- Lawyers: Poor judges’ remuneration fuelling corruption in judiciary
TUNDE OYESINA writes that lawyers have called on the Federal Government to ensure the enforcement of the court’s judgement concerning upward review of judicial officers’ salaries. The lawyers maintained that the third arm of government deserves the best owing to its crucial role in the nation’s affairs
Some senior lawyers have called on the Federal Government to ensure that the recent judgement of a National Industrial Court which ordered an upward review of judicial officers’ salaries are obeyed to the letter.
The lawyers while baring their minds on the issue at the weekend emphasised the need to make judicial officers comfortable in order to stamp out corruption from the Bench.
Justice Osatohanmwen Obaseki- Osaghie of the Abuja Division of the National Industrial Court (NIC) had while delivering judgement in a suit filed by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Sebastin Hon, ordered an upward review in the monthly salaries of judicial officers.
The judge noted that judges in the country are entitled to have their salaries reviewed upward periodically, and that the NIC, being the court that determines labour and employment related matters, has the constitutional power to compel the Federal Government, through its agencies, to upwardly review the remuneration of judicial officers.
“Despite the increased workload of judicial officers, they have continued to suffer in penury owing to their extremely and very embarrassing low salaries and allowances.
“There is no doubt that from evidence adduced before this court that salaries payable to judges as well as their conditions of service, has been greatly altered to their disadvantage. “Judicial officers are daily impoverished by the devaluation of the naira. They have suffered financial hardship and embarrassment owing to their poor pay. It is a shame to the country.
Inspite of this, our judges have continued to carry out their statutory duties. Justices are themselves victims of a great injustice. What an irony”, Justice Obaseki-Osagie held. Consequently, the judge made an order increasing the salary of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) to N10 million, while that of Justices of the Supreme Court and President of the Court of Appeal was increased to N9 million.
Likewise, Justice Obaseki- Osagie also increased salaries of Court of Appeal Justices, Chief Judges, President of the Industrial Court, Grand Khadis and President of Customary Courts to N8 million, even as she ordered Federal Government to forthwith, pay N7 million to other judges monthly.
The court directed that the order should be served on the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) and the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN). It equally awarded N1.5 million cost against RMAFC, AGF and the National Assembly, who were all cited as defendants in the matter.
Hon had dragged the National Assembly and three others before the National Industrial Court over poor salaries for judges. The Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC), Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice and National Judicial Council (NJC), were joined as second, third and fourth co-defendants respectively.
The silk had in a supporting affidavit to the originating summons stated that as a legal practitioner, “who has practiced in all the levels of courts in Nigeria, I know that poor pay for judicial officers is seriously affecting the quality of judgements and rulings those officers are delivering and the discharge of other functions associated with their offices”.
He argued that the current economic reality in the country requires that the salaries and allowances of the nation’s judges be urgently improved upon. The plaintiff noted that the highest-paid judicial officer in the country – the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) – currently earns about N3.4 million per annum, far below what is earned by such an officer in other countries.
Hon, who quoted what all judicial officers currently earn as provided under Part IIB of the Schedule to the Certain Political, Public and Judicial Office Holders (Salaries and Allowances, etc) Amendment Act 2008, said the paltry sums have discouraged him from aspiring to become a judge.
He noted further that it is about 14 years now since the salaries and allowances of judges were last reviewed upward despite the loss of value of the naira vis-à-vis other global currencies like the Dollar, Pounds, Euro, etc. “As of November 2008 when the amended Act was in force, the exchange rate between the naira and the US dollar was N117.74 to a dollar.
“The naira has considerably lost its value over time; but judicial officers in Nigeria have been placed on the same salary scale for up to 12 years, namely since 2008,” he said.
Consequently, he prayed the court for a declaration, among others, that by a combined reading of the provisions of Section 6(1)(b) and (d) and Parts A and B of the First Schedule to the Revenue Allocation Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission Act, Cap. R7, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, it is unconstitutional for the 2nd defendant (RMAFC) to refuse or neglect to upwardly review the salaries and allowances of judicial officers notwithstanding the changing local and international socio-economic realities.
The plaintiff was represented by over 55 silks led by Chief Adegoyega Awomolo (SAN).
In the course of trial, the National Assembly sought the court’s permission to explore an out-of-court settlement of the case. NASS’ lawyer, Charles Yoila, told the court that the option was considered appropriate owing to the nature of the matter.
Yoila, therefore pleaded with the court to grant an adjournment so as to enable parties in the matter sit on a round table for discussion on an amicable resolution.
However, the case could not be settled out-of-court because the AGF’s objection to the suit. In his objection, Malami argued that the plaintiff lacked the ‘locus standi’ to institute the action. Malami’s lawyer, Ekene Elodimuo, said the AGF, having filed the necessary processes, was also desirous of joining issues with the plaintiff in the course of the hearing.
Some senior lawyers are pushing for an urgent implementation of the court’s judgement which okayed an upward review of judicial officers’ salaries. The lawyers believed that the Federal Government has a duty to review not only salaries of judges, but also those of other categories of workers from time to time in line with prevailing circumstances.
