AN ADDRESS DELIVERED BY THE CHAIRMAN OF THE NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION, BENIN BRANCH, PIUS IDEMUDIA OIWOH Esq. FOR AND ON BEHALF OF ALL THE OTHER BRANCHES OF THE NBA IN EDO STATE, AT THE SPECIAL COURT SESSION TO MARK THE OPENING OF THE 2020/2021 LEGAL YEAR IN THE EDO STATE JUDICIARY ON FRIDAY THE 27TH DAY OF NOVEMBER, 2020

PROTOCOLS:

  1. The tradition of celebrating the commencement of a new legal year is one which dates back to the middle ages in England and Wales. The Legal year though not celebrated with much fanfare is also done in the United States of America. It is therefore with great delight that I stand before your Lordships, Members of the Bar and invited guests today, in this topsy-turvy year 2020 to welcome Your Lordships, on behalf of the Branches of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in Edo State, from Your Lordships’ annual vacation and to felicitate with My Lords on the commencement of the 2020/2021 Legal Year, which we are marking today.
  2. My Lords, the year 2020 has been one which has been characterized by upheavals in our way of life. We have heard terms such as new normal, social distancing, face masks and some other new-fangled terms in this year because of the presence of the ravaging and virulent virus which has claimed the lives of over 1000 Nigerians and is still claiming lives including that of Legal Practitioners. We pray God to grant kind admittance to the souls of the departed.
  3. Despite the pandemic and its attendant effect on recalibrating life and our way of living from the way we knew it, it is my lot to speak on far-reaching issues that affect the administration of Justice, the welfare of Legal Practitioners and other far-reaching issues concerning society in what would be my first speech at the opening of the legal year as the Chairman of the NBA Benin Branch. It is my hope that some of the problems which will be highlighted here and our proposed solutions would be taken on board and implemented.
  4. If we have learnt anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the need to accelerate the use of technology in the dispensation of justice. It is quite unfortunate that in 2020, where we have teleconferencing and telemedicine, we still have to subject our judges and those of the lower bench to write in longhand in our courtrooms. This practice is archaic and should have been done away with since but as the Chinese proverb says the best time to do something was yesterday, the next best time is now. The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly incapacitated our Judges and the number of cases they can handle in a day. It will therefore be a clog in the wheels of justice if we continue insisting that our Judges take down proceedings in longhands. The time has come for the Courts to have stenographers and deploy technology to take down proceedings; this will greatly enhance the cause of justice and hasten the speed at which cases are dispensed with. The Bar is ready through its various Committees comprised of hardworking and brilliant Legal Practitioners to lend her times, talents and resources to aid in the passage of whatever instrument(s) that will be needed to ease the administration of justice.
  5. The need for a conducive working environment for our Judges, Magistrates and Presidents of Area Customary Courts is germane as such an environment is directly proportional to the effective dispensation of justice. We cannot continue in a situation where our Magistrates and Presidents of Area Customary courts operate in environments which look like shanties without roofs, toilets and electricity and some of them do not even have adequate provision for sitting. This deplorable environment which our Magistrates and Presidents of the Area Customary Courts operate is very pitiable and sad and will have the effect of undermining confidence in the judiciary thereby reducing its effectiveness. Some Magistrates and Presidents of Area Customary Courts have been seen taking commercial buses to work, this is most unacceptable as it exposes these persons to all forms of danger imaginable. We must not only appoint Magistrates and Presidents of Area Court Customary Courts, but we must also place a premium on their welfare and give them the tools needed to carry out their jobs diligently and faithfully. We commend the Edo State Government for ultra modern High Court building where we currently hold this ceremony, we however request that same be extended to the lower courts which handle the bulk of cases.

