By Dr. Muiz Banire, SAN
In Nigeria, beyond the superior courts of record recognized by the Constitution of Nigeria, there exist several other layers of courts, most of which exist by dint of the laws of the various states. In this class are the Magistrates Courts, the Area Courts, the Customary Courts, etc. In Lagos State, the Magistrate Courts occupy the immediate layer after the High Court, which explains why appeals from the Magistrate Courts go to the High Courts. The Magistrate’s Court is the closest court to the grassroots.
The Magistrate Courts in the state handle not less than 70 percent of the cases adjudicated upon in the state. I am not quite exact as to the total number of magistrates bearing this burden but I suspect that the figure must be hovering above a hundred and closer to two hundred. Beyond the fact that about 90 percent of the criminal cases are filed and tried by magistrates, they handle civil claims up to the sum of N10 million limit, apart from small claim cases.
Notwithstanding this workload of the magistrates, nobody, including my humble self, seems to pay attention to them in any respect. If there is any reckoning from the public, it is mostly negative in nature. Most times, the ‘best’ we hear about the magistrates is usually in terms of corruption. In fact, in most of such instances, there is the blanket allegation of corruption in the magistracy. Nobody, in the first instance, isolates the nefarious activities of those that are involved nor do we recognize the immense value and contribution of the magistrates to the administration of justice in the state.
Just as I remarked in my last intervention in this column, I am harkening to escalate this issue of the magistrates to the public space in view of the emerging composition of the cabinet in the state. By this, I expect the eventually sworn in Attorney General and, by extension, the Governor of the state, to pay due and special attention to this category of arbiters that are doing a yeoman’s job in the administration of justice in the state. Because magistrates are not reckoned with as judicial officers in the Constitution, their affairs are not governed by the activities of the National Judicial Council but by the State Judicial Service Commission, comfortably populated by appointees of the governor. To this end, therefore, there is a limit to the intervention the commission can make on behalf of the magistrates.
Regrettably, also, the magistrates are expected to be seen and not heard. They are not in a position to ventilate publicly their grievances. Although the magistrates have their association, the impact of the union cannot be felt, as there is a red line they cannot cross. They continue to suffer in silence. My only prayer and hope is that their silence and loyalty to the system is not tested to the extent that the magistrates will throw caution to the wind and behave as those of the Cross River State, who engaged in a public protest, carrying of placards. This show of shame must not be allowed to happen in Lagos State before arresting the deplorable drift in the conditions of service of the magistrates to the lowest ebb. It is in this connection that I chose to X-ray some of the challenges confronting the magistracy, which are gradually impairing the delivery capacity of the magistrates.
Firstly, as stated earlier, because the magistrates are not recognized as judicial officers under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, their interests are not catered for by the National Judicial Council. Since they are not judicial officers, what then is their status? Do we regard them as civil servants? It may be argued that, since their emoluments are directly payable by the state, then they must be civil servants. The danger, however, in classifying them as such is that they would partake of all the features of civil servants as well as in their privileges. Then, our magistrates, like civil servants, can join political parties and become politicians also, just like the civil servants. Our magistrates would no longer have any restriction as to social interaction and can mingle with any class of people they deem fit. It further implies that they can no more be guided by the judicial code of conduct. It would also mean that the magistrates can be transferred across sectors by the Head of the Civil Service as he deems fit, and no more by the Chief Judge. In fact, directives as to what manner of judgment to be delivered in cases can come from superiors in the civil service. All a magistrate then needs to prefix in his judgments is, ‘I am directed…’. Finish!
The magistrates will then become subjected to the civil service rules. I can continue to replicate the hazards of this classification of magistrates as civil servants. The net effect of all the above is that there is a need to urgently accommodate magistrates as judicial officers by way of constitution amendment; the alternative is to properly, through the Magistrate’s Court Law, create a clear cadre for them that will come with all material appendages attached to judicial officers. I believe that it is the amorphous nature of the magistracy that is partly responsible for the continuous subjugation of the magistrates to hardship.
As remarked above, while civil servants enjoy several privileges and packages as civil servants, magistrates cannot and do not partake of this. A recent example is the upliftment of civil servants’ emoluments but none for the magistrates. Is it that the magistrates live on another planet and are undeserving of this entitlement? Who will bail them out? While I appreciate the state government for struggling to provide motor vehicles for the magistrates, it is regrettable that they are still expected, out of the paltry sum they receive as salaries, to maintain the vehicle and equally fuel them. For the magistrates, vehicles are not luxury but necessities as they cannot be endangered in struggling with defendants in commercial buses. This will constitute undue exposure. I recently saw one of the magistrates in Lagos State, a classmate of mine, struggling with passengers to board a commercial vehicle and had to call him on phone later to inquire why? His response was simply that he didn’t have enough money to fuel the car for the month, hence his decision to manage the available sum as fare. An average magistrate earns less than N300,000 per month.
Certainly, it is either we expect them to be homeless or at best live in areas that are not safe and habitable. The truth is that they are not likely to live within civilization. A decent two-bedroom apartment in a safe environment will command monthly rent of N200,000 at the barest minimum. What then remains of the emolument to feed or meet other logistics? Nothing. Notwithstanding the abandonment we have meted out to them, we complain of high level of corruption in the magistracy. Don’t we realise that a hungry magistrate is a licensed extortionist? There is nothing hunger cannot push people to do, especially in a society like ours where personal prosperity is accorded so much recognition that the less fortunate are treated like irredeemable failures. If anything, I would expect that the first class of people to be availed the contributory home ownership scheme would have been magistrates, just like their superior counterparts at the High Court level.
Mr. Governor, I believe this is a must, except we are equally ashamed and uncomfortable with the amount we are paying them, so as to meet the deposit. How much are we allocating to their courts for maintenance monthly? How much is allocated for stationery monthly? Do they have access to free printers and photocopiers? Without disclosure, I know that their allocation cannot buy a cartridge for a printer. These are working tools without which the magistrates cannot be efficient. I am also aware that some of the magistrates do not have court rooms, while others share court rooms. This inevitably is affecting the turnover of cases, yet we complain of delay in the administration of justice. How many functional libraries exist in the magistracy? Scanty. The available ones require logistics to access. Again, there is no special provision for this and still must come from the meagre resources accruable to them. Who will then save the magistrates? The worst scenario in all these is that they are not accorded priority and primacy in the appointment process to the higher courts. In this regard, let me commend the present Chief Judge who seems to have done remarkably well in this respect. This must be unceasing, however. Let 90 percent of the appointments to the higher courts revolve round the magistrates.
Having said this, may I, therefore, appeal to the governor to urgently intervene in this sector so that our magistrates are not turned into what they ought not to be. The society daily condemns them without appreciating their travails. While not condoning corruption by giving excuse of frustration and temptation for the corruption of some few, I pray and urge that we do not continue to tempt them through poverty and castration. Without working tools, there is only so much they could do. I hope that the concerned stakeholders will urgently harken to this call. Magistrates are not insulated from the environment and the society. They are products of the society that must be handled with care. They are in my view gradually becoming vulnerable and fragile. They require our collective protection. A state of excellence requires excellent and corruption-free magistrates.