By Innocent Anaba, Henry Ojelu & Onozure Dania
From all indications, 2019 is expected to be one of the most challenging years for the country’s judiciary, particularly because of the general elections, which will start on February 16, with the presidential poll. In the past, this arm of government had discharged itself creditably well, even during election years. But with more attention by Nigerians on the judiciary, more so, its all important role as the last hope of the common man when all other arms of government and facet of the society seems to fail the people, the judiciary is increasingly being called upon to bail the cat. The big question then becomes, will this all important arm of government live up to expectations?
In this edition of Law and Human Rights, lawyers task the judiciary of what they expect of it this 2019. Those who spoke include Chief Solo Akuma, SAN, Mr Arthur Obi-Okafor, SAN, Professor Ernest Ojukwu, SAN, Lawal Pedro, SAN, John Olusegun Odubela, SAN, and Olusina Sofola , SAN. Others are Executive Director, Access to Justice, Joseph Otteh, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, Senior lecturer, Lagos State University, Gbenja Ojo, former Chairman, NBA, Ikeja, Adesina Ogunlana, Israel Mbaebie, Terry Adeniji and Debo Adeleke.
More judges should be appointed
Akuma, SAN, said: “My expectation for the judiciary in 2019 is that there is need for the judiciary to appoint more judges for quick dispensation of justice. The work load on judges is so much that it takes so long to dispense cases before them. If more judges are appointed, it will be a lot easier to dispense cases, so that cases won’t have to stay very long in court before they are dispensed.
“The presidential and National Assembly elections are coming and there would be some judges that will handle election tribunal and when they do, some of the other conventional cases in their courts will be put on hold. But when there are other judges, while the elections tribunal is going on, those cases will also be heard.
Judiciary must live up to faith bestowed on it
Obi-Okafor, SAN, said “The year 2019 is a historical year for us in Nigeria. The events within the year will determine the survival of Nigeria as a country and the judiciary will play a fundamental role in the sustenance of our unity.
Our country is passing through challenging times and the NBA as the foremost civil society group in the country which ordinarily would have played the role of a watchdog for the citizens and voice of the helpless Nigerians, especially in the upcoming elections, is currently a shadow of its old self.
The common man is left with the judiciary which is his only bastion of hope. The judiciary must live up to these expectations and ensure that the faith bestowed on it as an all-important institution is not let down. I believe we will see a lot of judicial activism on the bench which will lead to the dispensing of substantive justice and also safeguard our democracy.
The judiciary must gird its loins as it will face a lot of challenges in a deliberate attempt to undermine its constitutional powers. The judiciary must display courage, remain forthright and should not be deterred from doing justice to all and at all times, though the heaven falls.
Preserving independence of the judiciary should be a priority
Prof Ojukwu, SAN, said: “The Nigerian Judiciary has performed well compared with the other arms of government in Nigeria but there is still much to be done. Preserving the independence of the judiciary should be a priority for the judiciary as well as the other arms of government, the Bar and all citizens.
It would be very difficult for any other person to fight for the independence of the judiciary if the judiciary themselves do not get on the job honestly, openly, transparently and effectively.
“The focus of the judiciary must be on their fiscal autonomy and administrative autonomy and the dimensions of institutional and personal independence. For the legitimate protection of the judiciary, the judiciary should drive its self-cleansing by resetting their governance mechanism and appointment of judges at all levels to be open, transparent, and accountable to the public. The judiciary must release to the public their financial guidelines and they have to apply the guidelines. The judiciary has to apply the Freedom of Information Act on itself.
“There have been questions on the process and actual appointment of judges. The judiciary and its appointing organs and leaders must show greater concern in the enthronement of the best and honest persons as judges. Where some of the chief judges, judicial service commissions and NJC sometimes refuse to apply its own rules in the appointment of judges leaves much to be desired in our aspirations for an independent judiciary.
