The Way Forward for Nigerian Judiciary
CHALLENGES OF THE NIGERIAN JUDICIARY AND THE WAY FORWARD
There is no doubt that the Nigerian judiciary is plagued by a myriad of problems ranging from institutional to personnel problems, poor facilities to inadequate financial provisions and procedural to constitutional problems.
However, this paper will focus on some of the major problems facing the judiciary and suggestions for their reforms.
The institutional framework of the judiciary is constitutionally prescribed by the Constitution of the Federal republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended).
Apart from the structure and hierarchy of the courts the Constitution also establishes institutional bodies for regulation of the activities and welfare of judicial officers in the country.
These bodies are the National Judicial Council (NJC), Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), Judicial Service Commission of the Federal Capital Territory and State Judicial Service Commissions.
The NJC is the primary organ for the regulation and supervision of the activities of judicial officers in Nigeria and the inherent identifiable flaws in its organization and set up impacts negatively on the efficiency of the judiciary.
Most notably among its flaws is the headship of the NJC by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) and its membership comprising mostly of serving judicial officers.
It has been severally argued that the CJN as a judicial officer himself whose conduct is subject to the supervision of the NJC should not be made the head of the NJC before which his conduct may be scrutinized.
The merit in this argument became apparent during the imbroglio which engulfed the judiciary in 2011 between the then CJN and the PCA which was tabled before the NJC of which the CJN is its head.
Even though common sense prevailed and the NJC was presided by the Deputy Chairman during this imbroglio, the influence of the CJN in the NJC could not be overlooked, more so seeing that some of the members of the NJC owed their membership of the body to him.
Furthermore, for a body established to supervise the judiciary and judicial officers, it is less than ideal that its membership should be dominated by serving judicial officers, as it most times leads to conflict of interest amongst members of the body.
To curb this situation, it is suggested that the Chairmanship and membership of the NJC should be dominated by retired judicial officers and complemented by notable persons of integrity from the bar and related disciplines.
This will ensure an unbiased supervision of judicial activities by the NJC.
Also, the procedure for recommendation of appointment of judicial officers by the NJC and FJSC or the Judicial Service Commissions of the states is not open to the public and this lack of transparency often leads to appointment of judicial officers with little or no integrity, credibility or intellectual capability.
These appointees for judicial positions are members of the society and live among the society. Therefore, the public know their lifestyles and integrity or lack of it and the contribution of members of the public towards the procedure for appointment of judicial officers can help to ensure that only creditable persons are given such position of high responsibility.
Personnel problems constitute by far the most daunting challenge facing the judiciary and is the single most important problem threatening the sanctity of the judiciary as the bastion of justice.
The judiciary comprise of judicial officers who are human beings and therefore subject to the vagaries of human nature in its insidious form.
While there are good, intellectually sound and upright judicial officers of impeccable character and integrity in Nigeria, it is sad to say that a sizeable percentage of judicial officers in Nigeria fall below the standard expected of judicial officers in the area of intellectual capability, uprightness, character and integrity and this reflects in the poor quality of judgments delivered by the various courts in Nigeria and the growing problem of conflicting judgments and the attendant confusion it brings in the legal system in Nigeria.
This problem stems mostly from the flawed appointment process of judicial officers and the enthronement of mediocrity over merit, poor training of judicial officers for the task ahead, inadequate facilities to ensure the constant updating of knowledge by judicial officers and the non-synchronization of decided cases in the law reports making it difficult for judicial officers to easily access and decipher the applicable and current legal jurisprudence on particular principles of law.
To solve this problem therefore, there is the urgent need for constant training and re-training of judicial officers in the form of workshops, seminars and symposiums for judges to update their knowledge and restructuring the appointment process of judicial officers to ensure that only persons of acceptable intellectual capability, character and integrity are appointed to the bench.
Also, persons skilled in specialized aspects of law such as commercial, admiralty, energy and other technical aspects of law should be specifically appointed to handle cases arising from such areas of law.
This will avert a situation of fixing square pegs in round holes and ensure the high quality of judicial decisions rendered on such cases.