APPOINTMENT OF JUDICIAL OFFICERS

  1. The need to appoint more Judges, Magistrates and Presidents of Area Customary Courts is a very pressing concern to the Bar, this is as a result of the backlog of cases created by the disruption in the judicial calendar occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic which has also led to the scheduling of fewer cases a day and thereby leading to an unprecedented backlog in the system. The need to appoint more Judicial officers is therefore very important and needs to be treated with utmost seriousness. This appointment of judicial officers which we seek for is one where the Bar will be carried along at every stage and valuable input and insight can be gotten from the Bar. Judicial officers do not fall from heaven like the biblical Melchizedek, they are members of the Bar before they were called to serve on the Bench. It is therefore not good enough that the Bars opinion will be limited to making comments on names of persons already nominated and sent to it so as to give credence to the appointment process. The Bar knows its members and since a judicial officer must be above board like Caesars wife, it is therefore important that opinions be sought from peers and colleagues before the appointment process is completed and finalized. In the not too distant past, Edo State had the opportunity to produce two erudite Supreme Court Justices in the persons of Justices Andrews Otutu Obaseki and Samson Odemwingie Uwaifo. These Justices of Edo origin contributed to the development of our jurisprudence. Unfortunately, today Judges from the Edo State High Court barely get to the Court of Appeal and the reason is not far-fetched, it is not because they are not brilliant enough or of sound character, we very much know they are. It is because the age at which they are appointed to the Bench does not make it favourable for them to garner the requisite experience needed before they are elevated to the appellate courts. Very recently, two Justices from the south-south were elevated to the Supreme Court in the persons of Justice Oseji from Delta State who until his elevation was in the Benin Division of the Court of Appeal and Justice Emmanuel Agim who is from Rivers State. It will interest my Lords to know that Justice Oseji who is now in the Supreme Court commenced his judicial career as a Magistrate and today he is in the Supreme Court. That one can rise from the rungs of the magistracy to the Olympian heights of the Supreme Court should not be a distant dream for would-be judicial officers in Edo State. We need to catch them young and elevate them quickly. It is in doing this that our beloved State will be able to produce more appellate Justices who might even rise to the Supreme Court.

RESTORATION OF THE CUSTOMARY COURT OF APPEAL

  1. Section 280 (1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides as follows:

There shall be for any State that requires it a Customary Court of Appeal for that State

The Bar wishes to restate its position which it has long held since 2015 when the law establishing the Customary Court of Appeal was repealed, that Edo State requires a Customary Court of Appeal. The reason for this is not far-fetched, the Customary Court of Appeal is recognised as one of the Superior Courts of Record outlined in Section 6 (5) of the Constitution. It is our respectful view that the age-old issue of the jurisdiction of Customary Courts of Appeal vis-à-vis can be resolved through legislative intervention at the State House of Assembly which can work on passing a law which will expand the jurisdiction of the Customary Court of Appeal. The re-introduction of the Customary Court of Appeal will no doubt reduce the clog in the dockets at our High Court which has been made worse by the jam induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. We, therefore, advocate that the scrapping of the Customary Court of Appeal which decision was illfated be rethought as it has brought untold hardships on the general public. It is on record that other jurisdictions with same court were mentored by Edo State being a State with rich custom and tradition. We must remember in the words of Cyrus Das, PhD (Honorary life President of the Commonwealth Bar Association) that:

Justice is a consumer product and must therefore meet the test of confidence, reliability and dependability like any other product if it is to survive market scrutiny. It exists for the citizenry, at whose service only, the system of Justice must work.

We are at an inflexion point in the history of our State and our country and we must do all that is within our powers to make sure we regain the trust of the Nigerian people.

EXECUTION OF JUDGMENT

  1. The Bar notes with grave concern the establishment of an otherwise unknown Appellate court in this Country. This Appellate Court is the Police Command which sometimes frustrates the enforcement of judgments and makes a judgment creditor unable to reap the fruits of a hard-earned judgment. This is because the current practice is that when judgment is given in favour of a party to a suit, a letter is written to the Police Command to provide security to assist in enforcing the Courts judgment which most times suffers delay. What lawyers go through in the hands of the police in trying to enforce the valid judgment of a Court of law is better imagined than experienced. That is why we say that the Police might have unwittingly constituted themselves into an Appellate Court. It will interest my Lords to know that this behaviour of the police goes against the provision of Section 15 of the Sheriffs and Civil Processes Act which states that:

It shall be the duty of every police officer to assist in the execution of process of the court.

