Conflicting court judgments

tHE spate of conflicting court judgments in the country has become a source of embarrassment and confusion among legal practitioners and the general public. It is unsettling that judicial precedents are playing less and less roles in court decisions. Statutes that are germane to matters at issue are being ignored while consideration of the facts of cases has become less dispassionate.  Greater certainty in law as the prime advantage in the principle of judicial precedents is gradually being eroded. The ominous consequence is that the confidence of the public in the judiciary is waning rapidly. This is worrisome as it constitutes a recipe for self-help and anarchy.

Concern and apprehension over conflicting court orders have been expressed by relevant stakeholders time and again. Sometime in 2012, a former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Dahiru Musdapher, expressed concern over the conflicting judgments from the various divisions of the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.  In December 2015, the incumbent CJN, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, also lamented the disturbing trend at the Court of Appeal in some election petition cases. Indeed, in a comment which revealed the potentially corrosive effects of conflicting court judgements on the nation’s democracy, chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Mahmud Yakubu, lamented last week: “Within three months, we received 11 court judgments and orders, almost all of them conflicting, from courts of coordinate jurisdiction. In fact, in two days, 15th and 16th of this month, we received one judgment and three court orders from courts of coordinate jurisdiction. It is really a very big challenge.” Sadly, the steps taken to rein in the ugly trend have been less than effective.

While inconsistent decisions by courts of concurrent jurisdiction are not new in the land, the brazen dimension they have assumed lately and the innuendo that the arbiter seems to be descending into the conflict arena  caused the current outcry in the polity. The recent judgments on the Abia State governorship tussle and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leadership and national convention impasse have succinctly brought to the fore how undisciplined and reckless some judges have become. Desperate politicians in furtherance of their quest to win electoral contest at all costs, rather than appealing an unfavourable court decision, usually approach a court of coordinate jurisdiction in a different location with another version of the case, with a view to hoodwinking the judge.

The haste with which some courts orders are given after a diametrically different one had been issued by another court is suggestive of vested interests. It is curious that the various Federal High Courts from which conflicting orders emanated failed or refused to be guided by binding judicial precedents from appellate courts let alone decisions of courts of equal jurisdiction. To be sure, an earlier decision emanating from a court is not necessarily binding on courts of concurrent jurisdiction. However, such a decision has a persuasive authority to the extent that another court of equal jurisdiction wherever it is located may not give a contradictory order in a similar case without alluding to the earlier decision and canvassing superior arguments for its different decision.  Sadly, this never happened as the courts seemed to have unwittingly encouraged forum shopping rather than urging aggrieved parties to appeal earlier decisions. Some, also in tandem with unscrupulous lawyers, had engaged in selfish and mischievous interpretations of the law.

Corruption, partisanship and incompetence are mostly at the root of the variations in the decisions of courts of equal jurisdiction on similar cases. Some judicial officers are corrupt and are easy and pliable tools in the hands of unscrupulous persons who are ready to purchase justice. There are also judges who appear to be discretely interested in cases brought before them, such that objective consideration of facts becomes impossible, while some are simply incompetent and may have made it to the bench through the influence of politicians. Whatever the causes of the prevailing challenge, it is intolerable and clearly avoidable.

Not surprisingly, the National Judicial Council (NJC) is being urged by many stakeholders to intervene and address the contradictions. But the NJC cannot investigate or sanction erring judges unless it receives a petition from an aggrieved party. However, if and when its rules of engagement are changed to permit it to intervene without prompting, it would not be difficult for the NJC to overhaul the system because the judges and lawyers who are significant contributors to the judiciary’s current descent into the abyss are now fairly well known.

As a lasting solution to the dangerous trend, a paradigm shift in the attitude of some members of the bar and the bench is imperative. Politicians and crooked persons will always try to influence the court but it is the duty of the bar and the bench to institute and enforce measures to ensure that their members are upright and dedicated to upholding the fidelity of the courts. Otherwise, the judicial process in the country will continue to be seen as a game of Russian roulette where just any outcome is possible.