Poor Condition of Service Affecting Judges’ Health – SAN

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Recently, the judiciary lost some of its justices, in quick succession, to the cold hands of death. ONOZURE DANIA examines the conditions of service for judges and their effect on the health of judiciary officers

The month of July was like a harvest of death in the judiciary when on July 3, 2023, Justice Raphael Agbo of the Court of Appeal died.  While the judiciary was still mourning him, another tragedy struck again on Sunday, July 30, 2023, with the passing of Justice Chima Nweze of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

As if that was not enough on the same day, the demise of a judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Hoommuk Mallong, was also announced. Less than a week after Mallong’s death was announced, a retired Chief Judge of Bayelsa State, Justice Kate Abiri, was announced dead on August 3, 2023.

President Bola Tinubu had recently increased the retirement age of the judges and some people had seen it as a good development. Some, however, are of the belief that the age increase would hamper the health of these judges as they have to sit for long hours to hear cases and give rulings and judgments daily.

Speaking on how to help shed some of the burdens and backlog of cases being faced by the judges and justices, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Babtunde Fashanu, stated that the government needed to step up in taking proper care of the judges.

He said that towards the end of the former President Mohammadu Buhari’s administration the country heard that justices of the Supreme Court didn’t have diesel for their generators.

Fashanu queried how you would expect a judge to perform well when he would have to be worried about electricity supply at night to write his judgment even though he has till the next day to deliver the judgment.

He said such can lead to stress, high blood pressure, and other ailments.  Fashuan asked the government to step in. “For now we don’t have this in the constitution such that the judiciary can be solely independent.

“The National Judicial Council is trying, but it needs to be more secure. They don’t even need to collect money from the government at all; it has to go straight to the judiciary, both at the federal and the state level, and not through any executive arm.”

He further added that in the United States, federal judges and Supreme Court judges are appointed for life, while in the state high courts, judges can retire on a pension at the maximum salary and allowances that they are earning from age 65 up to 80.

The lawyer stated that though the state high court judges can retire at age 65, they can, nevertheless, work till they reach 80.

“My own view, I prefer the American system whereby the Federal Government appoints justices of the Appeal Court, the Federal Court, and justices of the Supreme Court for life. It will be good in Nigeria if that is adopted too.”

Comparing that to the Nigerian situation, Fashanu said federal justices at the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court justices retire at the age of 70 compulsorily, while the high court judges’ retirement age was 65 until the Tinubu administration increased it to 70.

“In view of the fact that the Federal Government is bigger than the state government, it can handle the judges’ and justices’ salaries and emolument and take care of them very well, giving them very good conditions of service that they too will be happy to serve for life.

“If judges and justices are appointed for life, it gives them security of tenure because some of us lawyers, even senior advocates of Nigeria, might opt to go and become a judge or justice of the court of appeal. I for one, would like to be a judge, but I never liked the pegging of the service age even if it’s 70,” he said.

Another lawyer, Victor Opara (SAN), stated that robust healthcare schemes for the judges should be put in place and dutifully implemented.

Opara stated that the judiciary is a vital organ of government and Judges’ death is due to poor health care schemes, and this also signifies the slow death of democracy and good governance. He said it was only when judges and justices are alive that they could check the excesses of the executive and legislature.

According to him it makes no sense raising the retirement age to 70 years without a raise of a minimum of 70 per cent in good health care provision for the Bench. I have confidence in the ability and capability of theTinubu-led government to do the needful.

Opara said, “I practise law principally in Lagos. Tinubu improved the welfare of judges when he was governor. This underscores the fact that he recognises the pivotal role of the Bench in the stabilisation of constitutional democracy. His Emilokan philosophy should be extended to the Bench as per health care. The time is now. A dying judge is an angry judge.”

But another lawyer, Wahab Shittu (SAN), said the stakeholders in the administration of justice ought to be allowed to determine what is in their best interest in terms of retirement age for judicial officers.

He stated that the NJC and the Nigerian Bar Association ought to be allowed to determine the issue. “I propose a stakeholders dialogue session to finalise the issue once and for all. I don’t think it is fair to allow the resolution of the issue by executive fiat,” he said.