“From my experience, our judges are overworked compared with judges of other countries. While the judiciary must proactively take up this matter and support all legitimate agitations including movements for constitutionally reducing their work load, the judiciary must also take serious actions to check their own judges and lower court judges who showcase the judiciary in the wrong light on justice delays, and corruption issues.
“Part of this would be for the judiciary to also look into the performance evaluation of judges. The present evaluation process is simply ineffective. It is only based on numbers, numbers of cases concluded that has even encouraged some judges to write any form of poor judgment in the guise of satisfying the performance criteria. A performance evaluation of judges should be broad and deep based on a set of information on the judge’s performance, including survey data, review of case management skills and written opinions, courtroom observation, and information gained from interviews with the judge. The evaluation committee should be independent, and should consist both of lawyers and non-lawyers. The process should be transparent both to the judge being evaluated and to the public and the evaluation results, and information on the evaluation process itself, should be widely disseminated to the public.
Ojukwu further noted that there are many other actions of the judiciary that have contributed to delayed court actions. According to him, “some of them are: Judges’ rampant participation in unplanned conferences and workshops throughout the year. Why should at least 75 per cent of all conferences, training and workshop schedules not be known by every judge one year in advance so that these judges will schedule their court days without the interference of these trainings and conferences that have now become customary distractions on the court processes? Why should courts, especially state courts, conduct their new legal years outside the first day of the new legal year? Why should these judiciaries not copy the standards of the Supreme Court and Federal High Court in ensuring that the new legal year ceremony is conducted on the first day of the legal year so that it does not disrupt court schedules later in the year? And by the way, these state courts conduct these ceremonies in very lavish, expensive and ‘un-judiciary’ professional manner. They compromise their independence by involving the executive governments in unnecessary expenditures for what should be solemn ceremonies.
“In 2019, I expect the judiciary to help us shape the election process and use judicial activism effectively to force politicians to abide by all rules of free and fair election. I expect the judiciary to help us shape obedience to rule of law and fundamental rights as a culture of the country. I expect the judiciary to take stronger measures to check corruption among its members including the multi-faceted corruption going on in the registry section of the judiciary. I expect the judiciary to be bolder and stronger and refuse to be cowed by the other arms of government, and politicians. I also expect Nigerians to fight for and support an absolute obedience by all of every order or judgment of our courts. I also expect Nigerians to fight for and support very good conditions of service for our judges and judicial personnel to be able to meet our expectations.
Fast-track for election tribunal matters
Pedro, SAN, said: “My expectation from the judiciary this year, especially in the first and second quarter is readiness to handle the fallout of the election that is going to take place. I am very optimistic that they are already prepared for it and will not disappoint Nigerians. What I expect that they should do differently this year is to fast-track and expedite all election petitions so that the time already provided for the determination of election petitions is adhered to. I expect members of the tribunal to also present themselves as neutral umpires.
“Some of the complaints we are hearing now, is that in view of the time laid down for election petition and appeals, the judiciary is in a position to frustrate any candidate who is aggrieved and dissatisfied with the outcome of the election. If the law provides that the election petition must be concluded within 180 days and the presiding judges decide to waste time, and the 180 elapses, then obviously, they will hinge their decision on lack of jurisdiction since the 180 days have expired. A judge presiding over an election tribunal who is out to frustrate a candidate, may simply not allow the matter to run smoothly. By the time judgment is ready, he may simply say he has run out of time. So where is the remedy for someone who is seeking for justice? People have been clamouring that provision of the electoral act should be reviewed and I strongly support it.
“I am aware that cases before judges who are engaged in election tribunal suffer temporary setback during this period but unfortunately, that is what the system permits for now. This is why many of us are happy with the timeline that has been given. For a judge to now go for what we refer to as national assignment, that national assignment should not take the whole year. The 180 days that have been set aside for the tribunal is not out of place. For now, there is nothing anyone can do except we want to be appointing retired judges as tribunal members.“
New strategy for dispensation of justice
John Odubela, SAN, said: “I think the most important thing is for our judges to assert more independence in the discharge of their constitutional duties. I also expect the courts to come up with more strategies for quick dispensation of cases in court. We have continued to have series of delays in courts which are not good for our economic and social growth as a nation.
