Rights Group Advocates for State of Emergency in the Judiciary

Joseph Otteh Director Access to Justice

A human rights group, the Access to Justice (A2Justice), has urged the leadership of the judiciary to carry out urgent reforms to tackle delays holistically.

It noted that while it is good to dispense with corruption cases quickly, other cases should not be ignored.

Calling for a state of emergency in the judiciary, it said some of the reforms only require the will to execute them, not necessarily increased funding.

A2Justice, at a briefing in Lagos by its Director Joseph Otteh and Deputy Director Dr. Adenike Aiyedun, said the judiciary could do a lot with its N100 billion budget if it gets its priorities right.

It cited the example of Kenya which transformed its judiciary and restored public confidence in it with possibly a lower budget than Nigeria’s and in a short period.

It said the leadership of Kenyan judiciary succeeded in overhauling a once-maligned institution into a now respectable voice of the rule of law and a strong pillar of democracy.

The group praised the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) for his interest in reforming the judiciary, but said more was needed.

“It is time to acknowledge that the delivery of justice services in Nigeria is in dire straits, and, we urge the CJN to declare a state of emergency on the Nigerian judiciary immediately. This will provide a rallying urgency to the change we passionately aspire to,” the group said.

It recalled that the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) and the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) issued a report which states that the judiciary and the Police were among public institutions most Nigerians paid bribes to.

“The UNODC/NBS report noted that: ‘Limited trust in a number of state institutions in Nigeria, not least in the law enforcement and criminal justice system, may explain why Nigerians have little faith in the capacity of authorities to deal with corruption’.

“Arguably, without a Judiciary that is free of corruption, it is unlikely that Nigerians will be able to fight corruption.

“Without an iota of doubt, Nigerians want to see more judicial reforms executed, with more speed and urgency. We need more traction and more resolve applied in the fight to transform the delivery of justice in Nigeria.

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“Our concern is that the current speed and pace of reforms is neither strong nor vibrant enough and it is not creating the kind of momentum or impetus that Nigerians are eager to see.

“Furthermore, it is not galvanising change across the landscape, or demanding change from every constituent part of the Judiciary. Undoubtedly, the CJN has zeal to reform the judiciary, but stakeholders in the justice system are not feeling the impact just yet.

“In our view, the judiciary does not have the luxury of time to enable it stretch a reforms plan over the course of many years, and for an institution in distress it ought not take too much time for far-reaching changes to be delivered,” A2Justice said.

A2Justice issued a nine-point agenda for urgently needed reforms. 

Reduce delays 

A2Justice said the NJC should end arbitrary court closures, in which many judges often leave their primary adjudicative assignments to attend non-adjudicative functions, such as ceremonial events.

“These ‘no-shows’ have huge costs implications on everyone – litigants, lawyers and witnesses (some of who may have travelled long distances to be in court).

“They also cause terrible delays in the hearing of cases, thereby creating frustrations for many court users, congestion of dockets and diminish public confidence in the administration of justice,” it said.

The group called for an end to the practice of transferring judges from one jurisdiction to another before they conclude the cases on their court’s docket. It also wants judges’ vacation time reviewed.

Combat Corruption

A2Justice urged the judiciary to combat corruption, and to strengthen judicial Integrity, transparency and accountability.

It wants the process of filing complaints against judicial officers simplified to accommodate anonymous reports rather than the present condition that they must be accompanied by sworn affidavits on oath.

“The NJC’s Judicial Discipline Regulations 2014 should be reviewed and strengthened now to enable the judiciary better fight corruption.

“The review should enable the NJC act on anonymous complaints, protect whistle blowers, and collaborate with official anti-corruption agencies to investigate allegations of corruption (and thereby reduce the overbearing evidentiary burdens placed on complainants of corruption among other reforms).

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“The complaints systems of all courts, whether they are lower courts or superior courts, should be more effective, robust and dependable.

“Corruption is a problem in lower courts across the country, and many states do not have credible or effective systems for fighting corruption, within their respective jurisdictions.

“The NJC should immediately direct heads of courts in state and Federal jurisdictions to establish effective disciplinary regulations or guidelines, applicable to both lower court ‘judges” and court staff, and increase efforts to stamp out corruption from the lower courts,” the group said.

A2Justice said it recently conducted a research, which shows that the disciplinary system for fighting corruption in lower courts, particularly in Lagos State, “is extremely weak.”

It also called for the development of a financial disclosure reporting system-used in some jurisdictions where all extrajudicial payments to Judges are self-reported and judges submit periodic financial disclosure reports.

Initiate Institutional Reforms

A2Justice said the NJC has, on occasion, looked away where the judicial appointment guidelines it made have been flouted or sidelined.

The Judicial Appointment Guidelines of 2014, it said, were intended to strengthen the procedures for appointing judges and ensure that only the best are recruited.

It regretted that both the NJC as well as states have flouted the letters and spirit of the Guidelines.

A2Justice said: “A judicial reforms strategy must ensure strict compliance with the Guidelines and the NJC must henceforth stick to its own rules and not aid their subversion.

“Also the NJC must insist that judicial appointments to lower courts are merit-based and that State Judiciaries adopt guidelines that are transparent and competitive.

“This duty should be imposed on Chief Judges, as part of their administrative responsibilities as heading courts for which they are accountable to the NJC, while measures to ensure compliance are put in place.

“We must, therefore, adopt a bottom-up approach, which requires appointing the most qualified people regardless of ethnicity, language or creed, as well as encourage broader public participation in the screening process of Superior Court Judges.”

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According to the group, the judiciary needs to build consensus around a vision statement.

“The Judiciary should bring stakeholders together to develop a strategic reforms’ framework and plan immediately. The plan will represent the Judiciary’s vision of how the judiciary should be restructured, and it should be delivered in states and federal jurisdictions.

“Such a plan will thereafter form the fulcrum of reform activities. The implementation of the Strategic Plan would be benchmarked against clear indices that will be used for measuring progress.

“Thereafter, the honourable CJN should create a mechanism to drive the realisation of that vision, to ensure its realisation as well as create principles and measures of accountability across state and federal lines.

“This is how a number of judiciaries around the world, including some African judiciaries, have approached strategic plans of action. These judiciaries include those of Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Swaziland and South Africa,” it said.

A2Justice believes that to restore public confidence in the judiciary, reforms must target all courts and their leadership.

“With the current budget of the judiciary standing at N100 billion, we believe the judiciary can be on its front foot and make a bold effort to overhaul the delivery of justice services in Nigeria. This is what Nigerians expect from it.

“We think that a lot more can and should be done now to enable Nigerians see and feel that business no longer thrives as usual within the justice system. We are losing time and opportunities in not seizing this moment to push changes through. The time to act is now,” the group added.

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