There is a new threat to judicial independence in Nigeria and it’s judges allowing their sense of judgment to be compromised by vested interests. Tobi Soniyi writes
Let no one deceive you, among the three arms of government, some are more equal than the others. For everything it needs, the judiciary has to rely on the executive (for funding) and the National Assembly (to make law on courts’ jurisdiction).
As if the situation is not bad enough, some members of the bench gratuitously behold to the executives just to curry favour. In the process, they compromise and perverse the course of justice. Judges are now willingly surrendering their independence to the executive to curry favour.
No doubt, judges are human and have preference. However, when a judge knows that his or her closeness to someone, who is a party in a case before him could compromise his judgment, the proper step for such a judge to take is to recuse self.
Recently, the National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress, Adams Oshiomhole had to express similar concerns. Oshiomhole had accused Justice Augustina Kingsley-Chukwu, a high court judge in Rivers State, of being biased.
Oshiomhole said Kingsley-Chukwu, who is presiding over some cases involving the APC in the state, has poor knowledge of the law and should be made to go on compulsory retirement.
The Supreme Court had nullified APC’s congresses in Rivers and this denied the party the opportunity to participate in the 2019 general election.
The party, however, set up a caretaker committee, but court actions were instituted against it, and Justice Kingsley-Chukwu granted an injunction restraining the APC and the caretaker committee from taking any further step.
In a petition to the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, Oshiomhole said Kingsley-Chukwu did not give the APC the required time to enter a defence.
“By the civil procedure rules of the Rivers State High Court, the APC was entitled to 21 days within which to enter an appearance and file their necessary processes in defence,” Oshiomhole wrote in the petition.
Continuing, he said, “Curiously, it was brought to our attention that Hon. Justice Augusta U. Kingsley-Chukwu had abridged that time to 48 hours.
“Our curiosity was further heightened when we discovered that the husband of Hon. Justice Augusta U. Kingsley-Chukwu is a top leader of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who had previously contested for the position of chairman of Obio/Akpor local government area and currently serves as the legal adviser of the PDP in Rivers state.
“Expectedly, the APC had reasonable apprehension that Hon. Justice Augusta U. Kingsley-Chukwu may not be able to discharge her duties as a judicial officer objectively without interference.”
Oshiomhole said the party had also written to the Rivers chief judge to reassign the case to another judge, but Kingsley-Chukwu still proceeded to entertain the case.
He said he expected the judge to have followed the time-honoured tradition of judicial officers like Zainab Bulkachuwa, the retiring president of the court of appeal and Mary Odili, justice of the Supreme Court, who had recused themselves from adjudicating over cases that would likely impact on the political interest of their spouses.
“Disappointingly, Hon. Justice Augusta U. Kingsley-Chukwu proceeded to entertain the suit and granted an injunction restraining the APC.
“By reason of the above facts, we believe that the Hon. Justice Augusta U. Kingsley-Chukwu has broken the letters and spirit of the code of conduct for judicial officers and has engaged in acts unbecoming of a judicial officer.
“Equally, we believe that the action of the Hon. Justice Augusta U. Kingsley-Chukwu in granting orders, which were not prayed by a party in such a contentious suit smacks of poor knowledge of the law, and such a judicial officer should be compulsorily retired and not allowed to continue to preside over the fate of members of the public without the requisite knowledge of the law.”
Around the same time, the same judge was the subject of another petition before the National Judicial Council. She is again accused of bias. That cannot be a coincidence!
The petition to the NJC was based on the conduct of Justice Kingsley-Chukwu in her handling of a libel suit filed by a former governor of Rivers State, Dr Peter Odili against a former Chairman of the governing council of the National Human Rights Commission, Dr. Chdi Odinkalu and a co-author of the book, Too Good to Die, Ayisha Osori.
The petitioner told NJC that the judge openly displayed in court conduct that showed that he did not stand a chance in her court, because Odili was the plaintiff in the case.
The petitioner had alleged that, in the conduct of the proceedings in the above named case, Justice Kingsley-Chukwu had compromised every appearance of judicial propriety in violation of Rule 1:1 of the Judicial Code of Conduct.
The petitioner also alleged that the judge failed to conduct herself in a manner that promoted public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of her judicial office, contrary to Rule 1:3 of the Judicial Code of Conduct.
The petitioner further accused the judge of failing to accord the defendants a full right to be heard according to law, in violation of Rule 3:3 of the Judicial Code of Conduct.
The petition read: “Having created by these facts reasons for which her impartiality in the proceedings may genuinely and reasonably be questioned, has refused to disqualify herself from the proceedings and rather has proceeded to run the case with a sense of both arbitrariness and impunity, contrary to Rule
12:1 of the Judicial Code of Conduct.
“By reason of the above, Hon. Justice Kingsley-Chukwu has displayed a personal interest and bias in the proceedings entirely incompatible with the status of a disinterested umpire, making it impossible for the defendants in these proceedings to hope for a fair hearing.”
In the course of the trial, the Defendants’ lead Counsel, I.C Opi Esq. applied for an adjournment on health ground stating that he was under medication.
A dispassionate judge would not refuse an adjournment on health ground but Justice Chukwu would not countenance that. She practically forced the counsel to continue with the matter.
The petitioner also stated that in the course of the trial, the judge cut the defedants’ counsel and did not allow him ample time to make his submission in sheer disregard to court rules.
The petition stated, “Order 31 Rule 4 of the High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules, 2010, allows both counsel not more than 20 minutes each to further adumbrate on issues after adopting their written addresses, which the defence counsel was doing before
he was shut out by the court.
“The defendants’ counsel while addressing the court was still within the stipulated time allowed by the Rules of Court before he was shut out.”
Yet, the survival of the nation democracy rests squarely on an independent, impartial and informed judiciary. Nigerian judges need to be reminded that the judiciary is a key pillar in the sustenance of the rule of law and democracy.
To sustain rule of law, judges must be impartial. They must give parties fair hearing. It is not enough to do justice, but justice must be seen as having been done!
In the cases highlighted above, can Justice Kingsley-Chukwu be said to have done justice?