Charles Ajuya, a senior advocate is Delta State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice. In this interview he appraised the judiciary independence and suggested that the running of the affairs of the third arm of government be entrusted into the hands of judicial officers. He also assess the criminal justice system, the need for judges to be protected from petitioners and other sundry issues. Excerpts:
By WAHAB ABDULAH
What is your evaluation of the judiciary in 2013 and what is your projection for the sector in 2014?
My appraisal of the judiciary in 2013 is that under the democratic government, they have come of age , they had gone through a lot of challenges before that time and by 2013, they geared themselves up in the dispensation of justice in an outstanding manner. Right from the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, down to the trial courts judges, they have been very efficient and hardworking. But that does not suggest that we don’t have few that have called for concern, but generally, the judiciary is health and strong.
It has helped to sustain the democratic government in this country, particularly by upholding the provisions of the constitution that bind all of us together and ensure that the three arms of government work in accordance with the rule of law.
About my projection, I know there are going to be challenges certainly. We are moving towards another election period and of course, we are going to have challenges in some months to come for people who for genuine reasons want to air their grievances through the court and some who will want to use the judiciary as a tool, particularly on political matters. I think the bottom line is that the judges are experience and I believe they would be able to see between the lines and dispense justice accordingly.
An Abuja High Court held recently that the funding of the judiciary should be entrusted into that tier of government. What is your reaction to this and the independence of the judiciary?
Well, I have not read fully the judgment it was delivered. I am aware that no state governor in this country set out deliberately to violate that provision, which recognises the independence of the judiciary. In fact, I will tell you that each arm of government has the same problem. You talked about the independence of the judiciary. Yes, judges are not interfered with but the question of funding goes beyond what we see.
For us in Delta state, we are already working on a bill to that effect., even before this judgment. But going through the process of making the bill, there are challenges and I think every state governor appreciates that and even for the states that have that law, its operation is also not the problem, but the bottom line is funding and the misconception that most people have, is that when a state submits its budget to the House of Assembly, the Lawmakers deliberate on it and it comes out as a bill, an appropriation bill and of course you have some money allocated to the judiciary and other sectors. Most people just think the money is available in the treasury and it is available to be handed over to the Chief Judge.
Most states either rely on their Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) or the federal allocation and what they budget might not be what they have. So, if you talked about money meant for the judiciary and if for a particular month, all that a state earns is budgeted for the judiciary, and you suggest we give that to them then what about other sectors? As a lawyer, I agreed that the judiciary should be well funded but the process depends on the money available for the state at a particular given time.
So, what we have been experiencing from the middle of last year that funds from federation account dropped drastically, states have not be getting what they are entitled to, then how do you now talk about giving to the judiciary what isn’t in the budget.
So it’s a matter of what the priorities need are at that particular point in time. Otherwise, we would have a serious deficit problem which is not good for the country. I think the areas the Chief Judge and the heads of various governments would look at it and see what is practicable and feasible. It might be there in the law but what is there in the provisions of the constitution might be very difficult to operate and sometimes their face value becomes a serious problem.
We are prepared to fund the judiciary and that we have been doing. The state government understands and appreciates the need to fund the judiciary.
The Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta has warned Judges to be careful about how they grant injunctions, especially as the election year is drawing nearer. How do you see this directive?
I think what he said is a word of advice. The honorable CJ is a man of experience, with his position, there are lots of things which he sees that many may not know, the information he has, which many may not have and like a leader or like a father he has a duty to guide those under him, because if anything happens to any of the judges of the Federal High Court of course, he will be touched.
As a person and like every father having children, he has a duty to guide them, not to interfere and dictate in the way they handle matters, but just to put them on their toes. I think he has a duty to do that.
At the valedictory court session in honour of Justice M. Awokuleyin, who handled James Ibori’s case, he stated that Judges must be protected from petition writers. What is your take on this?
