Justice: Loss of public confidence – Another look at the role of lawyers and judges

Last week, I compared the pay of Nigerian Judges with their counterparts in South Africa, United Kingdom and the United States of America and suggested that the authorities in Nigeria adopt a similar policy and place a premium on paying Judges wages commensurate with their work and attractive enough to encourage qualified lawyers to aspire to the Bench.

 

I made those comments in the hope that Government would eventually see a real need to take adequate funding of the Judiciary seriously and regard it as a necessary step towards the economic development of the Country. The allocation of 70 Billion Naira to the Judiciary across the Federal and State levels in the 2016 Budget is the lowest in recent times. This sum represents about 1.15 per cent of the N6.06trn total budget of the Federal Government. The figure approved for 2014 and 2015 was 73 Billion respectively. This year, it is reported that the National Judicial Council which coordinates budget matters for the judiciary across the country proposed a budget of 143 Billion but had to adjust this to comply with a ceiling of 70 billion stipulated by the Federal Ministry of Finance. While it is not disputed that the earnings of the Country have been adversely affected by the drastic drop in the price of crude oil, the fact remains that the annual budget has steadily increased over the years without any commensurate increase in the amount allocated to the Judiciary. As far back as 2013, the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Aloma Murhktar made this point when she stated as follows:

 

“A situation where budgetary allocation to the judiciary continues to drop while the general government budget is on a steady increase every year is clearly an impediment to the quick and effective dispensation of justice in Nigeria and, on the whole, a setback to the current effort at transforming the Judiciary…..Over the years, funding of the courts has remained a challenge, as evident in the conditions of many courts in Nigeria today.

 

An examination of most court buildings across the Country will reveal that they are in states of disrepair. Some Judges even sit in dilapidated structures totally devoid of essential amenities for any meaningful adjudication. There have been reported instances in which Lawyers have on their own application or upon the intervention of Judges been permitted to remove their gowns and even jackets when the court rooms became too hot owing to power outage and lack of backup generators. In many states judges still record proceedings in long hand. Realising the need to do away with such outdated practices, the judiciary has in recent years identified the deployment and utilisation of Information technology as a catalyst for improved productivity. Regrettably its budgetary proposal in this respect was slashed. Despite these all, judges at all levels continue to brave great odds to carry out their constitutional duties. In the 2014/ 2015 Legal Year, the Supreme Court reportedly heard 1578 matters, consisting of 1009 motions and 569 substantive appeals and delivered 262 Judgments in that period. They deserve to be encouraged. More importantly brilliant lawyers should be encouraged to join them. In the United kingdom, judges are appointed from Lawyers who have attained the rank of Queen’s Counsel (QC) the equivalent of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). This is possible as a QC upon being appointed a Judge will not suffer any significant reduction in earnings if at all he encounters any. The same cannot be said of the situation in Nigeria.

 

The Government must particularly act in manner that suggests it is serious about independence of the judiciary. A situation in which the judicial arm of government yearly gets pittance in terms of budgetary allocation is not one that will portray Government in good light. Government may be perceived as punishing the judiciary for any perceived wrong doing and this will never augur well for the polity. Jesper Wittrup in an article titled “Budgeting in the Era of Judicial Independence” stated as follows on this very point:

 

“…governments should not only care about maintaining an actual high level of judicial independence, but they should also care very much about how their actions toward the judiciary, however well-intentioned these may be, are perceived by others. Rumors may easily arise that the government tries to use the budget to punish or reward the judiciary for its actions…In Denmark, for example, there was a consistent rumor that the government’s demand for reductions of the total judicial budget in the beginning of the new millennium was a kind of punishment for a famous Supreme Court verdict (in the so- called Tvind case) which had declared unconstitutional a law passed by parliament banning schools run by a certain “sectarian” movement (Tvind) from receiving public funds. If a government stand on the total judicial budget is enough to raise concerns over possible violations of judicial independence, this becomes of course even more critical when the government does also have the power to allocate the judicial budget among courts, because it can then in theory direct funds to those courts and those judges it likes, and away from those it does not like.

 

As government steps up preparations for the next budget, I suggest that it takes another look at allocation to the Judiciary. As stated earlier there is a real link between a strong and independent judiciary and economic growth and prosperity. No investor will for example invest in a country in which it will take years to resolve the simplest of business disputes. This point is particularly important as it was reported last year that most if not all Judges across the Federation were no longer being paid their salaries as and when due despite the fact that their salaries ought to enjoy huge premium. The reason for this is not farfetched. The judiciary in Nigeria still lacks autonomy in the real sense of the word despite attempts made in recent times to give it a semblance of such autonomy. At the moment, the executive arm of government at the federal and state levels still do not see the Judiciary as a totally separate and independent arm of government.

 

 

AARE AFE BABALOLA SAN, CON