Law  

‘Good judiciary is a great partner in progress for a nation’

Justice Abdullahi

Justice Abdullahi

Recently, President Muhammadu Buhari was reported to have lampooned the Judiciary, saying that it is his headache in fighting corruption. His comment drew a lot of criticisms as well as commendations from some individuals and groups. In this interview granted to JOSEPH ONYEKWERE, a former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umaru Abdullahi (retired), advised that the President could do some kind of consultation with his Attorney General (AGF), or the Chief Justice of the Federation (CJN), if he observed a challenge in the justice sector. Justice Abdullahi, now the Chairman, Board of Citizens for Better Justice Initiative (CBJI), spoke on Judges’ Performance Evaluation Report, Nigeria’s criminal justice system, among others. Excerpts:  

President Buhari said the Judiciary is his headache. What is your view on this alleged comment?
I don’t know (laughter). He is the President. I don’t know how he got the idea. But he has an Attorney General (AG) the Chief Justice of the Federation (CJN). They are always available. So, if there are things he feels are not in order, he should go straight to any of them and talk them over, on how things can get better. The AG is a member of some of the judicial bodies. I think he is the head of the Bar in the country.

You cannot isolate judiciary as one single unit and leave the Bar, because Judiciary is just one out of the system. If the judiciary is not working, you look at the Bar to see if they are performing well. If they are not, then you look at what is the missing gap. The AG is there to help and he can talk to the Bar and the judges. He is not asking them to do anything that is not proper because they want the system to improve. So I don’t think anybody will say there is influence. There is no influence there, you are bound to get things done better. I am sure the problem will be resolved if he takes that approach.

What really is the Judges’ Performance Evaluation Report, (JPER) and what is it trying to achieve?
I am a member of the NJC and I am also a member of that committee for assessing judges. Nigerian judiciary has come a long way, but somehow even some of us within are not happy with what is going on, but because of the shortcomings of humans. In a human society people put in their best and some half way and some will not put in anything. When you have a combination like this, in this country as at August last year we have a total of 1,020 serving judges at the Supreme court, Court of Appeal, High Court, Federal High Court, FCT, State High court, Sharia Court of Appeal and State Customary Court of Appeal. Those are the superior courts of records. We now have 1030 because there are some new appointments to the Federal High Court and so let us say 1050 roughly.  Obviously out of this, they cannot all be on the level expected from them. There are some good ones and those not too good.

Good judiciary is a great partner in the development of the country. You cannot have a good judiciary if the judiciary is not functioning. Even business will not come because if the investors want their money back how and where do they go? If the system is doggy nobody will invest and the country will suffer economically. Our criminal justice system is a shame. I am a member of the International Society for the Reform of Criminal Justice (ISFRCJ) and I have been attending their conferences. There was one I attended in Canada and I learnt that some nations are de-criminalizing offences because they have other systems to deal with offenders and not jail. In Nigerian everything you do you end up in Kuje Prison or another prison.

Corruption is a difficult thing to prove. I am not saying there aren’t any corrupt judges, there are, but majority of Nigerian judges are honest, good and learned. But the system under which we operate causes a lot of dislocation in the sense that as a judge you are supposed to have staff, court, chambers, library and clerk. These are people you cannot do without. Some are efficient, some can even mess you up because all the cases you have in your court daily is handled by your registrar. He prepares your course list for the day, if he overloads you with cases for the day there is no way you can go through all of them. You can only do few and what happened to the others? You have to adjourn them.

On the day of the adjournment there are other cases and the cases keep on piling and piling till they reach a level where they will become stagnant. And the performance will be poor if you have your Registrar put 10 cases on your course list and you are able to call only three.

If you have to hear evidence and make list along the line you cannot make more than three cases per day. Then you have to reserve judgment and do additional research before you pass judgment. There are lots of things that only the judge can tell, but people from outside can feel and say the judges are not working.

But there are some lazy ones. These lazy ones are the ones that are causing the problem. Maybe they have everything they require to facilitate their efficient work, but they are not the type that are prepared to do the work. Now this is where the problem comes in. So the judiciary itself is getting worried because there are complaints from everywhere, lawyers, litigants, even people who care about what is happening in the judiciary.

