Just like every other sector, the judicial system in Nigeria is faced with myriad of problems. One of those challenges, which many say, threatens its capacity to function optimally without fear or favour bothers on financial independence. Damian Lawani, a lawyer and the chairman, Edo State House of Assembly Committee on Budget and Appropriation in this interview with GERALDINE AKUTU, discusses the challenges facing the judiciary and calls for full financial autonomy, saying that such would enable the sector function more effectively.
One of the problems facing the judiciary is poor condition of service. On what can be done to tackle it, Lawani said: “I think that arm of government had been neglected for long. There is a very nonchalant attitude towards looking after them and that has led to what I call unconfirmed corruption, which has really eaten deep into the bench. It has even helped to encourage corruption in the normal circle of the society because there is this belief that the rich get away with their crimes. So, there is quest for everybody to grab the cash, get to the court and do the magic. The welfare of the judiciary should be paramount and be on the first line charge. The three arms of government should be taken care of equally to ensure that there is progressive growth.’
Speaking on the allegation that judges are usually influenced by political players and other powers within the State structure, he said: “Some cases of judges alleged to be corrupt are still in court. Not taking care of the judiciary can lead to corruption. Inability of the government to cater for judges who are supposed to be umpire in all sectors is a big drawback against graft in the sector. This is because more financial attention seems to be given more to the other two arms of government, which is the executive and legislative. That must be carefully looked at. For you to be an umpire who is not biased, you must be well taken care of. For you to be living from hand to mouth; begging another arm of government to do what you need also encourages corruption. It has not done any good to anybody. When this issue is nipped in the bud, we can now confidently say that the judiciary has no reason to be corrupt.
“I agree! There is corruption in the judiciary. You may say that their salaries are paid as and when due but the question is, what is the salary of a judge? Most of them would want to go for a trip abroad and someone who has a case in court volunteers to fund it. You know what that means? When you take a look at the scenario, you will observe that directly or indirectly, the person has succeeded in influencing the decision that the judge would take later.
“There are also people who are adequately catered for, that are still corrupt. How many judges are comfortable in their private homes and entitled to official houses? How many judges are driving the type of cars those in the executive drive? Can you imagine? Judges beg the executive to get things done and this doesn’t encourage a society that wants justice and fairness because once the judges are corrupt, it’s really a difficult task for the people to resolve. The implication is that corruption cases will be hard to solve. In a nutshell, I believe that if judges are adequately taken care of, corruption in the judicial system would be reduced to the barest minimum. If you create an enabling environment, judges will have no reason to be corrupt.
Another worrisome aspect of our judicial system bothers on crowded court dockets. Most courts are choked with criminals and civil cases, such that some judges are faced with up to 20 case a day. Lawani stressed that non-adherence to the principle of catering for the welfare of judges also accounts for this. His words: “It borders on the principle of non-adherence to proper care of judges. If a judge is saddled with the responsibility of handling so many cases in a day, once he is tired, he moves for adjournment. Most of the cases that are pending are as a result of the tiredness of judges or lawyers trying to use technicalities to frustrate an opponent and keep a matter perpetually in court. For this to be resolved, more judges have to be employed. There should be specific courts created for cases like corruption, exam malpractice, matrimonial problems and so on.
“If there are specific courts saddled with these responsibilities and the number of judges required by the National Judicial Service Commission are provided, judiciary would fair better. Although there is limit to the number of judges you can employ as prescribed by law, if that number is less and there are special courts to try some cases, it would drastically reduce the number of cases that is ongoing in regular courts. If the judges are not compromised by lawyers who try to use delay tactics and technicalities to get unnecessary adjournments to frustrate some cases, prolonged cases will be reduced.
On the area of infrastructure, many court buildings, especially in Federal High Court, Lagos are in a bad state and very suffocating. Reacting to this, he said: “I generally agree with you to a large extent. The subject matter is not limited to the general welfare and care of judges but includes maintenance of structures. If an environment is conducive and well lit, then both judges and lawyers can see clearly. Judges need to be given all the necessary instruments vis-à-vis the electronic writing materials. They need not to use hand to write cases anymore. Again, recording gadgets should be provided for judges because it will enable them to record cases and listen to them when they get home before making decision or judgment. For me, an enabling and conducive environment should be created for lawyers and judges as it will help fast track pending cases in court and reduce them drastically.
Commenting on the budgetary allocation for the judiciary, Lawani said it is unfortunate that the judiciary is separated from the Ministry of Justice. He said: “Even when they do the same job all for justice, they are separated. There is likelihood that if adequate budgeting provision is made for this arm of government in terms of looking at the provisions for infrastructure, training and re-training, welfare in all spheres, it will help the administration of justice.
“It is not fixing budgetary figures that matter but accessibility and availability. You can have N1billion for the judiciary but how much have they been able to access in the past year? That is why, there is need for the judiciary to be in the first line charge to enable them access their funds so as to enhance their performance. Just as the executive access their budget, the judiciary should be allowed to access their own because, you will realize that the courts are nothing to write home about when we talk of capital project but if they have funds to implement their projects, they will be able to work efficiently and take care of things.
Where there is no fund, the needs of the judiciary should be prioritised so that they will not spend money on what is not needed.
“Money should be spent on what is needed, what will enhance the practice, enhance their welfare and general wellbeing. Again, you know the judiciary is not all about judges, there are workers too who should be taken care of as well. Generally, I think, the three arms of government should have equal share in whatever comes in, if there is percentage sharing because of the capital project of the executive arm of government. For instance, if there is N1000 and the executive wants to take N500, the remaining N500 should be shared equally for the two other arms and they should have access to it. That is why we are advocating full autonomy of the judiciary and legislative arm to enable it attain independence and work effectively.
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