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Lagos and appointment of Chief Judges

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By Kunle Uthman

THE Judiciary is that branch of government invested with the judicial powers; the system of courts in a country; the body of judges; the bench. That branch of government which is intended to interpret, construe and apply the law.

According to ‘Bryce’, ‘Modern Democracies ‘:  “There is no better test of the excellence of a government than the efficiency of its judicial system ‘, for nothing more nearly touches the welfare and security of the citizens than his knowledge that he can rely on the certain, prompt, and impartial administration of justice.

Ambode

The judge, therefore, fulfills and performs a very important role in society and it is important to choose men and women of honesty, impartiality, independence and legal knowledge to be appointed as judges.

The qualities of a good judge are explicitly stated in the ‘Academic Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies’ March 2014 Edition thus: “A Judge is the pillar of the entire justice system and the public expects highest and irreproachable conduct from anyone performing a judicial function. Judges must endeavour for the utmost standard of integrity in both their professional and personal lives.

They should be knowledgeable about the law, willing to undertake in-depth legal research, and able to write decisions that are clear, logical and cogent. Their judgement should be sound, and they should be able to make informed decisions that will stand up to close scrutiny. Judges should be fair and open-minded, devoid of any kind of political fervor”.

The Chief Judge of a State is primus inter pares among the Judges of the State and also the head of the judicial arm of government. The position is usually occupied by the most senior Judge in hierarchy as a convention and practice, which is rarely deviated from except in most exceptional and extraordinary circumstances that shows that the most senior judge is not capable of performing the onerous responsibilities of that Office. It is, therefore, easy to project succession based on seniority and dates of retirement.

This conventional norm also has numerous advantages and disadvantages because it has embedded therein some rivalry, competition and preparation for succession and a “turn-by-turn mentality”, which promotes unnecessary competition.

However, the State Judicial Service Commissions are required to forward the names of two nominees to the National Judicial Council, NJC, for consideration to the Office of Chief Judge of a State, after scrutiny and interviews.

Therefore, the bulk of the responsibility to ascertain the suitability or otherwise of a person as Chief Judge is with the State Judicial Service Commission, JSC, to ensure that ‘fit and proper’ persons are recommended for consideration, irrespective of seniority, and where the most senior is a person that lacks integrity and the qualities of the exalted office, he should be skipped in preference for the next person.

In the recent past, it has become Chrystal Clear that seniority ought not to be the sole parameter for the appointment of the Chief Judge of a State and that other parameters, should necessarily be considered in determining the suitability of proposed persons to occupy that exalted office.

The other considerations should include, but not limited to the following: What is the performance of the Judge whose name is to be recommended as a Judicial Officer? What is his / her relationship with other Judges, Magistrates and other Judicial officers?

What is the opinion of the Bar, the Bar Association and lawyers of the proposed nominee? What is the quality of Judgements delivered and conduct of proceedings in his / her court? Does the nominee have a reputation for honesty, decorum and possesses impeccable character and integrity to serve as Chief Judge of the State and would the nominee undermine the Office of Chief Registrar, who by law and convention is the Chief Accounting Officer of the Judiciary? Lastly, is the nominee a God-Fearing individual, who is not corrupt and incorruptible and will not condone corruption in the administration of Justice during his / her tenure?

If the answers to most of the questions above are in the negative, it may be necessary, albeit obligatory to skip the most senior, and not recommend that person and consider the next best Judge that is infallible and honest and who will necessarily improve the justice delivery system, give quality judgements and not spend the bulk of his / her time awarding contracts to friends, family and cronies and do little or nothing to enhance Justice delivery system in the State.

It is also condemnable that the Chief Judge upon resumption will remove and replace key officers in order to ensure that his / her surrogates are appointed or deployed, with the intention that such persons will do his / her bidding and protect his / her interest. This is not in consonance with Civil Service Rules and Regulations and promotes unnecessary rivalry among the administrative Staff of the Judicial arm of government.

In the last ten years, Lagos State has had four different Chief Judges each of whom had a different vision for the State Judiciary. This resulted in lack of cohesive visionary continuity for the system, rivalries and lack of good policy thrust, which ought not to be pivoted on the individual incumbent but the justice delivery system at large. The tenures of most of these Chief Judges were short and one Chief Judge in the State spent less than one year.

On the 24th September 2017, Hon. Justice Funmilayo Atilade retired from the Bench, having attained the mandatory retirement age of 65 years, and has since been replaced by Hon. Justice Opeyemi Oke who has been sworn in as Acting Chief Judge of Lagos State. The latter has a tenure of 21 months to serve and then necessarily be replaced by another Judge. How did the last Chief Judge fare and what was her relationship with the system including the executive and the legislative arms of government? In respect of the new Chief Judge, what checks and balances should be put in place to ensure a peaceful, rancour free tenure that would enhance and improve Justice delivery system in Lagos State?

Hon. Justice Funmilayo Atilade’s tenure as Chief Judge was abysmally poor and full of rancor among judicial officers in the State.  Her relationship with the executive arm of government was “frosty” and not cordial and there was very little infrastructural development in the courts to enhance the justice delivery system, unlike during the tenure of her predecessors in office.

No landmark judgements were delivered by her to ingratiate her tenure in the legal jurisprudence of Lagos State. For the first time in recent memory, the New Legal Year Programme commencing with worship in Mosques and Churches were not held this year and a Valedictory Service she organised for herself at taxpayers expense was hurriedly cancelled.

Honourable Justice Opeyemi Oke the Acting Chief Judge of Lagos State is an indigene of Ogun State. She was appointed a Judge of the High Court of Lagos State on July 19, 1996 and until her recent appointment, was the de facto Deputy Chief Judge in charge of Lagos division of the Lagos State Judiciary. She will be in acting capacity as Chief Judge pending her confirmation by the NJC. She would be the 16th Chief Judge of Lagos State and the 6th female Chief Judge, the last 4 (including herself) being female.

It is the hope and expectation of many that she would do the needful to improve the justice delivery and administration in the State. That she will attend to welfare matters of the Magistrates and Judges in the State, complete and commission court buildings, maintain a cordial relationship and complement the work of the executive and legislative arms of government, avoid the pitfalls of dabbling into money matters by allowing the Chief Registrar to perform her role as the Chief Accounting Officer of the Judiciary, consistently organise trainings, workshop, seminars for judicial officers locally and internationally to improve their knowledge and equip them with the skill for better service delivery. It would be most appropriate for her to set a “vision “ from the beginning of her tenure.

All Judges in the several courts everywhere should heed the admonition and advise explicitly stated in the “Academic Journal Of Interdisciplinary Studies” as follows: “A Judge should be God-Fearing, law abiding, abstemious, truthful in tongue, wise in opinion, cautious, forebearing, blameless and untouched by greed”. A Judge should be incorruptible and avoid undue fraternity with politicians and the political leaders, in order to ensure impartiality in the administration of justice. A Stitch In Time Saves Nine.

Chief ‘Kunle Uthman,

Legal Practitioner,

Lagos, Nigeria.

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