When the Apex Court Rumbles, Quivers and Quakes (Part 2)

When the Apex Court Rumbles, Quivers and Quakes (Part 2)

Introduction

We discussed part of this issue last week. READ HERE

So much has gone wrong with our Judiciary, that the onus is now on the acting CJN, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, to clean up the mess; to deodorise the Augean stable. No doubt, the Judiciary under Tanko Muhammad was mired in many controversies. For instance, the recent judgement by the Supreme Court under his watch, which affirmed the right of Muslims to wear hijab in Secondary Schools in Lagos State, has since resulted in some Lawyers appearing in court in different religious attires, claiming it as their constitutional right. After all, the hijab which the Supreme Court gave judicial imprimatur to, is not part of a Lawyer’s prescribed accoutrement.

The Indian High Court in Karnataka had on the contrary, ruled that the hijab is not an “essential” part of Islam, and upheld a State Government order which had banned headscarves in classrooms. In the 129 page judgement, the three Judge Bench held that allowing Muslim women to wear the hijab in classrooms would hinder their emancipation, and go against the constitutional spirit of “positive secularism”. It held that wearing hijab was only recommendatory, and not obligatory.

This Apex Court judgement makes a mockery of the Judiciary, and impacts negatively on the temple of justice as a circus show. Besides, there are always conflicting orders from courts of coordinate jurisdiction, including even the intermediate and Apex courts. This manifests more in political cases. There is no longer certainty in the law. Judicial precedent and stare decisis, have been consigned to the vehicle of historical oblivion. However, though very welcome as a refreshing occurrence that has breathed fresh air into our polluted judicial environment, Ariwoola’s emergence has also set a record in succession as the Judiciary has thus, produced three CJNs within a period of three years from 2019 to 2022. What will Ariwoola do now, to right many wrongs? Today, we shall x-ray the huge task before acting CJN Ariwoola.

The Huge Task Before Justice Ariwoola

Recall that Justice Ariwoola was himself one of the 14 Justices of the Supreme Court, who had protested to retired Justice Tanko Muhammad about the sorry and unspeakable state of Supreme Court Justices. He therefore, obviously knows where the shoe pinches, and where the roof leaks. He has now been given the opportunity, to become the change agent he can decide to be. He is expected to change the narrative. Therefore, the task ahead of the learned Justice is mountainous, but not insurmountable or unconquerable. He has to distinguish himself from past Supreme court administrations, the last of which he joined other Justices to frown at. He has to give Nigerians something refreshingly different and new, which they will be happy about, amidst the abysmal failure of the present Government that has put Nigeria on life-support. He must change the narrative of modern-day Nigerian leaders who only think for them, themselves and theirs alone. Yes, leaders whose principle and philosophy of life centre on I, me and myself.

Justice Ariwoola must understand that, public confidence in the Judiciary has waned tremendously and pitiably. It has hit rock-bottom. The Judiciary has almost lost its value, significance and relevance as the third arm of Government, without which the country cannot course forward. Consequently, there is the need for urgent reforms and rebuilding of public confidence in the battered, torn and tattered house of justice. The surgical operation is the urgency of yesterday. Not one of today or tomorrow. Justice Ariwoola must recreate Baron de Montesquieu’sctripartite doctrine of the separation of powers into the Executive, the Legislature and Judiciary.

The first task, is for Justice Ariwoola to demand for an urgent review of Justices and Judges’ salaries, emoluments and welfare packages. This is crucial because the impartiality and fairness of the justice system, begins with the Judges themselves. A positive review of their salaries and welfare packages, would significantly curb temptation and the perceived situations of bribery, corruption and cases of selling justice to the highest bidder. Thank God the National Industrial Court, in a suit filed by Chief Sebastine Hon, SAN (of which I was part), has just reviewed upwards (in a trademark decision), salaries of all Judges, across board. Justice Ariwoola has to ensure that this new welfare package is activated, and enforced immediately.

The next task for the cerebral grey-bearded Justice of great erudition, is to ensure total independence of the Judiciary. The Judiciary needs its independence, not just in words, but in deed, to be able to freely exert itself on matters, both national and grassroots, without fear or favour, malice or ill-will. The Judiciary must never be a mere toothless bulldog and appendage of the Executive, which can only bark and not bite. It is often regarded as the weakest of the three arms of government (coram Alexander Hamilton, in his Federalist Paper No. 78; because it has neither purse nor sword to enforce its judgements). This was never the intention of the law makers in Sections 4, 5 and 6 of the 1999 Constitution. The Judicary must advocate and insist on its own budget and complete control of its own financial affairs, without any interference whatsoever from the executive or legislative arms of government.

There should also be public oversight, in the manner in which the Judges dispense justice. Aside from the overwhelming backlog of cases due to gross shortage of Judges, antiquated manual handling of cases, and the numerous suits being filed daily (some very frivolous), the issue of forum-shopping, Judge-shopping and refusal by Judges to hear urgent cases for political reasons, further add to the slow dispensation of justice. Therefore, there ought to be some supervisory oversight in the way and manner Judges handle their cases. The notion of Judges being the “lord and master” of their courts, should be cast into the garbage heap of history where it rightly belongs. A new era of checks and balances of Judges by a review and supervisory panel or committee, should be ushered in immediately. The Supreme Court and other superior courts should allow a situation where their judgements are subjected to rigorous public scrutiny, incisive intellectually-grounded academic review and fair criticism by intellectuals, the academia and general members of the public. This will keep Judges, forever on their toes.

Of course, it follows from this recommendation, that there is also the need to strengthen the recruitment process by which Judges are appointed. There must be provision of incentives to encourage applications from high-heeled private legal practitioners, including SANs, for positions on the Bench. The examples of Justices Augustine Nnamani, Chukwudifu Oputa, Taslim Olawale Elias and Paul Nwokedi. They had emerged either as private legal practitioners, or Judges of High Courts and landed straight on the Supreme Court Bench. They remained as some of the very best Jurists ever, on the Nigerian judicial firmament. Public confidence in a free, fair and impartial Judiciary can only be promoted when the recruitment process itself is fair, transparent and inclusive. This process must be subjected to the time-tested principles of transparency, accountability and public scrutiny.

The Supreme Court registry comes into play here. It is now common knowledge that some staff of the Supreme Court registry deliberately sit on cases they do not want heard, while fast-tracking other preferred ones. This trend, which is apparently driven by external forces, must be halted immediately. The new acting CJN should call for all existing live files, and he will be shocked and dismayed as to how some old political cases have been relegated and shelved away to gather dust, while some fresh ones are being given accelerated hearing. I am a victim of this unwholesome practice, where I have been forced to write several reminder letters for a mere assignment (for hearing) of a sensitive political case filed nearly three years ago. Yet, some new ones filed later had since been assigned, fixed, heard and disposed of by the Apex Court. There is the perception that huge money exchanges hands, in this unwholesome practice. Perception, of course, is reality. Justice Ariwoola should timeously step in immediately, to halt this administrative rot.

If these few recommendations are put in place by Justice Ariwoola, the Judiciary will surely take a turn for the better. I do appreciate that Rome was not built in a day, and that the reforms in the Judiciary cannot happen overnight. However, proactive and prompt steps in ensuring quick dispensation of justice would quicken such reforms, and drive the Judiciary in the right direction. This would definitely stamp Justice Ariwoola’s name in history, and make his legacy one not to be forgotten in a hurry. Justice is rooted in confidence. And, when that evaporates, then we experience a recession and regression into the Hobbesian state of nature, where life was short, brutish, solitary and nasty. May God forbid. (Concluded).

 

 

THISDAY

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