That the judiciary is in need of sanitisation is obvious. Before the current democratic dispensation, judicial officers were more forthright and courageous. They confronted ruthless military regimes and held their ground by churning out decisions that were contrary to the wishes of the “emperors”.
But times have changed. Resisting mere political influence is a tough job for some judges in the current democratic dispensation. Judicial officers buckle under the influence of politicians, who shop for favourable decisions to gain or retain power at all costs.
This scenario manifested recently, when Justice Ubale Birnin Kudu of the Jigawa State High Court and his counterpart in the Imo State judiciary, Justice B. C. Iheka, dabbled into the Anambra State governorship election controversy and gave consequential judgments on what appears like a case of professional misconduct. Of course, these conflicting orders by courts of co-ordinate jurisdiction provoked the ire of all reasonable stakeholders in the justice sector. Not because it was happening for the first time, but because it was becoming more frequent as election approaches. Also, it was seriously eroding the integrity of the judiciary as the last hope of the common man and the unbiased arbiter.
Consequent upon such conducts, the National Judicial Council (NJC), headed by Justice Tanko Ibrahim Muhammad promptly set up a high-powered probe panel to investigate the judges involved in the embarrassing conducts.
Affected judges were asked to face the panel, to show cause, why disciplinary action should not be taken against them. The panel, constituted at the NJC’s 95th meeting, was held on September 15 and 16, 2021 and was presided over by the CJN as the chairman of the NJC.
In the panel deliberation, NJC considered the reports of its Investigation Committee and decided to issue warning letters to some of the judges for descending into the arena of political conflict in their adjudications.
The CJN said: “Council at its plenary considered the reports of the two Preliminary Complaints Assessment Committees (PCAC) on the petitions written against 18 judicial officers and on the recommendation of the committee.”
To guard the doors of justice against future invasion by perverts, NJC issued a letter of advice to others, to be wary of granting an order staying the execution of a judgment that appeared executory, in future.
While the bench is craving for antidotes to end this ignoble conduct at the hallow chambers of the courts, the Bar is also groping for a way out of the growing threats to the sanctity of the bench.
President, Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Olumide Akpata had during the court of appeal opening of 2021/2022 legal year noted with sadness the disturbing infamous activities of lawyers at the Bar, who help to drag the bench into disrepute.
“Nearly every day we wake to the news of another order on the subject of the leadership of a political party in a manner that smacks not only of the possibility of forum shopping but also of suspected compromise of such mushrooming injunctions,” Akpata lamented.
However, while some stakeholders insist that judges and lawyers, found guilty of professional misconduct be severely punished, others have insisted that the best option is to sanitise the system through the process of recruitment, to ensure that those to be appointed are properly screened and scrutinised.
Abuja based legal practitioner, Godwin Ogboji, believes that the quality and substance of lawyers appointed into the bench needed to be looked into properly.
The lawyer declared that the recruitment process of judges should be based on competence. He warned that appointing lawyers to learn on the job should be jettisoned.
The legal practitioner regretted that judicial appointments were gradually being turned into a rich-class affair, where mostly the children of the high and connected benefit. He stated that such conducts must be discouraged and discountenanced, if the right crops of judges are expected at the bench.
The lawyer argued that the competence of persons to be appointed as judges could be assessed through their records, in terms of knowing how he/she has argued and presented cases before the courts.
Such records, he explained, could be checked from the number of cases handled in the public sector, including the fellow’s temperament, among others. For lawyers in private practice, he said the assessment could be done from the number of cases and types handled per period.
“The issue of saying your father was a judge and you should be appointed should be discouraged. Your father may have the skill and you have none. Primordial sentiments should be jettisoned for competence and bias for the children of the rich should also be jettisoned for competence.
“Ordinarily, the appointment of judges should be done by the Judicial Service Commission of the respective states, but due to overbearing influences on the system by politicians, governors and senators, it is no longer absolutely the case,” he pointed out.
According to Ogboji, the clamour for judiciary independence is to minimise internal and external influence on judicial officers, especially by the politicians.
The lawyer insisted that NJC should look out for competence, capacity of lawyers to be firm and professional background of the person, rather than allow political influence dictate who should be appointed.
His words: “To recruit among litigation lawyers, the question should be: how have you faired in practice? How has your temperament been viewed by others? This is because litigation lawyers appear before judges, so it is easy to know.”
Dr. Mubarak Adekilekun, Head of Department of Business Law, Faculty of Law, University of Ilorin attributed this seeming decline in justice administration to leadership failures. He stated that constitutionally, the power for the appointment of judges is vested on the NJC, adding that there are certain prerequisites that are looked into before appointment.
According to Dr. Adekilekun in the good old days, those who were appointed as judges were people with high knowledge in law and experience and passion for justice administration. However, nepotism, sentiment and other trivial issues have taken over the traditional requisite conditions, he said.
Dr. Adekilekun said even though there are still sound, incorruptible judges in the bench, the incompetent ones are usually exposed through the quality of ruling they deliver. “Even as a lawyer, you are sometimes surprised at certain judgments being delivered. How can you grant orders when you have no locus standi? What was expected in such a situation was for the judge in question to refer the matter to the appropriate court with competent jurisdiction,” he said.
According to him, the way out is to appoint people with the requisite skills, knowledge and passion into the bench. Adekilekun pointed out that some might have the knowledge but have no passion for the job, which is a drawback that will tell in course of time.
He faulted the argument that pressure from politicians could sway judges. According to him, if you have judges who are not corrupt, no amount of pressure would sway them. He said since the judiciary is the last hope of the common man, it is important to ensure that competent and well-experienced people are appointed into the bench.
He maintained that the appointment of judicial officials should be subjected to thorough background checks. “From the magistrate to the high court, the records of the judgments delivered by the fellow should be thoroughly checked before further elevation,” he suggested, calling for appointment of judges in such a manner devoid of ethnicity and religious sentiments, if the quality of justice administration must be improved.
However, an Abuja based legal practitioner, Malachy Nwaekpe, argued that some of the judicial announcements, which are considered as deliberate judicial rascality, might not be. According to him, judges may not be aware of existing judgment, while adjudicating on the same matter. Defending the judges, the lawyer argued that judges cannot be everywhere at the same time as they are not spirits to know that a brother judge had sat over such matters.
He, however, agreed with the fact that there could be corrupt judges. He asserted that in most circumstances, they are misled by some willing elements in the Bar, who are pushed by desperate litigants. Nwaekpe, therefore, suggested that the recommendation for the appointment of judges should be based on competence and godliness, so they would blend with elements of conscience and expertise.
“Lawyers to be appointed into the bench must be sound and well-grounded in the legal profession. Such appointments should be based on merit. The reason for appointing sound and well-grounded lawyers into the bench is to ensure that whatever decision they come out with, will meet the justice of every case and so, regain the confidence of the public on the system,” he explained.
According to him, lawyers and politicians should be held liable for some of the blame heaped on judges. The desperation, he noted, exhibited by politicians in most of the political cases where judges were blamed for misconduct, were visible as they (politicians) approach numerous courts in the effort to circumvent the bench.
“Sometimes, judges may not know about the pending cases of similar prayers that are being adjudicated upon, where a desperate politician would file a case in a Federal High Court in Umuahia and another at Kebbi. In that circumstance, judges may not know about such matters. In my view, we should rather caution the politician and their lawyers rather than the judges,” he declared.
He therefore, advised the NBA to tighten its monitoring and disciplinary mechanism on its members, with a view to sanctioning those who mislead the bench.