It is Honourable Justice Olukayode Ariwoola’s Turn: What’s Next?

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SERIOUS MATTERS BY

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OLAWALE FAPOHUNDA, SAN

It is Honourable Justice Olukayode Ariwoola’s Turn: What’s next?

Eminently Qualified

The appointment of Honourable Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, as Acting Chief Justice of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (pending confirmation by the Senate), was well made. Even if there was no ‘turn by turn arrangement’ in the Supreme Court, most who have either appeared before His Lordship or had private conversations with him on the state of the Judiciary in Nigeria, will agree that His Lordship is indeed, well qualified to sit atop the Nigeria’s Judiciary especially at this time. I have been privileged to have experienced both, and I have no doubt that His Lordship is very familiar with the multifaceted issues facing the Judiciary; and having served over a decade as Justice of the Supreme Court, experience and subject-matter appreciation can hardly be said to be obstacles.

Of Judiciary, Principalities and Powers

What appears to be the reoccurring issue of concern since the announcement of His Lordship’s elevation is not that of qualification or competence, but whether the ‘principalities and powers’ within the legal profession, the executive and the legislative arms of government will  allow His Lordship do all that is necessary to save the Judiciary from demons that have ensured that sustainable Judiciary reform remains a mirage. Already, the vultures are circling. There have been talk of probes into the activities of the Supreme Court, as well as proposals for setting up parliamentary committees to investigate the conditions of service of judicial officers. There is also much talk about the desirability of meeting with Supreme Court Justices, to get a better understanding of their ‘grievances’. This is the reasoning that has ensured that we have had more than two decades of all talk and little action, on judicial reform in Nigeria. It is almost as if we are hearing about the poor conditions of service of judicial officers, for the first time. To be sure, the ‘best selling letter’ of the Justices of the Supreme Court disclosed nothing new. There is nothing that is wrong with the Supreme Court, and broadly speaking, the Judiciary in Nigeria, that has not been subject of findings of many committees and reports of high-level conferences and workshops. To suggest that we go through this routine of ‘jaw-jaw’ again after more than two decades of this Israelites journey, is a tragic recipe for doing nothing.

Struggling Judiciary

We do not need more probes or committees to tell us what we already know. We know that our Judiciary faces certain inherent problems, which show the weaknesses and defects of the system. These limitations do not only relate to structural problems, but have profound implications on the liberty of Nigerians.  We know that the Judiciary struggles with some important challenges, including judicial corruption. This is not simply about Judges taking bribes, but all forms of inappropriate influence that may damage the impartiality of justice. We know that our Judiciary, including the Supreme Court, struggles with backlog of pending cases. This number is continuously increasing, and this itself shows the inadequacy of the legal system. We know that despite progress in this area, our Judiciary still struggles with archaic systems and procedures.  In the 21st century, our courts are still wholly paper-dependent.  Writing in long hand and limited use of IT, are two key issues. We now know that the Justices of our superior courts, struggle with some of the worst conditions of judicial service. That the prestige of office is sharply at variance with their salaries, allowances and conditions of service. Given what we know, it seems to me that the single issue that should now confront My Lord, the Acting Chief Justice ( ACJN) is what to do about this.

Tasks before Acting CJN

In my respectful view, the main challenge before His Lordship is to rekindle the confidence of judicial officers and their belief in the importance of their exalted offices, while at the same time restoring the hope of Nigerians in our justice system. His Lordship needs to urgently put together, a set of radical reform initiatives of the type never seen in the history of Nigeria. Important areas of intervention should include a commitment to strengthening the independence, responsibility, efficiency and transparency of the Judiciary; responding to the interrelated problems of delay, cost and complexity in the justice system; promoting and implementing a zero tolerance principle with respect to corruption within the Judiciary; making litigation less complex; encouraging appropriate and timely settlement of disputes; diverting matters to more suitable dispute resolution processes. To achieve these in concrete terms, I will like to propose a number of practical steps for the consideration of the ACJN.

