Lawyers: Planned 75 years’ retirement age’ll erode quality of justice system
AKEEM NAFIU writes that lawyers have advised the National Assembly to resist the invitation of considering retirement age of Justices of the Supreme Court from 70 to 75 years in order to avoid aggravating the mirage of problems confronting the nation’s justice sector
Some senior lawyers are pushing for the sustenance of the existing statutory retirement age of 70 years for Justices of the Supreme Court.
This, the lawyers believed amending the Constitution to shift the retirement age from 70 to 75 years will be counter-productive and may spell the doom for the nation’s justice sector.
Deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo-Agege (APC, Delta Central) had while speaking at a retreat put together by the Senate Constitution Review Committee to review and analyze submitted memoranda revealed that the Red Chambers was putting measures in place to push for an increase in retirement age of Supreme Court Justices from the age of 70 to 75 years.
According to Omo-Agege, who also doubles as the chairman of the Committee, the proposal for an increment in retirement age was from the apex court and it will be deliberated upon by the Senate next month. T
he senator further revealed that Ad hoc Committee on Review of the 1999 Constitution had received over 250 memoranda which would be converted to Bill and consider on the floor of Senate by June 2021.
He said: “To put you under further pressure, we have also decided to extricate one or two issues dealing with the judiciary, most importantly, the one dealing with the retirement age for judges of the states, including the FCT and the Federal High Courts to bring in parity with the 70 year retirement age of the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.
“There is also the issue of the clamour by the Supreme Court to also move from 70 to 75 years. I am sure you are all aware that it is up to our colleagues in both chambers and of course, the State Houses of Assembly to decide whether or not we should move ahead with both.
“But I want to put you under pressure that these two Bills must be ready for consideration by March. Both houses – the Senate and the House of Representatives – would be prepared to take those two isolated issues while every other matter under consideration will come up on the floor of the Senate and the House of Representatives in June this year.
”The sole purpose of this retreat is to review and analyze the 2014 National Conference Report, the Report of the APC Ad-hoc Committee on True Federalism and the over 280 memoranda we have received from the public and translate them into Bills proposals for the Senate Committee.
“These memoranda and positions express concern, as well as seek solutions, to the many problems that currently confront us as a country, and they come from diverse interests that make up our country.
They cover a range of areas that include, inter alia, the devolution of power to the federating units by way of moving some items from the exclusive to the concurrent list.” A Bill seeking to alter relevant sections of the Constitution to raise the retirement age of judiciary workers in Nigeria to 75 has equally passed through the first reading at the House of Representatives.
The Bill was being sponsored by the Chairman, House Committee on Judiciary, Onofiok Luke. Explaining the rationale behind sponsoring the Bill, the lawmaker said he believed the amendment would promote experience and quality in the judiciary.
The Bill reads: “A Bill to alter the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Cap. C23, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, to increase the retirement age for judicial officers in order to secure judicial independence, protect judicial officers from pressure, and promote experience and quality in justice delivery in Nigeria, and for related matters”.
The Bill seeks to alter Section 291 of the Constitution by substituting the word “seventy” in Line 2, Subsection 1 with the word “seventy-five,” and substituting for the word “sixty-five” with the word “seventy” in Line 3, Section 2. Retired judges, lawyers’ view In the meantime, oppositions are mounting against the National Assembly’s planned amendment of the Constitution to shift the retirement age of Supreme Court Justices from 70 to 75 years.
Prominent among those opposing the planned amendment is a former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Isa Ayo Salami.
The retired former President Court of Appeal said that the existing retirement age was adequate for any sincere hardworking member of the Supreme Court and as such there was no need for any amendment.
Justice Salami further advised that vacancies that may exist after some Justices might have left the Bench on reaching the statutory retirement age can be filled from a pool of qualified, experienced and healthier professionals.
He said: “It’s understood that it’s being contemplated to raise the tenure of the Supreme Court Justices and possibly those of the Court of Appeal to 75 years within the next couple of weeks to be precise, before the end of March.
