Corruption And Other Sharp Practices In The Lower Bench Exposed: What The Chief Judges Of Various States In Nigeria Must Do.
The lower bench refers to the judges of the inferior courts which constitute the courts that were not expressed established under section 6 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigerian, 1999 (as Amended), but are created by various States' Legislations in Nigeria pursuant to the provisions of the said Constitution. The names and jurisdictions of inferior courts in Nigeria vary based on their geographical locations. In the Northern part of this Country (and this includes the North Central), inferior courts are: Magistrate's Courts (which double as District Courts in civil matters), Area Courts of various grades, Upper Area Courts, and Sharia Courts. In the Southern part of Nigeria (and this covers the Southeast, Southsouth, and Southwest), the inferior courts are: Customary Courts of different grades, and Magistrate's Courts. Of course, other courts such as Family Courts, Rents Tribunal, Tax Tribunal, Mobile Courts, etc exist both in the Northern and Southern part of Nigeria, and they certainly fall into the classification of inferior courts.
Judges who preside over inferior courts are always referred to as Judges of the Lower Bench. One major feature of the lower bench is that the presiding Judges and the Lawyers that appear before them do not robe in full legal regalia unlike it is done in the higher bench, that is, the superior courts of records. Another basic feature of inferior courts is that their decisions or judgments are not reported unlike the decisions of superior courts. In other words, inferior courts are not court of records as their decisions are not reported.
Apart from the above features of inferior courts or the lower bench, there is one striking negative feature of these courts and that has to do with corruption and other sharp practices that play out there. Unlike superior courts, there is no much public gaze or attention at the 'activities' of the lower bench. And taking advantage of this lacuna, most of the judges in the lower bench castrate justice and bend its head! They solicit for gratification, accept bribes and compromise cases, leaving the victims of their perveted decisions with the annoying cliché: "Any party aggrieved with this decision has right to appeal to...Court within....days"!
Apart from compromising cases and perverting justice, most of the judges of the lower bench also misappropriate monies realized from fines imposed on convicts in criminal cases, thereby sabotaging revenue generation in the judiciary. They do this in many ways. First, some judges of the lower bench while delivering judgments in criminal cases would impose a particular amount as fine(s) (orally) which would be paid by the convict(s) and then, record a lesser amount (which most times are very ridiculous) in its judgment. For instance, the judge may have recorded that the sum of N 2000 only be paid by the defendant/convict as fine(s) but in the open court, he would pronounce that the defendant shall pay the sum of N 20,000 only as fine(s). By so doing, only the recorded sum of N 2000 only would get into the Government coffers (if at all it actually gets there) while the surplus N 18,000 only goes into the pocket of the corrupt lower bench judge! This corrupt practice is possible because in most of the States in Nigeria, such fines are paid in cash to the Registrar of the lower bench who would in turn handle the money in accordance with the instruction of his or her boss (the lower bench judge).
Secondly, there are times when some lower bench judges do not impose fine(s) at all in their judgments but nevertheless, declare in the open court that the defendant shall pay certain amount as fine(s). For instance, some of the judges may declare in the open court that a defendant/convict shall pay the sum of N 10, 000 only as fine(s) but record in their judgments that the defendant/convict is sentenced to perform community service for two weeks. This particular sharp practice is not common in cases in which a defendant is legally represented because of the possibility of appeal in which case, the record of proceedings would be critically scrutinized.
Another aspect in which corruption plays out in the lower bench has to do with imposition of an order for payment of money as restitution in victimless crimes, such as the offence of disturbance of public peace. Recently, yours sincerely was reliably told about a certain court in a particular State which ordered defendants (6 of them) to pay the sum of N 15,000 only each (totalling N 90,000 only) as restitution after they pleaded guilty to the offence of disturbance of public peace in which nobody was a victim! The order of payment of N 15,000 only each as restitution was made in addition to an order of payment of fines of N 10,000 only to be paid by the convicts individually. While an account number belonging to the State's judiciary was given to the convicts to pay the said fines, they were however, instructed to come to the Court personally to pay the said restitution in cash. Such monies do not go into the Government's Treasury; they end up in the purse of the corrupt judges of the lower bench!
Furthermore, another area of corruption in the lower bench has to do with forfeiture of bail bonds. Most times, monies forfeited by sureties as bail bonds are not remitted into the Government's Treasury. In a rare occasion of remitting such money into the Government's coffers, the amount which would be recorded by most of the corrupt lower bench judges as having been forfeited will be far less than the amount actually forfeited by the surety or sureties as the case may be. All these affect revenue generation in the judiciary.
