By Kenneth Atavti
Refusing to be hitched by the ravaging Coronavirus pandemic in the discharge of its Judiciary duties, the National Judicial Council (NJC) under the Chairmanship of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, went on to hold its 91st Meeting via virtual video conferencing on 22nd and 23rd April, 2020.
The move which the other arms of government have failed to fully emulate, is commendable and in sync with global practice especially during this period where most countries are under lockdown. Since the coronavirus pandemic, Nigeria’s Federal Executive Council, FEC, has not been able to meet, thus, surcharging the nation of full governance.
The NJC also constituted a 10-member committee which has Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour of the Supreme Court as its Chairman, to come up with “urgent practical strategic measures to be put in place in order to ensure that courts continue to function despite the lockdown and COVID-19 challenges”.
The committee which has 14 days to conclude it’s assignment, has its terms of reference as: “to come up with guidelines or template for implementation.
“To explore possible areas of collaboration between the Judiciary and the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation, stakeholders in the justice administration and development partners in justice administration sector; and Any other measures that the committee may deem fit in realising these objectives”.
This is highly commendable as the 155,757 pending court cases nationwide would have probably suffered further delays following the total lockdown. Courts had been shut nationwide for almost a month, following directives from the CJN and other state Chief Judges in response to the unprecedented pandemic.
The courts were authorised to only sit for urgent, essential or time-bound matters, as other cases may have to wait until normalcy returns.
The lockdown had also stalled the trial of most of the 52,226 awaiting-trial inmates across the Nigerian Correctional Service, NCS facilities. This number forms 70 percent of the 74,127, total population in custody. Statistics presented by the NCS suggests that only 21,773 of this total population are convicted inmates.
The huge step adopted by the NJC may avert, or at least quell a backlog of cases that could overwhelm courts even in the post-COVID-19 era. Cases could now be judged via remote hearing, including phone or video conference calls, as well as the use of email and other electronic infrastructure.
Recently also, the Court of Appeal in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, introduced an alternative e-payment tagged ‘the Court of Appeal REMITA (031800300100)’ for filing of court processes.
Its Acting President, Justice Monica Dongban-Mense, said the procedure would reduce contact between members of the court’s staff and litigants.
The system required the presiding Justices to compile telephone numbers and email addresses of counsels who had matters in their divisions and forward same to the court’s email address.
The Supreme Court on its own part, had begun deploying technology that would, among others, enable it to conduct virtual proceedings within the shortest possible time. The technology according to the supreme court would also boost its capacity to handle the huge backlog of appeals before it.
“The virtual meeting of the National Judicial Council (NJC) on Wednesday and Thursday, April 22, and April 23, 2020, is part of the modern technological platforms being enthroned by the Nigerian Judiciary and we hope to leverage on the emerging options at our disposal to deliver on our mandate so that the Justice sector does not suffer any major setback even before we resume our normal life, the court’s Director of Press and Information, Dr. Festus Akande,” said in a statement.
Other members of the panel are: Justice M. B. Dongban-Mensem, Justice J. T. Tsoho, Justice B. B. Kanyip, Justice Ishaq Bello, Justice Kashim Zannah, Justice O. A. Ojo, Paul Usoro, A. B. Mahmoud, and D. D. Dodo.
During the virtual meeting, the NJC recommended the compulsory retirement of two Justices: Justice Francis Chukwuma, Acting President, Customary Court of Appeal, Imo State, and Justice Aliyu Musa Liman of Bauchi State High Court of Justice with immediate effect.
Justice Chukwuma was recommended for retirement following revelation of falsification of his date of birth from 1950 to 1958. Findings had shown that he was supposed to have retired in November, 2015 when he clocked the mandatory retirement age of 65 years.
The council also decided to recommend compulsory retirement to Governor Hope Uzodinma of Imo State and to also deduct the salaries he had earned from November, 2015 to date from his retirement benefit.
