who spoke while flagging off the 2012 Biennial Conference of All Nigeria Judges of the lower courts, organised by the National Judicial Council, NJI, said: “There have also been complaints regarding some of you on laziness in the discharge of judicial duties, lateness in sitting and non-sitting at all and so on.
“Distinguished participants, as you are probably aware, I rose from being one of you to my present position. Going down the memory lane, I recall with pride that some decades ago I was a judge of the lower court and a magistrate to be precise. I recall with nostalgia our commitment, loyalty and dedication to our adjudicatory duties at the time. I also recall that the current luxuries of the courtrooms (inadequate as they may be now), the perks of office and the glamour with which your offices are now associated were not available to us then.
“Yet one cannot compare the meagerness of the salaries and allowances of my days on the lower court bench with the current salaries and other perquisites of office of this era. I make bold to say that all of us took up appointment on the lower court bench then not so much for the material attraction (because there was none then), but rather for the honour, the respect and the sincere desire to be true representatives of the Almighty God. Our words were our bonds and to call the integrity of a Judge to question was then a taboo as every Judge, whether of the lower court or the higher court lived above board.
Allegations of corruption are rampant
“However, it would appear that things have changed drastically between then and now. Heads of courts receive reports and petitions concerning some judges of lower courts which are rather difficult to believe. Allegations of corruption are almost becoming rampant.
“It is in the light of the above that I find the theme of this conference: ‘Judicial Reforms and the Administration of Justice’, timely and germane. However, I must quickly stress that we should let the reform start from the hearts of individuals concerned. I urge that you reform yourself and allow yourself to be reformed by amending your conduct that brings dishonour to the judiciary as an institution. Let your conduct be seen to be both ethical and impeccable.
Be above board
“I urge you to be above board; sit promptly at 9: 00 am; be fair to litigants and other patrons of your courts; lead your staff by example and by so doing, the image of the judiciary will continue to receive high rating in the opinion of the public.
“Let me, however, warn that the Judicial Service Commissions of various jurisdictions will not hesitate to administer appropriate sanctions to any Judge of the lower courts found wanting.”
In his speech, the Administrator of the NJI, Justice Umaru Eri, who noted that 75 to 80 per cent of cases were determined at the lower courts, said efforts were on top gear towards transforming the Nigerian judiciary from a manual paper-based professional environment to an automated one.”
“This is a key part of initiatives aimed at improving access to justice for all persons, of which the use of Information and Communications Technology, ICT, will play a crucial role.
“Technology on its own is nothing without competent and willing personnel. It is important to note therefore that the implementation of ICT depends solely on attitudinal change of its users such as Judicial Officers, Court Staff, Lawyers and court users.
“From statistics and my practical knowledge of the prisons, 50 per cent of the warrants of those awaiting trials are signed by Judges of the Lower Courts, that is to say Magistrates, Area Court and Customary Court Judges. Why do we send suspect accused of overnight cases like minor theft, wandering, petty quarrels, perhaps at Club Houses, assault and improper dressing, to mention but a few, on remand?
“Why do courts give in to requests for remand on mere presentation of First Information Report by the Police? In most cases, these young persons plead not guilty and our lower courts proceed to grant them bail pending trial. They find themselves in prison because they have no sureties.
“These are cases that require caution and discharge. We also have awkward situation where people are arrested for what they call improper dressing or being unable to explain their visible means of livelihood. Such people are arrested and detained to await trial.
“We also have situations of people being detained for being unable to pay their debts and in extreme cases, greasing the palms of some of these lower courts to detain their perceived enemies. We have had cases of courts sending young boys into detention for contesting with colleagues to marry.
“And so also we have had politicians ensuring detention of their opponents in prison until after the elections are over. I therefore call on the various Judicial Service Commissions in the States to out rightly discipline any Judge of lower court found to abuse his powers. Bail in all these cases should be automatic with no conditions attached.”