Recently when the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, appeared before the Senate for screening, he had assured Nigerians that he would introduce necessary reforms in the judicial sector. His assurances attested to the fact that the judiciary was in dare need of restructuring in order to restore public confidence in the once revered arm of government.
Aside the heavy allegation made by President Muhammadu Buhari, shortly after he assumed office, where he publicly declared the judiciary a clog in his wheel of progress, many others have equally believed that necessary steps were required to save the country’s judicial sector. Judicial officials have, in recent times, been accused of ethical misconducts resulting in compromised judgment and delayed dispension of justice.
For these and several other reasons, the Senate had taken Justice Onnoghen on how he intended to address the challenges, if confirmed the substantive CJN. In his response to the Senate, the CJN had listed the rebranding of the country’s judiciary as among his top priorities.
Admitting though that Nigerian judiciary was totally free from ethical misconducts, he also told the Senate that judicial officers are products of the same corrupt society. He however promised to preside over a judiciary that is strong-willed and of unquestionable integrity. He also promised to lead the judiciary out of its present predicament and image crisis towards becoming a reformed and vibrant organ of the state.
“The judiciary is part of the society. There is corruption everywhere but efforts are being made to check it in accordance with our rules. The judiciary under my watch will be strong-willed. The judiciary under my watch will be of unquestionable integrity. I believe that the judiciary will come out of the present situation stronger”, he told the Senate.
He also pledged that the judiciary under his leadership would not be compromised, noting that once the judiciary of any nation “is politicised, that is going to be the end of that country.”
Consequent upon his promises, the CJN, last weekend, inaugurated a 13-man steering committee that would coordinate a comprehensive reform of the sector. The Committee, which is headed by the Secretary, Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) Mrs. Bilkisu Bashir, has a period of one month to submit its report and recommendations to the CJN.
Director, Administration, Supreme Court of Nigeria, Mr. Royal Sunday Issah, would be serving as the Secretary of the committee. Other members include Directors of Administration from the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), Supreme Court of Nigeria, National Judicial Council (NJC), Federal High Court, Court of Appeal, Sharia Court of Appeal, Customary Court of Appeal, Federal Capital Territory High Court, National Industrial Court and the President of the Judicial Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN).
Inaugurating the committee at the Conference Room of the FJSC last Friday, Justice Onnoghen stated that the establishment of the committee followed his observation of the urgent need to undertake a holistic review of the operations of the nation’s judiciary in order to identify the challenges hindering its efficient and effective operation as an independent arm of government.
He said: “You will agree with me that over time, the Judiciary, due to its conservative nature, had stagnated in its operations while the other arms of government have continued to undergo reforms. It is now more urgent than ever to undertake a holistic reform of the Judiciary.”
The committee is mandated to carry out a comprehensive analysis of the administrative structure and operations of the three arms of government with a view to exploring areas of comparative advantage and mutual cooperation. It is also to undertake a holistic review of the operations and condition of service of the judiciary for general efficiency and effectiveness. It is to recommend long and short term measures that would help in the overall improvement of the welfare and condition of service of both judicial and non-judicial officers; call for memoranda from former CJNs, Presidents of Court of Appeal, Court Registrars and other stakeholders on the way forward.
The committee is equally to create a professional and management structure for the administration of the judiciary to be headed by an individual that is well versed in judicial administration; to create a professional judiciary Police department; propose a pooling policy and recommend a rule to empower the Federal Judicial Service Commission to commence the operation of a pooling system of senior officers within the Judiciary.
It will also propose and recommend to the NJI, the review of its training syllabus to include short term courses for certification of judiciary personnel with a view to enhance their career development; make any other recommendations capable of helping in repositioning the Judiciary for optimal performance.
In her remarks, the Committee chairperson pledged total commitment to both the terms of reference and the time frame. The step by the CJN has not only attracted commendations, some lawyers have reacted against the composition of the committee, which was mainly judicial officers. The argument was that the composition of the committee would have been extended to accommodate lawyers in the private practice.
An Abuja based Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Professor Epiphany Azinge, described the committee as a well thought out move by the CJN. On the membership composition however, he expressed concern over the choice of mainly judicial staff. Although it was indicated that the committee should seek memos from other stakeholders and the general public, he felt lawyers from outside the government circle would have been incorporated.
“The composition ought to have been enlarged to accommodate people from outside the judicial officers such as lawyers or retired judges. But that notwithstanding, since they have been given the mandate to call for memos from stakeholders, I believe they will achieve results.
“So, well meaning Nigerians should endeavour to give them the required support so that we can get our judiciary moving forward,” Professor Azinge said, expressing the hope that the reform will take care of unnecessary delays in justice dispensation as well as the welfare and funding of the judiciary to ensure that the issues of financial autonomy is given the right of place.
He also would like the reform to extend to the use of mechanized system in justice administration. “It is also expected that the issue of code of conduct for judicial officers would be looked into so that we know to what extent it can be regulated and that will help in ensuring discipline and the enthronment of protocols in the activities of judicial officers so that the last experience we just encountered would be a thing of the past,” Azinge declared.
For the former National Secretary, Labour Party, Dr. Kayode Ajulo, Onnoghen should be commended for making the move. According to him, the bold step already taken was an indication that he has interest in reforming the sector.
“At least, he has taken a bold step and he needs to be commended for taking that step. What matters most is the intetest. That means that he has interest to reform the judiciary and I pray that he succeeds. Although the composition and the calibre of people in the committee also matter but it is their recommendations that matter most.
“It is my expectations that participation will cut across board – the lawyers, the private sector and the public sector, and all the stakeholders should be able to contribute. I am sure that the committee will ask for papers. It is a good thing. The reform he is about to undertake is more of a revolution and we need to support him,” he said.
Former General Secretary, Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mazi Afam Osigwe, was of the opinion that the committee should focus on reports of previous committees especially the recommendations of the committee set up by the past CJN, Justice Dahiru Musdapher. “I say this bearing in mind that the current CJN had earlier stated that some of the recommendations contained in the stakeholders’ report were pertinent and useful, that and if implemented, would enhance administration of justice in Nigeria. On the composition of the committee however, Osigwe would have preferred more members of the civil society organizations. “I however believe the committee should have included less judicial officers and more of members of civil society organizations and lawyers in private practice to ensure a rounded, independent and unbiased work. “Above all, I hope that the committee will work towards matching words with action”, he stated.