SPEECH DELIVERED BY MICHAEL A. ASUGO, ESQ, ACIArb (UK),CHAIRMAN, NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION, WARRI BRANCH,AT THE VALEDICTORY COURT SESSION IN HONOUR OF HON.JUSTICE (MRS.) G. E. AKPERI ON TUESDAY THE 26TH OF FEBRUARY,2019 AT THE HIGH COURT, WARRI.
My Lord, Hon. Justice Marshall Umukoro ably represented by Hon. Justice T.O.Diai, serving and retired Judges of the Delta State Judiciary, The Hon. AttorneyGeneral and Commissioner for Justice, Delta State, Judges of the Revenue Court,the Chief Magistrate of the Warri Magisterial District, Worshipful Magistrates present, Presidents of Area and District Customary Courts, Chairmen of the various Branches of the NBA, Senior Advocates of Nigeria, Past Chairmen and Secretaries of the NBA, the Family of Hon. Justice (Mrs.) G. E. Akperi, gentlemen of the press, ladies and gentlemen. We are gathered here this morning to honour Hon. Justice (Mrs.) G. E. Akperi after about 32 years of service as a judicial officer, most which were spent in the Delta State judiciary. My Lord joined the judiciary as a Magistrate in 1987 and was elevated to the High Court on the 4th of January, 1998. Today, as she marks her 65th birthday, in line with the relevant provisions of Section 8 of the Public Service Rules, 2008, My Lord must step down from the Bench and proceed on a well-deserved retirement. On behalf of the NBA Warri Branch and indeed the entire Bar in Delta State, I wish My Lord, a happy 65th birthday and a happy retirement.
The judiciary in Delta State has gone through a lot of changes since My Lord Hon.Justice (Mrs.) G. E. Akperi joined it. There is no doubt in the mind of Nigerians that the judiciary is today facing challenges unheard of a few years ago. It is therefore only fair that on this occasion of the retirement of Hon. Justice (Mrs.) G.E. Akperi, we should take a brief but critical look at the state of the judiciary not only in Delta State, but in Nigeria generally.
NUMBER OF JUDGES SERVING ON THE BENCH
With the retirement today of My Lord Hon. Justice (Mrs.) G. E. Akperi, the number of judges serving on the Bench of Delta State has been further reduced to thirty (30). As at January, 2018, Lagos State had fifty two (52) Judges and recently, the Governor stated that the State was planning to increase the number of
Judges to one hundred and twenty (120). With only thirty Judges in Delta State, many courts have no resident Judges. The implication of this is that, the few Judges now sitting on the Bench in Delta State have to sit in multiple Judicial Divisions, contend with more cases, fewer hours of rest and more risk to their health. An average High Court Judge in Delta State spends a minimum of five hours in open court every day listening to argument, watching the demeanour of witnesses and writing bench rulings on all manners of applications. The Judge then retires to his chambers and or study at home to read written addresses, pleadings, motions, affidavits and write more detailed rulings and/or judgments. This backbreaking workload is beginning to take its toll on the Judges. Some of them now look older than their real ages. We do not know the level of mental, emotional and physical strain this is causing in their lives. Neither the State nor the Judiciary has deemed it necessary to carry out a clinical study of the effect of the current workload and work environment on the Judges. I am sure that if it is done, the result will not beencouraging. In years gone by, it was unheard of for Judges to sit in two or three different courts except when they were empowered by warrants, signed by the Chief Judge of the State, to sit in courts, other than their regular courts, to complete part-heard cases. Unfortunately, it is now the norm for Judges to preside in two or three different courts at the same time. My Lord Hon. Justice G. E. Akperi was sitting in the High Court of Justice, Ekpan, in addition to her duties as a Judge of the High of Court ofJustice, Warri and the Administrative Judge of the Warri Judicial Division. The result is that in spite of her best efforts, My Lord, Justice Akperi is leaving behind some cases that must now start de novo. Some of these cases are over 25 years old. The NBA Warri Branch believes that the administration of justice in Delta State must be improved beyond the present experience if the judiciary is to maintain the confidence of the members of the public. It is practically impossible for a Judge, in the present circumstance, to write quality and enduring judgments which eminent Jurists such as Late Hon. Justice Chike Idigbe, Late Hon. Justice C. A. Oputa, Late Hon.Justice Kayode Eso, Late Hon. Justice A. O. Obaseki, Late Hon. Justice A. Nnamani etc., were known for and which made them famous as Judges. The Delta State Judiciary has some of the most brilliant and hard-working Judges in Nigeria. However, the conditions under which they work, hinder their performances. This is not acceptable.
