The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Muhammad has said that Justices of the Supreme Court are over-worked owing to the rising volume of cases being brought before the court.
Muhammad, who blamed the development on Nigerians’ preference for litigation, suggested a constitutional amendment to stop interlocutory appeals for terminating at the Supreme Court.
The CJN, who called for an enhanced remuneration for judges, blamed lawyers for contributing to the high volume of cases in court.
“As rightly observed, Nigerians are the most litigious people on earth. In every little disagreement, we rush to court; and in every lost case, we rush to appeal even up to the Supreme Court, no matter how infinitesimal the issue might be.
“That has obviously accounted for several appeals pending in Supreme Court. The attitude of some of our lawyers, too, is less salutary.
“Some do not even mind throwing their integrity and reputations to the winds by taking briefs that they know don’t hold ground, just for pecuniary reasons.
“So disturbing is the fact that even in the face of failure, they would still persuade their clients to push the case further on appeal.
However, the attitude of some of our lawyers has to be properly checked by the Nigerian Bar ASSOClatlon. l have stated it severally that lawyers must desist from the practice of filing needless appeals at the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.
“Let it be known that the Supreme Court will henceforth be unsparing in punishing blatant abusers of court processes.
“There should also be amendment of the Constitution to stop interlocutory appeals from coming to the Supreme Court. It should be ending at the Court of Appeal.
“From my experience, an elevation to Supreme Court is an elevation to hard work, restlessness and sleeplessness,” Muhammad said.
He spoke in Abuja on Monday at the event marking the Supreme Court’s new legal year and the inauguration of the 38 new Senior Advocates of Nigeria.
The CJN, who faulted claim that the independence of the Judiciary has been compromised, said the arm of government was independent in its operations and decisions, but requires more funding to function effectively.
He said : “The Nigerian Judiciary, to a large extent, is independent in conducting its affairs and taking decisions on matters before it without any extraneous influence.
“At the Supreme Court, like I have always said, we are totally independent in the way we conduct our affairs, especially in our judgments.
“We don’t pander to any body’s whims and caprices. lf there is any deity to be feared, it is the Almighty God. We will never be subservient to anybody, no matter his position in the society.
“Be that as it may, when we assess the judiciary from the financial perspective, how free can we say we are? The annual budget of the Judiciary is still a far cry from what it ought to be.
“The figure is either stagnated for a long period or it goes on a progressive decline. The only thing i can do at this juncture is to plead with all concerned to let us enjoy our independence holistically.
“If you say that I am independent, but in a way, whether I like it or not, I have to go cap in hand, asking for funds to run my office, then I have completely lost my independence.”
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The CJN added that the problem of inadequate funding of the Judiciary hampers its operations and dampens staff morale.
He noted that the current state of affair where the financial autonomy of the Judiciary was still not being respected, was violation of the constitutional provisions of separation of powers and independence of the three arms of government.
The CJN added: “I am using this medium to appeal to governments at all levels to free the judiciary from the financial bondage it has been subjected to over the years.
“Let it not just be said to be independent but should, in words and actions, be seen to be truly independent. There should not be any strings attached.
“We would not like to negotiate our financial independence under any guise. Even as I speak now, some states Judiciaries are still having issues with their respective governments. A stitch in time will certainly save nine. Let the judiciary take its destiny in its hands.”
Muhammad, who sought mutual respect between the Judiciary and the Legislature, urged the law making arm of government to always ensure prompt amendment of law where judicial pronouncements are made.
“With due respect, l urge the legislative arm to closely be watching the decisions of the Supreme Court. If the court makes any decisions, without anybody telling the legislators to act, they should immediately follow suit by making laws that will encompass such decisions.
“The Supreme Court has no legislative powers to make laws but only interprets the Constitution. It doesn’t amount to asking for too much if the judiciary requests the legislature to effect certain amendments to the . existing laws.
“There is no reason for the legislature to delay any amendments sought by the Judiciary. I would also like to solicit for mutual respect and relationship between the legislature and the judiciary. ”
The CJN, who recalled some happenings in the court the previous legal year, described the circumstances leading to the exit of his immediate predecessor, Justice Walter Onnoghen as an unfortunate event.
“I was appointed in acting capacity in the course of the year after the unfortunate events that shook the Nigerian Judiciary to its very foundation.” he noted
Muhammed, who promised to improve on what he inherited, called for the review of the nation’s criminal laws, which he said has to be done on a continuous basis to ensure that laws are relevant and meet today’s demands.
The CJN promised not to shield corrupt judges and tasked all agencies of government to abide by the principle of rule of law.
