Worked to the Grave: Neglect of Work-life Balance may be killing Judges

Chuba Agbu

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Between the beginning of the pandemic and now more than a dozen Nigerian Judges & Ex Judges have passed on. The incidents seemed to come at an alarmingly consistent pace, it appeared that at least every other month another passing or serious health complication was announced.

The connection was latent at first, and it seemed easier to attribute the events to old age and the Virus. However, despite what we’ve been conditioned to accept, 60 and 70 is not a reasonable age period that a person should expect their flame to be extinguished. These are the golden years that come with the expectation of rest after a lifetime of toil and struggle. This expected tranquil future is particularly mouth-watering to Judges, whose path is markedly more difficult than that of the average man; what then becomes the point of this gruelling lifestyle when current trends and data point to health complications and untimely death.

Up until now, I too was guilty of simply chucking it to coincidence but my conversations with Judges revealed a pattern of overwork and ultimately a general disregard to work-life balance, which may, in no small part contribute to this concerning trend. Judges have access to relatively good healthcare and nutrition and yes, the elements of living in such a harsh country exist, but this cannot explain the inordinate deaths of Adjudicators.

In the early 2000s, the concept of work-life balance started to permeate the professional space. The personal consequences of an overburdening professional culture became well known. Hours exceeding more than 55 hours a week raise the risk of heart attack and stroke. It is not uncommon for overworked individuals to wake up at night with anxiety episodes, stressing over the tasks they have yet to complete which in turn causes their sleep to suffer. Performance-wise, Schulte, a researcher, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that people’s IQ fall by 13 points when they’re in a state of tunnel-vision and busyness. The science on this is conclusive; poor work-life balance significantly increases the risk of health complications later in life.

The Schedule of a Judge is impossibly packed, and rather than the scrutiny of the structures in place, Judges bear the brunt of blame when it comes to assessing the sluggish nature of the Nigerian Justice system. Due to this, sympathy is hardly afforded to them; instead, they are expected to churn out future-proof decisions at an acceptable rate. 9 am to 3 pm are the official sitting hours of a judge in Lagos but as any person familiar with the day-to-day dealings of the court will tell you, this is hardly the norm. Single cases can drag on for hours especially during the trial stage. Lawyers are notoriously known for haggling for more time, extending the hours Judges have to spend in the courtroom. Not to mention that the transition to tech has been notably slow by the Courts. Presently, the majority of Judges prefer to take down notes using the long from a method that involves painstakingly writing during counsel delivery. Following this, Judges will either retire to their chambers and/or homes and spend long hours into the night going through cases to compose their Judgements. Rinse and Repeat. Weekends meant to offer some degree of rest are simply an extension of the week where Judges scramble to conclude the paperwork inevitably leftover from the week. The volume of matter means that there is never a moment’s pause. Court breaks offer a brief respite, but even this remains a contentious subject, with many questioning whether it is proper for justice to be halted in a country that already has fundamental deficiencies in swift justice administration.

Another major contributing factor is in the frivolity of the cases submitted. Most disputes can be resolved through Mediation or Arbitration. Lawyers feel they will earn more fees by rushing to court which is an ill-conceived and archaic perception. This only contributes to the already burgeoning workload that Judges have to handle.

The average age of a Judge from the High court to the Supreme Court is over 50 which already puts them in a vulnerable age bracket. Stacked on top of all this, is the Covid-19 Virus which, as this article suggests, leaves judges as one of the most at-risk members of society. All this is to say, there is a distinct cause and effect relationship between the day to day realities of a Judge and the health complications suffered in later life.

To address this, the state needs to have more Judges integrated into the system at the levels where this deficiency is most needed, namely at the State & Federal high courts up to the Supreme Court of Justice. This will have the domino effect of having a high number of younger judges at the Magistrate and High courts, addressing most of the cases in the court pipeline and reaching the apex court at significantly younger ages. Lawyers must also recognise and uphold their roles in the legal ecosystem as Officers of the Court and use the best means available to resolve client disputes. Additionally, the courts need to be more tech-oriented, and quickly.

The reality is that work-life balance is not available for most overworked judges. The pursuit of balance in itself can be exhausting. However, the legal profession and the directly influencing facets of the system need to be aware of the Judges’ plight and the corresponding alarming health trends and it needs to do what it can to lessen the burden.



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