There is need for an urgent, honest and frank conversation about judicial reforms especially, the selection and appointment of judges in Nigeria, given the significant roles judges play in the polity, economy, social justice and democracy itself, according to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, SAN.
Prof. Osinbajo stated this on Saturday at the Justice Research Institute (JRI) virtual roundtable themed “Selection and Appointment of Judges: Lessons for Nigeria” under the Law and Policy series of JRI which is an open-access forum that features leading scholars, policymakers amongst other stakeholders.
Others who spoke at the webinar included Dame Anne Rafferty, QC, Chair of the Judicial College, Royal Courts of Justice in England & Wales who gave the keynote; the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad; the Senate President, Sen. Ahmed Lawan; and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila.
Contributing to the appointment of Judges in the country, the Vice President said the integrity of the judicial system is crucial to everything in the society hence the need for stakeholders to engage in an honest and frank discussion that examines the challenges and prospects.
According to him, “there are very many aspects of the question that we are faced with today. They are many different contours to this issue. But one thing that stands out and we need to focus our minds on is about the question of the integrity of the judicial system.
“It is central to everything –how our economy works because our judiciary arbitrates all economic issues, commercial disputes, etc; it is central to social justice; to the maintenance of the rights of citizens; central to democracy as we see it today. The court decides who was properly elected and who was not.
“So, the question of those who make those decisions, how they are appointed, who they are, is absolutely important. If people feel that justice is impossible, they will lose hope in the system and may resort to self-help.”
Continuing, the Vice President said “…a frank and honest discussion, at some point, is usually necessary.
“Where it comes to the administration of justice, that frank and honest discussion must come between the legal profession itself, the judiciary, the executive, the legislature, and the very many elite interests in our society.
“We must come to the point that we must ask ourselves the questions. Why must we appoint an honest umpire? Why do we need honest judges? We must all sit together and ask those questions.
“It is a selfless and patriotic duty that we must, as an elite sit down to talk about and to decide. We must agree to an objective process. To rigorously examine, to test, to interview all of those who come forward to become judges. We must agree to an independent process.”
Speaking in the comparison of the Nigerian system to others that may have been adjudged perfect, Prof. Osinbajo said “there is no system that we are looking at where the people are perfect”, again, underscoring the point for the kind of discussion that “takes into account all of the various issues”.
The Vice President however noted that it will be unfair to conclude that the entire problem rests on bad judges, insisting that “you cannot pick out the judiciary alone for censure for some of the failures in our system of administration of justice.”
He explained that the problem can be partly blamed on societal pressure on the Nigerian system of administration of justice.
Making his contribution to the discussion, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad described as apt the topic of the webinar, noting that the National Judicial Council will support suggestions about reforms that ensures the effective dispensation of justice in Nigeria, including the appointment of judges to various courts in the country.
In his remarks, Senate President, Sen. Ahmed Lawan emphasized the need for appointments to higher courts in the country to be based on competence and federal character as entrenched in the constitution.
On his part, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, advocated for the adoption of a hybrid system that takes into account procedures in other countries, in order to ensure that both the integrity and fair representation are considered in judges’ appointment.
Other justices from the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal also spoke at the webinar.
For, Justice Amina Augie, developing and maintaining a database of persons of competence and proven integrity will resolve issues surrounding incompetence and federal character in the appointment of judges.
In the same vein, Justice Joseph Oyewole, who stood in for the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem, supported the view that all appointments should be merit-based, aside from other considerations.
Earlier in the keynote speech, Dame Anne Rafferty, Chair of the Judicial College, Royal Courts of Justice, spoke about the United Kingdom’s Judicial Appointing Committee (JAC) and its procedures for the appointment of judges.
She said the process is very competitive, rigorous and reflects the diversity of the country.
According to her, JAC is composed largely by non-legal practitioners and chaired by a surgeon.
Other speakers at the forum include the Chief Justice of Ghana, Hon. Justice Kwasi Anin Yeboah who was represented by Justice Samuel Marful-Sau; international anti-corruption activist, Prof. Patrick Lumumba; and the Managing Partner, Olaniwun Ajayi LP, Prof. Koyinsola Ajayi, SAN.
The webinar was moderated by Mr Osaro Eghobamien, SAN, Managing Partner, Perchstone and Graeys; and Prof. Ayo Atsenuwa, Professor of Law, University of Lagos.