While we have lamented and said the role the police play in frustrating the valid execution of an unappealed judgment of a Court of Law, we will not tweedle our thumbs and throw tantrums, we are therefore advocating for creative means by which judgments can be enforced. One of our suggestions is that we establish and empower Sheriffs in line with the provisions of the Sheriffs and Civil Processes Act to hasten to give judgments of Court teeth. We therefore advocate for the creation of a Unit of the Police by the Commissioner of Police to be domiciled in the High Court for such purposes.

WELFARE OF JUDICIAL OFFICERS

  1. The Chairman, Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele, stated during the screening of the eight Justices recently nominated by President Muhammadu Buhari, from the Court of Appeal as Justices of Supreme Court that the pay of each of the justices of the Supreme Court per annum as far as the basic salary was concerned was N2.477million, while those of the Court of Appeal was N1.995million each and Judges of the High court, N1.804million each. If the figures reeled out by the distinguished Senator who by his position is also a member of the body of Benchers is anything to go by then we have a cause to rethink this. If we are to build trust in the judiciary, we must insulate them from financial worries as the life of a Judge is one of the great sacrifices which means that their freedoms are greatly curtailed. We must have the conversation of improving their remuneration while we concurrently set the bar higher for them to dispense justice. Same too to apply to those of the lower bench who handle the bulk of cases.

JUDICIARY STAFF UNION (JUSUN)

  1. In a similar vein, the persons who keep the judicial system going must not be exempted from the improvement in the welfare packages due to them. It is an issue of great concern to the Bar that members of the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) Edo State Chapter have a backlog of seven months salaries still yet unpaid. We find this to be most unjust and unpleasant and we fervently appeal to His Excellency the Governor of Edo State who has carried out some significant transformations in the civil service to grant approval for the payment of this money as we cannot have a proper and functional court system where the staff who form the majority of employees in the judiciary are unhappy. It behoves to our sense of fairness and equity to request that this backlog be cleared so that resentment and unhappiness do not eat too much into the system. Majority of members of JUSUN have not hidden their love and loyalty to the Governor of the State and have openly expressed their support for this administration.
  2. It is also noteworthy that the Judiciary is grossly understaffed owing to retirement, deaths and resignation of so many Staff. The present workforce is overworked and choked with work so much so that senior staff even do the work of cleaners.

LEGAL ASSISTANTS

  1. The Bar wishes to once again call on the relevant authorities to absorb the Legal Assistants to Judges into the civil service. This will have the twin effect of providing them job security and a medium to do their jobs well. We also note that these Legal Assistants having worked with Judges are exposed to the inner workings of the judiciary. There is therefore no reason why some of them who are diligent and productive should not be appointed as Magistrates and Presidents of Area Customary Courts if they so desire.

ACCOMMODATION FOR STATE COUNSEL

  1. We passionately appeal to the relevant authorities to provide adequate accommodation for State Counsel who are assigned to stations outside Benin City so that they would be able to do their jobs properly and not be overly exposed to the road accident and insecurity which is rife in our country at the moment. We commend the State Government for the employment of over sixty (60) State Counsel which has significantly enhanced the productivity of the Edo State Ministry of Justice, we however appeal for the urgent consideration for full employment of those who have been on a casual status for quite sometime. We similarly commend the State Government for the job well done on Block C of the State Secretariat which accommodates our colleagues from the Ministry of Justice who are now neighbours to the Bar Secretariat and enjoy proximity to the High Court.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

  1. In the wake of the protests about Police Brutality which happened in Nigeria in the past month which was later hijacked by unscrupulous elements, we call on my Lord the Chief Judge of Edo State to exercise the powers under Section 34 of the Administration Of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015 and Section 70 of the Police Act 2020 to intensify and strenghnten the monthly visitations to detention centres within their territorial jurisdictions to prevent the kind of gory stories of illegal arrest and detention in the state. The NBA is ready to assign lawyers who will accompany the Judges, Magistrates and Presidents of Area Customary Courts on these visits so that confidence is regained in the judiciary.

