Justices of the Supreme Court are over-worked owing to the rising volume of cases being brought before the apex court, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Muhammad, said on Monday.
The CJN, who blamed the development on Nigerians’ preference for litigation, suggested a constitutional amendment to stop the termination of interlocutory appeals at the Supreme Court.
Calling for an enhanced remuneration for judges, Muhammad blamed lawyers for contributing to the high volume of cases.
He said: “As rightly observed, Nigerians are the most litigious people on earth. In every little disagreement, we rush to court; and in every lost case, we rush to appeal even up to the Supreme Court, no matter how infinitesimal the issue might be.
“That has obviously accounted for several appeals pending in Supreme Court. The attitude of some of our lawyers, too, is less salutary.
“Some do not even mind throwing their integrity and reputations to the winds by taking briefs that they know don’t hold ground, just for pecuniary reasons.
“So disturbing is the fact that even in the face of failure, they would still persuade their clients to push the case further on appeal.
“However, the attitude of some of our lawyers has to be properly checked by the Nigerian Bar Association. l have stated it severally that lawyers must desist from the practice of filing needless appeals at the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.
“Let it be known that the Supreme Court will henceforth be unsparing in punishing blatant abusers of court processes.
“There should also be amendment of the Constitution to stop interlocutory appeals from coming to the Supreme Court. It should be ending at the Court of Appeal.
“From my experience, an elevation to Supreme Court is an elevation to hard work, restlessness and sleeplessness.”
Muhammad spoke in Abuja on Monday at an event marking the Supreme Court’s New Legal Year and the inauguration of 38 new Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs).
The CJN, who faulted claim that the independence of the judiciary has been compromised, said the arm of government was independent in its operations and decisions, but requires more funding to function effectively.
He said: “The Nigerian judiciary, to a large extent, is independent in conducting its affairs and taking decisions on matters before it without any extraneous influence. “At the Supreme Court, like I have always said, we are totally independent in the way we conduct our affairs, especially in our judgments.
“We don’t pander to any body’s whims and caprices. lf there is any deity to be feared, it is the Almighty God. We will never be subservient to anybody, no matter his position in the society.
“Be that as it may, when we assess the judiciary from the financial perspective, how free can we say we are? The annual budget of the Judiciary is still a far cry from what it ought to be.
“The figure is either stagnated for a long period or it goes on a progressive decline. The only thing I can do at this juncture is to plead with all concerned to let us enjoy our independence holistically.
“If you say that I am independent, but in a way, whether I like it or not, I have to go cap in hand, asking for funds to run my office, then I have completely lost my independence.”
Noting that inadequate funding was hampering operations at the judiciary and dampening staff morale, the CJN described the prevailing situation where the financial autonomy of the judiciary was still not being respected as violation of the constitutional provisions of separation of powers and independence of the three arms of government.
He added: “I am using this medium to appeal to governments at all levels to free the judiciary from the financial bondage it has been subjected to over the years.
“Let it not just be said to be independent but should, in words and actions, be seen to be truly independent. There should not be any strings attached.
“We would not like to negotiate our financial independence under any guise. Even as I speak now, some states Judiciaries are still having issues with their respective governments. A stitch in time will certainly save nine. Let the judiciary take its destiny in its hands.”
Muhammad, who sought mutual respect between the judiciary and the legislature, urged the legislature to always ensure prompt amendment of law where judicial pronouncements are made.
“With due respect, l urge the legislative arm to closely be watching the decisions of the Supreme Court. If the court makes any decisions, without anybody telling the legislators to act, they should immediately follow suit by making laws that will encompass such decisions.
“The Supreme Court has no legislative powers to make laws but only interprets the Constitution. It doesn’t amount to asking for too much if the judiciary requests the legislature to effect certain amendments to existing laws.
“There is no reason for the legislature to delay any amendments sought by the Judiciary. I would also like to solicit for mutual respect and relationship between the legislature and the judiciary.”
Recalling some happenings in the court the previous legal year, described the circumstances leading to the exit of his immediate predecessor, Justice Walter Onnoghen as an unfortunate event.
“I was appointed in acting capacity in the course of the year after the unfortunate events that shook the Nigerian judiciary to its very foundation.” he noted
Muhammed, who promised to improve on what he inherited, called for the review of the nation’s criminal laws, which he said has to be done on a continuous basis to ensure that laws are relevant and meet today’s demands.
The CJN promised not to shield corrupt judges even as he tasked all agencies of government to abide by the principle of rule of law.
He said: “The judiciary under my leadership will not lose its firm grip on the mantle of honesty, transparency and integrity and I expect every Judicial officer and of course, legal practitioners too, to tag along.
“If any judge is found wanting and you have evidence, please, write your petition to the National Judicial Council immediately for prompt action.
“The task of ridding the judiciary of corruption is a collective one; and my commitment to it is total. I am assuring you that I will pursue it vigorously in order to bequeath an enduring legacy to my successor.
“The rule of law which is the bastion of every democracy across the world will be strictly observed in all our dealings and we must impress it on the ‘ governments at all levels to actively toe that path.
“The rights of every citizen against any form of oppression and impunity must be jealously guided and protected with the legal tools at our disposal.
“All binding court orders must be obeyed; and nobody, irrespective of his or her position, will be allowed to toy with court judgments.
“We must collectively show the desired commitment to the full enthronement of the rule of law in the land. As we all know, flagrant disobedience of court orders or non-compliance with judicial orders is a direct invitation to anarchy in the society.”
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