NJC Goes Tough on Frivolous Petitions

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The National Judicial Council (NJC) has introduced what some see as stringent conditions for petitions against judges. Petitions must be received within six months of the act complained about and must be accompanied by a sworn affidavit on oath, among others. Failure to meet the time-limit will result in the petition being dismissed, unless an extension is granted. Some lawyers have praised the new regulations, saying it will prevent frivolous petitions against judges. Others see it all as a way of shielding judges from scrutiny. JOSEPH JIBUEZE writes.

Corruption in the judiciary remains a daunting challenge. It undermines the rule of law and the judiciary’s ability to guarantee the protection of human rights. Judicial corruption victimises those who do not have the means to play by the rules set by a corrupt system.

The National Judicial Council (NJC) is vested with powers to discipline erring judges. It sanctioned no fewer than 64 judges between 2009 and last year, according to the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), who is the NJC chairman, Justice Mahmud Mohammed.

In most cases, it is through petitions to the NJC that judges’ wrongdoing is reported. However, there have been instances where frivolous petitions are written against judges. When such petitions are found to be baseless, the petitioner is usually never sanctioned after a judge’s integrity has been questioned.

Some of the complaints against judges have been found to arise from judgments, which ought to be appealed against. There have also been reported instances in which petitioners fail to turn up.

On frivolous petitions, the immediate past CJN Justice Aloma Mukhtar said soon after she assumed duties, the NJC received 139 petitions, of which 106 were “vexatious and baseless” and only 33 “worthy of attention”.

To address such issues, the 2014 Revised Judicial Discipline Regulations of NJC has been launched. Under the new rules, writers of frivolous petitions risk a jail term because all petitions must be accompanied by sworn oaths. This means that a petitioner who lies against a judge can be charged with perjury.

Some of the new provisions

Petitions must be sent within six months of the act complained against or it will not be treated. However, a petitioner can appeal to the CJN for an extension of time.

Rule 4 reads in part: “(1) A complaint must be made within six months of the event or matter complained of; provided that a complaint relating to a continuing state of affairs may be made at any time while that state of affairs continues or within six months from when it ends.

“(2) Subject to this regulation, a complaint made outside the time limits set in paragraph (1) must be dismissed by the Council upon report to the Council by the Secretary to the Council.

“(3) The Secretary shall notify the person making the complaint of the dismissal not later than 30 days of such dismissal.”

Rule 5 reads in part: “A person who is refused an extension of a time limit under paragraph (1) may make a representation to the Chief Justice of Nigeria/Chairman of Council, asking the Chairman, within 14 days of being notified of the refusal asking him/her the request, for an extension of time.”

Rule 7 provides for a committee which does a preliminary assessment of petitions to determine whether or not they meet the requirements stipulated in the rules. The Secretary to the NJC or the sifting committee can, at that stage, reject a petition.

The Regulations also provides that the petition must be accompanied by a verifying affidavit, be type-written, must be signed by an identifiable person and must bear traceable address of the complainant with his or her phone number.

Rule 7(5) (A) reads: “A complaint must be signed by the complainant and accompanied by a verifying affidavit deposed to by the complainant before a court of record.”

Lawyers hail new rule

Lawyers, including Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs), welcome the new rules. For Dr Joseph Nwobike (SAN), the CJN and other NJC members should be commended for the initiative.

He said one of the consequences of new rules is that petitioners must be sure of their allegations against judicial officers before filing petitions.

According to him, the implication of false accusation contained in sworn affidavits is perjury; which in itself is an offence punishable under the law.

“So, frivolous petitions against judges would be minimised. Again, petitions will no longer be used to blackmail judicial officers when they are being considered for appointment or promotion; as is the case these days.

“One other significant benefit of the new regime is that once petitions are filed, they cannot be withdrawn without the leave of the NJC or the CJN.

“In all, I believe that the new rules will enhance and institutionalise discipline in the judiciary rather than stifle it,” Nwobike said.

For George M. Oguntade (SAN), a regulation of this nature is long overdue and is certainly a welcome development.

He said the judiciary, as an organ of government, plays a vital and indispensable role in ensuring everyone lives under the rule of law.

