Critical stakeholders must work to restore integrity to the bar and the bench
Apparently concerned by the crisis of credibility that has for long dogged the judicial arm of government in Nigeria and the damage it is inflicting on national psyche, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) last Tuesday in Abuja hosted an important Justice Sector Summit which brought together critical stakeholders to discuss the ills plaguing the judiciary and explore possible solutions. In attendance from the executive arm were Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, SAN and the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, SAN. Four Justices of the Supreme Court, Chief Judges and High Court Judges from several states and other judicial officers were also present. Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Judiciary, Onofiok Luke represented the legislature.
NBA president, Olumide Akpata set the tone for discussion by admitting that there is a convergence of opinion of both the bar and the bench as well as the general populace that the Nigerian justice delivery system is hampered by several factors and falls far short of expectations. Akpata highlighted three thematic areas for the summit to address: the appointment/selection and discipline of judges; independence and financial autonomy which has a direct bearing on the welfare of judges; and the need to enhance efficiency and efficacy of the system to reduce the chronic delay in the determination of cases in the country.
Many of the lawyers who spoke at the NBA session lamented the reluctance of the judiciary to apply requisite disciplinary sanctions on erring lawyers, especially in the award of costs on full indemnity basis which they argue would significantly reduce incidents of indiscipline in the bar. Lawyers also rekindled the historical discussions on the need to widen the net in the appointment and selection of judges since the current restrictive system has proved unhelpful in attracting quality and credible people to the bench. At the end, participants left the summit with a clear reminder of what the issues are, and a sense of the urgency required to tackle them.
We must commend the NBA leadership for the Abuja summit. At another session in Lagos last Saturday with the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN), Osinbajo underscored the critical role of lawyers in justice administration. “Our system of justice is a public resource, it does not belong to the legal profession, it does not belong to the bar or to the bench. It belongs to the people,” said Osinbajo. “We are paid operators of a service that our constitution created to resolve their disputes and give justice. We are custodians, not owners. When this public resource is not working effectively on account of delays, or it is being discredited by corruption, we the operators have a moral, legal and civic obligation to fix it.”
Meanwhile, some of the concerns highlighted by judges who attended the NBA Summit in Abuja include the need for true financial autonomy, improved welfare of judges as well as cessation of the harassment and intimidation of judges by law enforcement agencies, etc. In counter, representatives of the executive stressed the need for more accountability by the judicial arm that had so far resisted attempts to get them to open their books for scrutiny.
Overall, the Abuja summit provided the relevant stakeholders with the opportunity to appraise the justice delivery system in Nigeria and to freely express themselves in a bid to identify the problem and proffer solutions. The bar and the bench need to rise above the interests that are holding back fair and equitable justice administration in Nigeria. Also paramount is that all critical stakeholders must work to restore integrity to the bar and the bench in Nigeria.