Appraising Justice Tanko Muhammad’s proposal to alter provisions of the Constitution concerning Judiciary

On June 3, 2021, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Muhammad submitted some proposals to the National Assembly to alter some provisions of the Constitution concerning the Judiciary.

The proposals, a 17-page paper, titled: ‘Input by the Judiciary to the proposed alteration to the 1999 Constitution (as amended)’, contained 45 proposals on the reform of the Judiciary.

Some of the recommendations included pegging Supreme Court’s bench at 16 from the current 21, increased budgetary allocation, and CJN to be called third instead of the fifth person in the Order of the National Protocol.

On many occasions, stakeholders have agreed that the system needs a total overhaul to be able to deliver quick and equitable justice to the people.

He also wants the National Assembly to alter the constitution such that the National Judicial Council (NJC) would fix and review judges’ salaries every four years, adding that judges’ salaries have remained static for about thirteen years.

Muhammad equally suggested that the number of the Court of Appeal Justices be increased from 49 to 100 and that the NJC’s Secretary be at par with the Clerk of the National Assembly,

The Judiciary, he said, should exercise control over the Code of Conduct Tribunal, as the Federal Judicial Service Commission is to advice the NJC in nominating persons for appointment as Chairman and members of the CCT,

On this recommendation, a lawyer, Friday Abu, said the CCB, one of the Federal Executive Bodies created by virtue of the Constitution, is under the control of the Federal Executive.

”The CCB is created for the purpose of regulating the submission of assets declaration by public office holders and taking steps to scrutinise and recommend appropriate cases to its Tribunal (CCT) for appropriate sanctions.

Therefore, the creation and existence of the CCT is taken outside the Judicature as provided for under Chapter 7 (Sections 230 – 296) of the Constitution of Nigeria.”

“It is safe to say that the CCB or CCT is not under the control of the NJC and if the Chairman or any other staff of the CCB misbehaves, they are not subject to disciplinary action by the NJC.

“By necessary implication, this means that the CCB/CCT is on its own and only the Presidency can control it.

“This current status of the CCB/CCT has generated a lot of debate in the public space from Judges, lawyers and other commentators.

Also, on the suggestion that the CCT be placed under the control of the NJC, a senior lawyer, Ken Ikonne expressed surprise that such powers of oversight did not exist before now.

“The amendment is long overdue. We all saw the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal act with gross impunity during the Onnoghen saga!”

Commenting on the same issue Chudi Ojukwu, an Associate Professor of Law at Gregory University, Uturu, Abia state, in Nigeria expressed the same views as Ikonne.

“Because the Tribunal exercises criminal jurisdiction, it would be important to subject it to the same control as other judicial institutions.”

For his part an Abuja-based lawyer, Mr Innocent Daagba called for the creation of regional Supreme Courts in the country to decongest the backlog of appeals at the Supreme Court.

Daagba blamed the country’s procedural law and court system for the delay in justice dispensation.

“When you unbundle the Supreme Court by creating Regional Divisions, cases like land disputes and chieftaincy matters would terminate at the regional Supreme Courts, thereby reducing appeals and the workload at the Supreme Court.

Also, there is a consensus among players in the Nigerian judiciary space on the need for an increased budget for the third arm of government at both the state and federal levels.

Mr Muiz Banire, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), says the estimate for the judiciary is far from satisfying the needs of the judiciary, advocating better funding for the judiciary, saying it is in stark contrast with that of the National Assembly.

He said that for several years, successive Chief Justices of Nigeria (CJNs) have lamented the poor funding of the judiciary.

He said the judiciary is responsible for the salaries of all state and federal judges, in addition to the capital and recurrent expenditures of all the country’s federal courts, yet its budget for instance declined from N95 billion in 2010 to N68 billion in 2014, a year the National Assembly got N150 billion.

“The acute shortage of infrastructure resulting in judges still recording proceedings in long hand and sitting in dilapidated or non-conducive courthouses across the country, including the federal capital, is evidence of years of underfunding.

While stakeholders believe that if the recommendations of the CJN are implemented, the administration of justice in the country will be quick, the Executive Director of the Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA), Dr Uju Agomoh called for a declaration of a state of emergency in Nigeria’s justice system.

Agomoh said Nigerians have lost confidence in the justice system because it is slow and not working.

“A system which delays justice and takes so long to confirm whether somebody committed an offence or not, is a problem”.

For Mr Abdulhamid Mohammed, lawyer, instead of reducing the number, the judges of the supreme court should be increased to ensure a rapid dispensation of cases.

“Sometimes lawyers differ from judges’ opinions. As a practitioner, the fact is that the Supreme Court is overwhelmed at the moment.

“Every correlative issue you appeal on, you take it to the Supreme Court; divorce cases go to the Supreme Court, land cases go to the Supreme Court, and so on, with the exception of Labor Court cases which end at the Court of Appeal.

“So the Supreme Court is overwhelmed, especially when there are questions of election petitions to the Supreme Court.

“So you will see throughout the legal year, these cases that go to the Supreme Court, the judges might not even deal with them because they are overwhelmed,” he said.

Mohammed also argued that even the current number, at times, hampered the constitution of panels.

Additionally, Lagos-based lawyer Joséphine Uzoya-Ijekhuemen said she did not agree with the submission.

Corroborating Mohammed’s statement, Uzoya-Ijekhuemen said: “As it stands, the court is already overwhelmed and we do not have the required number of judges so far.”

“So reducing them further is not a good idea and will only lead to difficulties and delays, which is not good for justice.”

The proposal by the Chief Justice of Nigeria is no doubt a step forward towards quick dispensation of justice in the country. The criticisms and observations by stakeholders will similarly assist the National Assembly in putting it in perspectives and coming out with a workable bill for executive assent.(NAN)

***If used, please credit the writer and the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)