Law News
NJC’s new rules to end frivolous petitions against judges

The National Judicial Council, the body statutorily conferred with the powers to recommend the appointment and sanction of judges, last week rolled out new rules on the procedures for initiating complaints of misconduct against judges.

The new rules have been lauded by lawyers who believe that they are aimed at stamping out frivolous petitions against judges.

Before now, many complaints about misconduct of judges were based on issues that were supposed to be canvassed at the level of appeal against the judges’ decisions.

Sometimes, petitioners refused to show up when invited by the NJC to defend their complaints.

Many times too, the addresses and identities of the petitioners could not be determined, so the petitions died prematurely because the NJC was unable to invite the complainants to substantiate their allegations.

Perhaps this informed the decision of the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria and then Chairman of the NJC, Justice Aloma Mukhtar (retd.), who embarked on the 2014 Revised Judicial Discipline Regulations, which also spelt out the rules of writing complaints or petitions against judges.

Despite her applauded reputation for the series of disciplinary actions, including compulsory retirement in some instances, which the NJC under her watch took against erring judges, Mukhtar could not hide her dissatisfaction over the poor quality of petitions which the NJC was receiving.

While speaking in Lagos at the opening ceremony of a two-day workshop organised by the Nigerian Bar Association on May 13, 2013, the ex-CJN said her administration, which was then less than one year old at the time, inherited 139 petitions among which 106 were “vexatious and baseless.”

At the NBA’s event tagged, ‘The rule of law: The bedrock for sustainable democracy’, Mukhtar said within the period of her assuming office, 198 petitions were filed and 150 of them were “frivolous”.

She said, “I inherited 139 petitions, 106 of which were vexatious or baseless, only 33 of the petitions were considered worthy of attention.

“After my assumption of office as the Chief Justice, 198 fresh petitions were filed, of this number, 150 were found to be frivolous, 15 are awaiting responses from judges and only 21 were slated for consideration.”

One of the most salient features of the new regulations are the imposition of time limit within which a complaint must be made against a judge and the mandatory requirement of accompanying the petition with a verifying affidavit.

The rules, however, make provision for the petitioner to, within 14 days after being notified of the dismissal of his or her petition by the NJC, appeal to the Chief Justice of Nigeria who is also the Chairman of the NJC for an extension of time within which such late petition can be filed.

Rule 4 of the new regulation deals with the time within which complaint against a judge can be lodged at the NJC.

It reads in part, “(1) A complaint must be made within six months of the event or matter complained of; provided that a complaint relating to a continuing state of affairs may be made at any time while that state of affairs continues or within six months from when it ends.

“(2) Subject to this regulation, a complaint made outside the time limits set in paragraph (1) must be dismissed by the Council upon report to the Council by the Secretary to the Council.

“(3) The Secretary shall notify the person making the complaint of the dismissal not later than 30 days of such dismissal.”

Rule 5, which provides for extension of time limits for making complaints, reads in part, “A person who is refused an extension of a time limit under paragraph (1) may make a representation to the Chief Justice of Nigeria/Chairman of Council, asking the Chairman, within 14 days of being notified of the refusal asking him/her the request, for an extension of time.”

Rule 7, which deals with forms of complaints, creates the sifting committee, whose duty it is to do a preliminary assessment of petitions and determine whether or not they meet the requirements stipulated in the rules. The Secretary to the NJC or the sifting committee can, at that stage, reject a petition.

It also provides that the petition must be accompanied by a verifying affidavit.

Lawyers say the affidavit accompanying the petition makes a petitioner who levels allegations that turn out to be false against a judge liable to be prosecuted for perjury and also arms the concerned judge with evidence to sue for damages.

Rule 7, which stipulates that petitions may be type-written, also provides that the petition must be signed by an identifiable person and must bear traceable address of the complainant with his or her phone number registered in his or her name.

Rule 7(5) reads, “A complaint must be signed by the complainant and accompanied by a verifying affidavit deposed to by the complainant before a court of record.”

Two Senior Advocates of Nigeria, Femi Falana and Joseph Nwobike, in separate interviews with our correspodent, described the new guideline as “a welcome development.”

But Falana was quick to add that the concerned judge must also be made to swear to a counter-affidavit while responding to the complaints against him or her.

The human rights lawyer said, “It is a welcome development. There are many litigants who write petitions based on facts that cannot be substantiated.

“What has informed this guideline is to challenge petition writers so that if it is found out that they have lied on oath, the law is there to deal with them.

“But the implication is that judges responding to affidavits alleging misconduct against them will be required to swear to counter-affidavits as well.

“If there are material conflicts in the affidavit evidence, the NJC will resolve them by resorting to oral testimony.”

Falana, however, noted that the intention of the new regulation was not to discourage people from writing petitions against judges but to ensure that only those with genuine grievances petition the NJC over alleged misconduct of judicial officers.

He added, “It is to ensure that only people with genuine grievances will want to swear to an affidavit to back up their allegations

“It is not, in any way, meant to discourage people from writing petitions. I can assure you that there are many Nigerians who are ready to swear to several affidavits to back up petitions when they are convinced of their allegations of misconduct.”

Nwobike said the new regulations would put an end to petitions against serving judges that are based on half-truth or outright falsehood.

He said, “It is a welcome development. It will ensure that frivolous petitions against judges based on half-truths or outright falsehood will become a thing of the past.

“With this, once the person makes a statement on oath, he will be liable to perjury if at the end of the day it is found out that such statement is, by any means, false. So it is indeed a welcome development.”

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