SECURITY

  1. The primary responsibility of protection of lives and properties is that of Government. The aftermath of the Endsars protest which was hijacked by criminal elements in our society has rendered everyone in Edo State vulnerable to attack owing to the escape of thousands of inmates from our correction centers. The level of insecurity ranging from arm robbery, kidnapping and cult killings in our State have heightened and now so alarming that residents around the Government House are now regular guests to Robbers, the DCR of the Federal High Court is the latest victim as 72 hours ago his entire belongings were carted away by armed robbers in their number while the Hilux Van of the FHC was also taken away. It will be recalled that prior to the robbery my Lord Hon. Justice M.G Umars resident and Masoria Hotel respectively all on Humphrey Omo Osagie Avenue off Golf course road were hosts to these criminal elements. While we appreciate that Government is doing something about the ugly trend, we appeal to it to intensify efforts aimed at restoring security to our people particularly to our Judicial Officers and State Counsel whose job descriptions are in contrast with that of these criminal elements.

FINANCIAL AUTONOMY

  1. I have decided to save what the Bar considers the most important issue for last. The principle of separation of power connotes the allocation of governmental authority to separate institutions in government i.e. the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary. It constitutes one of the most important democratic principles and limits arbitrary excesses by any arm of government. The primary goal of separation of power is to enable the three arms of government to be functionally independent of each other. The Judiciary (Judges) also checks and balances on the other two organs of government. Therefore, Judges are expected to be above board. As Niki Tobi opined in Eriobuna v Obiorah,[1999] 8 NWLR (pt.616) 622 at 630:

A Judge by the nature of his position and professional calling is expected to be straight forward, upright, diligent, consistent and open in whatever he does in Court and other places of human endeavour that he happens to find himself. This is because his character as a Judge is public property. He is the cynosure of the entire adjudication in the court, and like Caesar’s wife of ancient Rome, he is expected to live above board and above suspicion, if the judicial process should not experience any reverse or suffer detriment. A Judge should know that by nature of his judicial functions, he is persistently and consistently on trial for any improper conduct immediately before, during and immediately after the trial of a case.

Unfortunately, State Courts (Judiciary) in Nigeria and of course the Legislature have over the years relied on the Executive for their funding. This is antithetical to the principle of separation of powers as guaranteed under the Constitution. Once again permit me to quote Cyrus Das PhD where he stated and I quote:

Judicial responsibility, accountability and independence are in every sense inseparable. They are, and must be, embodied in the institution of the judiciary.

On Friday, May 22 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari signed an executive order known as the Executive Order 10 of 2020 wherein he granted financial autonomy to the Legislature and judiciary. This Executive Order is simply to restate the provisions of Section 121 (3) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which state that Any amount standing credit of the a) House of Assembly of the state, and b) Judiciary, in the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the state shall be paid directly to the said bodies respectively; in the case of the judiciary, such amount shall be paid directly to the Heads of the Courts concerned.. Although the implementation of this order is yet to take place fully due to some concerns raised by Governors and the concerns over its constitutionality. The intention behind it must be lauded by all and sundry. Although it is painful that an Executive Order of the President will be needed to carry out the clear dictates of the Constitution, nevertheless we must never be shy to discuss the imperatives for a truly independent Judiciary which starts from financial autonomy. The Judiciary should not be going cap in hand begging the executive to execute projects and other things which need to be done. This is a recipe for emasculating the Judiciary and dragging it into the murky waters of politics.

