Opening Of All Nigeria Judges’ Conference

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I am privileged and honoured to have the opportunity of addressing you today at this opening ceremony of the All Nigeria Judges conference. I am grateful to His Lordship, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, The Honourable Justice Mahmud Mohammed, GCON, the National Judicial Council and the body of Nigerian Judges for the kind invitation to address this landmark annual judicial event.

This Conference offers a platform for the reaffirmation of our collective belief in the crucial role of the Judiciary as one of the great pillars of Constitutional Democracy and the ultimate arbiter on constitutional and other potentially divisive issues. The need for a constructive relationship between the Judiciary on one hand and the Executive and the Legislative arms on the other is therefore indisputable. Especially given our common resolve to build a new Nigeria founded on the scrupulous adherence to the Rule of Law and the tenets of social justice and accountable leadership.

Against this backdrop, the theme of this year’s Conference: “The Judiciary as a veritable instrument for sustaining Democracy in Nigeria” is most appropriate. This is especially so in the light of our current national circumstances. It is abundantly clear that democracy and the democratic tradition cannot thrive, and indeed will not, if the Judiciary fails to perform its role with truth, justice and courage.

Section 6 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), which sets out the judicial powers of our Courts, creates a platform for the Nigerian Judiciary to assert its authority in determining all matters between persons, governments and authorities in the country. The vision captured in this provision, supported by other provisions of the Constitution, is that Nigeria will be a country founded on the rule of law and the civilized resolution of disputes. As the purveyors of that grand vision, we must all take very seriously the task of ensuring that the light of the Law never grows dim in this country.

My Lords, this generation of Judges has the privilege of being inheritors of the rich almost 100 year history of competence, courage and expertise as demonstrated by your predecessors and widely acknowledged, both within and outside Nigeria. In our national history, and more recently since our return to democratic rule in 1999, the Judiciary has consistently played the role of guardians of our collective rights and freedoms. In the past fifteen years in particular, the Supreme Court has in several precedential cases, played an impressive and proactive role interpreting and defining the import, scope and depth of the constitution. These landmark judgments have been hailed both locally and internationally.

I am, of course, aware that it has not always been a smooth ride. The Judiciary has also faced its peculiar challenges. These are in such areas as funding, infrastructure inadequacy, integrity questions surrounding the conduct of some Judges, delays in the administration of justice process, the burden of relying on out-dated rules and legislation in a fast-modernizing society, weaknesses of the appointment process for Judicial officers and the overall performance of the judiciary. These challenges and short-comings have regrettably resulted in a situation where service delivery by our Judiciary may still fall short of the expectations of our people.

Upon assumption of office on May 29th, 2015, this administration set for itself the task of bringing positive change to all aspects of our governance structure through accountable and responsive leadership. We considered this to be imperative if we were to achieve our core programmes of tackling corruption, building a secure and safe nation and fostering economic growth in all sectors. I am happy to observe that the Judiciary, through its various pronouncements and initiatives over the past few months, is already playing its envisaged role in translating this vision of change to reality within the judicial sector. Indeed, by and large, the Nigerian Judiciary has played an effective and stabilizing role in the Nigeria polity.

While it is undeniable that the Judiciary continues to make incremental progress in playing its Constitutional role, it is still the consensus of observers that overall levels of judicial service delivery still leave something to be desired. Urgent reforms therefore remain imperative in several areas.

In my Inaugural Speech on May 29th, 2015, I identified corruption as a serious violation of human rights. Indeed it is. First the stealing of public funds directly violates the socio-economic rights of the people, how can the rights to healthcare, education, or shelter even be realized when public officers steal the funds meant for these purposes. Besides, official corruption is an egregious crime against humanity, because it is the primary cause of poverty, which in itself accounts for the largest number of preventable deaths in Nigeria. Identifying the reasons for corruption in various sectors of the economy, articulating measures to address such issue and ensuring the effective investigation, prosecution and conviction of corrupt persons and institutions must therefore be a matter of concern to all. But it appears that every Nigerian institution lives under the shadow of corruption. But you will agree with me that when the imposture of arbiter is accused of corruption, it’s a graver issue.

Unfortunately in recent years, perhaps more than even before allegations of judicial corruption have become more strident and frequent. Some of the available surveys on public perception of the judiciary show that the judiciary on account of the activities of a few is losing the trust and esteem of the Nigerian populace. This is dangerous indeed for our fledgling democracy. Democracy and the fundamental freedoms, rights and assurances for the protection of public and private rights rely entirely on a judiciary whose integrity is unimpeachable. In matters of integrity, it is clear that reputation or perception is as important if not more important than reality. May I most respectfully urge that the Nigerian Judiciary must do all that is possible to fight against the perception and the reality of growing judicial corruption. As an institution dedicated to the protection and promotion of human rights, the Judiciary must go the extra mile to sanitize itself and improve its capacity to act independently, courageously and timeously.

