Why NJC should go after judges with luxury lifestyle–Kunle Adegoke, SAN


In this interview with Ise-Oluwa Ige, a respected member of the inner bar and rights firebrand, Mr Kunle Adegoke, SAN dismisses as disturbing and unfair the on-going efforts by a handful of top lawyers and non lawyers to disparage the image of the nation’s judiciary over the activities of few ‘Judas Iscariots’ in the system, with a prescription on how legal practitioners should react to controversial judgments and what the National Judicial Council (NJC) should do to flush out the few bad eggs from the system and make corruption unpopular in the judiciary.

Q: Perception of the judiciary lately has been very low owing to media reportage of certain judgments in political cases and dismissive comments about judges by lawyers and non-lawyers in both conventional and social media. Would you say a few errors here and there by few judges in some of these political cases are sufficient to dismiss the judiciary as a failure?

A: Yes, we have many elements in the judiciary that are bad. We cannot shy away from that.It is, however, easier to notice the negative side of any person or any system. The positive aspect hardly registers sufficiently to the good measure of appreciation by the populace. And when in a system, a few bad elements commit some atrocities, the tendency is for the people to register a negative perception against such a system. In the judiciary today, I still believe as a practitioner that we have majority of judges that are quite upright presiding over cases. Those ones are doing creditably well. It will now be a form of injustice to rubbish the entire judiciary because of the negative activities of a few of the judges that are perpetrating atrocities.

Besides, when you look at the judicial system in Nigeria and the Nigeria populace, tendency is for some people to want to blame every other person except themselves for their own failure. There are many cases that I believe have been rightly decided yet generating controversy and attracting negative comments both in the conventional and social media. And until you read some of those judgments, that is when you will see that many of such cases are naturally bound to fail as a result of the way they were presented to the judiciary or the inherent failure in the facts presented to the court and the inability of such cases to meet the requirements of the law.

It is therefore my position that a few wrong judgments here and there cannot lead to a total damnation of the judicial system. In actual fact, the wrongs committed by such judges would be less in severity when compared to the negative campaign against the entire judiciary. Many people, however, forget that when you mount a general campaign against the judiciary for its damnation, you are not only sending wrong signals to the rest of the world about your country, you are equally condemning the internal survival of the country itself. And by the time we use this approach to condemn ourselves, we will not only be vilified by foreigners, we will discover that anarchy will loom large internally.

Q: Are you saying lawyers should not criticize bad judgments and their authors?

A: I had done many cases in court that I lost. In such situations, I would go on appeal rather than condemn the judge concerned except where I have concrete evidence that the judge was compromised either by bribery or some other influence. In such a situation, I will go on appeal. I may now write a petition against such judge because there is internal procedure for disciplining judges. Again, we must concede that there are many elements in the judiciary today that are bad. However, they are still in the minority compared to the majority that are doing great work. For instance, in Lagos State where I practise, yes, a judge may be wrong, in his or her judgment but we must not forget that he is a human being. Two, his knowledge of the law may not comprehend the justice of the case and his appreciation of the fact may be deficient. But the good news is that we have the appellate courts. It may take time to correct the wrong done. But what is not in doubt is that the mill of justice though grinds slowly, it still grinds. At the end of the day, you get justice on appeal. But instead of toeing the path available under the law, if we go to town to create the impression that all judges are bad, there are always consequences: One, the people will lose confidence in the judiciary. They will believe you cannot get justice by going to court and the next thing is to take laws into their hands. Anybody can be a victim of such a loose and anarchic situation. Anybody, including those who are mounting the campaign for the damnation of the entire judiciary.

Some top lawyers have actually vilified the judiciary because of few errors here and there in certain judgments in political cases?

No doubt. But my position is that when you now take maybe such few political cases to judge the entire judicial system, it is like a case of a sword that is destroying its own home and claiming to be killing the scabbard. When the scabbard is turned into shreds, then, the sword will have nowhere to house itself. And dew will fall on it, the sun will shine on it and it will start rusting. That is where the problem really is. So, I have always said this to our colleagues who have been very vociferous in the media about the judiciary that we need to caution ourselves. So, we need to caution ourselves.

