By Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN
About a week ago, the National Industrial Court, sitting in Abuja, directed the federal government of Nigeria to increase the salaries of all judicial officers in the country. In a landmark judgment delivered by the Honourable Justice Osatohanmwen Obaseki-Osaghae, the government was ordered to commence a monthly payment of N10 million to the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), N9 million to other Justices of the Supreme Court and the President of the Court of Appeal, N8 million to the Justices of the Court of Appeal and the Chief Judges of the Federal High Court and High Court of the States, Heads of the Sharia Court of Appeal and the President of the Customary Court of Appeal, while other judges of the Federal High Court, the State High Courts, Sharia Court and the Customary Court will earn N7 million, in that order. In addition, the Court held that the federal government shall continue to carry out a yearly or once in two years review of the salaries and allowances of all judicial officers. In its judgment, the court held that the refusal of the government to review the salaries and allowances of judicial officers for fourteen years was unconstitutional, unlawful, adding that the National Industrial Court has the power to compel the government to do the needful.
The judgment of the Court is sequel to the suit filed by renown author and legal luminary, Dr. Sebastine Hon, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, against the National Assembly, Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Allocation Commission, Attorney-General of the Federation and the National Judicial Council as the 1st to 4th defendants, respectively. In his affidavit in support of the case, Dr. Hon, SAN stated that as a legal practitioner who has practiced in all the levels of courts in Nigeria, he was aware that the poor pay for judicial officers is seriously affecting the quality of judgments and rulings being delivered and also the discharge of other functions associated with their office. He stated further that the current economic reality in the country requires that the salaries and allowances of judges be improved upon, urgently. The Claimant noted that the highest paid judicial officer in Nigeria, the CJN, currently earns about N3.4 million per annum, far below what is earned by such an officer in other countries. While quoting what all judicial officers currently earn as provided under Part IIB of the Schedule to the Certain Political, Public and Judicial Office Holders (Salaries and Allowances, etc) Amendment Act 2008, Dr. Hon, SAN averred that the said paltry sums have discouraged him from aspiring to become a judge.
I have described the commendable efforts of Dr. Hon, SAN as a lifeline for the judges because it is long overdue. We have heard lamentations and complaints from judicial officers during their valedictory speeches, at times embarrassingly, on the state of wanton neglect of the judiciary. The judiciary remains one of the gateways to the economic progress of any nation as the mode and time of resolution of legal disputes are key issues to consider in investment decisions and also part of the indices for determining the ease of doing business. For anyone who has experienced the near-drowning syndrome while swimming or in accident situations, it is always a matter of lapping on to any and all things for immediate rescue or else life is gone. The appalling situation of the judiciary in Nigeria is not so very well appreciated by many. Without mentioning names, there are judges who buy their own generators and fuel them in order to discharge their duties. Some buy stationery and even help to augment the meagre take home pay of those working with them in the courts. Some other judges have no drivers whilst some have no official accommodation. And do you know that when judges retire from service, they become orphans and their pension is not paid as and when due? It got so bad that a retired judge in Lagos recently had to approach the court to get the government to pay his pension. When those of them in service get to hear of such neglect, how do you think they will react? The judiciary had long been in urgent need of the kind of lifeline that Dr. Hon, SAN threw at them, for their survival and for the survival of Nigeria. We cannot pretend about that.
For the lifeline to be of any value however, it must go with autonomy and independence for judges, especially at the State High Courts, where the muzzling of judicial officers by the executive arm of government has reached an epidemic proportion. What this has done is to turn the governors into some kind of emperors who can do no wrong. No matter the amount of money thrown at judges, it will not make the desired impact if they are not free to decide cases in line with the prevailing law and their conscience. A rich man in chains is worse than a poor man who is free. We must all agree to allow our judicial officers the independence that they so richly deserve if justice is to bear its proper meaning. The seeming neglect of the judiciary by the other arms of government is rather unfortunate as in most cases, they need the courts more for them to function effectively. Just imagine the confusion that the Electoral Act 2022 has created already or even the issue of candidates participating in multiple primary elections. What about the case of public servants who want to actualize their political ambitions through the ballot? A nation with poorly paid judges is courting trouble for itself.
Be that as it may, my focus here is beyond salaries and allowances of judges as that is only an aspect of the issues plaguing the judicial sector. My humble appeal is for My Lords to take this lifeline as a challenge of some sort. We as citizens have agonized on behalf of the judiciary for so long on how to achieve effective administration of justice. How do we eliminate the delays, the frustrations and the disappointments that lawyers and litigants go through every day in the courts? The situation in the Lagos State High Court for instance has reached a dead end. New cases filed in these courts remain in the Registry for months unattended to. The e-filing system has become the albatross of the judiciary in Lagos State. Presently, to get a permanent suit number, you have to embrace some prayer and fasting. And while you’re at it, the mischief that was sought to be tackled through the case would have been consolidated by the adversary. What this means is that the court has gradually become a shield for wrongdoers, by default. When a system is subjected to such a grinding delay, then desperation will set in, by those who are eager to have their matters heard expeditiously. Corruption will surely follow such experience as court officials would readily cash in on the misfortune of litigants and lawyers to make brisk business. It is good that the Judiciary Committee of the Lagos Branch of the Nigerian Bar Association is already collaborating with the authorities of the judiciary in Lagos State to tackle this menace. Let other States take a cue to avoid this pitfall in the implementation of their e-filing systems.