A judicial officer or generally speaking, a Justice or Judge of any of our exalted courts, occupies a very unique and sacred position in the society. Occupying this position means that a high level of integrity, honesty and accountability is expected from judicial officers since they literally sit in judgment over the affairs and interactions of members of the society. It then means that where a judicial officer violates or breaches any of the strict codes or standards of his exalted office, the society through relevant laws and structures must respond decisively to deal with such breach or violations that could be described as unbecoming of a holder of such a sacred and exalted office.
A feature of judicial accountability is that judges must be subject to discipline if they fail to live above board. The means by which this can be achieved is provided under the Constitution and the law. However, the constitutional apparatus for achieving this should be transparent and effective and must not lose sight of the primary aim of enforcing accountability without impairing judicial independence or covering the lapses of judges out of a feeling of loyalty or friendship. These are the basic parameters of judicial accountability.
Essentially under Nigerian law, a reference to a judicial officer is a reference to the holder of any of the following offices: the Chief Justice of Nigeria or a Justice of the Supreme Court, the President of the Court of Appeal, the office of the Chief Judge or a Judge of the Federal High Court, the office of the Chief Judge or Judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, the office of the Chief Judge of a state and Judge of the High Court of a state, a Grand Kadi or Kadi of the Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, a President or a Judge of the Customary Court of Appeal of a state.
A petition can be brought against a judicial officer and shall be written to the National Judicial Council (NJC) who shall give a directive for the investigation of the allegation against the particular judicial officer. The investigation must be based on the strict adherence to the principles of fair hearing as is provided for in the Constitution. The judicial officer in question must be properly informed of the allegation leveled against him and the petitioner must support his allegations with credible evidence.
On the event that the judicial officer is found guilty, there are certain penalties that he could face. These penalties are as prescribed by the laws which regulate the conduct of these men and women of the judiciary. These are the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers and the National Judicial Council Guidelines. Judges are free to get legal representation and the decision of the panel is presented to the Council for confirmation. If the judge is found guilty, the Council may admonish, or advice a compulsory retirement, or recommend a dismissal to the President or Governor as the case may be. Pending the response of the President or Governor, the Council may indefinitely suspend the judge without salary. The President or State Governors cannot on their own dismiss a judge except as recommended by the Council.
A report by the Premium Times on February 21, 2013, stated that Justices Charles Archibong of the Federal High Court, Lagos and Thomas Naron of the Plateau State High Court were suspended by the NJC for alleged judicial misconduct. Again on February 28, 2014, it was reported by Ihuoma Chiedozie of the Punch Newspaper that two Judges were dismissed by the NJC. Justice Gladys Olotu of the Abuja Federal High Court and Justice U.A Inyang of the Federal Capital Territory High Court were both suspended for gross misconduct. The suspension was an interim penalty while a recommendation for their dismissal was before President Goodluck Jonathan.
One of the instruments implemented by the NJC to ensure accountability and discipline of judicial officers is a type of judicial monitoring. The NJC in 2003 set up an Evaluation and Monitoring Committee which has the responsibility to visit all courts of high jurisdiction on a quarterly basis for evaluation of their performance. Although every Judge has a right to determine how to run his chambers, the NJC through its Judicial Performance and Evaluation Committee is now poised to insist on using each aspect of the Code to bring erring judicial officers to justice.
This Code of Conduct covers basically three wide aspects of the Judicial Officer’s life. The first is on general attitude and social relations. Under this, the Judicial Officer is enjoined to avoid impropriety and any appearance of impropriety in all his activities. He should respect and comply with the law of the land and should at all times conduct himself in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. Rule 1 of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers provides thus:
A Judicial Officer should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all his activities.
- A Judicial Officer should respect and comply with the laws of the land and should conduct himself at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the Judiciary.
- Social Relationships:
- A Judicial Officer must avoid social relationship that are improper or give rise to an appearance of impropriety, that cast doubt on the judicial officers ability to decide cases impartially, or that bring disrepute to the Judiciary.
- A Judicial Officer shall not be a member of any society or organisation that practises invidious discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion or ethnic origin or whose aims and objectives are incompatible with the functions or dignity of his office.
The second is on his functions as a Judge. This covers three parts: his adjudicative duties; administrative duties and his duties to observe the rule of natural justice as regards impartiality. See Rule 2(A-B) of the Code. Emphasis is placed on Rule 2(C) which provides the grounds for which a judicial officer may disqualify himself or be disqualified from presiding over a matter assigned to him. This rule states that a Judicial Officer should disqualify himself in a proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned, including but not limited to the instances where:
- he has personal bias or prejudice concerning a party or personal knowledge of facts in dispute;
- he served as a legal practitioner in the matter in controversy, or a legal practitioner with whom he previously practiced law served during such association as a legal practitioner concerning the matter or the Judicial Officer or such legal practitioner has been a material witness in the matter;
- he knows that he individually or as a Judicial Officer or his spouse or child, has a financial or any other interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding;
- he or his spouse, or a person related to either of them or the spouse of such person:
- is a party to the proceedings, or an officer, director or trustee of a party;
- is acting as a legal practitioner in the proceedings;
- is known by the Judicial Officer to have an interest which could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceedings;
- is to the Judicial Officer’s knowledge likely to be a material witness in the proceedings.
Rule 2(D) provides for the waiver of disqualification. A Judicial Officer disqualified by the terms of Rule 2C (1) (c) or Rule 2C (1)(d) may, instead of withdrawing from the proceedings disclose on the record the basis of his disqualification. If based on such disclosure, the parties, their representatives and or their legal practitioners, independently of the Judicial Officer’s participation, all agree that the Judicial Officer’s relationship is immaterial or that his financial interest is insubstantial, the Judicial Officer is no longer disqualified and may participate in the proceedings. The consent by the parties, their representatives and/or their legal practitioners shall be recorded and shall form part of the record of proceedings.
The third and final aspect of the Code of Conduct enjoins the Judicial Officer to regulate his extra-judicial activities to decrease the possibility and danger of clash with his judicial duties. These judicial activities relate to vocational activities, civil and charitable activities, freedom of expression and association, non acceptance of chieftaincy titles, business and financial activities, acceptance of gifts; and fiduciary activities (except for the estate, trust, or a member of his family) only if it will not interfere with his judicial responsibilities.
The position of Judicial Officers in the society is not just sacred but extremely important. Holders of these offices must see themselves as holders of the sacred trust of members of the society. It then means that where a Judicial Officer violates or breaches this sacred trust, he must be held accountable because if the standards applicable to the holders of these offices are not set high and the bar is lowered, justice will not only be denied members of the society but the process of anarchy might actually be set in motion.