Speaking on the issue, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Prof. Epiphany Azinge, urged the Federal Government to promptly obey the judgement. Azinge, a former Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS) and a member of the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) maintained that such salary increment, would help to stamp out corruption in the judiciary.
He argued that the new salary structure the court established for judicial officers in the country was at par with what their counterparts earn in other African countries. Azinge said: “Personally, I do not see anything outrageous or humongous about the CJN earning N10 million a month.
“The argument has always been that of benchmarking. Up till today, the salary of the legislature is still wrapped in secrecy. But, we know that when all that gets to them every month are added together, including their allowances, it will still be more than what the CJN is expected to earn.
“Besides, if we convert the said money and compare it with what judges in other climes, like in South Africa, collect every month, you will see that it is the same.
“What the court has done through its judicial pronouncement is to give the Salary and Wages Commission the tune for further negotiation and engagement. “Let it be on record that the judiciary deserves the best. You cannot be accusing judges of corruption and still starve them of funds. Pay them accordingly and make them comfortable and see if the issue of corruption will not be a thing in the past”.
In his own submissions, Mr. Wale Adesokan (SAN), insisted that salaries of judges and conditions of service need to be upgraded. “I can tell you that from what we know about the conditions of service of judges, there’s a need for an enhancement. The Federal Government would have no choice but to respect the judgement of the National Industrial Court and indeed any court that operates within the country.
“Besides, it is the National Judicial Council (NJC) that pays judges’ salaries and emoluments.
The implementation is by the NJC and I am sure that by next year, necessary budgetary provisions should be made for it and the implementation of salaries and emoluments is directly to the best of my knowledge by the NJC. The judgment should be enforced”, Adesokan said.
On his part, Mr. Olalekan Ojo (SAN), believes that there is nothing difficult about the execution of the judgement of the National Industrial Court.
Ojo said: “The fact that the Attorney General of the Federation and the Revenue and Physical Mobilisation Commission are parties, one should expect these defendants to obey the judgement of the Industrial Court to show an example that we have a government that respects the rule of law.
“Obedience to the judgement of court remains the hallmark of democratic and civilised governance. In my view, the judgement has merely vindicated the clamour for the upward review of salaries of judicial officers in the country.
“However, I do not expect the government to appeal that judgement, but the decision to appeal or not is that of the government and it should not be crucified or condemned for exercising its constitutional right of appeal against that judgement, if they so desire.
“An appeal against that judgement would make it impossible for same to be executed. In reality, should there be an appeal against that judgement, that would clearly mean that the end is not in sight as far as that issue is concerned.
“But whether there is an appeal or not, it will not stop the appropriate agencies from setting in motion the necessary machinery to that effect”. Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN) argued that the judgement is one of the best things that has happened to Nigeria in the pursuit of its advancement in democracy.
The silk posited: “The judgement of the National Industrial Court is one of the best things to have happened to Nigeria in the quest for the advancement of constitutional democracy. It is a decision with a grave impact on the third arm of government under the constitution”. He described the judgement as a serious morale booster for a “demoralised, forgotten and sidelined arm of government that has been deliberately neglected by both Executive and Legislature”.
“It is sad that the position of the judiciary and judicial officers is the least understood and appreciated. Judges represent the finest of intellectual, learned, and honourable men and women in any society, who devote themselves by training and continuous education to administering justice and interpreting the constitution and law. They are not officers of the civil service, armed forces, or legislature.
“They represent the mind of the legislature in the interpretation of all laws and correct the errors of the executive arm of government when the need aris- es.
They derive their powers and authority directly from the constitution and not from the convenience, whims, exigencies, or caprices of the legislature or the executive arm of government. It is common knowledge that the legislators go home with at least over N20,000,000 monthly”, Awomolo stated further. In his reaction, Mr. Tobi Ojo, said: “The issue is not per se with the Executive but rather the National Assembly.
To this end, if this judgement will be enforced, the leadership of the Judiciary should engage the National Assembly in a robust discussion on how to kickstart the move. “If all is left at the table of the Executive, the enforcement may not see the light of the day. I am aware that the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, sent in a proposal to review salaries of judicial officers, every four years.
“Justice Muhammad on June 3, 2021 asked the National Assembly to alter the 1999 constitution to mandate the National Judicial Council (NJC) to fix and review judges salaries every four years.
“It is however unfortunate that nothing was heard about it again until this present suit by learned senior and silk, Sebastin Hon”.
An Abuja-based lawyer, Okey Nnaji, opined that the only way the judgement can be enforced is to give the judiciary full independence. ”Ideally, the judiciary is an independent arm and should be able to carry out its own function and administration without interference of the executive, yet, subject to the principle of checks and balances.
”The proposal is to empower the judiciary to function well and curb unfortunate incidents of allegation of bribery and also to be at par with their counterparts in other climes. ”For me, the judiciary should be given that full autonomy to decide and handle its finances by itself ”.
*Additional report by Francis Iwuchukwu