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*Why judiciary must be autonomous, by jurists*

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Jurists rose from a two-day parley in Lagos with a resolution that unless the judiciary is given its pride of place in Nigeria, the country's development may remain stagnated.

The legal titans who spoke at the recent Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Lagos Branch Law Week which held at the MUSON Centre, Lagos decried poor funding of the judiciary and harassment of judicial officers, warning that this may spell doom for the justice sector.

Firing the first salvo, chairman of the opening ceremony, Hon. Justice George Oguntade (CFR) painted a gloomy picture of the travails of the average judicial officer when he narrated his predicament while on the Bench. According to him, judges who dared to pronounce against the Executive arm of government were often marked as targets for harassment or denial of perquisites of office.

He however urged such judges not to relent, adding that one of the noble virtues of a judge is courage. “Your conscience must at times be your key compass,” he said, noting that judicial independence must not be sacrificed on the altar of pecuniary benefits.

The keynote speaker, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) noted that the judiciary has been under siege from the Executive arm. He was particularly irked that the official courtesies being extended to the Executive by the Judiciary had not been reciprocated, adding that the Executive had not shown any willingness for a paradigm shift in its relations with the Judiciary.

He cited gross under-funding of the judiciary as yet another sign that the Executive arm is paying lip-service to its commitment to reform the justice sector. It is recalled that Agbakoba had successfully levied legal action to assert funding autonomy for the judiciary and compel the Federal Government to hands-off financial matters as it concerns the judiciary.

On his part, Chief Joe-Kyari Gadzama (SAN) said that while judicial autonomy could not be divorced from adequate remuneration for judicial officers, the NBA must rise to the challenge of fighting for judicial independence. He decried poor funding of the judiciary, adding that while judges cannot speak for themselves, the NBA must fill this gap by spearheading the quest for judicial autonomy.

Chief Emeka Ngige (SAN) decried the poor state of judges' remuneration. He stated that only a few judges could boast of a roof over their heads after retirement, and canvassed for the appointment of ad-hoc judges to assist in decongesting the courts and fast-tracking justice delivery.

Speaking on “Judiciary in an Emerging Economy, Challenges and Prospects,” Dr. Wale Babalakin (SAN) also expressed concern over the poor remuneration of judicial officers. Stating that the status of the judiciary had declined over the years, Babalakin said: “Where we are now is a melancholic decadence of a great institution.”

He also decried the loss of values and lack of innovative ways of tackling issues prevalent within the judiciary, adding that “There have been no improvements; we still have unthinking responses to severe problems. Have you related the solution to the problem?”

Reflecting on the appointment of judges, Babalakin warned that Nigeria's judiciary would remain the same until efforts are made to attract the best individuals to the bench. “Our court system will work better when judges have superior intellect than even the best lawyers” he said, adding that a new method has to be found for the composition of the National Judicial Council.

While Mr. Norrison Quakers (SAN) and Mr. Chijioke Okoli (SAN) harped on the need for meaningful judicial reform, Mr. Kemi Balogun (SAN) advised that lawyers who deliberately abuse the judicial process by employing delay tactics should have their practice licences withdrawn. Balogun, who also doubled as Chairman of the 2016 Law Week Committee, said that the theme of the Law Week “is especially germane in light of perceived assault on judicial independence and the deleterious impact such anomaly may have on our nascent democracy.”

Speaking on “Financial Due Diligence and Anti-Bribery Laws,” Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye, Executive Secretary, Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption, noted that while the NBA successfully challenged the SCUML as well as the Anti Money Laundering CFT Regulations for Designated Non-Financial Businesses and Professions in Nigeria of 2013 in a case filed against the Attorney-General of the Federal and CBN, his “key point of concern” is “the efficacy and efficiency of the internal mechanisms of the NBA to discipline its members who infringe the hard and soft laws.”

On his part, NBA Lagos Branch Chairman, Mr. Martin Ogunleye urged lawyers to save judicial time by shunning delay tactic, adding that “we have to be creative and understand our position in the current economic milieu.”

Other topics tackled within the ambit of the theme include Emerging Trends in Copyright, Computer Software and Trademarks; Mergers, Acquisitions and Strategic Alliances: The Role of a Lawyer; The Cult of a Judge: Judicial Accountability in a Democratic Modern Society; Admissibility of Electronic Evidence: Matters Arising; Port Regulations and Infrastructure in Nigeria; Business Development in a changing Legal Market; Combating Money Laundering: The Roles of Lawyers and the Judiciary (Bar/Bench Forum), and Is Advocacy Training an important Part of a Young Lawyer's Development? (Young Lawyers Forum). The Mock Arbitration clinic was anchored by respected arbitrator, Mrs. Doyin Rhodes-Vivour in collaboration with the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (UK) and the Lagos Court of Arbitration (LCA), while the N1.2 Billion fund raising dinner for the building of a befitting Bar Centre/Secretariat (“NBA LAGOS HOUSE”) was spearheaded by lawyer cum business mogul, Chief Dewunmi Ogunsanya (SAN).

Other jurists and speakers at the event were Hon. Justice E. Adeniyi-Adeogo Adebajo, Hon. Justice Alaba Omolaye-Ajileye, Mr. Tayo Oyetibo (SAN), Mr. Kemi Pinheiro (SAN), Mr. Osaro Eghobamien (SAN), Mr. Jelili Abiodun Owonikoko (SAN), Ms. Funke Aboyade (SAN), Dr. Dapo Olanipekun (SAN), Mrs. Funke Agbor (SAN), Chief Tony Okoroji and former NBA Lagos Branch Chairman, Mr. Alex Muoka to name a few.

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