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NJC at 10 and challenges ahead

By Innocent Anaba

The fear of NJC is the beginning of wisdom for judicial officers, particularly judges of superior courts of record. Any memo, query or invitation extended to a judge by the NJC is always received with apprehension, particularly when such memos are related to complaints of wrong doing or impropriety.

Set up by the virtue of Section 153 of the 1999 constitution, it was meant to insulate the judiciary from the whims and caprices of the executive arm of government. It was also to guarantee the independence of the judiciary, which is necessary for the survival and flourishing of any democracy.

The need for the setting up of a body like the NJC can be traced to the unfortunate events after the 1983 general elections, in which conflicting orders were given by the courts from different states of the federation on the disputes arising from the same elections.

Following the decisions of courts after the 1983 elections, it was argued that the executive at both the federal and states levels influenced the judgments due to the fact that the appointments and discipline of judicial officers as well as funding of the judiciary were completely within the constitutional powers of the executive.

But these were some of the concerns the NJC had over the years since it was set up. On the average however, it is believed that despite its short comings, the council has made a difference.

Interestingly, some of these issues are still with us today. We have had in recent times, instances of conflicting Court of Appeal decisions on electoral matters, cases of interference by the executive, amongst others, which is why the council is needed now more than any other time.

Amongst the duties of the council is the general improvement on the performance of the judges, as only suitable candidate of impeccable character with sound legal background are appointed as judges, and even after their appointment as judges, the NJC constantly monitor the judges performance, through the ‘Performance Evaluation  Committee’.

There is no doubt that this has drastically reduced the undue delay in the delivery of judgments, while the unnecessary adjournments in court have also reduced.

NJC also discipline judges, through a well thought-out mechanism, put in place by the council. This has reduced abuse of judicial powers, corruptions and granting of frivolous and reckless interim orders and ex-parte orders by judges.  In recent times, some judges have come under the sledge hammer of the council for actions unbecoming of a judicial officer.

Interestingly, judges today, belong to the class of public officers who have no need to wait endlessly for their gratuity or pension, as the NJC has been able to ensure that payment of pensions to retired judicial officers is made without delay.

One must note, however, that this is only true as regards federal judicial officers, though some state judiciaries have done well too in this regard.

To buttress the importance it placed on the welfare of judicial officers, the council had initiated proposals for new salaries and allowances for judges in the country and this had led to an upward review of judicial officers’ salaries, through the 2008 Act, which prescribed the salaries and allowances of judicial officer holders and also the 2008 Certain Political Public and Judicial Office Holders (Salaries and Allowances, etc) Amendment Act 2008.

It has to be pointed out that the council paid all the arrears of salaries and allowances of all judicial officers in the country who were affected by the review.

The NJC today has four committees, namely Committee of Performance and Evaluation of Judicial Officers of superior courts of record; Federal Judiciary Due Process Committee; Federal Judiciary Tender Board and Federal Judiciary Monitoring and Evaluation Unit.

Many lawyers, including litigants would attest to the fact that the council has been able to bring sanity to the bench. The bench is the only section of the country’s public service that has adequate checks. Before a person is appointed a judge, he or she goes through a lot of processes.

First, the person is nominated by the Head of the court involved, in the case of the Federal High Court, the Chief Judge of the court; in the case of the National Industrial Court, the President of NIC; for the Federal Capital Court, the Chief Judge of the court; for the Sharia Court of Appeal of the FCT, the President of the court; and Customary Court of Appeal of FCT, the President of the court.

The names are sent to the Federal Judicial Service Commission, alongside their CVs, the names of those who nominated them to be appointed judges with the cases they have handled or decided, in accordance with given guidelines. For the state High Courts, the names are sent to the State Judicial Service Commission.

The commission then sits down, considers the names under the chairmanship of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and thereafter, recommend those qualified to the NJC. The NJC further scrutinizes the candidates, taking into account federal character spread, amongst others and thereafter recommends to the President, who appoints them and send  same to the Senate for confirmation.

This is the strictest form of appointment into any public office in the country.  Even on becoming a judge, the challenge is far from over. This is because the NCJ is on his trail, assessing his performance and any complaint or petition against him is investigated.

So far, the judiciary has remained the only institution that has inbuilt mechanism to check the bad eggs within it or those erroneously recruited into it.  The case of dismissed judges, or those forced to resign or retire, all courtesy of the NJC, is a testimony to the fact that the council has remained very valuable to the society, not just to the judiciary.

The public trust this institution has gained could be seen from the recommendation of the Justice Mohammed Uwais Electoral Reform Panel, which had recommended for members of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to be screened by NJC.

The challenges faced by the council is also enormous, but they are mainly about the executive arm, making sure that they exert pressure on them to get their way or deliberately disregarding their recommendations.

A certain judge of the Federal High Court, even though the NJC had recommended his sack after thorough investigation by the council on allegation leveled against him and after overwhelming evidence was adduced to substantiate the allegation, and recommendation made to the President for his sack, it was gathered that the Presidency sat on the recommendation for a long while before acting on it.

The failure of the NJC to protect some Chief Judges or insist on the choice of some CJs, has also constituted a major challenge to the council. This is because despite the recommendation of the council on either the appointment of a particularly person as the Chief Judge, the states involved would go ahead to  appoint a judge they feel more comfortable with, even if the judge is the fourth, fifth or sixth judge on the hierarchy in the state.

In some states where the CJs have had running battle with the Governors, the council has not had much success in getting its recommendations on the matter accepted and these are not as a result of the failing of the council, but because of the way some public office holders feel they can circumvent laid down rules or disregard them with impunity.

Meanwhile, the powers of the council includes recommending to the President from among the list of persons submitted by (i) The Federal Judicial Service Commission, Persons for appointment to the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, The Justice of the Supreme Court, The President and Justice of the Court of Appeal, the Chief Judge and judges of the Federal High Court and (ii) The Judicial Service Commission of the FCT, Abuja, persons for appointment for the offices of the Chief Judge and Justice of FCT, Abuja and judges of the High Court of FCT, Abuja, the Grand Kadi and Kadis of the Sharia Court of Appeal of the FCT, Abuja, and the President and judges of the Customary Court of Appeal of FCT, Abuja.

Other powers of the council are recommended to the President for the removal from office of the judicial officers specified above and exercise disciplinary control over.

They are also to recommend to the Governors from among the list of persons submitted to it by the State Judicial Service Commission persons for appointment for the office of the Chief Judge of the state, persons for appointment for the Chief Judge of the state and judges for the High Court of the states (Grand Kadi and Kadis of the Sharia Court of Appeal in the state and the President and judges of the Customary Court of Appeal of the states.

The council recommend to the Governors the removal from the office of the judicial officers specified above and also exercise disciplinary control over such officers and collect, control and disburse all monies capital and re-current for the judiciary, advise the President and the Governors on any matters pertaining to the judiciary, as may be referred to the council by the President or the Governors.

INJC also appoint, dismiss and exercise disciplinary control over all members and staff of the council and control; and disburse all monies, capital and recurrent for the services of the council as well deal with all matters relating to broad issues of politics and administration.

As the council turns 10, we only pray that this institution continues to carry out its work courageously and without fear or favour, for the betterment of the judiciary and the country at large.

The council meanwhile, will commission its new building within the Supreme Court complex in Abuja , next week

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