You know as sitting Judges of the court, they don’t have the opportunity to respond to these petitions except they are required to do so officially, and the protection he seeks is that judges should be allowed to do their work and to dispense justice without interference.
When you talk about interference in the wheel of justice, interference comes from people, such as going to the press to present their case in public opinion before coming to court. And I think any sensible lawyer who has a genuine case and goes to court should not subject such cases to public opinion until after judgment.
One can criticize a judgment, no doubt but there are better ways of doing it professionally. You can take it up in newspapers, articles and write-up, but it must be constructive for the purpose of developing the law and not for the purpose of ridiculing the judge. I think that’s what the protection he seeks. We need protection not to ridicule the judges but to advance the law.
How would you evaluate the level of criminal justice in the country?
Well, the judges have been trying, but I think the challenge we have is that the law is not developing fast to deal with contemporary matters. You see, society develops everyday, you have new forms of criminality, you have new forms of things which in the law they are either made provisions for but made no adequate provision for punishment and that is where we are lacking. An instance is the issue of kidnapping.
Of course, in the laws, the prescribed punishment is between 7 and 10 years, but it has become a heinous crime now and of course, people want stiffer penalties which we are advocating for, stiffer penalties not necessarily death penalty. Of course, you can have a longer term of imprisonment to keep such people away from the society.
When you take someone who is 17 or 18 years getting into crime by the time he’s getting to 20 or 25 years in jail, and he comes back after 25 years in jail. I don’t see him going back to that crime, he would have learnt a lot, he would have been remorseful and of course, sometimes giving up such crimes.
Some people have been advocating for special election petition tribunal to deal specifically with election matters. As 2015 election year approaches what is your view on this?
I think I differ. Election tribunal should be on ad-hoc basis. The reason is that after the election petition tribunal, what will the Judges be doing? Because we know that elections don’t come every day, they come once in four years and so when the elections are offer they become idle. I don’t agree with such view.
What are the challenges you have as the Attorney-General and Commissioner of Justice in Delta state?
The challenges that we have are like every other sector in the country. Funding is a challenge. What we try to do is to work within the available resources that we have. The perception of the people over what the government is doing matters a lot. There is this negative perception that things are not there. I tell you, in government you find people telling you that what is this government doing?
They are not aware and sometimes when they see it they don’t want to appreciate it because of the negative perceptions.We do our best. In this country generally people think politicians are there for themselves but I do not think so even though we have one or two politicians that are doing so. There are politicians who are there to work and serve.
Coming to the Ministry of Justice, the challenges that I had initially was that of mindset. People think this is how things were been done years back and there is no need for a change but having regards to economy and the type of system we run, there’s need for accountability, getting officers of the Ministry to also feel accountable became initial problem. In fact, for six months I had to work hard to change the mindset.
When I got to the ministry, I found that a lawyer assigned a file would not feel obliged to conduct the matter and report back. He would conduct the matter sometimes and keep the file away so government would not know what is happening and that is why sometimes you find people say oh government is violating certain laws or order.
It is not that government decides to do that but you find out that people who are entrusted these matters for advice are not sending the advice forward and that I had to tackle to ensure that every lawyer handling a matter at every given point in time must account for that matter he is handling, he must report to the relevant ministry and report also to the Attorney-General. That is the only way we could have control, the only way government can be law abiding.
Apart from that, I do not think we have other challenge. We have the total support of Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan in handling the Ministry of Justice so far so good.
There is suggestion that the retirement age of Federal High Court judges should be extended from 65 to 70 years. What is your reaction?
I think the retirement age should be fluid, even if we increase it, not many people will have that strength to work up to the age of 70. I think usually the worries of people is that what will they do after retirement. At 65, they have paid their dues, for those that have the strength perhaps, they may wish to continue in other areas. So for me, I would not want to hold the bar that it must be 65, we have very bright judges who can still go beyond 65 years but not all of them can do that.