Abdulrasheed Ibrahim, LL.M, Notary Public
On 2nd May 2020, I posted an article titled: IS SAN ACCEPTING TO SERVE AS HIGH COURT JUDGE A TABOO? The reaction to the said article was overwhelming in the sense that I got series of phone calls, text messages, whatsapp and facebook response commending the article. Majority of the respondents aligned themselves with my submission. There are few respondents that disagreed with my position and I acknowledged the fact that we are all entitled to our various opinions. I want to first thank and appreciate all the respondents irrespective of the sides they belong for their patience in taking their times to read the long essay. I must confess that I equally learnt one thing or the other from the various views expressed by the respondents. For instance, I came across for the first time the fact that Major General Eyo Ekpo who once served as Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarter to General Yakubu Gowon and later as Commissioner for Agriculture at the Federal level after his retirement from Army and being a lawyer went to accept the position of a Chief Magistrate in his home state. Someone also referred to the case of late Alhaji Murtiala Sanni who rose to the rank of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) but later went to accept appointment as a member of the Code of Conduct Tribunal. Can there be any high sense of patriotism and love of service to one’s fatherland than this? Is this sense of patriotism still in vogue today? On the death of the late Hon. Justice Dan Ibekwe on the bench as the first President of the Court of Appeal, the late Hon. Justice Mamman Nasir came down from the Supreme Court bench to head the Court of Appeal.
Now coming to the issue at hand which is to advise our colleagues who have just been newly appointed as judicial officers to the bench.It was the late Professor Chinua Achebe, the master storyteller that said in his book “Arrow of God” that “ a fly that has no one to advise it,follows the corpse to the grave”. This advice has become necessary in view of some ugly developments in our judicial system.We cannot pretend that everything is well with our judicial system.To better illustrate this point , I will like to refer to what Hon. Justice Samson Odemwingie Uwaifo said several years back when he was retiring from the Supreme Court bench. The learned jurist said in his valedictory speech that:
“There are indications either from the comments made by the public or from personal experience that there is need to be concerned about the lowering standards in the judiciary of this country. It was once thought to be only in the magistracy because of the disturbing ways some of the personnel tended to abuse their offices. It gradually crawled to the High Courts and would appear to have had a foothold among noticeable number of judicial officers there. It is not unusual for even senior members of the bar to complain about the general disposition of those High Court Judges. There is the aspect of their attitude and orientation to duty, late sitting, laziness, incompetence, doubtful integrity. Now there is real apprehension that the appellate court may soon be infested if not already contaminated with some of these vices.Some recent events seem to sound an alarm bell.The glimmer of hope so far in the face of creeping malaise is that National Judicial Council, under the leadership of the Chief Justice of Nigeria ,the Hon. Justice M.L. Uwais GCON, has tackled head-on some of the reported cases of abuse of office. What omen does this trend of falling standards portend for the country? First, a culture of compromises will take root in the dispensation of justice. Second, public confidence will be badly and broadly eroded. Third, democracy will suffer or can even collapse. Can we afford any of these consequences because we fail to think ahead for possible solution to contain the situation?”
The above remarks were made by the retired jurist precisely on 24th January 2005 and that was over 15 years ago. But the question now is that, has the system fared better than what was depicted then? Honestly, some of the problems highlighted above still persist till date as shown by various developments where the NJC at one time or the other had to sanction some erring judges. In a recently NJC press release, two judges were sanctioned ,one for age falsification and the other for his refusal to deliver judgments within the stipulated period in the cases before him.This kind of things is not good for our judicial system. This is more the reason why we need to advise our newly appointed judicial officers to guide against these vices on the bench.We need to advise them to be revolutionists of the bench and change the face of the judiciary for better. Like Caeser’s wife, they must live above board.We have said it before and it will not be wrong to repeat it here again that our judicial bench is not for those that have the intention of making money. Anyone that is taking the appointment with that mind set should know that he or she has made a big mistake.The stories are abound of those judicial officers that compromised their positions as judicial officers and paid dearly for that. Our new judicial officers must try to learn from history as he who refuses to learn for history will fall victim of history.
Is it not an act of “laziness and incompetence” on the bench, to borrow the words of Hon. Justice Uwaifo ,for a judge to refuse to deliver judgments for years after concluding the trial in the cases before him? Will it not amount to an act of doubtful integrity for a judge to falsify his age as was the case of another sanctioned judge who was said to have been born in 1950 but said that he was born in 1958. He is now to refund all the salaries and allowances he has unduly earned since when he supposed to have retired for the judicial service. Does this kind of attitude and orientation befit an upright judicial officer? I have once argued that the problem of age falsification in our midst is the product of the system we operate in this part of the world. In an article titled: SHOULD ELEVATION AGE TO JUDICIAL BENCH BE PEGGED? I had observed that :
“We seem to live in a society where people are encouraged to play with their ages like the way children play with their toys. Most often when there are job vacancies and the qualification age is pegged, some people in their desperation to get the job will run to the court deposing to affidavits faking their ages. Sometime I ask the rationale behind the pegging of age in some jobs. There are places even law firms where jobs are made available only to those people with the First Class or Second Class Upper Degrees. If you do not fall into these categories you become ‘personam non granta’. I think with the high rate at which some private universities are now producing first Class Degree holders, new yardstick may soon be introduced. The likes of the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN, the people’s lawyer did not make First Class before performing very well in the profession warranting the great jurist, late Hon. Justice Aniagolu to say about him that: ‘No Nigerian to date has marched the indomitable energy you have put up for the growth of law in this country…’”
As long as age pegging persists, rather than allowing the competence to prevail, so you will continuing to see people falsifying their ages to fall within the category. I can say boldly without fear of any contradiction that there are some judicial officers on the bench today that ought not to have been there in the first place. I say again that they should have no business being on the judicial bench. The “attitude and orientation to duty, late sitting, laziness, incompetence and doubtful integrity” of some judicial officers have discouraged some practicing lawyer from the court room practice. I have somewhere else related some of my own personal ugly experiences in the courtroom litigation practice. For sake of space, I may not need to repeat some of those experiences here, but it will be sufficient to refer to the indelible remarks of Mr. Anthony Atata , Editor of Courtroom Mail which beautifully depicts or summarizes some of these ugly experiences in the litigation practice:
“The court system is getting worse day by day and the way justice dispensation is crawling, one day it will finally grind to a halt and the people will head for the shrine to resolve their disputes. Touts are practicing law now with more audacity than before. Judges are still dishing out embarrassing rulings every day. Lawyers have kept a loud silence because they do not want to rock the boat that will evidently sink one day. They accepted the corruption in the registry and in fact the registrars are kings determining the fate of lawyers than judges. Sadly, law practice is gradually falling within the definition of menial job. You now need the physical strength of a bricklayer to pursue Certified True Copies of processes in courts, follow up bailiffs to effect service even after you have made both receipted and unreceipted expenses .You need the strength of a welder to compile records even after you have done the illegitimate needful of ‘moving’ the people responsible.”
