All the stakeholders should work to restore integrity to the bench

Apparently disturbed by the crisis of credibility that has for long dogged the judicial arm of government and the damage it is inflicting on national psyche, President Muhammadu Buhari last week listed areas for urgent reforms. At the judges’ conference, aptly titled “Strengthening Judicial Integrity and the Rule of Law” in Abuja, the president highlighted some of the ills that impinge on the administration of justice in Nigeria. “Reform of the judiciary should start at eliminating endless delays,” he said while expressing concerns that even superior courts give contradictory decisions on the same subject matter in cases “where facts are substantially the same without a clear attempt in subsequent cases to distinguish the earlier cases.”

We share the view of the president that the crisis of credibility afflicting the Nigerian judiciary has reached a critical point, just as we agree on an urgent solution that must begin with the judges, many of whom are not only corrupt, but are indeed wilfully so. In Nigeria today, justice has more or less been commercialised and often “given” to the highest bidder. Also, many of the judges have scant regards for due process and, as the president also observed, they take their time in reaching judgment, against the rules of procedure of our courts which prescribe speedier process. This is sometimes made worse by reliance on taking notes in longhand in an age of technology and relying on colonial-style bailiffs to serve notice on litigants.

Against the background that under the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015 the practice of staying proceedings in criminal trials has been abolished, most of the developments in our courts are untenable. While trials should ordinarily be conducted day by day with adjournment, if any, not expected to last more than 14 days, senior lawyers have been going round this through the illegal practice of subjecting witnesses to unending cross-examinations, sometimes lasting several days and weeks.

Indeed, the perception was so bad that the Buhari administration, in a fit of impatience late last year, took the laws into its own hands by raiding the homes of some senior judges, including Supreme Court justices, for alleged corruption. While that episode stands condemned, there is no doubt that the rot in our judiciary calls for urgent measures in the overall interest of the country.

While marking the commencement of the 2017/2018 Legal Year, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, indeed, announced widespread reforms in the judiciary that would give bite to the federal government’s war against corruption. He ordered the heads of courts to designate at least one court in their various jurisdictions as special courts solely for the purpose of hearing and speedily determining corruption and financial crime cases. For effectiveness, he also ordered heads of courts to clamp down on both prosecution and defence counsel who indulge in the unethical practice of deploying delay tactics to stall criminal trials.

As we have repeatedly reiterated in this space, the judiciary is not just any institution: it is an important arm of government that knits human society together. Yet the function of law as instrument of social engineering is made difficult by the corruption of judges. From the deliberate delays in the administration of justice to the culture of tardiness and corruption which robs the institution of its impartiality, fairness and independence, there is an urgent need to heed Buhari’s charges and restore integrity to the bar and the bench in Nigeria.

The judiciary needs to rise above self, political and pecuniary interests and reach comprehensive and fair solutions that are transparent and decent. All the critical stakeholders must work to restore integrity to the bar and the bench in Nigeria.