“This is an election year, definitely some judges and justices will serve in various tribunals which will affect their sittings in their regular courts so I expect judiciary to plan ahead and put necessary machinery in motion at least to reduce the delays that the litigants in the regular courts will suffer.”
Shortage of fund should be addressed
Olusina Sofola, SAN, said: “Obviously with the elections this year, we are expecting that it will be a busy period for the judiciary because a lot is going to be expected from them especially viz a- viz election petitions, pre-election issues. But like I have always said, personally, I have confidence in our judiciary, I believe that provided the government makes the adequate and proper arrangement for them, I have no doubt that the judiciary will perform its role credibly. They have been doing that and I have no hesitation in saying that I am sure that they will do that again this year.
“I think the problem with the judiciary has always been the issue of shortage of funds. For them to be able to do their job properly, I have seen the way the judiciary practises all over the world in developed countries and you see the facilities that are available to them. The problem we have in Nigeria is that we still have situations where magistrates and judges are still writing in long hands. That obviously makes the work very difficult for them, but considering the short comings, I believe that they will live up to their responsibility. What has been happening again recently is the fact that they now have provisions for arbitration and the judiciary again has been living up to its responsibility in the sense that they are now allowing and enforcing arbitral awards instead of interfering unnecessarily with awards from arbitration. So what that will obviously do is to supplement the judiciary in the sense that not everybody now needs to go to court when they have disputes. Some disputes can be resolved by arbitration which can obviously be done expeditiously. But then the only problem is that it is quite expensive, but all in all, I think the arbitration and the provisions of the new rules will only help the judiciary.
“I personally believe that the amendment in the constitution that allows matter of law alone to go to the Supreme Court is a step in the right direction, as it is, the Supreme Court in Nigeria is burdened by too many matters that really shouldn’t get to the Supreme court, only matters that are of immense importance should get to the Supreme Court so that they can deal with them properly. But as it is, we have situations where a dispute of N50,000, sometimes will get to the Supreme Court which shouldn’t be. It is not proper, so all in all, I have high hopes for the judiciary, I hope the government will encourage them to do their work properly. Once that is done, then I have no doubt in my mind that the judiciary can be a source of pride to the nation and can indeed be the last resort of the common man.”
Judiciary needs to embrace modern technology
Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, said: “This year, all eyes are on the judiciary, especially as we go into the general elections to choose our leaders. There will be motley of pre-election cases and also a number of election petitions, post-election. In all these cases, it is the judiciary that will determine the fate and destiny of Nigeria, in year 2019 and I believe, from its past laudable records, the judiciary is well equipped and prepared for this great task.
It is against the above background that we all expect that 2019 should be a year of independence for the judiciary, when the courts will take a stand to defend democracy, rule of law and human rights, without favour, ill will or affection, no matter the status of the litigants and their lawyers.
As we approach the 2019 elections, the judiciary should stand tall to take its pride of place in the adjudication of disputes in a fair and unbiased manner.
The judiciary should let its eyes of measurement remain closed to political and other subterranean and extraneous influences of all kinds and from all quarters. This is the mandate bestowed upon it under section 6 of the Constitution, as the only branch of government so saddled with such enormous and exclusive responsibility of dispute adjudication and resolution.
Our nation and indeed, the whole world, is looking up to the judiciary to set the pace for ethical standards in the conduct of free, fair and credible elections and to abolish all forms of impunity and illegalities in that process.
The judiciary should take advantage of the newly enacted Act that has given it some measure of independence to control its own funds, and wean itself from the clutches and influences of the executive arm of government.
Our courts have to embrace modern technology in the administration and dispensation of justice. There should be no courtroom in Nigeria, in 2019, where proceedings are taken in long hand, where it will take days and months to get judgments of courts or its proceedings. There is an urgent need to follow the good example already set by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, to digitize our court systems.
