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Knocks, kudos as Buhari proposes judiciary reforms at NBA confab

President Muhammadu Buhari’s proposal for the reform of the nation’s judiciary has continued to elicit reactions among lawyers and Nigerians.

Buhari, who spoke at the virtual 60th Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) last Wednesday, with the theme, ‘Stepping Forward,’ had proposed several adjustments to the law among which is that the judiciary should put a 12-month time limit on the hearing of criminal cases from the High Court to the Supreme Court, while all civil cases should be concluded within 15 months.

According to him, “At the end, I lost all three cases. I wondered then, why it needed to take so long to arrive at a verdict and if I had won the case, someone who did not legitimately win the election would have been in office all that time.

“In 2019, I was no longer petitioner; I had now become a respondent in the case of Atiku and Buhari and the whole process took barely six months; just over six months. What was the difference?

“The law had changed since my own in 2003, 2007 and 2011. You had now introduced time limits for election petitions. Everything must be done within a six to eight-month period. My question then is why can’t we have a time limit for criminal cases?

”Why can’t we have a rule that will say a criminal trial all the way to the Supreme Court must not exceed 12 months? And why can’t we do the same for civil cases? Even if we say that civil cases must not go beyond between 12 and 15 months. I think that for me is stepping forward.”

There is no doubt that the Nigerian judicial system has been one of the most vibrant and respected on the African continent, having demonstrated exemplary courage in delivering landmark judgments that have changed the judiciary, political and economic landscape of the country.

However, in recent times, the Nigerian judiciary has come under increased scrutiny from the public. Recent events and judgments from the courts and performance from the bar leave-much-to be desired and have further dented the credibility of the judiciary and judicial officers.

These are fuelling agitations for a reform of the sector, especially the time frame for justice delivery in Nigeria.

Also, in recent years, lawyers have continuously questioned the method used in appointment of judges by the National Judicial Council (NJC), which they say, perhaps, was the first step in sanitising the judiciary.

There is the belief in some quarters that the image of the judiciary arm of government is at its lowest ebb.

In recent times also, reports of corruption acts among judges have become rife, while conflicting judgments in some cases have not helped matters.

Just like President Buhari said, a recent example is the different judgments and interpretations given by some law courts in the All Progressives Congress (APC) national chairmanship tussle. The kangaroo judgments being procured against some Nigerians, politicians and their parties have not helped the image of the judiciary.

Recall that in an attempt to check corruption acts in the judiciary in 2016, the state Security Service raided the homes of some senior Nigerian judges in Abuja, Port Harcourt, Gombe, Kano, Enugu and Sokoto States.

The DSS had said the operation was ordered after months of investigations, during which the secret police established credibly that the affected judges were involved in questionable financial dealings.

Lawyers have continuously questioned the method used in appointments of judges by the National Judicial Council (NJC), which they say, perhaps, was the first step in sanitising the judiciary.

However, stakeholders are of the opinion that President Buhari’s suggestions are not new as these proposals have been canvassed at several fora without any concrete move to pursue the judicial reform and enthrone the administration of justice in the country.

“I have called for a reform of the NJC through a constitutional amendment that will remove all serving and retired judges from the council as the presence has only ensured that they have now privatised the judiciary by making it a family institution.

“It is far easier to be a judge without a day’s experience in legal practice if your father or mother was or is a superior Court judge.

“If you do not have that qualifying privilege, you may be the best practising lawyer with the passion of being a judge and still remain an applicant until you are frustrated out of that bid. The room for the rest of Nigerians in the appointment of judges is usually very small just to make it look like a fair game,” Silas Joseph Onu, Esq, former publicity secretary of the Abuja chapter of the NBA said recently.

Senior lawyers have, however, urged President Buhari to move beyond lip-service and put machinery in motion for holistic reforms of the judiciary if there is to be any meaningful change.

Speaking in an interview with BDSUNDAY, lawyer and activist, Idowu Omolegan expressed doubt in the willingness of President Buhari to carry out tangible reforms, saying that he has not shown the willingness since he assumed office.

According to him, “Buhari’s speech to me is like a dog barking without doing anything. Our criminal justice system has been there for a long time, he met it, all the delays in Courts. The problems have been there and the President has been there now for over five years now since he assumed office, he is just calling for reforms, and it should have been one of his cardinal projects.

“If Buhari is serious about what he said, let him make legal changes to implement those policies, not because you are invited to an NBA programme and you are saying it to suit people.

“He is not sincere enough. He should tell us what he is going to do, tell us how he is going to implement them and make changes”.

This view was, however, challenged by John Bayeshea, lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), who thinks the President had shown enough desire for reforms and changes in the judiciary, stressing that much of the work lies with the National Assembly and the NBA.

“It is good in the sense he is calling for judiciary reforms and how long cases stay in Court. The practicality of the issue is the problem but the general content of the address is very good.

“They should bring bills, I believe the President would sign; the areas he has input is the appointment of Justices; I know there are a number of recommendations on his table he has forwarded them to the Senate.”

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