Increasingly and alarmingly, it is gaining ground that Nigerians now believe that justice is for sale. This position was held by my friend and comrade, Joe Igbokwe some years back and I took umbrage at him and even filed an action in court, challenging him to furnish evidence that it is possible to buy justice and judges. But Joe Igbokwe must have seen what I didn’t see then, given all that has happened between that time and now. Is it possible to buy justice? Is it true that some politicians have all manners of mobile injunctions already typed and prepared, stocked in their portfolios and they just bring them out to suit any occasion? Can it be true that there are some judges who have been earmarked for such jobs as issuing out any order, injunction or judgment? Can it ever be said that parties before a court of law can know their fate even before the case starts?
I am worried and worried stiff. In the course of the week, I read the very disturbing interview of Chief Robert Clarke, SAN, on the dangerous dimensions of the influence of politics on justice administration generally. ‘So, one disadvantage in Nigeria today, which we have to look into, is how to curb the excesses of these politicians. They have ruined the judiciary. I feel sorry for them’, says Chief Clarke. I have also heard speculatively, that hardly is there any judgment from any election tribunal that is not a product of ‘transactions’.
My personal view is that most judges are incorruptible, above board and they decide cases according to law and their conscience, but the things that I hear are very troubling. They are spoken in hushed tones amongst the senior lawyers, they are posted with style on restricted WhatsApp platforms and they are rife with the clients themselves. The question then is this: what is Transactional Justice? It is one in which the decision of the court on a case pending before it is procured or influenced by extraneous considerations other than the merit of the case. Such influence can be financial, tribal, religious or even social. At times it can be relational, such as when family members of a judge are recruited to put pressure on him to bend the scale of justice. The sphere is almost endless.
In Transactional Justice, there are lawyers involved as couriers of monetary offers to judicial officers and it is prevalent mostly in election petition cases. The politicians have become so desperate that they will do just anything to cling on to power, by all means necessary. The ugly side of this is that once it is possible to influence a judge in a particular judicial transaction, then the door is open permanently for other subsequent influences, as for instance once you are able to sway a judge to tilt the even scale of justice in an election petition, then that judge becomes a permanent customer even in other regular cases, whenever the need arises. This is how it goes. The litigant hires the very best lawyers in the field of his case, pays them well to handle all legal issues in the open court and then turns around to hire other lawyers or individuals in the background, purely for networking. These latter set of people have no business in the preparation of the case on the merit, they are not involved in the settlement of pleadings or briefs of arguments and they care less about the knowledge and erudition of counsel on record, but to work to secure victory for the paying litigant at all cost. They know the text of the judgment well ahead of time.
There are other aspects of Transactional Justice, I’m told. Some lawyers have perfected the style of always getting their cases assigned to a particular judge and God save you if you have to appear against them in any case, because you are doomed to always lose any point of law, no matter how brilliant you are and even if that point of law has been settled up to the Supreme Court. I don’t know how this works but it is said to be very common, especially amongst a few senior lawyers. It will surely take the connivance of court officials and the judge himself for this to happen, because once a judge has noticed the trend that a particular counsel is always appearing before him, almost on a daily basis, then that should raise the flag, if there is no collusion.
Then there are the professional litigants, who have no personal court cases of their own but have been recruited to help monitor the progress of some cases and to help secure victory ultimately. You see them in the courtroom, sitting prominently, for the judge’s attention and recognition. The court registrars know them, to always reserve vantage positions for them in the courtroom. In some very bizarre cases, they exude such irritating arrogance as to even sit by the entrance of the judge’s chambers, on each day that the cases come up, so that even the opponent would feel the pressure of the unofficial lobby. These ones are in the categories of family members, classmates, religious associates and social partners, either in the club or in the cult. The other side of this is that it gets so bad that even the registrars of the judges at times do complain openly.
How does it sound that judgment is no longer based on law or precedents? That law has become totally unpredictable, even for the same set of facts? We are unable to properly advice clients who approach us for legal counsel, as we now have different decisions, even of the Supreme Court, in the same set of facts and circumstances. Whereas this can be due to human error precipitated by the workload of judicial officers based on the volume of cases that they handle daily, it is also said that it can be the result of Transactional Justice. Good enough I have not had cause to be involved in any form of Transactional Justice, even for my own personal cases, all of which I believe I have won or lost purely due to the facts of the cases and the application of law thereto. But I have no doubt that there is a high possibility that Transactional Justice is real.
Part of the Judicial Oath goes thus: ‘… I will discharge my duties and perform my functions honestly, to the best of my ability and faithfully in accordance with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the law; that I will not allow my personal interest to influence my official conduct or my official decisions.’Transactional Justice is allowing personal, family, social connection or financial benefit to influence judicial decisions. But we all call it the ‘High Court of Justice’, as it is described in the Constitution. According to the learned authors of the very persuasive Blacks’s Dictionary of Law, the notion of justice is ‘the fair and proper administration of laws’, meaning that it must be balanced, be equitable, be fair and just and it must substantially conform with known principles and standards of law. In human affairs, the judge is next to God, which is why they have earned the title ‘My Lord’. In the same way that the words of God become established to man without question, so also are we all enjoined to obey all decisions of courts in order to guaranty peace and orderliness in the society. But then, how do you go about obeying Transactional Judgments, procured through fraud and other extraneous influences?
This has raised a great challenge for the judiciary and the Nigerian Bar Association, to tackle as a matter of national emergency, or else we should all just close down our chambers and leave legal practice for Transactional Lawyers. Why on earth should I bother myself to prepare for a court case in which the outcome is already predetermined? Now the trouble in all of these is that the rich and affluent, the ones so very well connected and powerful, will always get the upper hand in situations of Transactional Justice, which will be a game for the highest bidder. The poor man and his lawyer, the weak litigant and the lowly members of society, stand to lose in all cases where Transactional Justice is at play, as they simply cannot match the stakes.
The negative consequence of Transactional Justice is that impunity, lawlessness and wickedness will continue to be the lot of society, if the wicked and lawless oppressor cannot even be called to order by the court. When they breach your rights, they then turn around and taunt you to go to court, if you feel sufficiently aggrieved. ‘We will meet in court’, is what you get when you dare challenge their impunity. It has gotten to the point that there are now individuals and even corporate entities that their names evoke fear, such that once you mention their names, people just throw up their hands in the air in total submission, meaning that you waste your time challenging any of their actions in court. But this should not be at all. We must not drive people to the point of frustration that will lead them to take law into their hands. If the courts cease to be the last hope of the common man, then the consequences can be very dire indeed. The rule of might, the power of money and the influence of man, should not determine the ends of justice.
I believe in my heart as most lawyers do that judges are human and they can err at times, but all cases of Transactional Justice should be met with open resistance and humiliation by all lovers of justice, lest we all become helpless victims of injustice, because when judgment is procured by any means whatsoever and howsoever, it ceases to wear the noble garment of justice.