I have seen a number of these cases that when I finally read the judgments that are becoming controversial, I started wondering where was the fault of the judge if what I read was what the lawyer presented to the court and the same lawyer is now condemning the judge, failing to let his client know that well, he had lost the case on the account of non-diligent prosecution. Unfortunately, to those who are shouting and for them who are approaching the judges because it takes two to tangle, it is an open secret that in many cases, it is the lawyers that act as the conduit for bribing judges. They are the ones that will have the effrontery to approach corrupt judges. And what many people forget or don’t know is that judicial system in any country is like a village stream that is supplying water to all the residents in the community. If somebody urinates into the river up north and another defecates into the river down south, the river becomes polluted. Meanwhile, we all drink from the same river. You will fetch water to cook, to wash cloth, to bath and very soon, as soon as the water is contaminated, we too will become diseased. So, there is a danger in passing a blanket judgment of negativity on the judiciary because of the activities of few judges.

Q: Have you, at any time, get wrong judgment(s) from court since you have started practising and how did you manage it (them)?

A: I am a practitioner in the justice sector. I have been a victim of wrong judgments. I have been a victim of indiscretion of some judges in the past but those in which I have a clear evidence, I did not wait a second to write a petition and stand by the petition to say this judge is corrupt. I have challenged judges in open court to say: No, you can’t sit over this case, recuse yourself, in the presence of the press. That is when I have concrete evidence that a judge is corrupt. But if I don’t have such evidence, it will be wrong of me to accuse someone unjustly and condemn somebody for doing his job. Though, he might not be doing it right. If he fails to do it right, then I file an appeal. Even if I fight it to the Supreme Court, and the system doesn’t favour me, it might even be as a result of influence, I will rather allow such instance because I can’t go beyond the Supreme Court. But I may review the decision in the pages of newspaper, and write an article for publication in a law journal.

Let me give you an example. There was a criminal appeal which I did for Lagos State up to the Supreme Court. I did a novel argument which the Supreme Court disagreed with and ruled against me. But I believed the Supreme Court was wrong. I believed I was right. That was in 2017. My conscience did not agree.  I didn’t go to the press to be castigating the Supreme Court. I knew there was no hanky-panky. With the ingenuity of the other lawyer on the other side, Andy Igbokwe, SAN, he was able to secure judgment in favour of his client who was the accused person in that case through a technical point against which I argued that the Supreme Court disagreed with me, following a decision of 1987 in Ladiji vs the State. I had posited that 1987 decision in the Ladiji case was even wrong. Even though I already lost at the Supreme Court, I now wrote an article shortly before I took silk. This is because when the Supreme Court is wrong, the next thing for you to do is to critique that judgment and publish it in law journals. That is how you contribute to the jurisprudence of law instead of going to the pages of newspaper or television to be condemning and lambasting the judges. When you destroy the judges, you are destroying the judicial system.

So, I now wrote an article published by a Nigerian journal of international status—Gravitas, they published the article where I thoroughly analysed the law, what the Supreme Court ought to have considered and what should be the decision. The article was published in December 2017. I now bought 20 copies of the journal and wrote a letter to each of the serving Supreme Court justices and I attached a copy of the journal, saying in case this issue comes up again, please, don’t commit the same error. I sent it to them. I wasn’t lucky to receive any acknowledgment of the journal or the letter. But few years after, 2022, the same thorny issue came before the Supreme Court in another criminal matter and the state lawyer presented a similar argument that I presented. His argument could not have been similar to mine if he had not read my argument in that journal article. I believe he must have read my article although he presented the argument as if they were his own without referencing the article or the journal. The Supreme Court now agreed with him. Probably, some of the justices must have read my article too and they felt they were wrong. And that was how they now declared that the earlier decision made in 1987 in Ladiji’s case was actually wrong.  And they now followed this new line of thinking. In anyway, with the article, I believed I have achieved what is right for the defence. In another case, they wont commit the same error again and the same injustice will not be perpetrated. So, rather than going on the pages of newspaper, we need to save the judiciary so that we don’t condemn the judiciary in its entirety and thereby bring anarchy unto ourselves. So, that is my own perspective about it.

