By Abdulwahab Abdulah
Former Lagos State Solicitor- General, Mr. Lawal Pedro, SAN, in this interview bares his mind on how the judiciary can gain public confidence and also improve on the constant disobedience to court orders by the government and its agencies. Excerpts:
How do we restore the citizens’ trust in government having lost that trust as a result of government and its agencies’ flagrant disobedience to court orders?
It is really unfortunate that we have found ourselves in such a situation, which should not be. There are processes to be followed. There are no orders of court, whether rightly or wrongly made, that should not be obeyed, unless that order is stayed or set aside. Court orders must be complied with by every government. That is how to build and strengthen institutions. It is you today in power; it will be someone else tomorrow. What will you do if you are at the receiving end tomorrow? We must ensure that we develop and protect our institutions. A court cannot give an order that should be flagrantly disobeyed, no matter how highly placed the person is. It is an abuse of institutions and the consequences will boomerang on all of us. The best thing to do is to also use the law. That is why there is constitutional right of appeal. That, I think, is the way to go round it.
What would you say on the recent warning by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, asking people to stop commenting on subsisting court cases, as the Federal Government started the monitoring of comments from social media?
Some of us will not do our cases on the pages of newspapers but if a journalist is fortunate to be in court and hears the proceedings, he can report. But I won’t go to the press and start canvassing arguments that I am supposed to canvass in court. Let the press do their job. But arguing cases in the press, outside the courtroom should be discouraged. Whatever the pressmen can take from the court proceedings should be reported and anybody who reports wrongly will have himself to blame for contempt.
As to the Federal Government monitoring people’s comment on the social media, I am not seized of that. But how can that be done in the light of the constitution, when citizens have the right of expression, right to your privacy? In other climes, there are certain things that they monitor too for security purpose, but they won’t tell you they are monitoring anything; they know what they are looking for. Now, to say someone should be picked up for what he says! Then what should Donald Trump do in America? Jump into the sea? But there should be consequences for reckless statements that are defamatory. There are provisions in our law to deal with that. And it is worrisome how pure civil matters are turned into criminal matters in this country. Anybody that makes reckless statements or spreads falsehood could be taken up in court. You must be sure before you start accusing somebody. We should be very cautious about that and what the government should be looking for should be more than this. If government is monitoring banking activities to detect money laundering, or those funding terrorism, there is nothing wrong in that, but not to say someone critising government should be arrested; it is his personal opinion. What the government can do is to let superior argument judge. But we must not cow anybody.
What can be done for the judiciary to regain public confidence as public now receive court judgements with pessimism?
There are some court judgements that should command voluntary compliance; those judgements are referred to as declaratory judgements. Such judgements should be complied with in the absence of any appeal. On the other hand, there are executory judgements. And these are the ones that people feel frustrated about. It is because of the length of time it takes the judgement creditor to enforce it. So, there is apathy, there is frustration on the part of people. If, for instance, there is a land matter and the judgement is in my favour, it is a herculean task, enforcing such, despite that the court has made orders, giving me possession. I have to first submit the judgement to the police station, where one Commissioner of Police or an Assistant Commissioner of Police will sit on the order that the court has already given me. Ordinarily, the order should be enforced within a maximum of seven days, in the absence of an appeal. But by the time the police begin by sending someone from the headquarters to verify the judgement, frustration begins to set in for the judgement creditor.
A landlord has got judgement against a tenant who has owed five years’ rent, but he cannot enforce the judgement by himself. He has to go through the police, who will now set their own rules and make some unprintable requests. If he doesn’t meet the condition, the judgement does not get enforced for weeks, months. So, how do you expect that kind of person to react? And this is what I believe we should address.
The solution is to have what we call Court Police Units to be headed by not less than an Assistant Commissioner of Police, who will be subject to the control of the Chief Judge. If the Railway Corporation, the Nigerian Ports Authority have police units, why should the judiciary not have? With the police unit next door to the CJ, for every order of court, every judgement, he ensures enforcement. The judgement creditor doesn’t have to go to one DPO to seek the enforcement of the order. That Court Police unit should be manned by an ACP and about nine other policemen to start with. Their job is enforcement of court orders and judgements. Once they are there and there’s a litigant who has an order to take possession of a land and so on, it is the ACP that he would approach. Then people will begin to have confidence in the justice system.
Related to this, the issue of delay in justice administration must be addressed.
Will this suggestion not conflict with the constitutional provision that vests the control of police in the executive?
No; we are talking about interrelationship among the arms of government. Will a judge sit without being sworn in by the executive? It is an interrelationship that must exist. The beauty of the separation of powers is to be able to have what we call institution and not individuals.
Do you think the financial autonomy for the judiciary is realistic or should we rather scrap that provision from the constitution, considering how difficult it has become for most states to comply?
There is nobody that should be against the autonomy of the judiciary either financial autonomy or independence in their core responsibility, which is adjudication of disputes; nobody should interfere. For judges to be able to adjudicate properly, there must be judicial independence and it is the operation of this that people do not understand. Does the judiciary have enough source of revenue for itself? The answer is ‘No.’ Even the legislature does not have. But there must be transparency in the budget process. Once the budget has been prepared and passed, and we know what is due to the judiciary, same should be released to the head of the court. As of today, I am sure the judiciary has its own vote in the budget but the problem is the issue of transparency. I don’t believe that the judiciary should go cap-in-hand to the executive every time to say I need approval for this and that. Once the budget is passed and we know what is budgeted for the judiciary as per percentage of the revenue, it should go to the head of court who will decide how it should be expended and of course, there is an auditor. It is a misconception that the executive doesn’t want the judiciary to be independent. I worked in government and I saw it happen and I know that is really not the case. We should push for it and ensure that any hiccup in the arrangement is resolved. And how that can be done is transparency.