Law News
Repositioning the judiciary for speedy justice administration
Justice Mariam Aloma Mukhtar, Chief Justice of Nigeria

Justice Mariam Aloma Mukhtar, Chief Justice of Nigeria

It is a fact that one of the many issues afflicting the judiciary is the problem of undue delay in determining cases. Many factors are responsible for this sordid and embarrassing situation.

Successive Chief Justices of Nigeria had introduced measures to combat this malady. Upon assumption of office as the CJN, Justice Aloma Mukhtar was again confronted by this problem.

It was discovered that one of the reasons why it was taking long to hear and determine cases was that many judicial officers were fond of travelling abroad at the expense of the cases pending in their dockets. They travelled abroad   at will and abandoned cases assigned to them. In the main, litigants suffered.

A story has it that shortly after Justice Mukhtar became the CJN, she met seven judges of various courts in the country, including a judge of the Supreme Court at an airport abroad. Curiously, she had an encounter with the same judge of the Supreme Court on the previous day but did not inform her of his intention to travel abroad. Besides, he was expected to sit on some cases at the apex court within those days he was away.

The CJN felt the lawlessness should not continue under her watch of the nation’s judiciary. She therefore issued a circular directing all judges under the federal, state and the Federal Capital Territory including her colleagues at the Supreme Court to seek her approval, through their respective heads of court, before embarking on any foreign trip.

A register was opened to monitor requests by judges to travel and once a judge’s requests have hit the ceiling in a given year, subsequent request that year is denied. The penalty is a query for a judge that travels without due approval from the CJN’s office.

While receiving performance evaluation reports compiled by the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies on May 17, 2013,  Justice Mukhtar also revealed she did not know how bad the situation was until she directed all judges to seek herpermission before travelling abroad.

She had said, “The Nigerian Bar Association has also been complaining about the attitudes of judges to work these days. Many will leave their work and travel for days abroad. This is why I insisted they must obtain approval before travelling abroad. Until this directive, I never thought things were all that bad, because some of the judges will be seeking permission to travel abroad while the courts are in session, despite  the six weeks holiday they are entitled to in a year.

“These are parts of the reasons the NJC undertakes performance evaluation from time to time,  both at the trial and appellate courts to determine productivity of the judges and their courts in the states and the Federal Capital Territory.

“This is an administrative instrument that is available for control and instilling discipline in the system in both private and public offices in the country and in other climes.”

The CJN believes that the leadership of the judiciary owes the Nigerian people a duty to make sure that judges conduct themselves in line with their oath of office and the code of conduct for judicial officers.

Judicial legitimacy is enhanced by public opinion.

Justice Mukhtar’s directive that judges must seek permission before traveling within or abroad is therefore for the interest of effective and timely dispensation of justice in the country.

Justice Mukhtar was sworn in as the Chief Justice of Nigeria on July 16, 2012 and by November 20, 2014 when she would be retiring, she would have spent exactly 856 days in the office.

Of course, this is quite too short a time to make meaningful changes through constitution amendment which is always dogged with slow pace. But there are a number of judiciary administrative precepts contained in other statutory books like the Judicial Code of Conduct, NJC and Federal Judicial Service Commission, which are enough to halt the drift in the system if enforced. It requires an experience to explore and utilise them. It is not just the ability to know, but the courage to do it.

Judges performance evaluation reports

Ordinarily, the NJC has a monitoring team mandated to visit all the superior courts – Court of Appeal, the federal and state High Courts, the National Industrial Courts, the Customary and the Sharia Courts of Appeal periodically to collate data on the numbers of civil, criminal and motions assigned to each court as well as gathering data on the number of these cases disposed of as well as those pending at the end of each quarter.

The same NJC’s committee on performance evaluation has empirical data bank titled ‘Nigeria’s Judicial Performance Report (2008-2011)’ which also contains information on the performance of individual judicial officer.

Besides, the report shows the manner in which the cases were disposed of, whether they were cases decided on the merit or they were struck out as non-contested cases. Judges are rated based on the cases disposed on merit.

The Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies undertook to analyse NJC’s ‘Nigeria’s Judicial Performance Report (2008-2011)’ for the purpose of planning and easy decision making by the council.

The CJN indicated on May 17, 2013 that besides the outcome of petitions filed against judges, the NJC would henceforth use its performance evaluation reports to weed out incompetent and indolent judges from the bench.

The CJN, who gave this indication while receiving ‘NIALS’ analysis compiled in seven volumes in her office, said that it is highly absurd to observe that some judges could not even deliver up to two judgements in a quarter.

She said, “We are now thinking of looking at the performance evaluation of the judges for the purpose of discipline. If a judge cannot deliver three to four judgements in a year, there is no use keeping him on the bench other than to be shown his way out.”

By February 17, 2014, the NJC headed by Justice Mukhtar issued warning letters to Justice Dalhatu Adamu, the Presiding Justice of Court of Appeal, Kaduna Division for deliberately absenting himself from duty. The council also on the same day warned Justices A. A. Adeleye of High Court of Justice, Ekiti State, and D. O. Amaechina of High Court of Justice, Anambra State, respectively for low performance.

A press release signed by the Council’s Acting Director of Information,   Mr. Soji Oye, said that “Justice Dalhatu Adamu was warned by the Council at its meeting which was held on 26th February, 2014 for deliberately absenting himself from duty, which is an act of gross misconduct contrary to the provisions of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended and the Code of Conduct of Judicial Officers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

“It would be recalled that the Council at its last meeting which was held on December 4 and 5, 2013 considered and deliberated on the Report of its five-man committee who were mandated to invite Judicial Officers with very low performance or non-performance to appear before it.  At the end of the deliberation on the Report of the Committee, the Council found Justice A. A. Adeleye and Justice D. O. Amaechina culpable of very low performance.  Consequently, the Council decided to issue warning letters to them for decline in their productivity.”

New practice direction for courts

To conclude criminal cases on time as against the present arrangement where it takes years to conclude such cases, Justice Mukhtar has initiated changes across the courts with the introduction of a model practice direction for all courts to fast-track trials of offences involving terrorism, rape, kidnapping, corruption, money laundering, human trafficking and related matters.

In this regard, the CJN is working with Chief Judges of state High Courts, the FCT High Court, the Federal High Court and the presiding Justices of the various divisions of the Court of Appeal to put in place an efficient system that will eliminate delays in criminal trials.

Some judges have started implementing the practice direction even when it is still at the proposal stage. But what the CJN has demonstrated is that even in the absence of constitution amendment some administrative measures can be put in place to achieve the much needed judicial reforms for quick dispensation of justice.

It is true that all these measures may not have totally achieved their intended goals, but the process of repositioning the judiciary initiated under the leadership of the current CJN is a template subsequent administrations must build on.

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