We hope to have less of court declared governors and legislators, when the courts will give the political parties the right to determine who should be their candidates in any election.
We pray for a judiciary in 2019, where judges and judicial officers are better laid and taken care of, and in that wise eliminate all forms of corrupt practices.
Above all, I commend the judiciary for 2018, for standing to uphold the rule of law in all cases.
The laudable initiatives spearheaded by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, to achieve online filing of cases is commendable and should be replicated in all other courts across the nation. With support of Nigerians, we all expect a vibrant, fearless and independent judiciary, in 2019.”
Judiciary needs new reform blueprint
Joseph Otteh, said “It’s a little difficult to set expectations for our Judiciary in any specific year because the Judiciary, save for few exceptions, has been carrying over unmet expectations year after year. I do not think 2019 is any different from the previous year, or the year before that. In the absence of much progress over the previous years, it may seem redundant to build any hopes for, or on 2019. In other words, with marginal exception, we think a lot still remains unchanged.
“On the positive side, we see that the National Judicial Council has sped up efforts to tackle judicial corruption, and there is more traction on that front. This is good, but the overall strategic framework for fighting judicial corruption is still a weak one. Moreover, at the state level, there is very little evidence that much has changed.
“But many, many gaps still remain. Even in the arena of fighting corruption, there needs to be a concerted, holistic strategy for repairing the damage done to the justice system by judicial corruption. Also, questions of judicial independence are still lurking in the background and our judiciary is not standing up well in this part too. It is not challenging the blatant excesses of executive power in any spirited way, or even protecting its own space and defending the rule of law. For many Nigerians like El Zakzaky – talk of the rule of law will appear a little idle and euphemistic, if not sterile, and its strength will be no more than like a spent bullet.
“If Nigerians lose hope in the power of the rule of law to protect them, we cannot honestly say we practice a constitutional government and must ask questions of our judiciary. Judicial independence will be strengthened if we have judges of robust courage, fortitude and scholarship. That’s why the judiciary must strengthen its recruitment choices, and target those who have keener visions of the judiciary’s role in safeguarding human freedom, and serving a nation’s social and economic development. Our courts are far too conservative in playing this role at this time, particularly at the appellate level.
“Perhaps, we can say, to keep our faces to the sunshine, that the judiciary can still salvage our hopes in 2019. But to do so, it needs to go to the drawing board and with other stakeholders, sketch out an ambitious plan of reform, a kind of blueprint, a road map for making the justice system work efficiently and effectively for everyone. We miss such a rallying point and consensually developed agenda.”
More attention for fundamental human rights issues
Gbenga Ojo, said: “The area I think that the judiciary has to look into is the area of enforcement of fundamental human rights. Nigeria is gradually turning into a police state and the court appears not to be intervening in the matter at all. If there is a family matter, when the police intervene and bring it to the court and the court without even looking at the charge properly, will now impose almost unreasonable bail term and the suspect will be languishing in jail for 3-4 weeks before the bail can be approved.
After being released from the prisons, the police will not prosecute the case and the matter will be struck out for want of diligent prosecution. Meanwhile, somebody has been in jail for 3-4 weeks and it’s becoming rampant. The condition for bail in fact, is as if that person is presumed guilty already. The best thing is for the court to look at the charge, scrutinise the charge very well before imposing bail condition. A simple matter of two fighting, that is meant for the Magistrate court, they will take it to the Federal High Court, where they know that it is very difficult to obtain bail.
Judiciary should exert boldness in it decisions
Israel Mbaebie, said: “This year, being an election year, would be a very pivotal and telling one for the judiciary and indeed, all Nigerians. As the last hope of the common man, there would be quite high expectation from this arm of government. It would indeed be another defining moment in our democratic experiment.
