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Magistracy: Their Poverty, Our Pain

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By Onikepo Braithwaite

A considerable amount of light has been shed on the plight of judicial officers of superior courts of record, their meagre remuneration and poor conditions of service. However, not much has been said about the even worse conditions of service that judicial officers of the lower (I would rather not use the term ‘inferior’) courts, particularly the Magistrates, are facing. Even though the Magistrate Court is not a superior court of record as listed in Section 6(5)(a)-(j) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended in 2023)(the Constitution), nor is it expressly listed by name in the Constitution like the superior courts, it is still recognised in the Constitution, since it is a lower court of record established for a State covered by Section 6(4)(1) & (5)(k) of the Constitution. A community reading of Section 6(1)-(5)(k) of the Constitution evinces the fact that, both the superior and lower courts make up what is known as the Judiciary, even though Magistrate Courts and Magistrates are omitted from the Section 318 of the Constitution’s definition of judicial office and officer. This is another anomaly in the Constitution, that requires correction. Though the jurisdiction of the Magistrate Court is limited, it is the first point of contact in terms of access to justice for majority of Nigerians, and their dockets are extremely busy, as 50% or more of the cases start from there. With such a crucial role in the justice system, how then should Magistrates not be ‘expressly’ mentioned as judicial officers in the Constitution? This should be one of the first steps that must be taken by the Legislature, to rebuild the esteem of the Nigerian Magistracy.

Putting It into Proper Perspective: Lagos State Magistrates in Focus 

Allow me break it down, and put it into proper perspective. A legal practitioner who is not less than five years post-call to the Bar, is eligible to become a Magistrate, and such person can sit on the lower Bench until he/she attains the age of 60 (see for instance, Sections 4(2) & 10(a) of the Magistrate Court Law of Lagos State (MCL)). This means that a Lawyer who is called to the Bar at age 25, and becomes a Magistrate at age 30, can serve in the Magistracy for 30 years before retiring. How can a Magistrate, a Lawyer of at least 35 years standing, end up with a paltry N50,000 monthly pension (not even enough to fill up a petrol tank)? If such a Magistrate lives till age 90, their total pension will be N18 million for 30 years, paid in monthly instalments I might add, probably less than what National Assembly Members who serve for only four years receive as their severance packages in one fell swoop, that is, as a bulk payment. Isn’t it bizarre that though Government is constitutionally bound to ensure that we maintain an equitable society, it has always done quite the opposite with its inequitable, irrational, remuneration policies for workers. See the Preamble and Section 16  of the Constitution. And now, with the recent increase in the retirement age of High Court Judges to 70, things may have become even worse, since the chances of Magistrates being elevated to the higher Bench, may have just become slimmer. In the past, it was a well travelled career path for those who reached the Apex Court as Supreme Court Justices, to have started their judicial careers from the Magistrate Court.

In Lagos State, there are four categories of Magistrates, the highest being Chief Magistrate, followed by Senior Magistrate, and then Magistrate Grade I & II. Unfortunately, the prestige that was once attached to the office of a Magistrate in Nigeria has become a ‘tale by moonlight’, as it is long gone. It seems as if the Magistrates in neighbouring Republic of Benin may have been suffering a similar plight as Nigeria, as their Magistrates went as far as going on strike in 2012, 2013 and 2014; and when their government threatened to enact legislation to prohibit the Magistracy from striking, the Magistrates actually took to the streets in their robes to demonstrate in 2014 and 2017. Of course, such strike action goes against the expected demeanour of judicial officers, who are meant to be quiet, guarded, dignified and of the highest etiquette, any maybe that is why our State Governments have been able to get away with treating the Magistracy so badly, over the years. While the Magistrates Association in Lagos continues to suffer in silence, in Republic of Benin and even in Calabar where Magistrates also carried placards in protest, it seemed to be a case of desperate measures to address desperate situations that could no longer be tolerated.

Where the highest paid Chief Magistrate in the Lagos State Judiciary for example, takes home something like N540,000 monthly (allowances inclusive)(a take home pay that doesn’t take you home – a salary that is just a little more than a Senator’s newspaper allowance!),  and the pension is N50,000 per month (less than the pay of some domestic workers in private homes), why is it that it is a surprise to anyone, that a call to the Nigerian Magistracy being a call to penury, may end up as a call to corruption, especially in a Kleptocratic country like ours, that is, a country where corrupt political leaders misappropriate the common wealth of the nation for themselves, at the expense of the people. It is simply a microcosm, of the larger society. Many Magistrates earn less than N200,000 monthly. I actually saw the payslip of a Magistrate Grade II, who earns N155,000 per month! Magistrates in most other States, are paid even less. So disgraceful.

