Long road to corruption-free judiciary




In his role as Convener, Fight Against Corruption in the Judiciary (FIACIJ), Mr Bayo Akinlade is familiar with the judiciary’s corruption problem. In a November 9 article, “Corruption and delays at the Federal High Court, Lagos” Akinlade laid most of the blame at the feet of his constituency: lawyers.

The former Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Ikorodu Branch Chairman chronicled one aspect of the problem with the story of his recent visit to the Federal High Court in Lagos.

He said: “I spent more than five hours just to process a CTC (Certified True Copy) and still did not conclude the process on the same day. Moving from one section to another, there were more than five endorsements on my application letter as I took it from one stage to the other.

“In filing a motion, another five plus hours spent from endorsements to paying to making copies to oaths etc. I was even laughing when someone had to wait more than an hour just to pay N20….what a joke….”

Like many other stakeholders have noted, Akinlade pointed out that all the steps one must undergo to get a process filed or to have a simple affidavit done makes the system burdensome and encourages corrupt practices, with lawyers feeling compelled to cough out money to hasten the sometimes artificially slow process.

It is neither just a Lagos nor a Federal High Court phenomenon.

Calabar-based lawyer Daniella Mgbedike (pseudonym) argued that lawyers were unwilling accomplices in corrupt practices.

Mgbedike said: “Sometime in October, I had cause to apply for a judgment I had gotten. I paid the administrative fees and made the application. Ordinarily, it was supposed to be ready in a few days. But it was about a month later before I got that judgment, and that was because I didn’t grease the palms of the clerk. Eventually, I had to part with N3,000. As soon as I did that she quickly did her job and produced the judgment. The official fee is N200 per page, which is paid into the government’s account. So, it didn’t get to her and she wanted something for herself.”

Abuja-based Tonia Emma (pseudonym) recounted a similar experience.

Emma said: “I had a matter at the Federal High Court in Abuja. We got judgment on May 11. We needed the certificate of judgment as well as the CTC (Certified True Copy) of the judgment in order to write to our client to get our fees. The court officials asked that we should ‘mobilise’ them. Receipts are not issued for this mobilisation fee.

The lawyer noted that the CTC fee is just a paltry sum for which you get a receipt, but that the court officials will demand payment for typing the judgment.

Emma added: “The typing fee can be as much as N10,000. In fact, in this particular case, we were asked to pay N15,000. I was wary of unnecessary delay, so I told my colleague to send the court official N10,000. But even after paying N10,000, what the guy did was to finish typing the judgment, took a picture of some random pages and sent the pictures to me, to convince me that he had done the job.

“When everything was ready, it took another two weeks to get him to send it across, because he said the registrar was ill and that she travelled before signing. It was funny. The guy kept calling me to send the balance of N5,000.

“After a month, we got tired of his pranks and sent the N5000. That was when he sent a signed and stamped copy of the CTC of the judgment. But, till today, since May, we have not got the certificate of judgment, because he wants us to pay a separate sum for certificate of judgment.”

Judicial corruption index

Last Tuesday, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) said the judiciary is on top of the Nigeria Corruption Index (NCI) between 2018 and 2020. It claimed that about N9,457,650,000.00 (N9.457 billion) was offered and paid as bribe by lawyers.

Six female judges, according to the agency, reported that they were offered N3,307,444,000 (N3.307 billion) and five male judges reported N392,220,000 (N392.2 million).

The anti-corruption commission said cases of outright demand and offer of bribes were “mostly linked to election matters.”

These details are contained in a report: “Nigeria Corruption Index: Report of a pilot survey”, which was made available by the Chairman of ICPC, Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye (SAN), in Abuja.

The survey was carried out by the Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria, the intellectual arm of the ICPC.

Owasanoye said the NCI “indicates that both the public and private sectors are complicit in the high corruption levels in Nigeria.

“The survey also identifies the specific practices that are contributing to the corruption levels. This is the sort of information that stakeholders require to plan and evaluate their anti-corruption work.

“ICPC is committed to stopping corruption in Nigeria using all lawful means and capabilities, including deployment of knowledge and data for effective anti-corruption action.”

The NCI explained in details the rot in the judiciary.

‘Stupendous amounts offered as bribes to judges’

The report reads: “Overall, the justice sector had the highest level of corruption with a score of 63. The level of corruption in the justice sector was heightened by stupendously high amounts of money offered as bribes to judges by lawyers handling high electoral and other political cases.

“A large percentage, 73 per cent of justice sector respondents did not experience a situation of outright demand or offer of bribe. Nevertheless, it remains alarming that 16 per cent of respondents had experienced such blatant demands or offers of bribes.