Furthermore on the point of negative perception, there is both local and international dissatisfaction with the long delays in the trial process. In the past few years, this has become especially so for high-profile cases of corruption, especially where they involve serving or former political office holders. As my Lords are undoubtedly aware, corruption transfers from public coffers to private pockets, resources required to deliver social and economic justice.

Governments attempts to recover such assets in accordance with the law are often faced with dilatory tactics by lawyers and delays in the judicial process. These tactics are often not directed at reaching any conclusion or affirming innocence or guilt, but at stalling trials indefinitely, thus denying the State and the accused person the opportunity for a judicial verdict. I wish to echo the sentiments of the vast majority of Nigerians in saying that we cannot afford to continue on this path.

As I have noted the reasons for the delays or outright inaction in such matters are sometimes beyond the courts, and in several cases, are the consequences of shoddy investigation, outmoded rules of procedure, poor prosecution or unprofessional practices of Counsel. The Judiciary must however play its role in ensuring that its internal processes are promptly improved and made ready to expedite trials.

In pursuing its internal reforms, and without prejudice to the recognition that should be given to the disposal of high profile cases, we must always remember that one of the key roles of our court system is the promotion of equity and social justice. “All persons are equal under the law”. Judicial reforms must take into consideration the need to clean up the systems and processes in our Magistrate and District Courts and all other lower courts across the country which handles matters involving the poor and less-privileged. Together with the Police Stations, these courts constitute the only interface between the less-privileged. Together with the Police Stations, these courts constitute the only interface between the less privilege and the justice system. Our justice sector reforms must therefore seek to position and portray the administration of justice system as humane and efficient.

Permit me therefore to call Your Lordship’s attention to the link between justice and economic development. The link is found in the practical application of the rules of substantive and procedural law. It is also exemplified in the practical visibility or demonstration of the concept of access to justice.

I have consistently declared that this administration is committed to the rule of law and that no one will be rated above the law of the land. As the rich and powerful claim legal rights before the courts, we must remember that the poor also deserves social and economic justice. This is why our government is determined to fulfill the key planks of our campaign promises, as they relate to the provision of social welfare programs in aid of the poor.

The ability to enforce contractual obligations and resolve disputes is, my Lords, an essential consideration for intending investors, both local and foreign, in deciding where to put their money. This is an important economic issue. Delay in judicial processes has cost our economy dearly in terms of much needed investment, as investors prefer other climates where the progress of court cases is much more predictable and in accordance with the rule of law. Being able to reverse this trend is largely dependent on the efficiency and effectiveness of our justice system.

Unfortunately, our justice system currently has a reputation for delays, usually occasioned by long adjournments, incessant interlocutory applications and overwhelming caseloads. This situation is a huge dis-incentive for businesses. It is not surprising therefore that Nigeria ranks near the bottom on the ease of doing business index. We are currently ranked 143 out of 189 countries by the World Bank Group in Enforcing Contracts. According to World Bank data, it takes about 510 days on the average to enforce a contract at the level of a court of first instance in Nigeria. In competing economies, this period is usually under 150 days on average to enforce similar contract.

Courts are essential for entrepreneurs because they interpret the rules of the market and protect property and economic rights. A 2010 study by John Ahlquist and Aseem Prakash, analysing 98 developing economies, suggests that Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) tends to be greater where the cost of contract enforcement in debt collection and property eviction cases is lower. In a nutshell, the effectiveness and efficiency of our justice system will, to a large extent, directly influence investment inflows into Nigeria. These are the factors that impact our industrialization and employment figures and ultimately determine the level of poverty, deviant behaviour and security in our society.

Delays in the trial process have damaged the international reputation of the Nigerian judiciary, even amongst its international peers.

In a 2014 decision of the English Court of Appeal (IPCO (Nigeria) Limited v Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation [2014] EWHC 576. The Court ruled that it would allow the enforcement of a US$340 million award in the UK despite the fact that the award was being challenged in a Nigerian court. The UK court said that its reason for doing so was because the Nigerian proceedings could actually take another 2 decades to be resolved.

The English Court of Appeal described the Nigerian judicial system as bedeviled by “catastrophic” delays. Thus it refused to wait for our court in determining a case even though it recognized that the applicant in the case might have obtained its judgment partially by fraud. The court took notice of the “character and extent” of the delay in Nigerian proceedings, which were likely to last for “up to a generation from now.”