However, the most insidious of personnel problems facing the judiciary is the issue of corruption by judicial officers which has eaten deep into the fabrics of the judiciary and threatens to erode public confidence in it.
Addressing the issue of corruption and lack of integrity amongst judicial officers in Nigeria, the Chief justice of Nigeria, Justice Dahiru Musdapher stated at the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS) Conference, November 2011, in his keynote address, “The Nigerian Judiciary: Towards Reform of the Bastion of Constitutional Democracy”that-
“A poor Judge (in terms of integrity) is perhaps the most wasteful indulgence of the community. You can refuse to patronise a merchant who does not carry good stock, but you have no recourse if you are hurled before a Judge, whose mental or moral goods are inferior.
An honest…, able and fearless Judge is the most valuable servant of democracy…”
Speaking further on the issue, Uwaifo JSC has stated that –
“A corrupt Judge is more harmful to the society than a man who runs amok with a dagger in a crowded street.
The latter can be restrained physically. But a corrupt Judge deliberately destroys the moral foundation of society and causes incalculable distress to individuals through abusing his office while still being referred to as ‘honourable’ ”
This problem of corrupt judicial officers is not peculiar to the judiciary but is symptomatic of the wider Nigerian society and the endemic nature of corruption which has crept into every aspect of the daily life of the people and is evident in the public sector where widespread corruption and embezzlement of public funds is common occurrence and is met with little or no penalty or sanction, therefore encouraging its reoccurrence.
Solving this problem therefore requires a re-orientation of judicial officers on the need to eschew corruption and uphold integrity in the performance of their judicial duties.
Nevertheless, this problem also has its roots in the appointment process for judicial officers which does not have sufficient mechanisms to weed out persons of questionable character and integrity.
Thus, eradicating corruption from the judiciary will require a reform of the appointment process of judicial officers to ensure the appointment of only persons of proven integrity, forthrightness and character.
Procedural Deficiencies and Technicalities in the Judicial System
The judicial system in Nigeria is beset with several deficiencies in its procedural set up that make it very difficult to obtain justice and quick resolution of disputes in courts.
Most of the procedural rules of the various courts in Nigeria are in dire need of reform and review to make it accord with the need to discard technicalities and uphold substantive justice.
A situation where many cases in Nigerian courts take years to be resolved does not bode well for the judicial system and encourages resort to self-help by disgruntled litigants.
The cliché “Justice delayed is justice denied” is an old cliché but is symptomatic of the situation in the Nigerian judicial system where civil and criminal cases drag on for years, aided by highly technical procedural rules of the court which are capitalized upon by litigants to delay the resolution of cases before the courts.
The sum effect of these procedural deficiencies is the triumph of technicalities over substantive justice, despite several warnings of the apex court on the need to avoid this scenario.
Justice Dahiru Musdapher, CJN in his speech at the NIALS Conference in November 2011, while denouncing this practice, stated that it amounts to observing table etiquettes during a meal and standing up with an empty stomach which results in vain achievements.
Several efforts have been made towards reforming the procedural rules of courts to encourage easy and expeditious dispensation of cases before the courts and it has been suggested that time limits be put in place between the filing and determination of criminal and civil cases before the various courts.
Justice Musdapher CJN in his speech proposed a period of six months should be entrenched in the constitution as the maximum length of any civil or criminal trial.
While the objective of this suggestion is commendable and its effect desirable, it is fraught with a lot of difficulties that may ultimately undermine its success, as our experience with the 180days time limits for conclusion of election petitions have shown that such provision will throw up more problems than it will actually solve.
An enduring solution appears to be the reform of the various procedural rules of court by the head of the respective courts to insert provisions which will make it easier to dispense of cases timeously and cut out unnecessary technical provisions which occasion delay in trials.
