It is time to overhaul the judiciary for efficiency

Almost every case of substance in Nigeria, as in other countries, ends at the apex court which in our case is the Supreme Court. But the number of Justices in the court is dwindling by the day. With the retirement of Justice Aminu Sanusi in February, there are only 13 remaining Justices to sit over weighty issues. The constitutional provision is for 21 justices; a number the court has never attained. Given the need to lessen their burden, there is need for more appointments. But much more importantly, the quality of the justices also matters, both in competence and character. This is becoming a challenge. The court to which the brightest and the best in our country used to be elevated is gradually becoming something else.

Any serious review of the constitution must approach the Supreme Court matter from a fundamental systemic angle. We adopted a presidential constitution patterned after that of the United States but kept a Westminster model Supreme Court. The United States Supreme Court, for instance, has nine justices comprising the chief justice and eight other justices, all of whom serve for life. The justices are nominated on the basis of ideological leaning: conservative, liberal, etc. Also, they do not have to be nominated from a career civil service bench. The president can nominate from a broad band of legal luminaries of proven record and competence. So, our problem goes beyond the issue of number of justices to that of a system mismatch.

The same Supreme Court used to command respect. What went wrong? Appointment was no longer based on merit but on quota. Once a justice of the court retires, the most senior judge from the geographical zone from where the retiring justice hails in the court of appeal would be recommended to the president to replace him. This ensures that justices who cannot reason independent of their colleagues get to sit at the Supreme Court. There are other self-inflicted problems: Case flow management, corruption, and the rest.

Before she retired, the only woman ever elevated to the position of Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Aloma Mukhtar introduced amendments to rules of procedure across the courts, including the Supreme Court. This was aimed at ensuring that cases involving sexual offences, corruption, money laundering and related cases were fast-tracked. But after Mukhtar left, her colleagues at the Supreme Court jettisoned those rules. Yet, they keep complaining of having to deal with too many appeals. Aside these the main reason why it takes so long to decide a case is because the leadership of the judiciary has failed or is afraid to adopt new technology. Judges continue to take notes in longhand. In so doing, they punish themselves, they punish litigants and on the long run, the society suffers.

The question is: why do our judges want to write themselves to death? The answer is simple: they are afraid of change. They don’t want to lose the privileges they enjoy taking notes manually. Besides, unscrupulous judges derive benefit taking notes in longhand. It allows them to manipulate their records. Some high court judges have changed their records when summoned by the National Judicial Council (NJC). In the course of trial, some judges carelessly make statements that they ought not to make in the course of adjudication. But they don’t record such statements. The only way to deprive judges the chance to tamper with their records is to record court proceedings electronically. Copies of the proceedings can be printed within minutes after the day’s session.

Recording judicial proceeding electronically is a win-win situation for the country. Our judges will live longer. Litigants will have their cases decided on time. Cheating by judges will be reduced. This will in turn restore confidence in the judicial system.