Publish Your Vision

As an important first step, the ACJN should consider publishing his vision and agenda for the Judiciary and administration of justice in Nigeria. It is important that his agenda is built on, the widest possible consensus of justice sector stakeholders and public opinion. Judicial reform is an issue of national seriousness, and all must play their part in addressing it. The suggested agenda should include a combination of administrative, legal and constitutional interventions.

Restore Brotherhood in the Supreme Court

The next important big step, should be to rekindle the brotherhood that has historically been the hallmark of Justices of the Supreme Court. What God had joined together, let not issues of conditions of service put asunder. Charity must begin at home. In the words of that Yoruba proverb which His Lordship will be familiar with, ‘Akii du ori olori, ki awodi gbe tèni lò’. This loosely translated, means one should not fight to save others at the cost of ones interest. The issues raised by the Honourable Justices of the Supreme Court, must be addressed urgently without more public fanfare. This  Day Lawyer has frequently stressed that any improvement in quality of judgements from the Supreme Court  will not only depend on the availability of a productive working environment, but also dependent on their Lordships taking pride in their work. It must be obvious to all now that, inadequately motivated Justices cannot find satisfaction in their jobs, neither can they be expected to perform optimally.

Support the Implementation of the Dayo Apata Report

May I respectfully refer His Lordship to the Report of the Presidential Committee on the Review of Judicial Salaries and Conditions of Service, published in 2018. While there may have been some inflationary trends since 2018, the Report provides yet the most comprehensive and current description of a practical road map to better conditions of service for judicial officers. As a member of the Committee, I am aware that the Report has been presented to the Presidency, the National Assembly and the leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association. Sadly, more than five years after the presentation  and multiple review meetings on contents, implementation has been limited. Noteworthy, the report inter alia proposes the establishment of an Independent Judicial Benefits and Compensation Commission to undertake a comprehensive review of salaries, allowances and benefits of all Judicial Officers in Nigeria including lower court Judges. The   Commission should be required to submit a report with its recommendations to the CJN, for onward transmission to the National Council of States for deliberation and implementation.

Facilitate a National Council for the Administration of Justice

Administratively, the ACJN should consider facilitating the establishment of a National Council for the Administration of Justice – including representatives of the three arms of government, with a clear mandate to oversee the implementation of required reforms in the Judiciary and justice sector. Achieving a justice system that works in the interest of Nigerians, cannot be the exclusive preserve of the Judiciary. The Judiciary should provide leadership, for the other arms of government. Issues for the consideration of the proposed Council should include, whether the administration of salaries and conditions of service of judicial officers should  be lumped together with that of other public or political office holders. As it currently exists, the provisions relating to judicial salaries and entitlements are to be found in the Certain Political, Public and Judicial Office holders (salaries, allowances, etc) Act 2002, and the Amendment Act 2008. In this regard, whether there is a need for Judicial Salaries and Allowances Commission  to replace the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission as it relates to the Judiciary. Other issues of note should include, the desirability of a review of the Supreme Court Rules to ensure that only cases of constitutional significance or that deal with life and liberty are heard in the Supreme Court as of right. This is not simply a law and justice issue, it is one that relates to the physical health and wellbeing of Justices of the Supreme Court. Furthermore, there is the need to begin to reverse the narrative of backlog of cases in the Supreme Court.

Final Thoughts

As Honourable Justice Olukayode Ariwoola begins his tenure, many justice sector stakeholders will agree that as daunting as the task before His Lordship is, Nigeria simply cannot afford limited or slow or no progress in achieving judicial reforms. May God grant His Lordship the wisdom, courage and strength, to take our nation’s Judiciary closer towards our dream of a Judiciary that works in the interest of justice. 

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“…..the main challenge before His Lordship is to rekindle the confidence of judicial officers and their belief in the importance of their exalted offices, while at the same time restoring the hope of Nigerians in our justice system”

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