On the 9th of May, 1994, Hon. Justice Olajide Olatawura retired from the Supreme Court and in his speech at the valedictory court session in his honour, he spoke about the challenges the Bench in Nigeria was facing. My Lord, in the year 2019, those same challenges are not just still with us but they have been magnified. In the speech, he said “The courts are expected to sit at 9.00am. Unless a previous notice to the contrary has been given. It is wrong for a judge to sit in his Chambers to finish reading his newspapers before coming to court. It is wrong for a judge to fix 5 or more cases for hearing in a day. It is an impossible task and a self-inflicted punishment”. My Lords, yesterday, I appeared before a Judge of the High Court in this Judicial Division and there were twenty cases on her docket. If it amounted to self-inflicted punishment for a Judge to fix more than five(5) cases for hearing in 1994, one can imagine what it is now. To further worsen the situation, some of the Judges presently sitting in two or more courts, will soon leave for national assignments at various Election Petition Tribunals that might last for six months or more. The question we need to ask ourselves, is whether, a busy judicial division like Warri or Effurun can be run by only one or two Judges. I have it on good authority that the only Judge who sits at Orerokpe and Isiokolo Judicial Divisions is also slated for a national assignment as stated above. What is going to happen to all the cases in those judicial divisions? It is our view that if nothing is done now, the administration of justice in Delta State, will further suffer unmitigated damage. It is for this reason, the NBA Warri Branch hereby calls on the Delta State Judicial Service Commission, to as a matter of urgency, commence the process of appointing a minimum of ten eminently qualified and competent Judges, into the High Court Bench of the State. Furthermore, Delta State should emulate Lagos State and commence the agitation for the allocation of more judges to the State, even beyond forty (40).
THE STATE OF THE JUDICIARY
The Judiciary is the third arm of Government. It is now being treated like a department in the executive arm of Government. It is our view that the Judiciary must assert itself positively to protect its independence. It must insist on being treated like the third, independent and equal arm of government. Judges should not be seen jubilating publicly and genuflecting before the officials of the executive arm of Government, just because they have been given cars or granted approval to travel abroad and such other benefits, which they are ordinarily entitled to. In the speech of Hon Justice Olatawura earlier referred to, he also said that: “No Judge
has the right to be hostile to the Government, but no Chief Judge should be an errand boy to a Governor. We should not compromise our constitutional powers as judges”. The point we are making here is that, when the executive refuses to give what is due to the Judiciary to it and compels a Chief Judge to beg for what should ordinarily be given to Judges as a matter of course, it amounts to treating the Chief Judge like an errand boy. We are aware that most of the time more Judges cannot be appointed because the State Government is unwilling to provide vehicles for the new Judges. However, the Government has no problem providing vehicles for the use of political appointees, most of whom actually do nothing. The time has come, for the Bar and Bench to come together and synergize, so that we can fight for a Judiciary we can all be proud of. It must be noted that the bar has been in the fore front of enhanced welfare for all judicial officers in the country but for some inexplicable reasons, the judiciary has failed to co-operate with the Bar, in this regard. One example will illustrate this point. In 1996, when Major General B. Oteri encroached on land belonging to the judiciary in GRA Warri, the NBA Warri Branch was able to secure an interim injunction to stop the construction of the building the Major General was putting up on the land with alarming speed. Surprisingly, as a result of “pressure” from Government, the case was transferred to another Judge of the High Court of Justice Warri Judicial Division who vacated the interim order. Although the order was later restored by the Court of Appeal on an appeal by the NBA Warri Branch, the judiciary effectively frustrated the branch from pursuing that case. General Oteri’s house is still standing on judiciary land a stone throw from here as a testament to the inability or refusal of the judiciary to assert itself and protect itself.
The current travails of the Chief Justice of the Federation, Hon. Justice Walter N.Onnoghen, ought to concern all of us in this court room. This is because, if the issue is not properly handled, it will spell doom for the Judiciary. The NBA has joined all other concerned global organizations to condemn the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria on the basis of an ex parte order obtained in questionable circumstances. The NBA has stated that its position has nothing to do with whether the CJN should be tried on charges of corruption or not but rather on whether by the principles of separation of powers enshrined in the 1999 Constitution as amended, the executive arm of government can unilaterally suspend the head ofanother arm of government in the way it was done. Since the matter is still in court and therefore sub judice, we will refrain from commenting on its merits. However,
we need to mention that it was rather disheartening to note that when the NBA decided to boycott courts for two days to register its displeasure over the issue, some members of the judiciary due to fear or a desire to please the Government, refused to cooperate but sat and allowed lawyers who in disobedience to the NBA directive attended court to conduct their cases. This issue has openly revealed that the battle for the sanctity and independence of the Judiciary has just entered a critical stage. Whether we will win or lose depends on our attitude. It is our prayer that the Bar and the Bench do not become lily livered when it matters most. This is the only way history will judge us kindly.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE BAR AND THE BENCH INDELTA STATE
My Lord, Hon Justice G. E. Akperi (Mrs.) will be greatly missed by members of the NBA Warri Branch. My Lord always attended our events and at times, contributed financially. In January, My Lord joined the bar in the first NBA Warri Branch prayer session. The large turnout of our members here today is a testament to how dear she is to us. Notwithstanding the closeness of My Lord to the Bar, she was very strict when she needed to be. She insisted on members of the bar (particularly the female members) being properly dressed in her court. She was in control of her court and managed to create a balance between firmness and friendliness. She was never rude to members of the Bar. When a member of the Branch was brutally assaulted by police officers in June, 2018, she readily intervened to secure medical attention for him. It is the desire of the Bar that this same type of relationship can be created with other Judges in the State.
As My Lord bows out today, we wish her happy retirement, good health and contentment. To her loving husband and children, we say a big thank you for allowing her the time and space to carry out her duties as a Judge. We also join her to thank God who made everything in her life possible. On a final note my Lord, we wish you a happy birthday and bid you a successful and enjoyable retirement.