By Chief Malcolm Emoiniovo Omirhobo
I refer to the circulars dated the 16th day of March 2021 and the 5th day of May 2021 issued by the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court of Nigeria on the transfer of Federal High Court judges and state categorically that the transfer like other mass transfers in the past will do more harm than good to the Nigerian legal system.
Without prejudice to the Judicial Staff Union of Nigeria strike, by the said circular of 16th March, 2021, Judges newly posted to Judicial divisions must assume duty on such places on the 12th day of April, 2021, which is barely a month notice and a very short time for any meaningful and purposeful transfer.
The said circular enjoined the affected judges to ensure that inventories of the court’s properties in their custody are taken and properties handed over to the chief registrar of the court. By the said circular the affected judges must in line with the policy of the Federal High Court since 2015 carry along with them to their new post the household equipment and electrical appliances already provided for them but curiously enough the circular did not care about asking judges to clear their tables because that is not part of the equation.
The military style transfer did not give the judges on transfer adequate time to round off part heard cases in their courts and Ipso facto threw spanner in the works of such cases throughout Nigeria. Aside part heard cases , fresh and pending cases are not spared as the affected judges mechanically froze action on them by adjourning them . Criminal cases particularly matters concerning bail of accused persons and the enforcement of Fundamental right cases are made to suffer. Urgent cases which require the preservation of the Res are adversely affected as the applicants are exposed to unimaginable risk , danger and injustice whereas it is not all completed act that the court can undo and also it is trite that compensation cannot make up for some types of damages or injury suffered by a litigant . Public interest cases are being rendered academic exercises or overtaken by events because of the delay that the transfer has occasioned.
The newly posted judges will have to start learning and studying the facts and the proceedings of the cases as well as the demeanour of parties. The effect of the transfer on part heard cases, is that they will either start de novo or the affected parties will have to apply for fiat from the Chief judge to permit the presiding judges on transfer to travel from their new post to their old post to adjudicate on such cases or the Chief Judge will have to vest such judges with fiat to conclude such cases .
Let me quickly chip in here that judges leaving their new post to their old post to preside over part heard matters by fiat has a lot of negative impact on the Nigerian judiciary and Public. I stand to be contradicted. The adverse side effects of abrupt transfer of judges continues for over three years after the transfer to choke and frustrate the entire judicial system. From my experience as a legal practitioner, cases in the affected judge’s new post will have to suffer undue adjournments as such judges will at least once or twice a month leave their new post for their old post and this is a big distraction which no doubt affect their performance as it takes these itinerant judges time to adjust physically and mentally moving from one jurisdiction to the other. I know of some judges who after being posted still sits in three judicial divisions all in the name of sitting outside jurisdiction by fiat. There was one occasion where my matter could not go on because the presiding judge had gone to sit outside jurisdiction and on his way back missed his flight. There are some judges who don’t sit on certain days because they have designated those days for them to sit in other jurisdictions. The exercise of sitting outside jurisdiction is expensive as the judge would have to incur expenses like air tickets, feeding, accommodation, inconvenience allowance and miscellaneous for themselves and supporting staffs all on the tax papers money. Very importantly, travelling outside jurisdiction to sit also put the lives of our Lordships who are always on transit at risk.
Our judges need adequate time to conclude all the pending trials being handled by them before assuming office at their new post . This is very import to avoid them junketing from their old post to their new post risking their lives and wasting the tax payers’ money. This practice of judges sitting outside jurisdiction is very bad, sad and pathetic. Imagine lawyers and litigants dutifully present in court only to be informed that their matter will not be going on because the presiding judge officially travelled outside jurisdiction to hear a matter that he did not conclude at his old post.
Going forward, to prevent transfers from being unproductive both at the Federal and State High Courts, the Court must stop transferring judges abruptly. Except for emergency situation arising from death, resignation, termination of appointment and incapacitation of a judge that necessitates replacement, the transfer of judges must be systematically planned and executed. Judges sitting outside their jurisdiction by fiat must be discouraged by our Courts except it is unavoidable like in the above situations.
If as a matter of course the Federal High Court must transfer her judges en masse like in the extant case, it must be properly planned, organised and executed so as not to cause hardship or disrupt the entire judicial system. The judges pencilled down for transfer must be given ample time, at least four to six months’ notice to enable them round off all their part heard matters. Within this time the admin judge must stop assigning new cases to them to help them concentrate on clearing their tables while those judges that are not going on transfer are to be loaded with new cases and be relieved when the transfer becomes effective by which time the admin judge will start assigning new cases to the newly posted judges. The implication of this is that there will be no case file left behind at the court registry for reassignment to other judges for adjudication which normally takes months. There will be nothing like cases starting de novo or judges sitting outside jurisdiction. Upon assuming office at their new post the judges will have fresh cases to deal with from the scratch and will not inherit any old file or part heard matter and will hit the ground running instead of wasting judicial time studying the facts of the cases, the proceedings and demeanour of the parties as well as putting holes in the publics’ pocket.
As our newly posted Honourable Judges struggle to settle down at their new post , I wish the Bench , the Bar and the Public well and I pray that our courts stop the transfer of judges for the fun of it .