“Follow up discussions indicated that the cases of outright demand and offer of bribes are mostly linked to election matters. Money involved in the high-level corruption in this sector was categorised into money demanded, offered or paid. Demands are made by court officials, including judges, while bribery offers and payments are made by lawyers or litigants.

“The total amount of money reported by the justice sector respondents as corruptly demanded, offered and paid between 2018 and 2020 was N9,457,650,000.00 (N9.457 billion).”

‘More male than female lawyers involved’

In the report, 78 respondents constituting 8.7 per cent of all justice sector respondents reported offers or payments of bribes to influence the judicial process. Of that number, 63 were lawyers. This number makes up 9.9 per cent of all lawyers surveyed in the justice sector.

It stated: “The 63 lawyers that reported payments were mostly male being 69.8 per cent, while their female colleagues constituted 30.2 per cent of that population.

“In all, the total amount of money reported by lawyers was N5,733,986,000.00. The amount reported by female lawyers was N918,045,000 while male lawyers reported N4,815,941,000 (N4.8billion).

“These amounts made up 9.71 per cent and 50.92 per cent respectively of the total amount reported by justice sector respondents. Lawyers reported 60.63 per cent of the bribes offered and paid by justice sector respondents.

“The amount of money offered to judges was next in volume to payments made by lawyers. In all, N3,699,664,000 (N3.699billion) was reported by 11, that is 8.9 per cent of the 123 judges surveyed. (54.5 per cent) out of the judges that reported the offers were female, while (45.5 per cent) were male.

In this category, although, the females were just slightly more in number than the males, the females reported a substantially higher amount of money.

“The total reported by the six female judges was N3,307,444,000 while the five male judges reported N392,220,000. These amounts made up 34.97 per cent and 4.15 per cent respectively of the total amount reported by justice sector respondents. Judges reported 39.12 per cent of the bribes offered and paid by justice sector respondents.

“The court staff reported the lowest amount of money offered as bribe to influence the outcome of a judicial process. The total amount of money reported by court staff was N24,000,000….”

Bribe-for-judgment facilitators

The document gave the breakdown of the percentage of those most responsible for bribe-for-judgment situations as follows: Lawyers (27.17 per cent); Litigants personally (21.96 per cent) Court Staff (Clerks, Registrars etc.) (21.54 per cent); Judges (16.88 per cent); Government MDAs (7.37 per cent); No experience on the matter (3.06 per cent); Chose not to say (1.01 per cent) and others 1.01 per cent.

ICPC also cited alteration of court documents as part of the corruption in the judiciary.

The report said: “Grand corruption in the justice sector also manifests in the form of fraudulent alteration of court documents.

“In the experience of justice sector respondents, court staff are mostly responsible for this corrupt practice.”

Where does the blame lie?

The Nigeria Corruption Index also notes the prevalence of corrupt practices in other arms of government. But the justice sector is often, perhaps unreasonably, expected by the public to fare better. So, why does corruption persist in this critical sector? Several factors are at the root of the problem.

The case of the Cross River State Judiciary presents one such unique factor.

In August, 29 magistrates in the Cross River State Judiciary claimed they were yet to be paid their salaries for 16 months since they were sworn in on February 3, 2019.

One of the petitions they wrote was titled, “Save Our Souls (SOS) a passionate appeal for urgent intervention over the non-payment of the 29 newly appointed magistrates in Cross River State Judiciary for thirteen months”

It was addressed to the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice; Chairman, National Judicial Institute; and the National Chairman, Magistrates’ Association of Nigeria, among others.

Justice Muhammadu Lawal Bello

Justice Muhammadu Lawal Bello[

It read in part: “Sir, we have had instances where many of our colleagues due to this state of affairs have been evicted by their landlord from their accommodation; many of us cannot afford to pay our children’s school fees and, are finding it extremely difficult to even meet the basic needs of our families such as feeding, etc.

“Sir, our plight is so dehumanising and debasing to the point that we are now virtually and consistently borrowing money and begging family and friends for alms in order to survive these last 16 horrific months of the non-payment of our salaries.

“This situation, if not addressed urgently, may lead some of us, though unintentionally to corruption, an epidemic the judiciary and our country is fighting hard to be emancipated from.”

Like the petitioners hinted in the last paragraph, the will to fend off corruption invitation had become degraded due to the non-payment of their wages.

‘Lawyers responsible’

Akinlade contends that the situation persists because lawyers have abandoned their role as ministers in the temple of justice.

He said: “I interviewed the lawyers who regularly practice there (Federal High Court) and they just laughed and shrugged their shoulders when I asked them why they tolerate this environment.

“The litigation clerks from different prestigious firms with other lawyers…are forced to part with some money to get ‘special attention’ or to ‘fast track’ their jobs. I can understand that for some law firms, it’s a small price to pay when one considers the millions of naira at stake in cases that are filed at the federal high courts.”