Justice Aliyu Musa Liman was recommended to the Bauchi State Governor, Bala Mohammed for compulsory retirement, pursuant to the findings by the council for his failure to deliver judgement in suit No BA/100/2010, between Abubakar Isa and Sheik Tahir Usman Bauchi within the three months period stipulated by the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
“Meanwhile, the National Judicial Council, in the exercise of its disciplinary powers under the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended, has suspended Hon. Justice Francis Chukwuma Abosi and Hon. Justice Aliyu Musa Liman from office pending the approval of the recommendation of the Council for his compulsory retirement to the their respective State Governors.
“Petitions against the following Judicial Officers; Hon. Justice O. A. Musa of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Hon. Justices Muhammed A. Sambo and Sa’ad Ibrahim Zadawa of the High Court of Justice, Bauchi State were dismissed for either lacking in merit or being subjudice.
“The Council viewed his failure to deliver judgment for nearly four years as a misconduct, contrary to Section 292 (1) (b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended and Rules 1.3 and 3.7 of the 2016 Revised Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
“Council also decided to report Messrs Apeiyi Becon Clement, Ifeanyi Egwasi, Nwafor Orizu, Godwin Nkemjika Chukwukwere, Akopde Haggai Ukuku, Chief Emefo Etudo, Osamudiamen Obarogie and B. S. Onuegbu to the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC) for various acts unbecoming of a Legal Practitioner ranging from unruly behaviour, walking out of Court in the cause of proceedings to submission of false documents to Court.
“Council at the meeting also considered the Report of its Interview Committee and recommended Seventy (70) Judicial Officers for appointment as President, Court of Appeal, Grand Kadis, President, Customary Court of Appeal and Judges of High Court of States and the Federal Capital Territory and Kadis of States Sharia Courts of Appeal,” part of its proceedings read.
The NJC in its virtual video meeting also referred eight lawyers to the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee, LPDC, for prosecution in relation to allegations of professional misconduct.
The affected lawyers are Apeiyi Becon Clement, Ifeanyi Egwasi, Nwafor Orizu, Godwin Nkemjika Chukwukwere, Akopde Haggai Ukuku, Chief Emefo Etudo, Osamudiamen Obarogie and B. S. Onuegbu.
In a separate statement, that the NJC said allegations against the lawyers range from unruly behaviour, walking out of court in the cause of proceedings, to submission of false documents to court.
The NJC as a body established under section 153(1) of the 1999 Constitution is embedded with powers relating to appointments and exercise of disciplinary control over Judicial Officers specified in paragraph 21 of Part I of the Third Schedule of the Constitution. By the same paragraph it also has power to collect, control and disburse all monies, capital and recurrent, for the judiciary and to deal with all matters relating to policy and administration.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic era, there had been much concern from the public about the efficiency, effectiveness and transparency of the Judicial system. In particular, there has been weaning confidence in the performance of the superior courts in regard to justice delivery. Such concerns make it imperative to identify issues and problems militating against a credible justice delivery system that would command the confidence of the citizen.
Sections of the Judicial Education and Training Policy supports the use of innovative technology in discharging justice. It states thus: “The Judiciary in Nigeria both at the Federal and the State levels shall encourage the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and, in particular, all courts shall, as far as practicable, predicate and integrate their Information Technology System on the Judicial Information Technology Policy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria when adopted.
“Judicial Bodies and Institutions shall be equipped with Information Technology Systems. All Judicial Officers shall undertake mandatory training on use and application of Information Technology Systems including electronic and digital recording and transcription of court proceedings and processes”.
Part of those whose trial has been further delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic is a former Governor of Abia state, Orji Uzor Kali who in December 5 last year, bagged 133 years imprisonment after being convicted of N7.65bn fraud after a 12-year trial. Many other cases overflow judges’ dockets across states, particularly in appellate courts, without a clear date for resolution, despite recent efforts to clear the backlog.
Apparently worried about the possibility of COVID-19 spread in crowded places, especially in correctional centers, the Federal Government on April 9, announced a presidential pardon for 2,600 inmates nationwide. In a follow up to that, President Muhammadu Buhari on April 21, proposed urgent measures to speed up the trial of cases and decongestion of correctional centres.