“Judges are, therefore, highly regarded in the society and are placed on a very high pedestal such that they are able to do their work free from influence.

“Allegations against a judicial officer have ramifications upon the rule of law and the society and therefore not to be made lightly,” Oguntade said.

According to him, a trend has developed where litigants and their cohorts utilise allegations against judges as an instrument of blackmail and abuse of judicial process to achieve their objectives.

Even more worrisome, Oguntade said, is that the petitions are sometimes penned by individuals and entities using pseudonyms and non existent addresses. And where petitions are found to be frivolous, no sanctions are meted out to the petitioner.

“By the time these allegations are made and published, irretrievable damage has been done to the judge concerned and indeed the judiciary while the petitioner would also have accomplished his objective.

“In most cases, the petitioner will fail to appear to substantiate the allegations and even if he does and it is found unmeritorious, no sanction follows. The man is at liberty to go and prepare the next petition with total impunity.

“The regulations will, therefore, operate to ensure that only genuine petitions are presented and where it is found to have been improperly presented, the law will take its course.

“A would be petitioner will have to think twice before taking the course of action knowing he may end up in jail as a perjurer. This can only be to the benefit of our judges and the society,” Oguntade added.

Activist-lawyer Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa said since allegation of corruption or misconduct against a judicial officer is a very serious matter involving very grave considerations and consequences, it is a matter that should be elevated from the realm of frivolities, malice and envy, or of mere speculation and rumour.

To him, anyone who feels that there is enough evidence to back up allegations should be courageous enough to depose to the facts constituting such allegation on oath.

“This innovation by the NJC is thus highly commendable and should be supported by all well meaning stakeholders in the judicial sector.

“Given that the career, name, reputation and destiny of a judge are all involved, no measure taken to secure the credibility of such endeavour may be considered stringent or technical,” Adegboruwa said.

He recommended that the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), through its various chapters, should be incorporated into the process of cleansing the judiciary of corruption.

“To this end, petitions can also be submitted to the local chapter of the NBA in the jurisdiction where the judicial officer concerned is presiding. The distance of the NJC itself, in far away Abuja, may constitute a discouragement for potential complainants,” he said.

Lagos lawyer and Principal Counsel, Auxano Law Consult, Mr Chijioke Emeka, believes the revised Regulations came at the right time because judges have become endangered species in the hands of frivolous petitioners.

“Yes, there may be some bad eggs out there but many times the petitions are simply exercises in witch-hunting,” he said. “For example, a Judge should not become a subject of a petition to the NJC merely because he ruled against someone. But that has become the practice. I suggest more measures, like security for costs, should be added to damnify those who write very frivolous petitions,” Emeka said.

According to him, a judge should not be labelled bad merely because he erred in law or fact.

“The Old Rule is still ‘de fide et officio non recipitur quaestio, sed de scientia sive erro juri sive facti’ (“the honesty and integrity of a judge cannot be questioned but his decision may be impugned for error of fact or law or mixed law and fact” – Bacon Max rep 17).

“The NJC should even tighten the noose against petitioners who write against judges merely because they lost. A judge has the right to see law or facts differently from a petitioner or his lawyer.

“Only Judges tainted by moral turpitude especially corruption should be petitioned against. A very prominent lawyer once asked the Supreme Court for assurance that it would be impartial. That was wrong. Another popular lawyer deposed that a judge usually assigned certain types of cases filed by him to himself and they always ended against him. Again, that was wrong.

“Judges are engaged in very difficult assignments. They need protection too. Good and honest judges should not be smeared merely because they reached an unfavourable decision. Errors of Law or Fact should be appealed against and not petitioned against. Let petitions concentrate on dishonest acts. Every step by the NJC to see to this is right,” Emeka added.

Need for improvement

There are those who are of the view that such stringent procedure could discourage persons with reasonable cause from writing petitions against judges when the judiciary is generally believed to be hampered by widespread corruption.