Talking about revenue generation, most of the corrupt judges of the lower bench, their registrars and other staffers, are guilty of sabotaging Government's revenue sources especially as it relates to issuance of affidavits and other court processes in which fees are paid. There is no doubt that a good number of people depose to affidavits on daily basis and they pay between N300 - N1000 (depending on the deponent's knowledge or exposure), but sadly enough, little or nothing is remitted into the Government's coffers from monies generated therefrom. This sorry tale has gotten to the extent that court clerks and even security men who guard court premises now issue affidavits even from the comfort of their homes, and collect money in respect thereof. All they need to do is to photocopy many copies of Affidavit Forms of different purposes and give it any number of their choice and endorse on same the unverifiable claim of "Oath Fees Paid"! Unfortunately, these affidavits are accepted by Banks and even government institutions without taking steps to verify their authenticity especially as it relates to the oath or affidavit being sworn to before the appropriate person and payment of the appropriate fees to the right authority. The Oaths Act has provided in detail the categories of persons and/or authorities before whom an oath can be taken or affidavit sworn. See section 10 (1) of the Oaths (Amendment) Act, 2016. The Act in the said section, expressly listed the categories of persons before whom an oath, affidavit or declaration can be taken. Thus, any person or authority not mentioned in the said provisions cannot validly issue affidavit and/or administer oath or declaration. The law is trite that the express mention of a thing excludes the other (expressio unius exclusio alterius). It therefore, goes without saying that any staff of the judiciary who has not been appointed as "Commissioner for Oaths" or captured as part of the persons that can administer oath under the Oaths Act, cannot validly issue affidavits and/or administer oath or declaration to people.
Another sharp practice that takes place in the lower bench is the issue of impersonation of judges by Court registrars and clerks. A lot of mock(ery) trials are conducted in the registeries of several inferior courts by court registrars and other co-conspirators, and sometimes, with the consent, knowledge and/or condonation of the judge (s) in charge of the inferior court(s). Sometimes ago, I met a man who was held hostage in the registry of a particular court in a particular State. When the man made efforts to talk to me, the Registrar in the said court, quickly told me to ignore him. But then, I knew that something was amiss and therefore, demanded to hear from him. That was when the man narrated to me how he was apprehended by the Registrar who came to his house with a Police man on the very day he lost his son to arrest him (over a debt which he owed a particular man who reported him to the callous Registrar), and detained him at a particular Police Station in the State till the following morning. According to the man, the same court Registrar came to the Police Station around 5am and whisked him away to the court where he was then kept in the court registry at the pleasure of the said court Registrar! The said Registrar, having taken advantage of the man's ignorance, assumed the position of a judge in his own office and subjected the said man to what I regard as a "mockery trial" before I arrived the scene. The man also narrated to me how another man was punished in his presence and ordered to kneel down for several hours by the same Registrar on that same day over "maintenance fee" issue between the man and his estranged wife.
Being provoked by the ordeal of the said man I met in the court registry, I demanded from the Registrar the case number of the matter in respect of which he orchestrated the detention of the man in the police station only to discover that no such case was in the court's cause list. As a matter of fact, there was no case at all formerly filed against the man before the court. The creditor merely reported the man (debtor) to the Court Registrar, and the latter arrogated to himself the powers of a judge and conspired with a compromised police officer, to detain him (the debtor) illegally. A fundamental right enforcement suit was later filed against the said Court Registrar and the DPO of the Police Station in which the illegal detention of the man took place but the suit was later withdrawn via out-of-court settlement.
The story of the man narrated above represents the experiences of many people in the hands of mischievous registrars and clerks in the lower bench. They impersonate their judges and extort money from innocent and unsuspecting people who fall into their traps. There are many instances where suspects are remanded in Police and Prison Custodies based on an invalid "court order" signed by a Court Registrar by way of impersonation as a Judge just to justify his gratification and/or to achieve an unscrupulous aim.
What is the way Forward?
In order to checkmate corruption and other sharp practices in the lower bench, the Chief Judges of various States of the Federation have a lot of works to do; they must brighten their supervisory eyes on the activities of the lower bench judges under their control and also ensure proper monitoring of lower court registrars and other staffers of their State's Judiciary.
It is hereby recommended by yours sincerely as follows:
1. Receipts should be issued to defendants who pay money as fines/restitutions in cash and such receipts should be displayed in a notice board in the court registry for public view, access and scrutiny.
2. A task force should be created by the Chief Judges of various States in Nigeria to monitor the activities of lower bench judges and their registrars/clerks most especially on the issue of remittances of monies paid as fines as well as those forfeited as bail bonds by sureties in courts.
3. There is need for collaboration between the Judicial Service Commission of various States (including the FCT) and Commercial Banks as well as other bodies and institutions which request for affidavits, to ensure that only affidavits in respect of which monies are paid into the Government's Treasury and sworn to before the appropriate person and/or authority, are accepted from individuals.
4. Every affidavit should be paid for through remita process in order to checkmate diversion, misappropriation and sabotage of revenue generation in the judiciary.
5. EFCC and ICPC should beam and/or extend their searchlights on the activities of the lower bench judges, registrars and clerks so as to reduce barest minimum corruption and other sharp practices that thrive there.
Corruption and sharp practices occur everywhere. The higher bench (i.e. superior courts) are also not free from the vices pointed out above. The only difference is that they are more pronounced in the lower bench than they are in the higher bench. Corruption and other sharp practices in the higher bench are not done with reckless abandon as they are done in the lower bench. There is the need to put in place watertight mechanisms which would sanitize the judicial system from the scourge of corruption and other sharp practices that have held the system bound in total mess over the years. It is a popular solemn saying that the judiciary is the last hope of the common man. Thus, if the last hope of the common man is corrupt, where then lies the hope of the common man?
S. O. Akobe is a Lawyer, a Poet, and a renowned Writer/Social Commentator.