Another lawyer, David Fadile, who commiserated with the families of the departed jurists stated that he was one of those who disagreed with the increase of the retirement age of judges from 65 to 70 years.

He said as a matter of fact, he had advocated, in other fora, that the Nigerian judges across board should retire at age 60. It is not an easy task to read volumes of briefs, motions, etc that lawyers file at the appellate courts at 60 plus.

“At 60, it is only by divine favour that one is not nursing one ailment or the others, as such to expect the jurists at this age to pay detailed attention to barrage of the briefs filed by lawyers is likened to the camel passing the eyes of the needle.

“I met an Air force General in the US Army some years ago who told me that the system retires you as a Air Force pilot at age 45 because it is assumed that one’s vision at 45 begins to dim; hence piloting at this age is risky.

“I also know of a female judge in Lagos State who retired voluntarily at age 54. The solution to this preventable death among the jurists is to reduce the age of retirement to 60 years as against 70.

“Aside from the incidence of death, if one should take a holistic look at the quality of judgments coming from the appellate courts these days, one cannot but find some gaps here and there.

“The Nigerian of the respected Jurists Kayode Eso, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa etc is different from Nigerian of these days. We are far away from nature and our penchant for materialism is out of this world,” he said.

Ogu Ogedi, a lawyer, argued that the Bench didn’t need an increase in retirement age. He said an increase in retirement age could never enhance productivity, not even the experience as some people would want to argue.

Ogedi stressed that the Bench rather needs an improvement in condition of service. He is of the opinion that the current system, where the Bench is understaffed, can’t enhance productivity but will rather contribute to retrogression.

“There is no way a single judge who continues to have 30 to 45 cases in his dockets daily would fare better. Such a judge is simply an overstretched mind. The law of diminishing returns is a constant one and the Bench is not an exception.

“Increase the number of hands in the Bench and retain the 65 years retirement age. The work of a judge is not an easy one and I do not think it will get easier at 70.

“The bench and the bar should rather push to have a life after service and this can only be achieved with more hands. Sitting daily and staying awake to write rulings and judgments can never be made easier at 70,” he said.

Yemi Omodele stated that the workload of judges is overwhelming. He canvassed for increment in the number of judges and judicial divisions of the courts.

Omodele stated that the Supreme Court might also enjoy the same by amending the constitution to pave way for the increment of the number of the justices at the court.

“The apex court can also have six zones of sitting of the court in the country if the number is constitutionally increased and effect given to it.

“The need to increase the welfare packages of the judges is paramount. Politicians always think there is a magic wand in courts. It is not so, all the judges are humans. They need to be adequately cared for medically, socially, research, financially, and a host of others. The era of a judge attending to over 1000 cases should be avoided,” he stated.

Explaining that a high court should not have more than 25 case files to be attended to and concluded in a legal year, Omodele said it is when one or part of the cases is concluded before another one will be assigned or added to the cases before the judge.

Omodele said, “Medically, when a person gets to an advanced age the body system cannot be compared with when one is in the law school.

“I also suggest that cases to be filed be subjected to a panel of assessors who will go through the pleadings of the claimants and if found to be filed, it goes for filing and where it is an issue that can be resolved amicably, the same be referred to mediation or Alternative Dispute Resolution. Also, if the facts of the case are statute barred, standing by or laches and acquiescence, the case should be rejected for filing.

 “At the appellate level if it is still found that the issues in the appeal can be resolved amicably, such appeals should be sent to mediation or ADR. On the issue of criminal cases, magistrates’ courts should study case files before arraignment or remand orders are made. Where it is discovered that the police merely brought a case to court unnecessarily, the same should be struck out.

“The ministry of justice should not issue legal advice to prosecute a case where it is clear that the issues are civil or have no evidence or no proper investigation.

“The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission and other agencies should do proper investigation before rushing to court and where it is found that there is no convincing evidence in the case, they should not file charges in respect of such cases. These will do more good than harm to the lives of our judges.”

Punch

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