10 April 2013

Nigeria: Judgments - Jiggles, Riddles

CHIEF Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, is concerned about the quality of judgments delivered in courts across the country. She finds a relationship between the judgments and flagging public confidence in the judiciary.

It is only a matter of insistence that the court is the last hope of the common man. In practice, the poor do not expect to get justice from the courts. They are not disappointed. Court verdicts paint grim pictures of the disparity of the laws, depending on who are affected.

"A judge should write in a simple and unambiguous manner. A judgment should meet the justice of the matter or controversies between the contending parties. It is certainly not good for a judgment to be capable of more than one interpretation," Mukhtar said at a refresher course to improve judgement writing.

Knowledge and writing skills are the least of the challenges judges face when writing judgments. Ambiguous judgments stem from being compromised. It is worse, as evidenced in electoral disputes, where all parties involved could have induced the judge. At appeals, some judges have been berated over judgments riddled with contradictions.

Judgments are written, many believe, to provide comfort for all paying parties; with the highest bidder getting the juiciest decision. "I have heard the aphorism a couple of times that in the court, the rich get bail while the poor get jailed. To what extent have we as judges turned justice away from the highest bidder?" Mukhtar asked.

The matter is totally out of hand. The intervention of the National Judicial Council, NJC, has been tepid. Mukhtar is stepping over the NJC to invoke divine intervention to strike fear into judges. "As you sit in judgment over others, you are also standing at judgment and one day, we shall all stand before God to be judged." Will that scare them? What can scare them?

Punishment for corruption in the judiciary is too temperate to moderate behaviour. Judges are hardly tried, the harshest punishment they get on corruption cases is retirement: with full benefits.

Is that adequate punishment for corruption? Why would judges who collect bribes worth millions of Naira, often more money than their entire benefits for decades, not eagerly embrace retirement with their loot?

Mukhtar and the NJC have a task ahead of them. If they charge judges to court for corruption, they would be astounded about the speed with which they would spray clarity through their judgements.

Corruption in the judiciary would fester for as long as corrupt judges are retired after internal investigations and allowed to keep their loot. Public confidence in the judiciary cannot grow when judges treat themselves as exceptions to the law.

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