Independence of the judiciary under severe threat, says NBA
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
The Acting Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice John Tsoho, on Monday, called for the appointment of new Judges to handle over 116, 623 cases pending before the court.
Justice Tsoho, who took over the leadership of the court in acting capacity on July 26, decried that a total of 16, 144 fresh cases were brought before the court in this quarter alone, with a total of 12, 692 of them already disposed-off.
The Acting CJ spoke at a special court session that was held to mark the beginning of the 2019/2020 Legal Year of the Court.
In attendance at the event included the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, serving and retired Justices of the Court, as well as Senior Advocates of Nigeria and other members of the Nigerian Bar.
In his speech, Justice Tsoho said statistics available to him, revealed that Judges of the High Court “were over-burdened with work in the last legal year”.
He said: “It is pertinent at this juncture to highlight the status of litigation before this Court in the past legal year. From the reports received, about 116, 623 cases are pending in the Federal High Court. 16,144 cases were foiled in this quarter alone in which 12, 692 have been disposed-off.
“It is obvious that the Judges were over-burdened with work in the last year. We therefore need to engage more judicial officers to help out. However, it does appear that there was no provision for appointment of judges in the current budget.
“I will make efforts to discuss with the relevant stakeholders to see to the possibility of facilitating the recruitment of more judicial officers in the course of the year.”
The Acting CJ said he would enhance the training of Judges and staff of the court, saying his administration will evolve strategies to improve justice delivery in the country.
“Though this administration is barely some weeks old, it is not bereft of ideas and goals which it has set for continued effective administration of justice, welfare of judges and staff, and the overall management of the court.
“Above all, this administration will in cooperation with the Legislature and the Executive work towards a solid entrenchment of constitutionalism as the paramount court of first instance in the Federal Judiciary.
“I must congratulate your Lordships on the efficient way pre-election matters were handled. I strongly urge you all to uphold the Constitution for the unity of the country and enhanced law and order, to achieve the enabling legal environment, which will attract foreign direct investments, local industrial development and creation of jobs.
“In keeping with the renditions of our old and new National Anthems, though tribe and tongue may differ, in brotherhood with unity and peace we shall all prevail and achieve the objectives of our founding fathers”, he added.
He said the court had on May 10, released amended Civil Procedure Rules that contain innovations that will meet the dynamism in law and bring the court at par with other courts in the developed world.
In his address, the AGF, Malami, SAN, enjoined Judges of the High Court to maintain their sanctity and credibility by ensuring that “the sacred integrity reposed on your Lordships remain unshaken at all times in order to foster and promote public confidence in all judgments and rulings that emanates from this Court”.
“In addition, I want to appreciate this Court at the speed at which it handled pre-election matters at the wake of the election; during and after the general elections in Nigeria.
“This Court has set the records straight which helped the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to effectively field the right candidates for the election and the efficient conduct of election processes.
“Furthermore, permit me to comment on the collaborations and cooperation that exist between the Federal Ministry of Justice and the Federal High Court which have immensely contributed to the memorable development of our legal system.”
“The pivotal role played by the Federal High Court by virtue of section 251 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) makes this Court unique and distinct from other Courts of coordinate jurisdiction.
“In the light of its jurisdiction as noted in the Constitution above, I humbly urge this Court as part of the judicial arm of government, to remember that it is the anchor upon which our legitimate claim to a civilized society rests and revolves.
“On the other hand, I also urge my learned colleagues here present and those absent to cooperate with the Federal High Court in ensuring that the dignity, integrity and credibility of this Court is not put to ridicule. We must collectively shun fraudulent practices and to render sound and unbiased advice to our clients based on laid down laws and not on sentiment.
“We should also not be seen encouraging our clients in a bit to ridicule this Court into doing the impossible. As ministers in the temple of justice, we must together foster the desired growth for a better society, because this Court on its own can only do little as permitted by law.
“As always, I assure you once more of the commitment of my office to the growth of a healthy relationship with this Court in a manner that promotes genuine cooperation without undermining the independence of this hallowed arm of Government. I equally solicit the continued cooperation of the Nigerian Bar Association and all legal practitioners in enhancing and making ease the burden of this Court this Legal Year.
“Together we shall promote and foster the Rule of Law by encouraging this Court through legitimate means to aid fast and efficient dispensation of justice,” Malami added.
However, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, in a speech by its National President, Mr. Paul Usoro, SAN, said it was worried about what it described as constant attack of the Judiciary by the Executive Arm of the government and its agencies, stressing that the opening of a Legal Year traditionally affords the Bar and the Bench the opportunity for introspection and to ruminate on national issues that affect the justice sector.
Usoro who was represented by Chief Offiong Offiong, SAN, said: “Topping the list of such issues at all times is the need to promote and protect the rule of law in all its ramifications. That need is perhaps more pronounced today given the siege under which the justice sector is currently operating, evident in the open and sometimes veiled incursions by the executive arm and its agencies.
“In particular, the independence of the judiciary is under severe threat. To be exact, the independence of mind and thoughts by Your Lordships in the determination of matters before the Courts is under severe attack.
“The Executive arm of Government and its agencies are increasingly and unceasingly critical of the judiciary and its decisions particularly in matters that the Government and its agencies may be interested in.
“It is not unusual these days to hear high officials of government talk down the judiciary and ridiculously and rather ill-advisedly dump all the ills of society on the judiciary. Decisions by Your Lordships are sometimes brazenly denigrated and attributed to ulterior and ill motives – and these are on social and traditional media platforms.
“Veiled and sometimes open and, in all cases, audacious attempts are made to teleguide and program the decisions of Courts. These are very dangerous practices that destroy the independence of the judiciary and by extension the rule of law and indeed the fabric of our society.
“The society needs and can only survive if we have independent-minded Judges who are empowered to dispense justice to all manner of men, including government departments, without fear or favor. We can only survive as a nation if the independence and vibrancy of the judiciary, particularly, the non-interference with the thoughts and decision-making processes of Your Lordships, are guaranteed and protected.
“Society is diminished when Judges are robbed of their independent minds and thought processes and the confidence of the ordinary person in the judiciary is thereby diminished, if not destroyed.
“Self-help and anarchy ultimately become the available remedy. Of course, our economy suffers in the process: the investing public, both local and international lose confidence in our justice system consequent upon these denigrations of our judiciary and there follows a consequential downturn in our economy with the attendant fallout on the socio-economic wellbeing of our people.
“In summary, the ultimate losers when Judges are robbed of their independence, in thoughts and discretions, is the society and all of us including our rulers of today. However, we are not entirely without remedy. To paraphrase the poet, the man dies in him who fails or is not able to stand up and/or speak against tyranny.
“The courage to stand up and speak out is what we all need, both the Bar and the Bench, in our present circumstances. My Lords have, at critical moments shown such outstanding courage even in the face of danger and our prayer is that such courage and grit should never depart from Our Lordships.
“These are indeed moments that require courageous Judges with the candour and fortitude to speak truth to power, to borrow the hackneyed phrase, and to dispense justices to all manner of men without fear or favour, as demanded by Your Lordships’ Oaths of Office,” the NBA stated.