APPOINTMENT TO JUDICIAL OFFICES: A LOOK AT RECENT DEVELOPMENTS
“Invitation to legal practitioners ensures that only those who eventually honoured such invitations were those who were genuinely interested in making a career on the bench”.
Recently the Nigerian Bar Association sent out notices to lawyers inviting applications for appointment as Justices of the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. This was a remarkable development as it was the first time that such notices would be specially and widely circulated to lawyers. After the deadline for the submission of the applications, the Nigerian Bar Association has reportedly shortlisted nine lawyers for consideration for appointment to the Supreme Court while another twelve have been shortlisted in respect of the Court of Appeal with both lists containing prominent Senior Advocates of Nigeria, accomplished academics and other vastly experienced Legal Practitioners. This development is in tandem with my long held belief that a way of shoring up public confidence is by ensuring that only the best legal practitioners are appointed to the Bench. This development is a direct result of the Guidelines put in place in 2015 for the appointment of Judicial Officers.
THE 2015 GUIDELINES
In 2015 the National Judicial Council released the revised NJC guidelines and procedural rules for the appointment of judicial officers of all superior courts of record in Nigeria. By the said rules the NJC sought to revamp the process of appointment of judicial officers in Nigeria so as to remove ills such nepotism, favoritism, etc which had always characterized previous appointments. It was specifically intended that merit would be the paramount consideration in appointment of judges. To this end, it is provided in Rule 2 that vacancies in any judicial office will be advertised on the website of Judicial Service Commission of a State or that of the Federation as the case may be and also by pasting on the notice boards of the courts and the branches of the Nigerian Bar Association in the jurisdiction concerned. By Rule 4(i) emphasis is placed on competence and high moral standing. For the avoidance of doubt, the said rule provides as follows:
“4. In considering the candidates, Judicial Service Commission/Committee shall take into account the fact that Judicial Officers hold high office of State and occupy an office carrying enormous powers and authority. Accordingly, the National Judicial Council shall –
(i) Regard the following qualities as essential requirements for the selection of suitable candidates for the judicial office in any of the Superior Courts of Record in Nigeria;
In all cases:
- Good character and reputation, diligence and hardwork, honesty, integrity and sound knowledge of law and consistent adherence to professional ethics;
As may be applicable
- Active successful practice at the Bar, including satisfactory presentation of cases in Court as a Legal Practitioner either in private or as a Legal Officer in any Public Service;
- Satisfactory and consistent display of sound and mature judgment in the office as a Chief Registrar or Chief Magistrate;
- Credible record of teaching law, legal research in a reputable University and publication of legal works, and in addition to any or all the above;
- In the case of appointment of a candidate to the office of a Sharia Court of Appeal, knowledge of Arabic language and grammar”.
APPOINTMENTS IN DAYS GONE BYE
In the sixties when I began the practice of Law, appointment to the Bench was strictly on merit. At that time, appointments were by invitations. Judges were always quick to identify Legal Practitioners who possessed sterling qualities suitable for appointment to the Bench. Aside from sound knowledge of the law, integrity and honour marked out and propelled many Judges appointed in those days to the Bench. Indeed one of the foremost, most upright, courageous and incorruptible Judges to grace the Bench in Nigeria, the recently departed Honourable Justice Kayode Eso in his book “The Mystery Gunman” described how he was invited to the Bench. At pages 173-174 of the Book the late Jurist stated as follows:
“Sit down please, I hope you are well?” he inquired.
The Chief Justice was already in his chambers. He had cultivated the habit of getting to court very early, to enable him sit at 9:00am prompt. Except he was ill, and he was not known to have been once, he would be in his chambers by 8:30am at the latest.
“Very well sir,” I answered, still with concealed trepidation.
“How long do you think this case will take?” he asked.
.............................................................................................................. “You had better finish today”, cut in the Chief Justice, very sharply, smiling rather mischievously. “For I have already recommended your name to the Premier for appointment as an acting judge,” the Chief Justice continued, without waiting for my reaction.
The reply to my recommendation arrived yesterday and the Governor will be ready to swear you in next week. The instrument is already prepared.”
You do not need to be grateful to me. It is your work that has done it. The Judges here have had an eye on you for some time. They report so favourably on your brilliant performance”.
In line with the time honoured practice, Hon. Justice Oyemade, the Chief Judge of Western State in 1975 invited me to the bench. I recall my plea to the respected Chief Justice that although I considered it an honour to be invited to the bench, I would want to remain in practice for more time before coming to the bench. I told him that it was always the ambition and indeed the hope of successful lawyers to become a judge. All over the western world, it is a notorious fact that successful litigation lawyers turn out to be the best judges. The reasons are obvious. These are people who have interacted with clients, either for the Plaintiff or the Defendant. They have listened to clients’ stories. In spite of long stories told by clients, they know what to plead either in their claim or in their defence. They know the evidence that is needed to win. They know when to cross-examine or re-examine witnesses. At the end of the day, they know what to present to the court. Therefore, a successful litigation lawyer becomes at the end of the day, a better judge than someone who comes from the Ministry or one who is a mere solicitor in a commercial office who is appointed a Judge through application.
Again, the Judges who see them in practice are able to distinguish between lawyers who had preponderance to offer them bribe or engage in other untoward practices to influence their judgement as against those who meticulously and diligently prosecute their cases within the confines of the law and the rules of court. Furthermore, invitation to legal practitioners ensures that only those who eventually honoured such invitations were those who were genuinely interested in making a career on the bench and in contributing their quota to national development. Such appointees who are invariably comfortable financially, find more motivation and inspiration in being a judge and would strive to preserve their reputation and their names. They would strive to surpass their predecessors in quality judgment rooted in research.
AARE AFE BABALOLA, OFR, CON, SAN, LL.D, D.Litt