They complain that judges are not working. So that is how the assessment committee came into being. The National Judicial Council (NJC) Committee felt people have been saying too much and time has come when something has to be done. They set up that committee. The arrangement initially was that each judge must write four judgments in three months. The chief judges (CJs) who combine court cases with administrative work are supposed to have two judgments. Even then, you still have to attend conferences and see how other nations are moving very fast.

They no longer write in long hand but have proficient stenographers who take note of proceedings and the Judge just make few notes and at the end of the day everything is placed before him. He has a chart and the computerization has been put in place, which makes things happen very fast. But in this country, there was a good attempt to computerize and bring in this new innovation, but somehow we did not catch up.

But are you aware that Lagos is trying to reform its system on a regular basis?
Lagos and some few states have adopted the system. Then we felt we have to adjust the number of judgments and we raised it to six judgments in three months. And the Chief Judges write two or three. Some of them came out complaining that the NJC is pressing them to write more judgments, but what about the quality?

Some of the delays we experience at the courts are caused by members of the Bar. They come to courts unprepared. They don’t care about their clients and all they do is to ask for adjournments. If the judges say they will not grant them, the lawyers will start complaining that they are denied the right of fair hearing.

Lot of things have been brought in by the members of the Bar even though there are good ones with conscience that are doing their work properly. But there are large numbers of them who are really abused. Most of the blames, sometimes are caused by a counsel who will take five briefs in one day in different courts. And when a court has fixed a date for hearing, instead of him to come, he will send somebody, maybe a junior and the junior will say he has not been briefed. And you cannot go on with the case. Or he will write a letter asking for adjournment or that he is sick.

How can we foster unity between the Bench and the Bar?
The Bench and the Bar are traditionally supposed to work together in the criminal justice system. But that relationship has not been working smoothly. All the innovations recommended have not been really adopted. Citizens for Better Justice Initiative (CBJI) I think, is the first attempt to bring the two together. Because the more you encourage interaction and understanding, the more you appreciate each other’s problem and the more we sit down and address it. The initiative is to bring members of the Bar as active participants in the moving of the machine of the justice system.

Members of the Bar have been given opportunity to make available their own perception and appreciation of how judges work, because this initiative will expect some kind of returns from people who are part of the project. They must have appeared before a judge for two to three years and they must have observed his capability, knowledge of the law, his etiquette and all the good things a judge should be.

The intention is to observe and know where the judge is good or weak and whether he does it honestly without any ill motive. You have to make yourself available for the judge to do his work. When he comes up with things, don’t dismiss them because you are a lawyer. There is this area of mutual understanding and trust to smoothen the system. And I think it will go a long way because the more members of the Bar get involved with this, the better for the judiciary.

We just started the Unity Bar Project (UBP) in Abuja as a starting point of the project in Abuja. It will be expanded as we expect the NBA national body to be interested and to recommend it to the state branches. When it moves round, it will help both the judiciary and the bar to sit up.  Good judiciary is a great partner in the development of the country. You cannot have a good judiciary if the judiciary is not functioning. Even business will not come because if the investors want their money back how and where do they go? If the system is doggy nobody will invest and the country will suffer economically. Our criminal justice system is a shame. I am a member of the International Society for the Reform of Criminal Justice (ISFRCJ) and I have been attending their conferences. There was one I attended in Canada and I learnt that some nations are de-criminalizing offences because they have other systems to deal with offenders and not jail. In Nigerian everything you do you end up in Kuje Prison or another prison. And you stay there for a number of years. Even if you have been convicted, you would stay for that long number of years. That is why I say it is a shame.

QUOTE: Good judiciary is a great partner in the development of the country. You cannot have a good judiciary if the judiciary is not functioning. Even business will not come because if the investors want their money back how and where do they go? If the system is doggy nobody will invest and the country will suffer economically. Our criminal justice system is a shame. I am a member of the International Society for the Reform of Criminal Justice (ISFRCJ) and I have been attending their conferences. There was one I attended in Canada and I learnt that some nations are de-criminalizing offences because they have other systems to deal with offenders and not jail. In Nigerian everything you do you end up in Kuje Prison or another prison.



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