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‘Too powerful’ – Lawyers, CSOs, others seek unbundling of CJN’s office

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Legal practitioners and civil groups in Nigeria have called for the unbundling of the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, on the grounds that the occupant posseses “overbearing and ubiquitous powers” which can impact negatively on the judiciary.

They claimed that Office of the CJN, as it is presently constituted, is too powerful with unprecedented functions that can make the occupants go astray.

This was part of recommendations contained in a communique issued at the end of a one-day conference in Abuja on Judicial Accountability, organized by TAP Initiative, with support from Open Society Foundations.

It will be recalled that a former Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Muhammad Musa Dattijo, made a similar call last November while retiring from the bench of the apex court.

According to the retired apex court justice, the CJN being the Chairman of National Judicial Council, Federal Judicial Service Commission, National Judicial Institute and Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee, posseses overwhelming powers that can be abused.

The conference which has the theme, ‘Impact of Judicial Accountability on Democratic Resilience and Public Trust in the Legal System’, had 540 participants drawn from the judiciary, civil society, lawyers, university students, Embassies and High Commissions, as well as other international development partners.

Amongst those who signed the communique issued on Monday, include Jibrin Okutepa, SAN, Adamson Adeboro, SAN, Mbasekei Martin Obono, Victoria Benson and Lillian Okenwa.

The communique recalled that discussants “questioned the overbearing and ubiquitous power of the Chief Justice of Nigeria on the accountability structures of the Judiciary, especially the National Judicial Council, where the CJN almost single-handedly appoints all the members”.

While claiming the situation as one of the greatest reasons for the dwindling trust Nigerians have in the judiciary, they said it would be difficult for the NJC to exercises disciplinary control over judicial officers if they are appointed by the CJN.

Besides, the participants argued that having been appointed by the CJN, the NJC cannot take any disciplinary measures against the CJN if the need arises.

“That the office of the CJN should be unbundled especially as chairman of the National Judicial Council, Federal Judicial Service Commission, National Judicial Institute and Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee”, the communique read in part.

Meanwhile, the participants called for the strengthening of the NJC in order to hold judicial officers accountable, adding that the code of ethics for judicial officers by the NJC needs no review but proper political will by the CJN to investigate and sanction erring judicial officers.

On the issue of appointment, the participants called for the strengthening of the integrity requirement for appointment of judges, as well as making it more transparent.

According to them, transparency in judicial appointments has been “identified as a veritable medium to curb the decadence in the judiciary”, adding that transparency is necessary to achieve judicial accountability”.

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“The topical issue of nepotistic appointment of heads of courts was also raised and opinions seemed to be divided on its propriety. The keynote speaker noted that there was nothing wrong with heads of courts appointing their family members into judicial offices so long as they meet the requirements.

“The question posed was whether merit and qualification alone is sufficient basis to appoint a family member or whether the underlying moral and ethical considerations make it inappropriate. A greater majority of panelists frowned at this practice and felt it infringed inalienable moral and ethical duties of the implicated heads of Courts”, the communique said.

The Conference was convened to acknowledge the critical role of the judiciary in Nigeria’s democracy and to recognize the far-reaching impact of judicial pronouncements on the lives of citizens.

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