Examples of Awful Conditions

Recently, I read an article authored by Learned Senior Advocate, Dr Muiz Banire, in which he stated that he saw his classmate, a Magistrate, struggling with other passengers to board public transportation! When he called to enquire from his friend the reason for his use of public transportation, his friend informed him that he couldn’t afford to fuel his car for the month. How sad. What if a Defendant who is on bail, also boarded the same bus, recognised the Magistrate and decided to pounce on him and damn the consequences? Though shameful, struggling for public transportation seems to be the norm amongst Magistrates, as I also read a news story where the Chairman, Magistrates Association in Bauchi, complained that Magistrates were constrained to board commercial vehicles alongside litigants. Similarly, a friend of mine who resides in one of the South West States, told me that on his way to court one morning, he sighted a Chief Magistrate also speeding to court, riding  on the back of an ‘okada’!

About two years ago, I accompanied someone to a Magistrate Court outside Lagos to observe the proceedings. It turned out that the court room was being shared by two Magistrates, sitting on alternate days or different times, to be able to accommodate each other!

Someone told me that Lagos State Magistrates are given N150,000 robe allowance! My response was that, the robe allowance cannot be for a decent robe, but for ‘a ran di robe’ sewn by ‘Ejika ni Shop’! That is, a robe sewn by a roadside tailor who carries his sewing machine on his shoulder, going from street to street looking for customers.

Comparative Analysis 

In Kenya, a Chief Magistrate earns 732,000 Kenyan Shillings monthly, which is over N3 million, while the lowest paid Resident Magistrate earns 190,000 Kenyan Shillings, just over a N1 million. Their salaries were upwardly reviewed in 2021, after the last review in 2017 (four years interval). The lowest paid Magistrate in Kenya, earns almost double what the highest paid Chief Magistrate in Lagos is paid!

In Ghana, it seems that the salaries of Magistrate Judges as they are referred to over there, are staggered based on the number of years they have been serving. The highest paid Magistrate Judge, one of 20+ years experience is paid 246,200 Ghanaian Cedis per annum, which amounts to about N1,399,000 per month, while the lowest paid, a Magistrate of two years or less, earns N586,434, more than a Chief Magistrate in Lagos.

The lowest paid Magistrate in South Africa earns about N1,730,000 monthly, more than three times more than a Chief Magistrate here.

Even though Sections 81(3)(c) and 84(2) of the Constitution provide that the remuneration, salaries and allowances of certain officers shall be a charge on the Consolidated Revenue Fund, only Judicial Officers of Superior Courts of Record amongst others, are listed in Section 84(4) thereof as recipients. Magistrates are excluded, and fall into the purview of Section 121(3)(b) of the Constitution, to be paid by the State.

The Way Forward 

It is time for the State Governors/Governments to therefore, do the needful. The salaries and allowances of Magistrates, are overripe for a healthy upward review. It seems that the Nigerian Magistrates, may be in the category of the worst paid. How can dignity be restored to the Magistracy, when Magistrates ride on okadas and struggle for public transportation?

Luckily, we have a new Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), who doubles as the AG of the FCT, which also has a Magistracy like other States. Leading by example, by doing a holistic review of the FCT Magistracy and their conditions of service, with a view to recommending the much needed adjustments as soon as possible for immediate implementation by the Federal Government, will hopefully spur on the State AGs to recommend same to the State Judicial Service Commissions and their Governors, especially if the meetings of the AGF and all the State AGs are held regularly, and seen as an important forum where good policy can be driven nationwide. There must be a serious collaboration between the Chief Justice of Nigeria, and the State Chief Judges too, to improve the lot of the Magistrates.

P.S.

We are all watching with keen interest, as the case of the suspended Dean of the Faculty of Law, University of Calabar, Professor Cyril Ndifon, unfolds. Obviously, he didn’t learn much from the case of Professor Akindele of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, who was released from prison last year, after serving two years imprisonment in the case of a ‘sex-for-marks’ case, involving a student, Monica Osagie.

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