In a letter sent to the CJN, Buhari made reference to United Nation’s call for all countries to consciously reduce the population of inmates in prisons since physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions were practically impossible.
“Most of these (correctional) centres presently house inmates beyond their capacities and the overcrowded facilities pose a potent threat to the health of the inmates and members of the public in view of the present circumstances, hence, the need for urgent steps to bring the situation under control.
“It has become imperative for the CJN to request state chief judges to embark on an immediate visit to all correctional centres in their respective states to identify and release deserving inmates where that has not been done already,” Buhari said.
On how to keep the system running despite the pandemic, some Senior Advocates of Nigeria under the auspices of the Justice Reform Project, JRP, suggested that the situation can be salvaged and reform was possible. In a letter to the President of the Nigerian Bar Association and Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, BOSAN on April 2, the JRP shared its ideas.
The letter read thus: “COVID-19: Administration of justice and welfare of lawyers”, and was signed by the JRP’s Governing Board Chairman, Olufunke Adekoya, SAN, and its Convener, Charles Adeyemi Candide-Johnson, SAN.
The letter addressed two broad issues: Administration of courts & justice and lawyers’ welfare, following which it suggested, among others, the suspension or reduction to a week of this year’s annual vacation.
For proper court administration during the lockdown, it made six recommendations. For urgent cases, it advised that: “A Practice Direction departing from the normal rules should be sufficient to bridge any gaps. The heads of courts should be encouraged to issue a protocol regarding remote hearing. Perhaps in anticipation of times like the present, the Federal High Court Rules and that of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria, for instance, contain provisions enabling same.
“Similarly, time within which various steps ought to be taken should typically be tolled. A Practice Direction that this period will be discarded in computing time under the Rules of Court will dispense with filing of motions for extension of time, avoiding a further clog on an already congested court system”.
According to the SANs, the Judiciary in the wake of the pandemic is likely to lose no less than four to-six weeks in courts’ proceedings. They further suggested that the annual court vacation be suspended or reduced to a week, to make up for the lost time. “Such announcement at this point will re-establish confidence in the general public who are the consumers of the service,” it said.
The group of senior Lawyers also affirmed that the lockdown period also presents an opportunity to sanitise court premises and ensure the installation of safety measures in all courts.
While noting that the restriction on movement occasioned by the lockdown, will make it difficult for a large chunk of lawyers to meet their daily needs and those of their families, it proposed that BOSAN, in collaboration with the NBA, should make plans to mitigate the impact on the most-vulnerable and exposed lawyers.
“We have for this purpose singled out a category of lawyers; practitioners who are four years post-call and below, having an annual turnover of N1,000,000.00 and below.
“The NBA should show its commitment to the cause by setting aside a specific sum for this purpose (the “Fund”). As an off-the-cuff suggestion, a sum of no less than N50,000,000.00 may be set as a threshold. The NBA may seek to obtain a loan against future practising fees in the face of liquidity challenges.
“BOSAN may consider deploying some of its leadership fund to ameliorate the condition of some of the aforementioned group of young lawyers in support of this Fund as set up by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).
“Lawyers who are better placed at this time may contribute to this fund such reasonable amounts as may be convenient for them,” it said.
The JRP urged SANs and other senior lawyers to commit themselves to contributing a minimum sum of N250,000 each to the fund. It also advised the NBA and BOSAN to negotiate with the relevant tax authorities to ensure the contributions will be a tax-deductible item for the current year’s annual tax obligation.
“In effect, donations are somewhat subsidised and repayable to this group of lawyers in form of tax rebate for the year under consideration. It is likely that the Federal Government will be willing to accommodate this gesture having regard to its current disposition and welfare package to other sectors of the economy.
“The NBA should then disburse an agreed sum to the group of young lawyers. Again, by way of suggestion, it may be any sum between N20,000 and N50,000 a month for an initially determined period. In view of the uncertainty of the end of the pandemic, we suggest an initial period of six months.
“To qualify, this group of young lawyers shall show evidence of their annual turnover, in form of any one of their balance sheets, statements of account, or such reasonable representation of cash flow. The local NBA Branches should create a list of the group of young lawyers,” JRP added.