Will our newly appointed judicial officers allow the justice dispensation to finally grind to a halt? This will surely not be in the interest of any one allowing people heading to the shrine to resolve their disputes in this modern world of civilization. This is why advising our judicial officers have become more necessary because we want the best from them to restore the full confidence of the people in our judicial system. It was the late Hon. Justice Anthony Aniagolu that once that : “for any judge to serve the course of justice, that judge must see himself as presiding on behalf of God”. The implication of this is that, it is not for nothing that judges are being addressed as “My Lord” or “Your Lordship”, it is a responsibility of the highest order. Any judicial officer that goes about with that title but refuses to do justice accordingly will surely have a case to answer before the Almighty God in the hereafter. The bench is not a place for merry making ,rather it is a place where the judicial officer must marry to hardworking, reading and research to able to deliver good judgments that will stand the test of time.In this present world of modern technology, our judicial officer must flow with modern technology for maximum productivity.It is still regrettable today there are judicial officers who have refused to flow with the modern technology in the discharge of their duties.I do not see anything wrong in a judge who knows that he would not be sitting in court in the next 24 hours to instruct his registrar to call or send phone text messages round to all counsels due to appear before him that the court will not be sitting and probably suggest a new date the cases are fixed for. While it is commendable that some courts are doing this, but there are courts that it is when you get there after passing through a lot of stress ,even coming from outside the jurisdiction ,that you are told that the court is not going to sit. Despite the fact that some rules of the courts now require the counsel when filing court process should include their phone numbers and email addresses but unfortunately some courts are not making use of such information.
Our newly appointed judicial officers should bear it in mind that all eyes will now be on them.Whenever they are sitting on cases conducting trial,they themselves will be on trial as rightly put it by Lord Denning in his “The Road to Justice” when he said that “Justice has no place in darkness and secrecy. When a judge sits on a case, he himself is on trial”.On what justice must be rooted on, the same great English jurist said in the case of Metropolitan Properties Ltd Vs. Lannan (1969)1 QB 577 that: “Justice must be rooted in confidence and confidence is betrayed when right thinking people go away saying the judge is biased” Our new judicial officer must take the hint. Our judicial officers should display high sense of humility and comportment when presiding on cases before them.They must show respect to counsels appearing before them and whenever it becomes necessary, they must be very bold and frank in the cause of exercising their judicial duties as done by the late Hon. Justice John Idowu Conrad Taylor, the first Chief Justice of Lagos State when he said in his judgment in the case of Noibi Vs. Noibi delivered on 23rd February 1970:
“I want to make it perfectly clear to all members of the Bar and the public that as long as God gives me life, and as long as my tenure of office subsists, I shall continue in my solemn dedication to the due administration of justice in accordance with the oath I took. I shall administer Justice without fear, regardless of any intimidation from any quarter and equally without favour to anyone no matter whether he be a member of our noble profession or a layman ,and be he in exalted position in life and otherwise. I shall never be deterred.”
It was part of the training we received in Law School in those days that lawyers should know their courts and judges in the sense they should familiarize themselves with the way their courts where they appear to advocate operate. If I live in a neighbourhood where I know that the court will not start sitting until 10:00 or 11:00 AM, why must I stress myself to be in court as earlier as 8: 00 AM? Although the proper time for court to sit is 9AM, but there are courts you arrive as earlier as 8AM but the judicial officers will not sit until 10:00AM or 11:00 AM . You should even thank God, if you get apology from such judicial officers for sitting late. There are good courts that adopt the style of time table, counsel going to those courts know the exact time the court will sit or the time their cases are fixed for as they will not need to go there waiting endlessly for the presiding judicial officers. The style of time table sitting is a good one which our new judicial officers can buy into to safe time and energy as they are of essence to every one. I am a believer in making our judicial officers very comfortable on the bench by the appointing authorities in terms of welfare and other facilities including well secured accommodations, courtrooms and chambers with good libraries as well as fantastic auto mobiles.They need all these to be able to discharge the duties and responsibilities assigned to them efficiently A situations where judicial officers are made to be sharing the same courtrooms and chambers as being done in some states is not good enough for our judicial system. Those in authorities must put in place fantastic and well equipped Court Buildings or edifices that will be able to accommodate all at the same time. I rest my case for now!
COMING UP NEXT
SUPREME COURT AND THE ADMINISTRATION OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE
NOTE: Anyone is at liberty to disagree with my above submissions as I will surely appreciate a balanced, fair and objective rebuttal.
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9th May 2020