The NJC lacks the power to restrain the press from discharging its duties
Following the recent arrest of some serving and suspended judicial officers by the Department of State Services (DSS) over allegations of corruption, the National Judicial Commission (NJC) has come up with some guidelines to deal with issues bordering on abuse of office on the bench. The measures are designed not only to expose judges who soiled their hands but also to protect the innocent ones who could be victims of malice in a milieu where people believe the worst of public officials. And to the extent that a crooked judiciary is an open invitation to anarchy for any nation, we commend the NJC for the efforts to restore integrity to the institution.
However, we are worried about the procedure laid down by the NJC with respect to the consideration of a petition against any erring judge. Going by the guidelines, a petition against a judge shall be accompanied by a sworn affidavit and submitted to the NJC secretariat.
A copy of the accompanying affidavit shall be deposited in the court where it is sworn before a commissioner of oath and once the petition is admitted, it shall be forwarded to the respondent judge for his/her comment. Upon the receipt of the reply of the respondent judge, a three-member panel of the NJC shall be constituted to inquire into the complaint.
Furthermore, both the complainant and the respondent judge are at liberty to call witnesses and tender documents at the hearing of the petition. At the conclusion of the oral proceedings, the panel shall submit a report to the NJC. Before the meeting of the NJC, copies of the report shall be circulated to the members. It is only after a final decision is taken that the media would be communicated.
On the face value, one can argue that there is nothing wrong with trying to protect the integrity of people who are deemed innocent before the law, even when damaging allegations are made against them. But from the guidelines, it is also crystal clear that a petition against a judge could be leaked to the media without the knowledge or consent of a petitioner, given the fact that it would go through the secretariat of the NJC, while members of the investigative panel would also be availed copies. Therefore, since any petition published in the media is liable to be dismissed by the NJC, the respondent judge could then deliberately leak it to the media if he/she has no defence to the allegation against him or her.
Meanwhile, to establish the source of the leakage, the NJC would have to conduct another investigation to prevent a situation whereby a petition is dismissed due to no fault of the petitioner. Since the NJC has no power to compel the media to disclose the source of any publication, it is not likely to get to the root of the leakage. That is where the problem lies.
Having regard to the fact that the NJC is a public institution, it cannot gag the press from reporting its activities. More importantly, the NJC lacks the power to restrain the press from discharging the duty conferred on it by section 22 of the constitution to promote accountability and transparency in government. And to the extent that the petition against a judge is a public document, it could be made available to any Nigerian journalist pursuant to section four of the Freedom of Information Act.
The implication of the foregoing is that the guidelines leave a gaping hole that could make investigating a judge practically ineffectual. The NJC may therefore have to take a second look at some of the provisions. Meanwhile, the NJC can continue to protect the integrity of the judiciary by conducting speedy and transparent investigation of allegations of misconduct against judicial officers.