THE nagging issue of the poor remuneration of judges resurfaced recently at the maiden edition of the Court of Appeal’s 2021/2022 new legal year ceremony in Abuja when the President of the Court of Appeal, Monica Dongban-Mensem, made a case for an upward review of their salaries.
Currently, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, who is the most senior judicial officer in the country, earns N279,497 per month while other Supreme Court judges take home N206,425 monthly, Dongban-Mensem said. The Appeal Court President further stated that she receives N206,425 monthly, while other justices at the appellate court take N166,285 every month. Judges of the Federal High Court, National Industrial Court, FCT High Court, State High Courts, FCT Sharia Court of Appeal, FCT Customary Court of Appeal, Khadis of State Sharia Courts of Appeal and State Customary Courts of Appeal all have N1.8 million each as their annual salary.
Also, the last time the salary of judges was reviewed was in 2007 under the Certain Political, Public and Judicial Office Holders’ Salaries and Allowances, etc (Amendment) Act of 2008. This was when the official exchange rate was N124/$1 and the minimum wage was N5,000. Undoubtedly, inflationary pressure and naira devaluation have vitiated the value of the currency by over 60 percent. Consequently, the salary of judges is at variance with the current economic realities and needs to be increased immediately.
Admitting that the remuneration for judges is low, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, stated at the special session of the Supreme Court commemorating the beginning of the new legal year on September 23, 2019, that a committee had been inaugurated to review the salaries of judicial officers. Two years after, however, this now seems like a pipedream even as the budgetary provision of the judiciary has remained static for the past four years.
The code of conduct for judges bars them from receiving gifts and running private businesses, apart from farming. This was done essentially to insulate them from corrupt practices and compromise. However, it is unrealistic and unjust to expect them to live by the rules if their pay is low. Such a situation leaves them vulnerable and susceptible to corruption.
The Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission in its 84-page report, entitled, ‘Nigeria Corruption Index: Report of a Pilot Survey 2020,’ concluded that lawyers gave N9.45 billion as bribes to judges. The study, which surveyed the judicial system between 2018 and 2020, stated that the justice sector had the highest level of corruption in the country. Earlier, Transparency International, in a survey entitled, ‘Global Corruption Barometer Africa 2019: Citizens Views and Experience on Corruption,’ stated that the judiciary was the third most corrupt institution in the country.
While it is true that increasing the remuneration of judges cannot be the only solution to ending judicial graft, it is incontrovertible that there is a nexus between the adequate compensation of judges and the quality and independence of the judiciary. With Nigerian judges earning poorly, it is obvious that enough is not being done to dissuade judicial officials from corrupt practices, especially at the state level. For instance, 29 magistrates in Cross River took to the streets in the state capital, Calabar, and marched to the office of the Governor, Benjamin Ayade, in January to protest when they were being owed 24 months’ salary arrears. Similarly, in 2019, magistrates were not paid in Kogi State for several months due to a feud between Governor Yahaya Bello and the Chief Judge, Nasir Ajanah.
While it is true that judges do receive other allowances such as accommodation, vehicle, hardship, entertainment, personal assistant, and outfit allowances to augment their pay, it is important to note that these are all concerning their basic salary and since this salary has not been reviewed upward since 2007, it is obvious that these allowances cannot support the expected lifestyle of judges due to the current economic realities.
To rub salt into the wound, the budget for the judiciary has remained at N110 billion since 2017, while the total budget size has continued to grow. Surely, this shows that both the executive and legislative arms of government do not attach adequate importance to the judiciary.
The CJN, Ibrahim Muhammad, expressed his frustration in 2019, saying, “I make bold to say that the salaries of judicial officers in Nigeria are still very far from an ideal package to take home. The gross underfunding and neglect of the Judiciary over the years have impacted negatively on the infrastructure and personnel within the system. It is, to a large extent, affecting productivity, increasing frustration, and deflating morale.” He further appealed to federal and state governments to free the judiciary from the financial bondage it has been subjected to over the years.
Poor remuneration is a potent threat to the judiciary, which is a critical institution of the state saddled with the duty of dispensing justice without fear or favour, interpreting and applying the law as well as ensuring equity, law, and order in the society. Starving the judiciary of funds compromises these foundational functions and forebodes ill for any democracy. One requirement for the performance of these functions is the impartiality of judges. How then can judicial officers maintain impartiality in the discharge of their judicial functions when they are not well compensated?
It is an incontrovertible fact that an underfunded judiciary can never be independent as it will always be susceptible to compromise. A compromised judiciary is like a poisonous drug that kills its patient instead of providing healing and succour. Good remuneration for judges will attract the brightest and best to the Bench. Thus, urgent steps should be taken to save the justice system from collapse.