…..says SANs, lawyers to face sanctions for trial delays
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – The Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, on Monday, directed all Heads of Courts in the country to compile and forward to the National Judicial Council, NJC, comprehensive lists of all corruption and financial crime cases being handled by their various courts.
The CJN, who gave the directive during a special court session the Supreme Court held to mark the opening of the 2017/2018 legal year, noted that “inexplicable and seemingly intractable delays”, has been the bane of criminal justice administration in the country.
He decried that such delays, “result in the unfortunate disruption of due process”.
Consequently, Justice Onnoghen ordered all the Heads of Courts to designate at least one court in their various jurisdictions as Special Courts, solely for the purpose of hearing and speedily determining corruption and financial crime cases.
He said where such cases proceeded on appeal, to either the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court, special dates on each week should be fixed, solely for hearing and determining such appeals.
He said the National Judicial Council, NJC, would at its next meeting, constitute an Anti-Corruption Cases Trial Monitoring Committee that will continually monitor the progress of high-profile criminal cases.
According to the CJN, “This committee would be saddled with, among other things, the responsibility of ensuring that both Trial and Appellate Courts handling corruption and financial crime cases key into and abide by our renewed efforts at ridding our Country of the canker worm”.
Warning that it would no longer be business as usual for corrupt elements in the judiciary, the CJN, gave all Heads of Courts in the country the nod to clampdown on both Prosecution and Defence Counsel who indulge in the unethical practice of deploying delay tactics to stall criminal trials.
He said the Heads of Courts should report cases of unnecessary delays to the NJC, which in turn, would transmit them to the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC), in the case of SANs, and the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC), in the case of other legal practitioners.
“We must not lose sight of the indispensable role of the judiciary in the fight against corruption. Corruption continues to place the judiciary in the eye of the storm, but, we cannot allow that to deter us or weaken our resolve.
“It is regrettable that the image of the Judiciary has been tarnished by the notion that the Nigerian Judiciary is bedeviled by corrupt elements, hence the need for an image building parade.
“We must accept that acts of misconduct of a few rub off on the rest of the judiciary and create the impression that all judicial officers have their hands soiled with the proceeds of corruption.
“Let me be clear here; it is not going to be business as usual for the few unscrupulous elements in our midst. I am determined to redeem the unfairly battered image of the judiciary.
“Any Judicial Officer found wanting would be dealt with decisively, and shown the way out swiftly. It is therefore for this reason that the independence of the judiciary must be entrenched if we are to hold the trust and confidence of the citizens of Nigeria.
“We, in the judiciary are fully aware and in fact worried by concerns expressed by members of the public on the very slow speed with which corruption cases in particular are being heard or determined by our Courts.
“Although the Administration of Criminal Justice Act contains many commendable provisions aimed at speeding up the process of criminal prosecution generally, it is clear that we still need to employ more strategies to support and strengthen this law in fast tracking the criminal justice system”, the CJN added.
Justice Onnoghen who also used the occassion to swear-in 29 new Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SANs, vowed to bring the full weight of the law on anyone found to have offered gratification to a judicial officer.
He said: “We shall reform, strengthen, continue to work with the National Judicial Council, and with the support of the public rid the Judiciary of both perceived and real corruption.
“I encourage members of the public to cut off the supply side of corruption by stopping the offering of bribes to judicial officers. The full weight of the law will be visited on all those who are caught in this nefarious activity that is capable of eroding integrity and confidence in the judiciary.
“Finally on this issue, I wish to appeal to litigants, advocates and the public to refrain from making unsubstantiated and malicious allegations/complaints against judicial officers.
“Unsubstantiated and unfair complaints against judicial officers are a threat to justice and judicial independence as much as the act of corruption itself because of the atmosphere of intimidation, fear and erosion of confidence it may engender.
“Some judicial officers may fear to make decisions against certain litigants or lawyers for fear of enlisting malicious complaints. Aggrieved parties should only make complaints where judicial officers have violated the Judicial Code of Conduct or abused their exalted office.
“We are under no illusion that the fight against corruption would be an easy one, as we are already aware that when you fight corruption, corruption fights back; but we are determined to win it. We require all hands to be on deck to fight this monster”.
Describing the past legal year as “a turbulent one for the Judiciary”, the CJN disclosed that the Supreme Court considered a total number of 1,362 matters comprising motions, appeals and judgements.
“Under motions, we heard 82 political, 675 civil and 208 criminal motions, totalling 965; the Court also considered a total number of 394 appeals comprising 96 political, 174 civil, and 124 criminal. In total, 243 Judgments were delivered in the 2016/2017 legal year.
“This is by all means an impressive report considering the persistent and increasing volume of cases that continue to come before this Court. I attribute this impressive performance to the hard work of judicial officers, support staff and the reforms we are implementing to improve justice delivery.
“I share the view that the Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria are the most hard working Supreme Court Justices in the world”, the CJN stated, even as he frowned against disobedience of court orders.
“Disobedience of or non-compliance with judicial orders is a recipe for breakdown of law and order. Such developments are at variance with the principles and tenets of the rule of law in a democratic government”.
On his part, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, in his address, said the new legal year was an opportunity for judges and lawyers to rededicate themselves to the rule of law.
He said the federal government under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari will do whatever it takes within the context of the provided precedent to ensure peace and security of the nation in the sustenance of our democracy.
The AGF said: “Today, our country faces serious political and constitutional challenges from different sectors. In view of its role as the ultimate arbiter of disputes in our polity there is no doubt that this Court will be increasingly required, in the coming year, to interprete and adjudicate on various matters affecting the sustenance of our national values and the sanctity of our political system.
“I trust that in this endeavour, you shall continue to dispense justice in a fair, firm and courageous manner, in the overall national interest, as you have done over the years.
“The fair and firm resolution of contending social issues, by our courts, is critical to the continued confidence of our citizens in the efficacy of democracy and its capacity to resolve the challenges which they face on a daily basis.
“To achieve this, there is a need for all the arms of Government to remain focused on improving the judicial system to a level which benefits us all”.
Malami said he would ensure that all Executive branch institutions always acknowledge and respect the fact that the Judiciary is pivotal to the maintenance of law and order, and must therefore be fully supported to discharge that mandate.
Nevertheless, he urged the judiciary to take a second look at the current system of its annual vacation.
“While the practice of a two months-plus Annual Vacation is historical and has become part of our judicial system, it would appear that several litigants and persons outside the legal system increasingly see this practice as a contributory factor to the delay of cases in our courts. In their estimation, it amounts to practically shutting down the entire Judicial arm for such a long time, every year, in addition to the other Public Holidays which are also applicable to the Judiciary.
“While Courts have historically tried to address these concerns through the use of Vacation Judges, we all know that there is so much Vacation Judges can do. I am aware that in some other Jurisdictions, the practice of staggered vacations is increasingly being employed as a strategy to balance the need for rest and the avoidance of a total shutdown of the Judiciary for such an extended period in the interest of the expeditious treatment of cases by all means possible”, the AGF added.
Meanwhile, dignitaries that attended the event included the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State, a former Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, among others.