“Nigerian Judges still rank among the least paid in the world today”.

Appointment AND REMUNERATION Of Judges

By the provisions of Section 271(1) & (2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (As Amended) the Governor of a State is empowered to appoint Judges into the High Court of a State upon the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC). Such a person must, however, have been qualified as a Legal Practitioner for not less than ten years. The provisions of the Constitution appear to present the issue of the appointment of Judges to be a straightforward matter. However, there exists a large pool of qualified Legal Practitioners from which appointments to the Bench could be made. This, therefore, entails that a process be put in place to ensure that only the best hands and materials eventually make it to the Bench. In my estimation, it is the strength or otherwise of this process that has the most profound effect on the Independence of the Judiciary

Appointments in Days Gone Bye

In the sixties, the 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. The advantages of this were obvious.

Firstly as stated earlier, it ensured that only the brilliant and of proven integrity were so invited. Judges afterall would be able to distinguish between Lawyers who had a preponderance to offer them bribes or engage in other untoward practices to influence their judgements from those who would meticulously and diligently prosecute the cases of their clients within the confines of the law and the rules of court.

Secondly, it ensured that those who eventually honoured such invitations were those who were interested in making a career on the bench and contributing their quota to national development. In some cases, such appointees gave up thriving private practices to take up judicial appointments. In doing so, they found more motivation and inspiration in what they could give to the development of the law from the Bench.

At the present moment, appointment to the Bench is seen by many as an easy way out from the demands of private law practice. Some aspire to the Bench to enjoy the perquisites of judicial office without giving adequate thought to the demands and responsibilities of the position. Yet it is from this pool of persons that appointments must be made. Perhaps the general downturn in the economy has further made matters worse, but the reality is that no matter the thoroughness that goes into the selection process put in place by the Judicial Service Commission of the States in conjunction with the National Judicial Council, the margin of error will remain high.

Unattractive remuneration and benefits for judges

In the early days, shortly after independence, the pay of Nigerian Judges ensured that they lived comfortable lives. They were the envy of many in society. However, with the passage of time and economic downturn, the pay of Judges became affected such that Judges began to find life difficult. This fact coupled with poor working conditions such as having to write in long hand and sitting in often dilapidated structures made many lawyers who were otherwise qualified for appointment to the judiciary to shun the Bench.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that Nigerian Judges still rank among the least paid in the world.  To make matters worse, it is even now reported that the salary of Judges are not paid as and when due and that in some instances, Judges are owed several months’ salary.

This development without a doubt is likely to contribute to corruption as Judges may be forced to look for other means for survival. I do not wish to be misunderstood as stating that the lack of prompt payment of salary is enough justification for any Judge to engage in corrupt practices. However, it is my firm belief that the government should not permit a situation in which Judges are owed salaries as this will itself bring about an environment conducive for corruption to thrive. This very point was made by Transparency International in 2007, the report reads as follows:

“Judicial salaries that are too low to attract qualified legal personnel or retain them, and that do not enable judges and court staff to support their families in a secure environment, prompt judges and court staff to supplement their incomes with bribes. …In relation to other government employees judges should receive among the highest salaries. While the salary of a federal judge of a district court in the United States is not commensurate with what a judge might have earned in private practice, it is higher than most government employees and the prestige of the post makes it a sought-after position. The salary differential branches of government can be galling in some countries. Not so long ago, police in Uzbekistan received higher salaries than judges.”

In 2013, the then Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Judge in his final annual report as Lord Chief Justice expressed the fear that unless the pay of Judges was raised from its average of £175,000 per year (N43,750,000 (Forty three million seven hundred fifty thousand Naira) - at the then exchange rate of N250 to a pound) many top lawyers will reject the opportunity to become Judges. In his report on the matter, the MailOnline in its edition of 31st August 2014 stated as follows:

Britain’s top judge has launched a scathing attack on the decision to slash his colleagues’ pay, warning it has destroyed morale in the profession and risks compromising the quality of future recruits.

Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, who is standing down from the role later this year, says sweeping salary cuts of as much as 60 per cent since 2011, allied to an increased workload, is seriously affecting judges’ state of mind.

And he fears that unless pay is raised from its current average of £175,000 per year, top lawyers will reject the chance to become judges.

In his final annual report, he said there was a growing gap between senior lawyers’ pay and that of Judges.

Judges are also working harder, he said, no longer presiding over trials and hearings, but also involved in administrative and other duties.

This combination of changes has lowered morale, which raised doubts about the ability to ‘recruit, retain and motivate sufficient high-quality people to the judiciary’.”

While some hold the view that appointment as a Judge carries with it a prestige which may compensate for fantastic or adequate pay, the fact remains that prestige alone may not be enough to put food on the table. Furthermore, and as stated by the then Lord Chief Justice of England, poor pay will discourage brilliant lawyers from aspiring to be Judges. Why would anyone aspire to be a Judge when he can earn more as a practicing lawyer. Addressing this point and stating why the salary of Supreme Court Justices is high in the United States, Jelfrey Joyner stated as follows:

“In 1789, the compensation for the first justices of the Supreme Court was $4,000 per year for the chief justice and $3,500 for the associate justices. In the original constitutional draft, any adjustment of this salary was prohibites, but this was deemed unworkable. Congress was allowed to increase Supreme Court justice salaries, with three factors cited as justifying the increase: inflation, increased workload and expectations of society. Additionally, delegates to the constitutional convention noted that to attract people with the education, talents and integrity desired for the Supreme Court, it would be necessary to provide them with competitive compensation……. The current salary for Supreme Court justices is significantly higher than the average salaries earned in related occupations. In 2010, the median salary for all judges and magistrates, regardless of level, was $119,270. Federal circuit judges earned an average of $184,500. Lawyer earned a median of $112,760 annually. The top 10 percent in these occupations earned more than $160,000 annually….”

It is my hope that the authorities in Nigeria will eventually adopt a similar policy and place a premium on paying Judges’ wages commensurate their work and attractive enough to encourage qualified lawyers to aspire to the Bench.

To be continued…