Judges who issue confliciting judgments were warned yesterday to pull the brakes on their action. The National Judicial Council (NJC) is probing their actions, Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Mahmud Mohammed said. Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation Abubakar Malami (SAN) and a leader of the Body of Senior Advocates on Nigeria, T. J. O. Okpoko (SAN), just like Justice Mohammed, are also worried over the rising trend of conflicting judgments.
Justice Mohammed, Malami and Okpoko said instances where lower courts of coordinate jurisdiction render conflicting judgments on similar cases and at some instances, ignore established precedents were harmful to the integrity and reputation of the Judiciary. The CJN said judges found wanting would be punished.
Justice Mohammed, Malami and Okpoko spoke in Abuja at a special court session mark the opening of the Supreme Court’s 2016/2017 legal year and the swearing-in of new Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN). In all, 22 lawyers were conferred with the rank yesterday, among them the Director-General of the Nigerian Law School (NLS), Mr. Olanrewaju Onadeko.
The CJN said: “It is with great trepidation and dismay that I note the growing trend of the disregard for laid down precedent in decisions from various levels of courts, even the appellate court. “I am of the firm conviction that every court in Nigeria is bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court and shall not graft a different outcome from those expressly laid down by the Supreme Court.
“Such departures from precedent therefore risk creating the type of confusion, which is inimical to the trust reposed in us by the people and we risk our reputations, our integrity and even our existence by such indiscipline. “Several conflicting decisions were recklessly dished out by the Court of Appeal last year in appeals arising from various decisions of the Election Petitions Tribunals, given on election petitions filed by the parties who lost in the general elections conducted in April 2015.
“Such decisions were made as the result of flagrant refusal of the panels of the Court of Appeal involved to be bound not only by its own decisions but also by the decisions of this Court.”
“I therefore call on our judicial officers to have due respect for the law and strive to adjudicate in a manner that is premised upon the principles of Justice. Little wonder therefore that people are now increasingly looking at Alternative Dispute Resolution in order to engender more certainty to the resolution of their disputes,” the CJN said.
Justice Mohammed, who frowned at moves to subvert the court’s succession tradition, stated that it was better to retain the practice where the most senior Justice succeeds a departing CJN. “While I would admit that there is no constitutional restriction as to where those to be appointed are selected from, the long-held practice, which I daresay has been apolitical, transparent and fair, has been to appoint the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court to the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
“With the exception of two Chief Justices, who were appointed from outside the Supreme Court during the military regimes and in exceptional circumstances, this system has proven to be seamless, predictable, respectable and dignified.
“The idea that we can appoint a legal practitioner, without the proven experience or the temperance of character developed through years of active participation in adjudication, may indeed be fraught with risk, none greater than the risk of creating another sinecure for party loyalists or reducing the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria to one which can be ‘lobbied’ for.
“This will undoubtedly and irreversibly hurt our justice system and must be strenuously resisted,” he said. Justice Mohammed, who noted that the Supreme Court performed exceedingly well in the last legal year by handling 1489 cases, blamed delay in court process on lawyers.
“Sadly, certain members of the Bar are conspicuous in utilising unethical, frivolous applications and appeals, multiplicity of actions in courts of coordinate jurisdiction and other acts of calumny to frustrate the speedy dispensation of justice. “These abuses of court process not only occasion delays, but also diminish the standing of the justice system and the legal profession in the eyes of Nigerians,” he said.
The CJN added: “I am proud to say that by the will of Almighty, I am leaving the Supreme Court in a better shape than I met it.’’ Justice Mohammed is due to retire in November whe he will be 70.
Justice Mohammed said the last legal year witnessed transition in the ranks of the justices of the court, with the appointment of Justice Amiru Sanusi.
“While we are waiting for the confirmation of the appointment of two justices of the court by the Senate, the NJC is expected to consider and recommend the appointment of two additional justices at its meeting on Sept.28
“We also held valedictory sittings on the retirement of two of our brothers, in the persons of Justices Afolabi Fabiyi and Sailfullahi Muntaka-Coomasie into well deserved life of leisure and rest.
“I thank these two distinquished jurists and gentlemen for their invaluable contributions to the jurisprudence of the court and rest assured, they are sorely missed by us all,’’
The CJN, who frowned at the growing practice where lawyers encourage their clients to direct complaints against judicial officers to the President, urged the new SANs to uphold their professional ethics and conduct themselves in a manner beholding their new status.
Aside the various conflicting judgments handed out by the various divisions of the Court of Appeal in the post-2015 election cases, the Federal High Court and the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) have recently, given some judgments that appeared conflicting and confusing.
Two of such are the various decisions given so far in relation to the leadership crisis in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the governorship dispute in Abia State.
While Justice Okon Abang (of the Federal High Court, Abuja) has consistently held that the Ali Modu Sheriff-led Executive Council of the PDP was the authentic body to take decisions on its behalf, Justice Ibrahim Watila (of the Federal High Court, Port-Harcourt) has upheld the leadership of the Ahmed Makarfi- committee.
Justice Nwamaka Ogbonna of a High Court of the Federal Capital Territory in Kubwa added a twist to the PDP leadership crisis when, in a judgment onAugust 17, she restrained Sheriff from further parading himself as the Chairman of the PDP.
The judge hinged her decision on an earlier judgment by Justice Valentine Ashi (of the High Court of the FCT, Apo) where Ashi voided the amendment to the PDP constitution, on which basis Sheriff became the party’s Chairman.
In the Abia case, Justice Abang (of the Federal High Court, Abuja) upheld the cases of false tax information brought against Governor Okezie Ikpeazu by Sampson Ogah and Obasi Ekeagbala, and sacked the governor.
Justice Abang held that the plaintiffs in both cases proved their cases that Ikpeazu submitted false tax information to his party and was therefore not qualified to have contested the party’s primary.
However, another judge of the Owerri division of the Federal High Court, Justice A.I Allagoa held in a separate case that the allegation against Ikpeazu was forgery, which the plaintiff in the case, Friday Nwosu could not prove.
Justice Allagoa dismissed the suit and held that the allegation that Ikpeazu forged his tax papers, which also was the kernel of the cases before Justice Abang, was not proved as required.
Malami, who was represented by the Solicitor General of the Federation (SGF), Taiwo Abidogun, sought the cooperation of the Judiciary in ensuring the Federal Government’s efforts at curbing corruption and terrorism.
The AGF, who noted that public confidence is important in the justice administration system, urged the leadership of the Judiciary to take steps to discourage activities that may result in the erosion of public confidence in the courts.
Okpoko, who spoke for the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, urged the NJC to be firm in dealing with judges found to have compromised their position in rendering conflicting decisions and disregarding existing precedents.
While lamenting the dwindling public respect for the Judiciary, Okpoko cautioned against engaging in unethical conduct, including accepting bribe.
“In our nation, as it stands today, no one needs to be told that the Bar and the Bench are at a cross road. For the Judiciary, the nation, in recent past has witnessed the show of shame brought about by court of coordinate jurisdiction assuming jurisdiction to hear the same dispute between the same parties and delivering verdicts that are totally in conflict with one another.
“For the Chief Justice of Nigeria, and the NJC, this is a very embarrassing development, and I call on the regulatory authorities to step in immediately to do the damage control so as to save our justice system from further ridicule. This is not just a matter of corruption. Conflicting judgments go to the very root of the judicial system.
Onadeko, who spoke for the new SANs, said they will work to uphold and positively advance the ethics and ethos of the profession, from their new position, bearing in mind the privilege, duties and responsibilities that their new status attracts.