The English Court of Appeal further noted that while comity between courts of friendly foreign states was needed, “the operation of the judicial system in Nigeria has not kept pace with the need to give effect to the principles underlying the New York Convention.” The English Court highlighted in particular the absence of any kind of fast-track procedure or active case management in most of Nigerian judicial system, which the court said “renders the process sclerotic.” This recent example of a judicial decision from a friendly nation underscores the urgent need for reform of our trial process.

One must admit that reforming the current system must extend beyond the judiciary and necessarily include the reviewing laws, institutions, processes and procedures that inhibit speedy justice delivery. We must also re-orientate and improve the attitude of legal practitioners and the legal profession in general. In doing this, we must however not fail to recognize that the administration of our justice system is the fulcrum; it is foundation of our democracy.

Our supreme court remains one of the busiest in the commonwealth.  This is obviously due to the leeway given to almost every case filed in any level of the court system from any part of the country to rise on appeal to the Supreme Court. This is a Constitutional requirement, which in my view, ought to be streamlined or ought to be amended to enable the Supreme Court focus on key constitutional issues, novel questions of law and current areas of its original jurisdiction. The grounds for granting leaves to appeal to the Supreme Court should also be reviewed while we discourage the practice of appealing interlocutory matters to the Supreme Court while the substantive case stands suspended in the lower courts

We must, like the rest of the world, embrace technology in case management and justice service delivery. Other less endowed nations have successfully done this at minimal cost. In my humble view, these changes require the judiciary to take the lead. When the judiciary takes leadership in removing obstacles to justice, using technology and discouraging dilatory tactics by lawyers in civil and criminal trials, citizens will be encouraged to challenge breaches of contract, enforce property rights and recover assets in meritorious cases that encourage economic transactions and investments. This way, the economy will surely attract much needed local and foreign investments to grow at a sustainable pace given our population growth rates.

In particular we must ensure that the criminal justice system enables a person accused of crime to be fairly treated in accordance with internationally recognized standards while at the same time eliminating unjustifiable trial delays. Judges must not be weak or appear to be weak in sanctioning lawyers and litigants who deliberately stall and frustrate the judicial process.

Some of the observations which we have made are not new to the judiciary. It is the will to implement that is required. I therefore encourage your Lordships to revisit reports of past judicial reform panels, such as the Uwais Report and the Dahiru Musdapher Report, all of which contain a wealth of prescriptions which can benefit the health of our judiciary.

This administration is committed to the financial independence of the Nigerian judiciary in accordance with extant laws. We believe that the judiciary must be treated fairly and must be treated in much the same way as the executive and the legislature. At the same time, history beckons us as government to be transparent and accountable. The judiciary must not be left out in its demands. Transparency and accountability in the use of funds, project procurement and implementation, and the independent audit of funds are standards demanded of every arm of government, and I am sure that our judiciary will be in the forefront of compliance, which will serve as a shining example to other arms and agencies of government.

My Lords, given our current economic reality, we are required to use modest resources to achieve great changes. Therefore, every arm and institution of government is required to adjust and better manage resources.

Nevertheless, your welfare as honourable judges is extremely important and should be given all necessary political and financial backing. We must be forward looking in providing adequately for our judges. The responsibility placed upon a judge is enormous, we cannot treat them like any other cadre of public officers in terms of remuneration and welfare, it’s our duty to make adequate provisions for the present comfort and future security of our judges.

The current system of judicial performance evaluation is commendable. We must however do more to give it greater transparency and modernization in accordance with international best practice, using modern evaluation tools and technology in order to take in the views of lawyers, litigants and peers and to reward performance and distinction beyond letters of commendation. The court is a public resource, those who man the courts handle a public trust, their competence and capacity must be regularly assessed.

Let me express hope that this Conference will achieve its objective of articulating the various ways and means by which the Judiciary can enhance our experience as a democratic nation. Our current democratic experience has rightly been described by several commentators as being in infancy. Like every political arrangement in other parts of the world, I believe it is in a state of constant evolution. Our Courts must therefore continue to play an effective role in managing affairs in such a way as to enable us all clarify and understand the provisions of our Constitution and other laws in a responsible, consistent and impartial manner.

As you commence this Conference today, I wish you fruitful deliberations on the state of our nation and the role of the Judiciary in enhancing our democracy. I look forward with enthusiasm to the recommendations arising from your deliberations and assure you that the Federal Government will treat such outcomes as important component as we collectively design the socio-political architecture to change the fortunes of our country and move Nigeria to higher levels.

I thank you all and may God continue to bless the Nigerian Judiciary, to bless this nation. It is now my singular honour and privilege to declare this Conference open.