Restoring Confidence In The Judiciary
THE recent face off between the former and the 11th Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Justice Katsina Alu and the suspended President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami, and the in-fighting, personality clashes, needless acrimonies and protests of professional associations and the civil society that followed, have again reminded us of the need to urgently restore and inspire public confidence in the judiciary, if the common man must accept the court as his last hope.
The President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, also expressed this view when he was swearing in Honourable Justice Dahiru Musdapher, as the 12th Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), on the 26th of September 2011. According to the President, the daunting and much bigger challenge of the judiciary at this present time is to ‘ ... restore the ... confidence of the general public in the ability of the judiciary to dispense justice’. To him, ‘ ... the widespread perception of a growmg crisis of integrity within the judiciary ... can only serve the unwanted purpose of bringing the entire institution to ridicule’. The President concluded that the new CJN should set the judiciary on the path of renewal and embark on a comprehensive reform capable of enhancing the capacity, efficiency and productivity of the third arm of government.
From the above, it becomes crystal clear that, the third arm of government is in great crisis and for it “to get out without causing so much damage to the society, something urgent must be done. The goal of every decent society is to have a judiciary which is an unbiased institution, reliable enough to be trusted by all, and capable of interpreting the laws correctly. The judiciary that is capable of doling out the right punishment to offenders and act as check and balance to both the Legislature and the Executive, is the envy of every decent society. In Nigeria, the judiciary must be capable of helping to stabilise the ailing polity, overburdened with the crisis of a carefree political class, through the promotion of the rule of law, strict protection of the constitution and unfailing application of the principles of justice, equity and good conscience.
Where these attributes are absent, then we expect, what Professor Wole Soyinka called, the ‘possible explosion of the people’s anger’ and quick resort to instant justice like the Boko Haram sect, assassination, kidnapping, arson and retaliation of all sorts, and other alternative non-court dispute resolution mechanisms such as the ones conducted over the radio or on television channels or at the various shrines.
But if this trend is not checked and the integrity of the judiciary urgently restored, while the lawyers would suffer, the courts would also be infested with no work. To be candid, while the bar and the bench would be the most hit, the society at large would be the greatest loser.
Anarchy would become the order of the day and criminals would become the gallant gainers.
The Federal Government Reform Agenda, the various stakeholders meetings and the evolution of the new Civil Procedure Rules across Nigeria have not yielded any meaningful result to restore public confidence in the judiciary. This is because there are other issues yet to be addressed, apart from the in-fighting, personality clashes, needless acrimonies and others mentioned above. These are the high costs of litigation such as the fairly high filing fees, unauthorized fees charged by sheriffs before service of processes. and soaring professional fees of lawyers, especially in election petition cases.
The cost of litigation is usually aggravated where a defendant avoids personal service of court process. A lawyer needs to obtain a report or an affidavit of non-service from the sheriff (at a cost), prepare and file, at an official fee to court, a motion ex parte for substituted service, take one or two adjournments before the motion is argued and granted, obtain an enrolment order of the court’s ruling freely given by the judge, at an unauthorised cost from the court clerk and pay another unauthorized fee to the sheriff to carry out the order of pasting, take photograph and submit a proof of service to the court.
Apart from this, the new civil procedure rules, in various states have not yielded the intended result of enhancing the capacity, efficiency and productivity of the court in such a way that public confidence would be restored. Although, under the rules, judges are directed towards the achievement of a just, efficient and speedy dispensation of justice (Order 1, Rule 2 of Lagos), it has not been possible to achieve any efficient and speedy dispensation of justice. In reality, a case goes beyond a year before completion.
Judges too cannot exclusively be exonerated from this problem. Perhaps this was why the President suggested to the new CJN that the judiciary must see the need to set the institution on the path of renewal.
There are judges whose stock in trade is to always descend to the arena during proceedings, make scary statements and dress down lawyers to nothingness before their clients. Some even shout down witnesses and threaten them with imprisonment if they say or fail to say certain things. This often erodes the confidence of the litigants to the extent that some quickly take the option of abandoning the case and look for alternative means. The lawyer is the first contact of the litigant. The litigant looks up to him as capable of seeking justice for him. When such highly valued person in the eye of the litigant is downgraded in his presence, the effect is that he turns the other way for help. The relationship between the judge and the lawyer is not that of a king and his subject. There must be mutual respect between the bar and the bench.
The bench cannot survive without the bar. There must be constant interaction between the bar and the bench. This will not only enhance a better relationship, it will ensure the sustenance of the tradition of respect.
Finally, the greatest sinner in this respect is the political class who plays politics with everything including justice, the judiciary and the society. This was played out in the Justice Katsina Alu and Justice Ayo Salami Saga? Th e political class was alleged to have compromised judges and top officials of the judiciary who participated in the 2003 and 2007 elections with free land in prime areas. The political class is so deadly that it is capable of employing any means at any cost to manipulate judgment or manufacture evidence where there is no evidence and turn round to sponsor lies against the judiciary and punctuate public opinion on the real issues.
Nevertheless, there is ample need to urgently restore utmost confidence in the judiciary. The Civil Procedure Rules of all the states should further be reviewed to achieve a just, efficient and speedy dispensation of justice. The cost of filing cases and the unauthorised levies charged by the court clerks and the sheriffs should be checked. In any organization where there is no adequate supervision of staff, the result is usually not favourable. There is need for improvement in the relationship between the bar and the bench. The reason for mutual understanding and respect cannot be over emphasized. There must be conscious efforts by the government to engage the young lawyers. Avenues for legal jobs must be created for lawyers in the local governments, government agencies and parastatals.
The judiciary interprets the law and applies the law in the name of the state. The dispensation of the justice in the modern world requires positive legislations, training and retraining of judges (and lawyers), modernization of court system, effective police and prison reforms and abolition of special courts, tribunals and agencies of government , especially the one with stringent procedures that undermine fairness and affect impartiality. The judiciary must be assisted to adopt and sustain digital recording technology that will ensure correct and accurate record of proceedings. These are the only ways of restoring confidence in the judiciary and arresting the growing crisis of integrity.
Francis Ogunbowale is a Lagos based Attorney.
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