Our judiciary has been bold before, we expect them to be bolder this time around to stave the country from sliding into anarchy and lawlessness. There will be no need to resort to self -help once the populace is sure of justice from the judiciary, hence, we shall all look up to the judiciary to properly address all electoral grievances.
Consequently, the bench especially our superior courts, would be expected to discharge their duties without fear or favour. The whole country reposes that trust and confidence on them.
It must be noted that any unexpected and or inadvertent let off on the part of the bench this time around may spell disaster. The bench should be bold enough to make strong and fearless pronouncements without minding whose ox is gored. We cannot expect any less from them this time around. The judiciary must speak up and live up to its constitutional responsibilities.
For starters, I should believe that the judiciary has started on that bold brave trajectory already in 2019 if the recent judgment of a Federal High Court sitting at Port Harcourt would be anything to go by. The court had boldly held that the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, has no candidate for almost all the elective posts in Rivers State. With this precursor, one should believe that this is a bold step in the right direction. The judiciary will not fail Nigerians in 2019.
Judges should be sanctioned
Terry Badmus Adeniji, said: “My take for the judiciary is that the administration of justice must be made to work faster than it is now. Currently, the bench is putting the blame on the lawyers saying they are the ones delaying matters. This is why all the states are now making new rules and putting penalties against lawyers. But nobody is talking about judges who will not sit on time or even sit at all. They do this with no apologies to anybody. Some will not sit for days and months, yet, they collect salaries.
“So for us to have an all- encompassing smooth administration of justice this year, the judges also need to be on their toes. The law should not be made against lawyers only. Judges who fail to deliver rulings and judgments on time should also be sanctioned. There should be at least some kind of disciplinary measures against them.
“Secondly, I think the Lagos State Judiciary should halt the new arbitrary rules which it is about to start implementing. It is an ill wind that blows no one any good. How can a lawyer be asked to pay over N100, 000 simply because he or she fails to make an appearance in court due to unforeseen circumstances? The Chief Judge should shelve that new rule and allow stakeholders make input as to the best way to make the system work better.”
Judges must resist undue influence from politicians
Ogunlana Adesina, said: “My expectation is that the judiciary must acknowledge the fact that it is going to have heavier load than last year simply because it is an election year. The politicians in their characteristic manner will resort to violence and approach the courts. The courts and tribunals will certainly be manned by judges, so the very best among the judges should be put in the composition of the tribunal. They must be fair to all and resist the temptation of being corrupted by politicians as they customarily do. In all, I believe that if the judiciary remains steadfast, our democratic experience this year will be worthwhile.
ICPC, EFCC cases should have special court
Debo Adeleke, said: “The judiciary has really done well, with the things that were put in place by the Chief Justice of Nigeria. There is need for another Supreme Court in Nigeria. There are cases in the Supreme Court which shouldn’t get there. The Supreme Court is being saddled with too much work load. They are human beings like us. There are cases in the Supreme Court from 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008 and they have not been heard. There was a time that we had only one law school in Nigeria and it was in Lagos.But right now, we have law school in Abuja, Kano Enugu and they are all doing well because it is the same thing that is being done there.
“There should be special courts where criminal cases should be prosecuted like you have the ICPC and EFCC. Just like elections are coming and there would be elections petition tribunal that will only last for some month, there should be special courts for politicians who steal money. Last year, this administration told us that they were going to revive the Nigerian Airways and a lot of money went into it and we were promised that it will start functioning by December and that it will travel to London and USA, and everybody was happy because it will relatively be cheap. Up till now, nothing has come out of it. This government said they are fighting corruption, but it’s surrounded with wolves, rouges, people who are stealing the country’s money; they should ask the Aviation minister what happened to the campaign he did concerning the Nigeria Airways. They should ask Amaechi and others.
“I was opportune to travel to a state where a very prominent person in the APC government built a house that when you see it, you will think this is not Nigeria, Where did he get that kind of money to build the house and also have a security outfit of his own? Meanwhile, the roads that lead to that place in the state are all bad.”