He said: “The Judiciary under my leadership will not lose its firm grip on the mantle of honesty, transparency and integrity and I expect every Judicial officer and of course, legal practitioners too, to tag along.
“If any Judge is found wanting and you have evidence, please, write your petition to the National Judicial Council immediately for prompt action.
“The task of ridding the judiciary of corruption is a collective one; and my commitment to it is total. I am assuring you that I will pursue it vigorously in order to bequeath an enduring legacy to my successor.
“The rule of law which is the bastion of every democracy across the world will be strictly observed in all our dealings and we must impress it on the ‘ governments at all levels to actively toe that path.
“The rights Of every Citizen against any form of Oppression and impunity must be jealously guided and protected with the legal tools at our disposal.
“All binding court orders must be obeyed; and nobody, irrespective of his or her position, will be allowed to toy with court judgments.
“We must collectively show the desired commitment to the full enthronement of the rule of law in the land. As we all know, flagrant disobedience of court orders or non-compliance with judicial orders is a direct invitation to anarchy in the society.”
Also speaking, the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami urged the court to always ensure justice in all cases, particularly election cases when brought before them.
Represented by the Solicitor General and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice, Dayo Apata (who also got the SAN rank) Malami urged the Supreme Court to always uphold its resolve to always ensure justice and resist the temptation of yielding to the pressures of different political actors.
The AGF said: “In the light of the concluded general elections and its aftermath election tribunals’ judgments, over which our courts of first instances and appellate courts, decided on different election issues presented before them, this address serves as a clarion call on the Court of Appeal and to this apex court of the land, to be courageous in delivering landmark decisions in favour of justice, equity and fairness.
“Also, this court should not be seen to bow to the pressures of different political actors, being the last hope of every litigant irrespective of any irregularity that might have occurred in the course of dispensing justice by different election tribunals. it is important that this court as a final arbiter remains just and resolute in resolving all issues presented before it,” Malami said.
The 38 new SANs are: wife of Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour of the Supreme Court, Mrs. Adedoyin Rhodes-Vivour, Dayo Apata, rights activist, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, Abdullahi Haruna, Manga Nuruddeen, John Asoluka, Adedokun Makinde, Daniel Enwelum, Emmanuel Oyebanji, Tuduru Ede, Abdul Ajana, Ama Etuwewe, Oladipo Olasope, Leslie Olutayo Nylander, Olusegun Fowowe and Andrew Hutton.
Others are Olukayode Enitan, Paul Ogbole, Olaniyi Olopade, Samuel Agweh, Olusegun Jolaawo, Prof. Alphonsus Alubo, Ayo Asala, Abiodun Olatunji, Olumide Aju, Chimezie Ihekweazu, Prof. Mamman Lawan, Prof. Uchefula Chukwumaeze, Usman Sule, Safiya Badamasi, and Echezona Etiaba.
There were also Godwin Omoaka, Emeka Ozoani, Alexander Ejesieme, Jephthah Njikonye, Aikhunegbe Malik, Alhassan Umar and Oyetola Muyiwa.
Mrs. Rhodes-Vivour, while speaking on behalf of the new SANs, promised that they will all uphold the dignity of the new title.
Meanwhile, in what seems a precursor to his eventual resumption of judicial functions, suspended Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court, participated in activities marking the commencement of the court’s new legal year on Monday
Fully dressed in the official robe, Justice Ngwuta sat among other Justices of the court, at the inauguration of the new SANs, which held in the Supreme Court’s ceremonial courtroom.
Justice Ngwuta, now one of the most senior Justices of the Supreme Court has not sat in open court since November 4, 2016 following a directive by the NJC that judicial officers, who were being investigated on corruption related allegations, should cease to perform judicial functions until the conclusion of investigation.
He was one of the two Justices of the Supreme Court, whose houses were raided, among other judges, by operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) between 7 and 8, October, 2016.
While his other colleague, Justice John Okoro resumed duties shortly after the raid, Ngwuta was charged to court.
He was first arraigned before the Federal High Court in Abuja on corruption-related charges and later, arraigned before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), over his alleged failure to declare some of his assets. Both charges were filed by the office of the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF).
On March 23, 2018, the Federal High Court upheld his challenge of the competence of the charge and discharged him.
Justice John Tsoho, in a ruling, relied on the Court of Appeal decision in the appeal by Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa (of the Federal High Court) and held that it was wrong to subject Justice Ngwuta’s trial before his court, without first, subjecting him to the disciplinary procedure of the NJC.
On May 15, 2018 the CCT also held in similar manner and struck out the charge against Justice Ngwuta.
Since the last decision by the CCT, Justice Ngwuta has not resumed normal judicial functions. He has not been sighted sitting as a member of any panel of the court