This will ensure that the primary objective of law-attainment of justice- is achieved, for as has been noted by a prominent jurist, “Law, without justice, is legitimation of tyranny”
Another proposal for reducing the delay in determination of cases in Nigeria’s judiciary is the amendment of Section 233(2) of the 1999 Constitution to make it mandatory to obtain the leave before appealing to the Supreme Court, and such leave to be granted only on questions of significant importance or contribution to the legal jurisprudence and not frivolous appeals on trite or firmly established principles of law with no reasonable ground for upturning such principles.
This will drastically trim down the number of appeals that reach up to the Supreme Court and ensure a quicker dispensation of justice.
During the 2010-2011 Legal Year alone, the Supreme Court disposed of 163 cases, consisting of 78 judgments and 85 motions.
However, 1,149 civil appeals, 58 criminal appeals and 177 motions are still pending before it.
It is clear that given current realities, even if the apex court have a full constitutional complement of 21 Justices of the Supreme Court, it will certainly take several years before it can clear the backlog of cases most of which are motions and frivolous appeals on reiterated principles of law.
One important proposal related to criminal trial which has drawn considerable public attention and debate is the issue of plea-bargaining as a part of Nigeria’s criminal procedure jurisprudence.
While the benefits of this proposal in terms of quick dispensation of criminal cases and conviction of accused persons without the need for the long-haul of trial has been propagated as the reason for its adoption, it is subject to intense opposition by those who feel it encourages offenders to escape the full wrath of justice for their crimes.
Justice Dahiru Musdapher CJN is one of the notable opponents of the adoption of this practice in Nigeria, and he stated in his speech at the NIALS Conferencethat –
"It has no place in our law-substantive or procedural. It was invented to provide soft landing to high profile criminals who loot the treasury entrusted to them.
It is an obstacle to our fight against corruption. It should never again be mentioned in our jurisprudence"
Other critics of the plea bargain procedure point to the minimal sentences and sums recovered from convicted public officials which is in no way commensurate with the funds looted or the punishment deserved.
Nevertheless, it is clear that if the criminal justice system is to be effectively reformed for quick dispensation of justice, the argument for the adoption of plea bargain cannot be overlooked as it dispenses with the long delays of trials and save public funds which would otherwise be invested in such trials without any guarantee of a successful prosecution.
Moreover, this practice is in place in developed jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom and United States of America with commendable outcomes in tackling crime and prosecuting offenders.
Information Technology and the Nigerian Judiciary
A critical appraisal of the administrative set up of the average court registry in Nigeria reveals the negative impacts of the absence of incorporation of information technology into the Nigerian Judiciary.
This affects the documentation of court processes, access to relevant files by both judges and litigants and the absence of an internet database of decided authorities in Nigeria is the major cause of conflicting decisions by different courts, as it is difficult for a judge to have unimpeded access to other decided authorities on similar cases.
Even though there are various law reports by different publishers in the country, due to the manual nature of conducting searches in such law reports, it affects the ease with which similar recent authorities can be accessed by judicial officers in deciding cases before them.
In terms of the administrative settings of the various courts, the absence of IT facilities in most courts is shocking and unacceptable.
The manual documentation of files and recording of cases in long hand by the judges in court adversely affects the dispensation of justice and contributes to the delay in most trials in Nigeria.In this 21st Century where the world has gone digital and information technology is the driving force of most developments in the political and legal fields, the Nigerian judiciary cannot afford to be left behind in the analog world where files and judicial activities are manually conducted.
To reposition the judiciary in Nigeria for effective performance in the 21stCentury therefore requires the upgrading of the facilities of most courts in Nigeria by introducing IT facilities which will interconnect most courts and allow for easy sharing of information and cross-searching of relevant materials and documents amongst the various courts and creating of a database for decided cases by all the courts in the country which can easily be accessed by judicial officers anywhere in the country at the click of a button.
This will inevitably also requires the training of court staff in IT communications and upgrading their IT knowledge and skills to enable them effectively handle the IT facilities which will be installed in the courts, as they are the life bloods of the administrative workings of the court system.
There is the further need to ensure adequate infrastructural facilities for the various courts in Nigeria as most courts are located in dilapidated buildings and lacking in basic stationaries for effective functioning of the courts.
Abba Elijah also known as elija_god (elijagod.com)