Leadership Newspaper

Judiciary As Bastion Of Nigeria’s Budding Democracy

KUNLE OLASANMI, in this report, examines the extent to which the judiciary, as the third arm of government, has saved the country from sliding into anarchy.

No doubt, the judiciary is a noble institution which has saved the country from sliding into anarchy many times. But for its timely interventions in some cases which had been resolved one way or the other, they would have led to the dis-integration of Nigeria.  Since the Supreme Court came into being in 1973, the country has been blessed with Chief Justices that are experienced and vast in adjudication.

Apart from the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnogehn, who always lead by example, frequent workshops and seminars organized for judges also help in moulding the judges for the task ahead of them.

One of the conferences is the Biennial All Nigeria Judges’ Conference of the Lower Courts, where they gather together for a whole week to rub minds and share ideas.

During this year’s conference, held about a week ago, the CJN reminded the judges that the last conference was held about two years ago to discuss issues affecting the Judiciary as well, as proffering solutions to some of the challenges that were identified as impacting negatively on it.

The CJN told the judge that Nigerians now agree that democracy will offer a ready solution to all political and social ills of the country. “Therefore, democracy which is synonymous with the rule of law envisages good governance,” he said.

He also reminded the judges, “Given the constitutional role of the Judiciary as an arbiter between government and the people inter se, it is very important that citizens enjoy easy access to the courts, as that will enable them to have their grievances, not only ventilated but also adjudicated upon. This is the essence of the democratic spirit, which is conducive with good governance”.

According to him, “Going down memory lane, records have also settled the fact that the Judiciary in Nigeria actually began with the Treaty of Cession of Lagos in 1862. By 6th July, 1864, a Court known as the Petty debt Court whose jurisdiction extended only to the recovery of any demand not exceeding Twenty Pounds was established.

Sequel to this chain of events, a Chief Magistrate’s Court was established by an Ordinance for better administration of justice within Her Majesty’s Settlement of Lagos.

“This court, which had both civil and criminal jurisdictions, was presided over by a Chief Magistrate with two Assessors, supported of course, with a handful of interpreters,” she said.

To the CJN, the basis for the background of the historical beginning of the Nigerian Judiciary rests on the fact that the development of the Nigerian Judiciary and its Court System from the period of amalgamation till date has its very foundations in the Lower Courts, as stated above, which were established by the British. These Courts existed side by side with the indigenous system of administration of justice until the year 1914 when the Southern and Northern Protectorates were amalgamated.

According to him, “The preference for your courts by litigants is not only dictated by the simplicity of procedures, but also by the confidence reposed in your ability to provide speedy justice at little or no cost.

Therefore, continuing judicial education for all Judicial Officers in the Lower Courts is crucial. Your duties invariably affect mostly the vulnerable in the society. Indeed, the rate of access to your courts and the volume of litigation therein are visible testimonies to the confidence of the public in your ability to dispense justice.

“Going by the volume of cases which your courts handle, judicial accountability is very important. Therefore, discipline must be embraced against the backdrop of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers in Nigeria.

“Consequently, I urge you all to decisively shun every vice which will bring the Judiciary into disrepute. Practices such as lateness to court, accepting any form of gratification or other form of inducement must not be associated with you as Judges of the Lower Courts. It goes without saying, however, that any person found wanting will face the consequences of such unruly acts.

“The Judiciary as a noble institution must lead by example. Thus, the need for Judges of the Lower Courts to observe strict discipline and ethics must not be far-fetched so as to ensure quicker dispensation of justice.

“The delay in our justice delivery system has been a source of great concern to me as it must be to you all. This unacceptable situation inevitably dictates the need for a thorough and comprehensive reform of our justice sector to ensure access to justice at affordable costs and within a reasonable time”.

The slow pace of corruption cases before now took a new dimension when the CJN inaugurated a committee to monitor the progress being made in the heating and determination of corruption cases.

In the last six months, the work of the Committee has resulted in judgment being delivered in at least 354.

For the judiciary, this is a good news because these cases would most probably still be pending today, but for the timely intervention of this committee.

Prison decongestion is another scenario which has become a national embarrassment. The numerous and sometimes needless remand orders issued by Magistrates is a major factor responsible for the congestion of our prisons.

“I must emphasise the need for Heads of Courts, in synergy with the various Attorneys-General of the States, to pay frequent visits to prison facilities within their jurisdictions in a bid to assess the situation on a first hand basis. In addition, reckless remand orders must not be issued by your courts where it appears that the Police lack evidence to prosecute a criminal matter or your Courts do not possess the requisite jurisdiction to entertain such matter.

“I had recently also directed that Chief Magistrates/Magistrates should pay frequent visits to Police Stations within their jurisdictions to inspect the cells and where appropriate free detainees who have no prima facie case against them or had been unduly detained without bail,” he said.