ECOWAS Leadership has Powers to Reduce Number of Judges on Bench, Court Tells Falana

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By Alex Enumah in Abuja

The Court of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Thursday held that the leadership of the community, the Authority of Heads of States and Government of ECOWAS, has legal powers to reduce the number of judges on the bench of the community court.

A three-man panel of justices of the court made the declaration while delivering judgment in the suit filed by Mr Femi Falana (SAN) challenging the reduction of justices of the community court from seven to five.

In the unanimous judgment delivered by Justice Dupe Atoki, the ECOWAS Court held that by the powers vested on the leadership by the treaty which established the community and the ECOWAS Court, the Authority of Heads of States has the statutory powers to determine the composition of the bench of the court.

Falana had dragged the Authority of Heads of States and Government of ECOWAS and the Council of Ministers before the court seeking an order nullifying the action of the ECOWAS leadership.

He also prayed the court for an order barring the defendants from implementing the decision reducing the number of justices from seven to five.

In the suit ECW/CCJ/APP/32/18 filed on August 7, 2018, the lawyer asserted that the decision taken in 2017 by the defendants to reduce the number of judges of the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice violated the provisions of the ECOWAS Treaty and the Protocol of the Court relating to the composition of the court and terms of office of the judges.

Falana predicated his argument on the grounds that the defendants lacked the competence to reduce the number of judges of the court.

While stating that the reduction infringed on the rights of the community citizens to timely dispensation of justice, Falana argued further that the reduction has led to a backlog of cases before the court.

Responding, the defendants, through their lead counsel, Dr Frank Chude, challenged the appropriateness of the plaintiff (locus standi) to file the matter before the court and urged the court to dismiss the matter.

Chude further submitted that the recommendation and approval for the reduction was made under the supervisory powers conferred on the defendants by the treaty establishing the community.

Delivering judgment, the panel agreed with the submissions of Chude that the 1st defendant being the supreme institution of the community is saddled with the responsibility of taking decisions in the overall interest of the community.

The court further held that contrary to the position of Falana that the protocol of the ECOWAS Court was not amended to pave the way for the leadership to reduce the bench, there are evidence that the decision was made in view of a proposed amendments to that effect.

“The action does not breach Articles 3, 6 and 15 of the ECOWAS treaty and Article 3(2) of the protocol establishing the court,” the panel held.

The court in dismissing the suit also held that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate any direct negative effect he suffered as a reduction of the justices from seven to five.

“Defendants have competence to reduce number of judges. Consequently, the decision of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government during the 51st Ordinary Session held in June 2017 is legal and effective,” the court held.