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Reforms panacea for judicial workers’ strikes, says Falana

FEMI Falana , a lawyer, human rights activist and President of the West African Bar Association (WABA), spoke with The Guardian.

What is the cause of frequent judicial workers’ strikes?

Unfortunately, it is the struggle for judicial reform, particularly the struggle for improved conditions of service for the judicial workers. It is very unfortunate that whenever the Bar demanded for improved conditions of service for judges and magistrates, the interest of judicial workers whose service is also essential were not taken along. This is why we are in this crisis situation today. What has perhaps obstructed resolution of the crisis is what I regard as official hypocrisy or inconsistency. While improved conditions of service are being demanded for judges and magistrates, when it comes to the welfare and conditions of service of workers who are the engine-room of these courts, government officials invoke the doctrine of federalism.

Judges irrespective of states where they work, Federal High Court and Court of Appeal judges, their salaries and other emoluments are centrally taken care of by the National Judicial Council (NJC), but when it comes to judicial workers who work in the same environment with all these categories of judges, it is de-centralised. They are told to go to their various state governments. At the federal level, the workers are told to go to the Federal Government, not NJC. So each of the state governments has been treating the workers the way it likes, some give partial listening ears while many just ignore them. Due to this criminal indifference, in some of the states, judicial workers have been on strike for months.

If the governments have been indifferent, why has the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) too been indifferent?

No, no. The Bar has not abandoned them. In fact, the NBA has taken it upon itself to appeal to the relevant state governments through the Offices of the Attorneys-General to get the demands of the workers attended to. It appears that workers are negotiating with the concerned state governments. But let me quickly add that a lot of agreements reached so far are temporary in nature. In other words, unless a different attitude is adopted, strikes are going to be a recurring problem in this sector.

Is meeting the various states Attorneys-General enough? Why couldn’t the Bar mount some pressures as it did for judges so that the workers are centrally paid by NJC?

Again, you must appreciate that judges have no association of their own. Even though there is a magistrate association, there is a limit to where the association can go. So, the Bar speaks for the judges, the Bar tries to represent the interest of the judges. It is not that the Bar has deliberately ignored the workers. It is because we felt having got unions of their own, they should be allowed to speak for themselves. But in the light of the intractable level, the crisis has gone to the Bar and it has decided to directly intervene. This we have done by taking the matter up with the various state governments and the Federal Government. I am the chairman of the Rule of Law group of the NBA. The group was given the task to intervene when the strike went out of hand last year. Indeed, we succeeded in dousing it, but unfortunately, we went to sleep as soon as some understandings were reached and the strike was suspended.

What are the implications of a continuous strike of this nature on litigants?

It is a lot of cost to litigants, cases are delayed unnecessarily. It is worse in criminal cases where accused persons have their cases adjourned indefinitely. For lawyers, particularly those who engage in litigations, it is a lot of sacrifice.

What are the implications on the legal system?

It has very negative impacts on the administration of justice in any country when judicial workers would have to go on prolonged strike of this nature. It disrupts the calendar of the court. Even for judges, it disrupts their holidays. And for cases that are time-bound, it is a big loss for everyone that is involved. Imagine petitions that have to do with elections into the Legislative Houses, remembering that unlike the governor whose tenure takes effect from the day judgment is delivered, all the Legislative Houses have definite tenure. No member’s tenure could be extended.

When workers are on strike, the election petitions tribunals cannot sit. When strikes are called off, the tribunals would have to go back to cover lost ground. That in itself affects the workload of the tribunal’s judges at their respective courts.

Apart from meeting with the state Attorneys-General, what other things are done to forestall re-occurrence of the strikes?

We have held meetings with the governors and Heads of the Civil Service in some of the states where the problem was very critical. I am happy to report that we have recorded some tremendous successes.



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