He came to the following conclusions: “Lawyers are still at the root of the corruption in the Federal High Court.

“Even when the filing procedures are cumbersome and time wasting, lawyers who frequently practise at the Federal High Court do not see the need to bring their knowledge to bear in assisting the Head Judge come up with a better, more efficient and less corrupt court administrative system

“Lawyers are happy to make offers to court staff to get what they want timely not realising that their actions actually compromise the entire integrity of the judiciary.

“The NBA branches have, by their inactions in tackling these corrupt vices within the judiciary, simply neglected one of their basic responsibilities, aims and objectives which is the protection of the integrity of the judiciary.

“We are all to blame here. Lawyers both at the Bar and the Bench have sold out our birth right as custodians and ministers in the temple of justice to laymen and women working within our justice system.

“We have devalued ourselves in the eyes of court registrars, bailiffs, clerks, messengers etc. Yet we fight our colleagues on the Bench and petition against them for any perceived infraction but we cower before and beg court staff for favours.

“How do we now handle these issues? It is time we made some sacrifices. It is time to say enough is enough!”

But not everyone agrees that the solution is as clear as black and white.

Emma suggests that the problem is deep that the Bar alone may not be able to tackle the problem without the cooperation of the Bench.

“Most times, if you complain to a judge, he will ask if you mobilised the court official. If you go to court and file your processes and tell the judge that you have dropped copies for service, he will ask you ‘Did you mobilise them? How much did you mobilise them?’

“In the Kaduna State Judiciary, for instance, service of processes is not more than N3,000. “But no court clerk will collect less than N5,000 for service of processes. Lawyers are stampeded to pay. If you don’t, your processes will be left lying there,” Emma added.

Judge threatens to arrest lawyer for bribery

That may well be the case in that particular Kaduna courtroom, but upright judges do not permit such corrupt practices in their court

One such judge was the former Administrative Judge at the Federal High Court in Lagos, Justice Mojisola Olatoregun.

The judge, now retired, on May 30, 2017, threatened to arrest a lawyer who said in the open court that he “mobilised” a bailiff with N8,000 to serve his court papers.

She said paying bailiff to serve court processes was bribery.

The lawyer, who appeared for a case before Justice Olatoregun, had expressed frustration that despite “mobilising” the bailiff with N8,000, the court processes were not served on the necessary parties and no “Proof of Service” was in the case file.

“Did you say you mobilised them (the bailiff)? How much did you give them? Let me know if it was enough,” Justice Olatoregun baited the lawyer.

“I gave the bailiff N8,000,” the lawyer said justifiably.

But he was shocked when the judge accused him of bribery and threatened to call for his arrest. Justice Olatoregun explained that bailiffs were paid salaries and allowances and ought not to be “mobilised” by litigants or lawyers to do their job.

She said a litigant who paid a bailiff to serve court processes was guilty of bribing a court official.

She immediately summoned the concerned bailiff and the Deputy Chief Registrar, vowing that she would deal with the case in her chambers.

“When you give a bribe, both of you are liable – both the giver and the receiver. We’ll get the Chief Registrar. You will be handed over to the police for bribing a bailiff. You will explain how you have been bribing bailiffs,” Justice Olatoregun told the lawyer.

Solving the problem

Curbing the problem will require a multi-stakeholder approach. But Akinlade proposed some small steps lawyers can take towards sanitising the sector. He noted that a change in mindset is critical, especially among senior lawyers who should lead by example.

Akinlade said: “How many of us have heard a court registrar say: ‘Even your seniors give us money…go and ask them’ or ‘What did your Oga send to me’ or ‘Oga SAN knows what to do, didn’t he send you to me?’

“Many senior lawyers, especially the wealthy ones have no problem dropping a little ‘tip’ for court officials, in fact, it makes them feel good and in control.

”The monies they flaunt make them have their way with the court officials to the extent that they become the new bosses of these registrars.

“Our judges and magistrates have no authority over these registrars anymore…they literally serve a new master (money from the highest bidder).”

He counselled senior lawyers to stop the practice.

Akinlade said: “As Christmas is approaching, I am inclined to tie up this write-up to the yearly ritual of many well-to-do lawyers who send hampers and exotic gifts to the staff and officers of the judiciary….

“I plead with you all not to continue to give bribes in whatever form as it undermines the integrity of this profession.

“If we are not bold enough to stand up to those who would see this profession lose it’s dignity and respect, who would compromise justice and the rule of law, then whatever title you have, whether you are a judge or magistrate or SAN or bencher or professor or all of the above, it would amount to absolutely nothing and we would have failed justice and the people.”

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