A group known as the Justice Reform Project says the current opaque system of judicial appointments in the country defeats legitimate public interest in the quality of judges.
The group, comprising mostly Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN), said the “unceremonious removal” of Walter Onnoghen, former chief justice of Nigeria (CJN), was a signal of lack of self-regulating mechanisms which has affected the confidence of Nigerian judges.
In a letter addressed to President Muhammadu Buhari, which it said “follows the public announcement that Mr. President has accepted notice of retirement from the former Chief Justice, Justice Walter Onnoghen, and your Excellency intends shortly to nominate an additional five justices to the nation’s Supreme Court”, the Justice Reform Project said Onnoghen’s trial was the clearest signal in recent times of a raging crisis in the administration of justice in Nigeria, and the collapse of confidence in the individuals who occupy highest judicial offices.
“There can be little contest that the absence of effective self-regulating mechanisms for the legal profession has played a major role in the loss of confidence in the nation’s judiciary,” Justice Reform Project said in the letter copied to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, the Attorney General of the Federation, among others.
“Nigeria has long been a peculiar jurisdiction when it comes to the appointment of Judges and Justices to superior courts of record,” it said.
The Justice Reform Project, in the letter signed by 34 members including Yemi Candide-Johnson, SAN, convener, Yemi Adamolekun, Adeniyi Adegbonmire, SAN, Olatunde Adejuyigbe, SAN, Olufunke Adekoya, SAN, Seni M. Adio, SAN, among others, noted that certainly, not every lawyer with 15 years of practice experience and with an otherwise clean record is fit for the Supreme Court even if he/she is ‘qualified’. It is an office that demands to be occupied by persons of the highest character and intellectual capability, it said.
The Justice Reform Project lamented the prevalence of lobbying and favouritism in judicial appointments at the cost of merit.
“These and other changes appear not to have had much effect and the extant practice is that Federal/States’ Judicial Service Commissions gather nominees from a range of covert sponsors. The criteria and processes by which these nominees are selected are hidden from public scrutiny. Judicial appointment is processed in a certain level of secrecy that easily lends itself to manifest abuse,” the Justice Reform Project said.
The group urged the President to instruct the current Attorney- General to issue an opinion as to the quality and character of candidates for high judicial office and the principle upon which the President will act in making such appointment.
It advised that the memo be delivered to the National Judicial Commission (NJC) as well as all heads of courts to signpost the Presidency’s commitment to the rule of law and to challenge them to meet his criteria.
The Justice Reform Project recommended that President Buhari confirm absent measures to secure legitimacy and public acceptance of judicial appointments as the President will not act on any recommendation from NJC.
“The possibility that Mr. President remains bound to a widely discredited selection process without any accounting for its past failures or a progressive plan for its redemption is worrisome at this most critical juncture of unprecedented crisis of confidence in the nation’s judicial machinery,” it said.
“A successful judiciary is one whose members are appointed following a rigorous process and adherence to criteria that assess both the candidate’s legal qualifications as well as integrity,” it added.
In order to guarantee that the most capable justices are selected, the Justice Reform Project said successful judges must meet certain criteria that include independence and impartiality, reputable conduct and spotless record of integrity, outstanding knowledge of the law, excellent oral and written communication skills and analytical competency, and commitment to the judiciary as a public institution.
It added that successful judges must show demonstrated commitment to the protection of human rights, democratic values and transparency, understand the social and legal consequences of one’s decisions, and possess ability to strike a sound balance between a high level of productivity.