Urgent Change Required in the Justice Sector … speakers at Justice Sector Summit say

Anthonia Ochei

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The independence of the judiciary is an essential element of any democratic state. An effectual, fair, accessible, and answerable judiciary cannot be dispensed with. Thus, there must be mechanisms in place to guarantee the independence of the judiciary and where such mechanisms are ineffective, room must be made for improvement.  In 2017, the National Judicial Council in its National Judicial Policy identified lack of transparency and accountability in the administration of justice and an inefficient appointment process, as among the factors, enabling the inefficiency of the Nigerian Judiciary.

It is on this premise that the Nigerian Bar Association (“NBA”) together with the Justice Research Institute, in collaboration with the National Judicial Council (“NJC”), Konrad Adenaur Foundation, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Justice Reform Project, held the inaugural Justice Sector Summit with the theme: “Devising Practical Solutions towards Improved Performance, Enhanced Accountability and Independence in the Justice Sector.”

The Summit, which took place on 25th January 2022 at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Center Abuja, was well-attended by legal luminaries from every area of the legal sector and other stakeholders.

The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad – represented by John Inyang Okoro JSC – chaired the occasion. The Vice President of Nigeria, Yemi Osinbajo, SAN was the special guest of honour. Other notable guests include Femi Gbajabiamila, Speaker of the House of Representatives, represented by Hon. Onofiok Luke, Chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary and Abubakar Malami, Attorney General of the Federation. Also in attendance were some Justices of the Supreme Court, heads, and members of the various courts in Nigeria; Attorneys General of states and distinguished members of the Bar who attended both physically and virtually.

Opening addresses were given by both the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Ibrahim Muhammad, and the NBA President, Olumide Akpata. They both stated that the essence of the meet was to bring about a change in the justice sector with respect to the financial autonomy, justice delivery and the selection of judges. The NBA president noted that judges were not called to the bench, they were called to the bar, and as such there is no need for a bar and bench divide as this hampers the delivery of justice. He expressed clearly that it is the responsibility of all stakeholders to pursue recommendations made at the summit.

In her keynote address Justice Amina Augie JSC, stated that criticisms are like “the enemy’s gift”; not intended to dampen the judges’ spirit but to spur them towards identifying practical solutions to the issues bedevilling the system.

Discussions on the theme began with an opening plenary session before diving deeper in three technical sessions.

During the plenary session, His Excellency, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, gave his remarks. He noted the need for improvement in the remuneration of judicial officers, as there is a startling difference when the salary of judicial officers is benchmarked with the salary of other public office holders.

The plenary session focused on “Devising Practical Solutions towards Performance, Enhanced Accountability & Independence”. The panellists, Abubakar Malami, Amina Augie and Onofiok Luke, Olumide Akpata, and Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, observed the following:

  • the process for the selection, appointment and promotion of judge is vague and ineffective and be made more adequate. Olumide Akpata noted that the interview exercises are poorly conducted
  • there is need for a separate legislation specifically tailored towards regulating the funding, conditions of service, emoluments, and salaries of judicial officer. Abubakar Malami noted that the judiciary cannot solve its problems without the help of other organs of government, as the solution requires legislation and enforcement of same
  • there must be optimal funding of the courts

 

In first technical session, themed, “Judicial Appointments/Selection: Current Practices and Challenges”, attendees voted “character and reputation” as the most important factor in the selection process of judges over other qualities such as knowledge of the law and number of cases won.

On the panel were Gilbert Tor, Director of Research at the National Judicial Institute; Joseph Otteh, Director, Access to Justice; Prof Yinka Omorogbe, former Commissioner for Justice and Attorney General of Edo state and Prince Lateef Fagbemi SAN, Research Professor at the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Institute. The session was moderated by Dr. Babatunde Ajibade, SAN.

Inefficiencies highlighted in this process include dual membership in bodies involved in the selection process, e.g., members of the National Judicial Council are also members of the Federal Judicial Service Commission and lack of financial autonomy.

Proficiency tests were proposed to examine knowledge, character and other factors and it was further recommended that a separate body be tasked with the responsibility of conducting examinations. It was further recommended that the appellate system should be broad in scope and diverse to embody the academia, corporate practitioners and judicial officers.

The second session focused on “Rethinking Judicial Administration: Budgeting; Funding and Accountability”. The panel included Hon. Justice B.B Kanyip, President of the National Industrial Court; Hon. Justice Kashim Zannah, Chief Judge of Borno state; Prof Bolaji Owasonye (represented); Babatunde Fagbohunlu, SAN, Partner, Aluko and Oyebode, and Ben Akabueze, Director, Budget Office of the Federation. The session was moderated by Isaiah Bozimo, Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Delta state.

Citing the NBA “Bill for an Act to Alter the Provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”, it was recommended that a body composed of persons skilled in business management, strategy and planning, a prototype of the UK’s “Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service” should be established. The body would be responsible for the administrative functions of the courts. This body is to be called “Federal Courts and Tribunals Administration Commission” (FCTAC). The Judiciary should also have control of this body in terms of appointment of persons to work in this commission and the body answerable to the judiciary.

The panel was also of the view that there must be accountability in the utilization of funds. This is because lack of transparency in utilization of funds will make funding imperceptible

The discussants in this session were Hon. Justice Nnamdi Dimgba, Judge of the Federal High Court; Hon. Justice Olukayode Adeniyi of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory; Mr Fola Arthur Worrey, former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lagos state; Funke Adekoya SAN, Partner, AELEX. The panel themed, “Accelerating the Speed of Justice Delivery: Accountability and Performance”, focused on ensuring the need for the expeditious dispensation of justice in Nigeria and its importance and the ways in which delay could be minimized in justice delivery.

It was acknowledged by the panel that the issue of delay in justice delivery was in every way connected to the issues discussed earlier by the preceding panels. It was proposed therefore, that, the recommendations made by the preceding panels should be adopted and effected. In addition to this, the panellists recommended a costs penalty system for persons who deliberately delay the justice delivery system and that great investment must be made in the working environment of not just the judicial officers, but other non-judicial members of staff.

It was also resolved and recommended as follows:

  • That there be constitutional amendment to allow for the transfer of cases in superior courts of concurrent jurisdiction
  • That the retrofitting of courts be optimally carried out to allow for new technology to help speed up cases
  • The use of virtual hearings to dispose of applications that do not involve oral evidence of witness

 

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