While some lawyers welcome the Regulations, others think there are flaws in it. To Chief Emeka Ngige (SAN), the revised guidelines will curtail the habit of the writing of frivolous, vexatious or unsubstantiated petitions by faceless, anonymous or disgruntled elements against serving judicial officers who are often helpless when such petitions are eventually dismissed by NJC. “To that extent, the NJC intention is altruistic,” he said.

However, he said there are still some grey areas that need to be fine-tuned. Ngige does not think it will be in the interest of justice to introduce time limit in the writing or sending of petitions to the NJC as a complainant may discover what happened in his/her case several months or years after the event.

“For instance, if he discovers that the judicial officer was compromised in the matter, it will be absurd to deny that petitioner the right to complain when he discovered what happened. I am not unaware of the provisions in the rules for extension of time by the chairman who incidentally is the recipient of the petition.

“It would amount to NJC covering up or shielding the judicial officer if the victim/complainant is told that his complaint is statute or time barred.

“Furthermore I think NJC should also include in its Revised Guidelines the right of a petitioner to be furnished with the response of the judicial officer complained against.

“This is in consonance with the rules of fair hearing. I believe that issue of time bar or limit should be deleted from the Rules just as Fundamental Rights Enforcement Rules 2009 removed the issue of time limit which was then in force in the old rules of 1979,” Ngige said.

A constitutional lawyer Mr Ike Ofuokwu said imposition of stringent measures for sending petitions to NJC will not help matters. To him, there should have been sanctions for writing frivolous petitions rather than making the process of sending them in cumbersome.

“I agree with the fact that sometimes petitions or complaints against Judges are occasionally frivolous and baseless but honestly these are very rare cases and in my candid opinion cannot reasonably justify the imposition of stringent measures. ý

“For instance, how can the format of a complaint of corruption against a Judge affect the substance of the issues? Again, what happens to a layman who has genuine complaints against a Judge but is unable to afford the services of a counsel?” he said.

Ofuokwu said considering the enormous due diligence that must be carried out before a case of corruption can be established against a Judge, the time limit of six months should be extended to one year.

“I cannot see the CJN being generous with the rule on extension of time. It is our hope that this new regulation is not a calculated attempt to shield corrupt Judicial Officers.

“Judges must have an unquestionableý and impeccable character which must at all times be subject to public scrutiny. To put a clog in the wheel of judicial integrity is simply a pointer to the fact that somebody somewhere is afraid of the outcome of judging the judges,” Ofuokwu said.

Adegboruwa said it is also important for the NJC to have independent monitors and assessors because when infractions do occur, considerations of religion, consanguinity, tribal affiliations, among others, all work to silence potential complainants.

NBA’s intervention

Lawyers who feel the procedure is stringent or stressful have the option of sending their complaints through the NBA, which set up a committee to monitor the judges and report corrupt and lazy ones to the NJC.

The committee is to liaise with local NBA branches through which lawyers can submit their complaints where they have evidence that a judge has been compromised, has delivered a judgment that has no basis in law, or exhibits laziness by sitting late, among others.

NBA President Augustine Alegeh (SAN) said the association would then send a formal petition to the NJC after reviewing the complaint or questionable judgment.

“We do not have the power, wherewithal or statutory authority to appoint investigative agencies to probe judges. But we hear everyday of indolence and corruption. A progressive way of attacking these problems is through our branches. Lagos Branch, for instance, can do a sample of lawyers and come up with five judges that NBA can go into their courts, obtain and review their judgments.

“If you go court, and it does not sit; and another man goes to court and he feels that the judgment was obtained by influence – both of you are unhappy with the system. But people will not understand that the man who did not sit is doing as much damage to the system as the man who is corrupt. Indolence, ignorance and corruption are cankerworms. We must attack them together.

“If we hear that a judge does not sit at 9am, it will eventually show in his judgment. If the Bar in Lagos are aware, the help we are seeking from our lawyers is let the branch send one of its officers to go to that court religiously everyday. When he leaves the court he will file an affidavit, that he had been sitting in the court till 11 am and the court is still not sitting. By the time we pile all that up, the association then does a letter, attaches all of these documents and sends to the NJC.

“The only way to know if a judge is corrupt is to look at the judgment. Read it, and the corruption will come out to you from the judgment,” Alegeh said.
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