A reform that will quicken the dispensation of justice is welcome
The recent call by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo for a merit-based approach to the appointment of judges is a self-indictment. And so is the lamentation by President Muhammadu Buhari about one of the fundamental problems rendering the Nigerian justice delivery system largely ineffectual today: ‘Terribly slow pace’ of dispensing justice in criminal matters, as he aptly put it. For an administration that promised judicial reform more than five years ago, we hope they will finally walk the talk. For years, it has been common knowledge that justice in Nigerian courts is slow in coming or worse, out-rightly denied. It is therefore high time all stakeholders sat down to salvage the judiciary.
The essence of the legal maxim, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’ is that a situation in which opportunity for legal redress is available to an injured person but comes with little or no hope of justice being served on time, is as good as useless. But now that Osinbajo and Buhari appear to have a consensus on the necessity for reforms in the judicial sector, we hope they will move from rhetoric to action. Speaking at the Nigerian Bar Association’s Annual General Conference, the president had also canvassed a continuous improvement on the selection processes for appointment of the men and women who serve on the bench.
That is a challenge for the leadership of the judiciary. Section 255 of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) states that to qualify for appointment as a judge of a high court, the person must have been called to the bar for 10 years. Meanwhile, the National Judicial Council (NJC) guidelines specifically identify the following as those qualified to be appointed as judges: Legal practitioners in private practice; legal practitioners in public service who are legal officers; chief registrar of court and chief magistrate. Other prerequisites include that the candidates be of good character and reputation, be of unquestionable integrity, possess sound knowledge of law, etc.
However, as lofty as the foregoing requirements may seem, the NJC has consistently breached them when appointing judges by introducing cronyism. Those who make the list now are relations of powerful politicians and prominent lawyers or sitting/ retired judges. Besides, there are serious questions about some of the guidelines. For instance, at the appellate levels, judges are elevated to higher bench based on seniority and vacancies from geographical zones and not on merit. It is not important if the justice in question is lazy or is of dubious character. The same procedure is applied in promoting high court judges to the Court of Appeal. Merit is sacrificed for seniority.
Perhaps the greatest challenge comes from the fact that the judiciary has proved incapable at reforming itself. Even though judges are not happy that determining a case takes so many years, they are unwilling to introduce practical measures to tackle the challenge. When they were lucky to have a reformist Chief Justice of Nigeria in Justice Maryam Mukhtar, the first and only woman CJN, the moment she retired, they jettisoned the rules of procedures she introduced to fast track criminal and corruption cases. The time limit in the determination of election cases for which President Buhari credited the judiciary was in fact a constitutional amendment brought by politicians themselves.
But the questions the president posed at the NBA forum are critical: “Why can’t we have term limit for criminal cases? Why can’t we have a rule that will say a criminal trial all the way to the supreme court must not exceed 12 months.
We hope the NJC will muster the courage to address those questions.