“The profession is ominously silent over it. I could remember that the same issue was brought up by the Senate during my screening for the President of the Court of Appeal which was persuaded by my reasoning.
“I contended that very few of us had birth certificates. Invariably we rely on declaration of age, which is generally inflated because they are inferred from incidences or occurrences the happening of which we were not sure of.
“So to be increasing age which is predicated on unsure parameters could be dangerous merely because their counterparts elsewhere retire at about that age without taking into account the faulty starting point. “The living conditions in those countries as well as their health facilities are in no manner comparable with ours. Many of them are not healthy.
They regularly travel abroad for treatment, and some of them forget easily in addition to memory challenges. “In the circumstances, some of the Justices would only be there as passengers to fulfill statutory conditions without ability to make meaningful contribution.
This is a condition that could easily be exploited by dishonest members of the court. “It’s my humble opinion that the present retirement age is adequate for any sincere hardworking member of the court. It’s not only consuming but also tasking emotionally, physically and mentally. There is a pool of qualified, experienced and healthier professionals from which vacancies created by their respective retirements can be filled. “We should have in mind their output at old age.
The interest of the nation and not preference of the Justices should be paramount on the minds of the senators. “The employer and not the labourer determines the duration of the contract. It’s the people who make a constitution for themselves and not an institution thereof.”
Like the retired judge, some senior lawyers have equally added their voice to the rejection of the planned Constitution amendment to accommodate a shift in the retirement age of Supreme Court Justices from 70 to 75 years.
The lawyers while baring their minds on the issue at the weekend expressed deep concerns at the negative effects such an action will have on the nation’s justice section.
They cautioned the National Assembly against proceeding with the planned amendment saying what should be paramount in the mind of the lawmakers should be how to strengthen the judiciary as an institution to be able to dispense justice without fear or favour.
Speaking on the issue, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mr. Seyi Sowemimo (SAN), said increasing the retirement age of Supreme Court Justices from 70 to 75 years will be a mistake.
He said: “I align myself with the views expressed by Justice Salami, the former President of the Court of Appeal, that it will be a mistake to increase the retirement age for Justices of the Supreme Court. By the time most of them retire at 70, their productivity has reduced greatly and we always have a pool of competent and more energetic hands waiting to replace them.”
Sowemimo was echoed by another silk, Mr. Hakeem Afolabi, who also believed that there was no justification for proposed increment in the retirement age of Supreme Court Justices.
“Extending the retirement age of Supreme Court Justices from 70 to 75 years is not a well thought out idea. The present retirement age of 70 years for me is okay. There is no justification for the proposed extension. “The health care facilities in Nigeria cannot sustain old-age related challenges which older people in Nigeria have. Some of them are having memory challenges aside other ailments.
Some serving Justices are over 70 years of age, however they made guesses as to their ages. “Nigeria with a population of over 200 million is blessed with so many agile and active minds that can easily replace any judge that retires at 70.
In essence, Nigeria will not lose anything if we retain the retirement age of 70. It is hoped that the National Assembly will resist the invitation to consider extending the retirement age to 75,” Afolabi said.
Mr. Kunle Adegoke (SAN) opined that increasing the retirement age will further compound the already terrible situation of the justice sector. He said: “Personally, I don’t see any sense in it. At age 70, many of our Justices of the Supreme Court are tired and worn out.
The conditions of service and the remunerations do not deserve any thanks for this. It is better we don’t compound an already terrible situation. It is better to improve on the welfare of judges and ensure we fortify them against any temptation of corrupting influence.
“Why increasing the service years of Supreme Court Justices when an average civil servant retires at 60? Does the system want to milk dry an otherwise dying camel before it is returned to the final abattoir? What I believe we need is strengthening the judiciary as an institution to be able to dispense justice without fear or favour.
“An average Justice of the Supreme Court is a waiting game for excruciating poverty after retirement. His remuneration while in service can hardly sustain him.
Many of them don’t have dignifying personal homes to return to upon retirement. At the same time, we have lots of young men and women, brilliant and energetic enough to step into their shoes and pave way for greater service. It is rather better not to politicise issues relating to the judiciary but create an enduring institution that can guarantee efficient and effective dispensation of justice.
