Some lawyers have knocked the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Tanko Muhammad’s call that the Supreme Court justices should be reduced from 21 to 16.
The CJN on June 3 presented to the Senate committee on the review of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution, a 45-point constitutional proposal on judicial reforms for amendment.
Some legal practitioners disagreed with Mr Muhammad’s stance.
For Abdulhamid Mohammed, a lawyer, the government should increase the number of the court’s judges.
“Sometimes, lawyers differ from the opinion of judges. As a practitioner, the fact is the Supreme Court is overwhelmed at the moment.
“Every consequential issue that you have an appeal on, you take it to the Supreme Court; divorce matters go up to the Supreme Court, land matter goes to Supreme Court, etc., except the Industrial Court matters which stop at the Court of Appeal.”
He added, “So the Supreme Court is overwhelmed, especially when there are election petition matters at the Supreme Court.
“So you will see in the whole legal year, those matters that go to Supreme Court, the judges might not even handle them because they are overwhelmed.”
Mr Mohammed also argued that the present number, at times, hampered how panels are constituted.
“Sometimes you go to Supreme Court, and you discover that a panel that is supposed to handle a particular matter, the panel may not be fully constituted.
“Then they have to go back and constitute that panel, and what brought about this is actually because of the number of judges are not adequate in my own humble opinion,” he added.
The lawyer noted that the apex court had three courtrooms, and many cases are brought to it.
“The situation warrants that in every civil appeal, they go to Supreme Court; criminal appeal, they go to Supreme Court and even interlocutory appeal, they go to Supreme Court.
“So that is why the Supreme Court is overwhelmed with many appeals. Therefore, before an appeal is determined at the Supreme Court, it may take years,” he noted.
A Lagos-based lawyer, Josephine Uzoya-Ijekhuemen, corroborating Mr Mohammed’s statement, said, “As we stand, the court is already overwhelmed, and we do not have the requisite number of Justices to date.
“So reducing them further is not a good idea and will only result in hardships and delays, which is not good for Justice.”
Another legal practitioner, Ede Joshua-Oritsegbemi, also opposed the CJN’s proposal to reduce the number of justices at the apex court.
“With profound respect to his lordship, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, I don’t hold the same view that the number of Supreme Court justices should be reduced to 16 from 21. My candid opinion is that the number of justices be increased beyond 21,” he said.
Mr Joshua-Oritsegbemi, a civil rights activist, also asserted that rather than reduce the number of Supreme Court’s judges, the country should amend the constitution to ensure that the apex court has judicial divisions.
“The Supreme Court should have other judicial divisions of at least one in each geo-political zones of Nigeria.
“The National Headquarters should be in Abuja,” he urged, claiming his submission is based on the volume, quality and contentious nature of “our cases.”
“Consequently, we cannot afford to comfortably and reasonably do otherwise in this current reality that is facing us squarely,” said Oritsegbemi.
The lawyers, who backed the CJN on altering the 1999 Constitution to mandate the National Judicial Council to fix and review judges’ salaries every four years, disagreed with his suggestions that all appeals from the Court of Appeal should be by leave of the Supreme Court.
For Mr Mohammed, the review of the judges’ salaries would enhance their welfare packages and increase their productivity.
He said it was disheartening that the salaries of most of the judicial workers were stagnant.
According to him, the salary of a high court judge “does not even fluctuate.”
“The judge can stay for 15 to 20 years on the bench, but the salary will still remain stagnant, unlike other allowances and some benefits,” he stated.
He said except the judge was promoted to the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court, the basic salary would remain stagnant.
Ms Uzoya-Ijekhuemen said the submission would give more independence to the NJC and likely helped to promote financial autonomy “needed for the independence of the judiciary, which should be a separate arm as defined by the principle of separation of power.”
Mr Joshua-Oritsegbemi also supported the CJN’s view on fixing and reviewing the judges’ judges.
“I concur with the view of his lordship, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, that the NJC should be the constitutionally mandated body to fix and review the salaries of judges and magistrates should be included in conjunction with the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission ( RMAFC) every four years,” he said.