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Thursday 02nd December 2021,
Hope for Nigeria

Majority of Nigerian judges are honest, good, learned — Justice Abdullahi

Justice Umaru  Abdullahi, is  former President of the Court of Appeal and member of the National Judicial Council, NJC. He is also Chairman, Board of Trustees, Citizens for Better Justice Initiative (CBJI). In this interview, he spoke on the challenges facing judges and efforts being made to improve their performance through the bar and the bench collaborating with the initiative of CBJI and other issues affecting the judiciary. Excerpts.

By Dayo Benson

Abdullahi

How do you think capacity of judges can be built to improve their performance?

The bench and the bar are traditionally supposed to work together through the criminal justice system. But that relationship has not been working smoothly. All the innovations that are on going have not been really adopted. That is why this initiative of Citizens for Better Justice, I think, is the first attempt to bring the two together. Because the more you encourage interaction and understanding, the more you appreciate each other’s  problem and the more we sit down and address it.

How will this initiative work?

The initiative is to bring members of the bar as active participants in the moving of the machine of the justice system and how it is rolling. The members of the bar who are going to participate in this have been given opportunity to make available their own perception and appreciation of how judges work, because this initiative will expect some kind of returns from people who are part of the project. They must have appeared before a judge for two to three years and they must have observed his capability, knowledge of the law, his etiquette and all the good things a judge should have and observe it to know where he is good or weak and how he does it honestly, transparently and without any ill motive.

When we get the survey results, we will process it and use the data to come up with strategies on how to improve the workings of the Judiciary. The survey results will be made available to the Judge and he or she  can use it to assess himself or herself whether he or she is working well or not. But the whole idea is to ensure that both the bar and the bench have come up together to share more ideas. Lawyers should not say I am a member of the bar I have nothing to do with the judge. No you have a lot to do.

There is this area of mutual understanding and trust to smoothen the system. And I think it will go a long way. Because the more members of the bar get involved with this, the better for the judiciary, we just started the Unity Bar Project (UBP)  as a starting point in Abuja.

Will the project be only in Abuja?

It will eventually be expanded as we expect the NBA national body to be interested and to recommend it to the states body and those actually practicing are those in the state NBA. When it moves, it will help the judiciary and the bar to sit up and when this happens,things will start working properly. I am the Chairman of the board of trustees, BOT, and Mr Philip Chukwueke  who brought the idea from the American Bar Association (ABA) is the president. Obviously, this will help to remove some of the bottleneck in the administration of justice in the country.

Good judiciary is a great partner. You cannot have a good justice system if the judiciary is not functioning and this will not attract businesses to the country. Because if the investors want their money back, how and where do they go. If the system is doggy nobody will invest and the country will suffer economically.

Our criminal justice system is a shame. I am a member of the International Society for the Reform of Criminal Justice (ISFRCJ) and I have been attending their conferences. There was one I attended in Canada and I learnt that some nations are de-criminalizing offences because they have other system to deal with offenders and not jail. In Nigeria, for every offence committed,  the offender ends up in Kuje Prison or another (Laughter). And you stay there for a number of years even if you have been convicted.  That is why I say it is a shame.

What really is the Judges Performance Evaluation Report (JPER) and what does it seek to achieve?

I am a member of the NJC and I am also a member of that committee for assessing judges. Nigerian judiciary has come a long way, but somehow even some of us within are not happy with what is going on, because of human shortcomings. In a society, some people put in their best,  some half of their best and some will not put in anything. When you have a combination like this, you can imagine. In this country, as at August last year, we had a total of 1,020 serving judges at the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, High Court, Federal High Court, FCT, State High Courts,  Sharia Court of Appeal and State Customary Courts of Appeal. Those are the superior courts of records. We now have 1,030 because there were some new appointments to the federal high court and so let us say 1,050 roughly.

Obviously, out of this, they cannot all be on the same level of expectations really. There are some good ones – corruption is a difficult thing to prove. I am not saying there aren’t any corrupt judges; there are, but majority of Nigerian judges are honest, good and learned. But the system under which we operate causes a lot of dislocation in the sense that as a judge, you are supposed to have staff, court, chambers, library and clerk.

