A judicial advocacy group, Access to Justice, has urged the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, to declare a state of emergency in the country’s justice system.
Addressing a press conference in Lagos, Thursday, the group said the Nigerian judiciary needs an urgent reform so it could serve the citizens’ expectations of a truly independent institution that is confident of the integrity of its members as well as one that enjoys the confidence of the people.
“Without an iota of doubt, Nigerians want to see more judicial reforms executed, with more speed and urgency,” said Adenike Aiyedun, Deputy Director, Access to Justice.
“We need more traction and more resolve applied in the fight to transform the delivery of justice in Nigeria. Our concern is that the current speed and pace of reforms is neither strong nor vibrant enough and it is not creating the kind of momentum or impetus that Nigerians are eager to see.”
During an event to mark the beginning of a new legal year two weeks ago, Mr. Onnoghen had admitted that the judiciary faced “numerous challenges” in the previous year and outlined major reforms in the sector, including a directive that lawyers representing anyone in court must not exceed five at a sitting.
But Ms. Aiyedun advocated for a three-phase reform plan to be implemented in the short, medium, and long-term that would focus on reducing court delays, combating corruption, and initiating institutional reforms.
On court delays, the group urged the National Judicial Council to end arbitrary court closures frequently occasioned by judges attending ceremonial functions such as the recent valedictory ceremony of Ibrahim Auta, the former Chief Judge of the Federal High Court.
“These ‘no-shows’ have huge costs implications on everyone – litigants, lawyers and witnesses (some of who may have travelled long distances to be in court),” said Ms. Aiyedun.
“They also cause terrible delays in the hearing of cases, thereby creating frustrations for many court users, congestion of dockets and diminish public confidence in the administration of justice.”
The group called for a review of judges’ vacation period and an end to the practice of transferring judges from one jurisdiction to another before the judges conclude the cases on their court’s dockets.
“Judge transfers take a huge toll on the time for completing cases, and entail many cases starting afresh even where they may have been pending in court for many years, and are nearing completion.”
On how to combat corruption and foster transparency in the judiciary, Access to Justice urged a review and strengthening of the NJC’s Judicial Discipline Regulations 2014.
The group also called for a financial disclosure reporting system as done in other jurisdictions where all extrajudicial payments to judges are self-reported and judges submit periodic financial disclosure reports.
“The review should enable the NJC act on anonymous complaints, protect whistle blowers, and collaborate with official anti-corruption agencies to investigate allegations of corruption,” Ms. Aiyedun said.
“Corruption is a problem in lower courts across the country, and many states do not have credible or effective systems for fighting corruption within their respective jurisdictions.
“The NJC should immediately direct heads of courts in State and Federal jurisdictions to establish effective disciplinary regulations or guidelines applicable to both lower court ‘judges’ and court staff, and increase efforts to stamp out corruption from the lower courts.
“Access to Justice recently concluded an empirical research which shows that the disciplinary system for fighting corruption in lower courts, particularly in Lagos State, is extremely weak.”
The group also highlighted the need for the judiciary to strengthen the procedures for appointing judges as well as build a consensus around a vision statement.
“The judiciary should bring stakeholders together to develop a strategic reforms’ framework and plan immediately,” Ms. Aiyedun said.
“The plan will represent the judiciary’s vision of how the judiciary should be restructured, and it should be delivered in states and federal jurisdictions. Such a plan will thereafter from the fulcrum of reform activities.”