“Furthermore, the Supreme Court should be unburdened with the junk that overburdened its jurisdiction right now. There are many matters that go to the Supreme Court that do not deserve a hearing beyond the Court of Appeal.
A situation where the apex court must deliver up to 30 judgements every Friday only gives room for less intellectually considered judgements and nothing more.
“The current load is too crushing even if the number of Justices were to be increased to 50. The only solution is to reduce the jurisdiction of the court, improve the welfare of the Justices and their brothers in the lower courts, accord the institution judicial autonomy and respect qualitative appointment process devoid of political influences. Increase in service years will only gratify some ego and contribute nothing to the justice sector.”
Mr. Oluwole Kehinde also said he did not see any need for the National Assembly to increase the retirement age of Supreme Court Justices. He said: “I think it’s unnecessary and undesirable.
Even at 70, many of them are tired. They are indeed more experienced, but the hard and harsh environment they work in easily wear them out of required energy and vitality. I suggest the retirement age be left at 70.”
Dr. Fassy Yusuf was also against the planned age increment. He believed the existing retirement age of Supreme Court Justices is more than good enough. Yusuf said: “Giving our present circumstance and the peculiarity of the Nigeria’s environment, I don’t think it is necessary and desirable to increase the retirement age of the Justices of Supreme Court from 70 to 75. This, to me is unnecessary and uncalled for.
“I think the present retirement age of 70 is more than good enough and extending it to 75 will be denying the younger ones the opportunity to serve the nation. Moreover, we should take the medical status of our Justices into consideration and anything that may jeopardize their health should not be allowed.
What I think should be paramount in our minds is how to speed up justice dispensation in the country and how can we get our courts to perform optimally rather than the issue of increasing retirement age of Justices”.
Mr. Ige Asemudara also asked the National Assembly to shelve the idea of tampering with the existing retirement age of Supreme Court Justices. “Ordinarily, there is nothing wrong with increasing the retirement age of Supreme Court Justices from 70 to 75 years old.
This is because the need to take advantage of their experience which will be peaked at that age cannot be overemphasized. “However, there is a challenge. Life expectancy in Nigeria is very low. At that age, many will be weak, worn out or sick. It is a natural phenomenon. We need an agile and healthy Supreme Court.
So, it is neither here nor there. If you ask me, I will say we should leave it as it is for the reason I have given. Instead of increasing the retirement age, the number of Supreme Court Justices should be expanded so that we have up to like five or six panels to cater for the backlog of cases. We can also have specialized panels for certain specialized cases. What we need is increased number of hands not increased age.
These are my thoughts.” Speaking in the same vein, Mr. Destiny Takon, said there was no reasonable basis for increasing the retirement age of Supreme Court Justices from 70 to 75 years. He said: “The question I would love to ask is what informed the proposed amendment?
Is it that there is a dearth of qualified persons already on the higher Bench in Nigeria to man the Supreme Court panels? Is it because the current Justices on the roll at the Supreme Court are the best brains we have ever produced as to endure that we still avail ourselves of their rare endowment with wisdom, intelligence or legal wizardry?
My answer to the above questions and many like questions not raised here is a capital no. “As far as I am concerned, we have the most politically compromised and lily-hearted set of Justices on the roll of the Supreme Court today. Amongst them is the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) who during a screening session at the National Assembly for his confirmation called a pilot ‘Driver of aeroplane.’ That was a testimony of intellectual poverty.
“We have had too many instances of election cases before the apex court that even a layman is wondering about the pronouncements of the apex court, like the case against Buhari by Atiku, where the world heard the term “eminently qualified” for a man who only had an affidavit and a forged Oridinary Level Certificate in place of the clear requirements for his office under the Electoral Act.
“Having said all these, I do not think that there is any reasonable need for extending the retirement age of Supreme Court Justices from 70 to 75 years.
If for nothing else, humans grow senile and impatient with age and I do not think that we need to add senility and impatience to the many issues we are now grappling with, affecting the Justices of the apex court, under our compromising political climate.”