These are people you cannot do without. Some are efficient, some can even mess you up because the number of cases you have in your court daily is handled by your registrar. He prepares your cause list for the day. If they overload you with cases for the day there is no way you can go through all of them. You can only do few and what happens to the others? You have to adjourn them.

On the day of the adjournment, there are other cases and they keep on piling and piling till they reach a level where things will become stagnant. And the performance will be poor because if you have a registrar that puts 10 cases on your cause list, and you are able to call only three if you have to hear evidence and make a list along the line, you cannot make more than three cases per day. Then you have to reserve judgment and do additional research before you pass judgment.

But people say judges are not working. Of course there are some lazy ones. These lazy ones are the ones that are causing the problem. Maybe they have everything they require to facilitate their efficient work, but they are not the types that are prepared to do the work.

Now this is where the problem comes in. So the judiciary itself is getting worried because there are complaints from everywhere – lawyers, litigants, even people who care about what is happening – that things are not moving, judges are not working so that is how the assessment committee came into being.

The National Judicial Council (NJC) committee felt people have been complaining too much and time has come when something has to be done. They set up that committee.

The arrangement initially was that each judge must write four judgments in three months. The chief judges (CJs) who combine court cases with administrative work are supposed to have two judgments even then because you go out to attend conferences and see how other nations are moving very fast. They no longer write in long hand but have proficient stenographers  to take their proceedings and the judge just makes few notes and at the end of the day everything is placed before him. He has a chart and the computerization has been put in place, which makes things happen very fast. In this country there was a good attempt to computerize and bring in this new innovation, but somehow actually we did not catch up.

Lagos and some few states have adopted the system. Then we felt we have to adjust the number of judgments so we raised it to six judgments in three months. And the chief judges write two or three. Some of them came out complaining that the NJC is pressing them to write more judgments, but what about the quality. A judge complaining that they are being pushed I think something is wrong with the system.

You don’t put the whole blame on the judge. From an insider, some of these judges, traditionally members of the bar, are supposed to be officers of the court. They should render their services and their expertise to arrive at fair justice.

Unfortunately we have some problems there. Some of the delays that you see happening are caused by members of the bar. They come to court unprepared, they don’t care about their clients and all they do is to ask for adjournment. If the judge said he will not grant them, the lawyer will start complaining that he is denied the right of fair hearing.

A lot of things have being brought in by the members of the bar even though there are good ones with conscience that are doing their work properly. But there are large numbers of them who are really abused. Most of the blame sometimes is caused by a counsel who will take five briefs in one day in different courts. And when a court has fixed a date for hearing, instead of him to come he will send somebody, maybe a junior who will say he had not been briefed. And you cannot go on with the case. Or he will write a letter asking for adjournment or that he is sick.

What is your impression on the Judges Performance Evaluation Report (JPER) a system for the promotion or punishment of judges. Do you think that there is need for an independent body of lawyers or the users of court for some judges to be given excellent or lower mark?

Initially, it was just for rating as NJC wrote queries to the judges when they found their performance was consistently low. Why is your own not performing? They came up with a lot of things that they have no courts, libraries, they share court rooms with other judges among others; some of these things are real.

The only judges that have everything in place are federal judges in Federal High Courts, FCT High Court, Court of Appeal, Supreme Court and some few states. Most states have problems as one judge sits in the morning and another in the afternoon and he comes out already tired.

These are some of the things you have to appreciate, some of them may want to do the work, but the constraints and the challenges – like problem with court staff – and in addition to that, they have problem with the lawyers. When NJC issues a judge a query, he answers and when we take it to head of courts that this is what your judge has said, he responds that the government cannot give him any money and he goes cap-in-hand begging for money from the state governor.

That has happened many times, there are so many things that may ground the system if we are not careful. Once you get the first query and then a second query, of course you can be rest assured if there is going to be movement or promotion from a lower court to a higher court and your name is on the query list, you will find it difficult to pass through. NJC is doing something good but some of the judges say they are being pushed too hard, but I don’t think it is too much.

Do you have any regret as a former president of the Court of Appeal?

I think I have achieved to my satisfaction a lot of things that anybody could hope to achieve in his career. I am a very lucky judge as the longest serving president of the Court of Appeal.

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