New judges for Federal High Court
FOR an institution perennially bogged down by numerous pending cases, the addition of 30 new judges is a big boost for the Federal High Court. If anything, the new appointments are expected to reduce the number of cases per judge; and thereby lead to acceleration of adjudication. Considering that justice delayed is justice denied, the appointment may well be the first step to ridding the judiciary of its reputation as an instrument for delaying the dispensation of justice.
However, no one, certainly not the judges, should be under any illusion that an increase in the number of judges is all that is required to resolve the lingering problems of justice administration. Delay in dispensing justice is equally a matter of abuse and manipulation of judicial process by key actors, including lawyers and judges. For instance, nothing stops a litigant or his lawyer from seeking adjournments of proceedings, even on frivolous grounds; but a judge who willingly offers himself for the approval of such flimsy applications is as much to blame. In the final view, therefore, the quality, rather than the number of new judges, is paramount to uplifting justice delivery in the Federal High Court or any other subsector of the judiciary.
Approval by the president of the appointment of 30 new judges for the court followed the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC). It raises by that figure, the number of judges of the Federal High Court which hitherto had 55 judges in about 38 divisions of the court across the federation. The judges have been administered their oath of office. Their appointment, under the NJC’s new guidelines, was underpinned by the need to ensure transparency; and prevent corrupt and indolent persons from finding their way to the bench.
While the exercise is ordinarily a routine of government, and the appointment is a fait accompli, the point really is whether government was sufficiently mindful of the quality of those appointed. Since the division of modern government into three arms, each arm of government has become habituated to certain role. The judiciary breathe life into the grundnorm through its interpretative role. Indeed, judges play many roles. They interpret the law, assess the evidence and superintend trial processes. In the largely adversarial justice system, judges are expected to stay above the fray. This is exactly what the new guidelines seek to entrench. As the Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Mahmud Muhammed rightly observed, “Acts such as lobbying for appointment, exhibition of bad behaviour in and out of court, influence peddling, rendering dishonest or questionable legal opinions, submission of false credentials, are just some of those conducts exhaustively listed in the 2014 guidelines as acts that would preclude appointment to judicial office.”
The Nigerian experience in terms of the role of judges has been mixed. Nigeria has had good judges in the past. There were those who could be referred to as the Lords of the Roll in their excellent disquisitions. On the contrary, the NJC have had to dismiss some other judges from the temple of justice. Since the inception of the prevalent democratic dispensation, corruption has infiltrated the temple of justice to the extent that those who felt that the hope of the common man was in jeopardy had to speak out against the corroding effect of corrupt practices on the bench.
In 1994, Justice Kayode Eso, then of the Supreme Court, headed a high level inquiry into corruption in the judiciary which recommended the sack of 47 judges, although only six were eventually sacked after another review by the Obasanjo Administration in 2002. Other conscientious justices, including former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, have also spoken about the unwholesome practices in the judiciary.
So, it bears repeating that the problem of the judiciary is not so much about appointment, but rather the personality of the appointees. It is hoped that those called to the bench would be above board. They must see their appointment as a call to duty. The prescriptive, moral and legal voice of Almighty God is embedded in that duty. The society has become one where the obsession for wealth is not through hard work but through filthy lucre and other unproductive and dubious means. Therefore, it is important that judges do not see themselves as being in a position of affluence, but one for ordering the society. The appointment of judges should always be based on merit and earned reputation for fairness and honesty instead of being outcome of patrimonial pandering, dispensed by political office holders as courtesies in expectation of protection. They must be found fit and proper on the bench. Wisdom and morals are uncompromising requisites. It goes beyond the Aristotelian ‘doctrine of the mean.’ Rather than the moral average, Nigerians seek the moral maximum for the judges in the nation’s judiciary. The rule of law and just dispensation of justice are imperative for order and the consolidation of the country’s democratic process.