The imperative to have a court which is not held back for fear or favour is one which cannot be overemphasized, this is why we note with great surprise the withholding of the retirement benefits of the immediate past Chief Judge of Edo State, Hon Justice Esohe Ikpomwen. We find this information to be quite troubling and unconscionable as it sends very chilling and unwanted signals to others currently serving and those who might be willing to serve. We cannot think of any reason(s) why a Judge should not be paid his retirement benefits not to talk of one who rose to be Chief Judge of our State will be deprived of retirement benefits. We consider that this must be an act of omission and not commission and thats why we call on all authorities responsible for this inhumane treatment to the immediate past Chief Judge to please do the right thing and release to the immediate past Chief Judge all lawful retirement benefits.

If the Legal profession and our country are to achieve their undoubted potentials, we must undertake the task of building strong institutions and not creating strong men. If lessons have been learnt from the United States of America in the recent debacle that has followed the conduct of the Presidential elections in that country where a sitting President lost an election and is refusing to go out quietly into the night is that the American institutions are strong and independent and are probably made of Teflon, though they may creak, they will not fall. That must be the model we must adopt for our country and our judiciary to achieve the lofty ideals of what justice delivery should be.

APPRECIATION

  1. The Bar expresses its appreciation to the Honourable, the Chief Judge for granting our request of extending electricity supply to the Bar House which was hitherto a challenge. It will interest my Lordship to know that of the more than 125 Branches of the NBA in Nigeria, the Lion Bar is one of the very few that have a permanent Bar Secretariat which has cemented the NBA Benins pride of place in the country. We know that my Lord, the Honourable, the Chief Judge has always been a friend of the Bar as we recall with nostalgia that it was when my Lord was Chief Registrar that the Honourable Justice Constance Momoh (the then Chief Judge) approved the Bars request for a plot of land upon which our Bar House sits. We therefore wish to like Oliver Twist ask that our pending request to extend the land upon which the Bar House currently sits is treated with a favourable and urgent response. CONCLUSION
    My Lords, as I close this address, let me quickly state that we appreciate the hard work, industry and drive of the Judges, Magistrates, Presidents of the Area Customary Courts and other staff of the Edo State judiciary led by the Chief Judge whose open-mindedness, tenacity and penchant for innovation is one which we all must commend and if the saying that the morning tells the day is anything to go by, the Edo State Judiciary is ready for a bumper harvest as his Lordships innovative policies begin to bear fruit. It is our sincere hope that the judiciary keeps on going from strength to strength under His Lordships watch and thereafter.

On behalf of the Bar, I heartily congratulate My Lord,the Honourable the Chief Judge of Edo State on this event marking the opening of the New Legal Year and also note that this being His Lordship’s last opportunity of presiding over an opening of the legal year shall by the Grace of God experience a less disruptive and more productive 2020/2021 Legal Year. As Ministers in the temple of justice, we will endeavour to continue to work with Your Lordships to protect the sanctity of this hallowed temple and join our voices with that of others to advocate for the financial autonomy of the judiciary and in line with our motto, continue to ‘promote the rule of law’.

We continue to wish Your Lordships good health, long life and divine wisdom to navigate the affairs of the Court in this New Legal Year and we must realize in the words of Barry Gardiner that:

A well-functioning judicial or education system is just as much part of the wealth of a nation as its roads, ports and factories.

Your Lordships, although the picture which I have sought to paint here might be all rosy as some would have hoped for, the decision to give this kind of speech is because it is our firm belief that the justice system is at a point in our history where our moves from hereon will be monitored closely by all members of society and we cannot afford to fail the Edo people in particular and the Nigerian society at large. The battle to reclaim the confidence of the Nigerian people in the institution of the judiciary is one which will shape the future of this country we love and we cannot afford to drop the ball as we take on this challenge head-on. May I assure Your Lordships and our colleagues here present that the Bar will leave no stone unturned in her quest to bequeath and be part of a vibrant Judiciary and to make sure this hallowed temple of justice is not desecrated but is venerated to its rightful place in society. Your Lordships, permit me to coin the words of Teddy Roosevelt to suit the enormity of the situation which stares us in the face.

My Lords, the Judiciary stands at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.

Pius Idemudia Oiwoh, Esq.
Chairman, NBA Benin

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