On the few bad judges, do you think NJC has been doing enough to name and shame them.

I believe that the NJC is working. I believe that the NJC is really trying. But it is not enough. It can do more. There must be an internal mechanism that will be stronger than what we have now to check misconduct. In the first place, NJC itself should be instrumental to reengineering the process of appointing judges. Equally, NJC should be able to stand firm when it comes to disciplinary action against judges. While appointing judges, issues of favouritism or nepotism should not be allowed to play a role. Everything should be on merit. When you appoint an incompetent person or you appoint a corrupt person into the judiciary, it is like you have sent an armed robber to go on rampage on the populace. And injustice to one, is injustice to all. That person probably out of incompetence or poor knowledge of the law or out of deliberate calculation to achieve an end other than justice, then the whole system is liable because it will dent the image of the judiciary.

So, in appointing judges, we need to be careful. NJC needs to be more critical. It needs to subject the appointment of judges to what the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) subjects lawyers to when applying to take silk. The members of the public are afforded the opportunity to comment on the suitability of a lawyer to take silk because that is the pinnacle of legal profession. Just as justices of the Supreme Court is the pinnacle of the bench. To join the judiciary at the level of the high court or National Industrial Court, or even the Magistracy where he possibly may rise from the lowest to the highest office in the land. People like Justice Belgore started from the magistracy and he rose to become the CJN. There are people like that. If you have an incompetent or corrupt person superintending judicial process, the tendency is high that he might have committed untold atrocities on the people and gradually creates lack of confidence in the judiciary. That is the kind of situation we have right now.

Two is that, in disciplining judges, influence should not be part of the process. They should look at the law. There is nothing wrong in NJC even kick-starting a process when they suspect a judge living a life larger than their salary. We have some judges that are living in luxury. An average judge has a standard approved for his remuneration. He is not allowed to do any other business. He is not, for instance, allowed to be running hotel business or anything that can make him to be in constant interaction with the members of the public from where his relationship can be compromised. Where such a judge has children schooling abroad, in these days of dollar-naira wide gap, then if his income from other legitimate sources can account for it, good. Caesar’s wife must always be above board. That is the only way Romans can have trust in Caesar. If the lifestyle of a judge is found to be beyond his means, it should be a red flag. Then, discreet investigation can be conducted without even alerting him. It could take a period of time over which evidence would be accumulated. If he claims he was being given gifts, by whom? Who are those people donating to his projects. If he is living in a mansion beyond what he could account for, then, you should query him. Let him come and account for it. Yes, I know of judges who immediately upon appointments were approached by banks that my lord, you can take a loan, and we will be deducting it gradually from your salary. But we know such a transaction is never undocumented without an offer letter and the means by which you are paying back. That is the amount being deducted monthly from your emolument on the one hand. On the second hand, NJC needs to fight harder for what makes it possible for judges to be easily compromised.

No judge is allowed to carry placard and asks for increase in pay or better condition of service. But the NJC as a body is in a position to so act to make life more bearable for judges. The job should be more compensatory for judges. A hungry judge is worse than a pirate at sea. So, their living standard should be comfortable. There should be no reason why the system should not offer opportunities for children of judges to school at the expense of the state, thereby reducing the burden of looking for school fees or whatever. The government must work harder to make education more qualitative as well so that judges too will not lose confidence in the education system and be thinking that the best thing is to sending their children out of the country. No parent would want his children to be educationally half-baked. And by the time the burdens are removed from them and can live a better life, if you still find a judge who compromises standard, such a judge deserves death sentence.

Then, in cases where judges are found to have conducted themselves in flagrant violation of the law or etiquette, the ethics of the profession, the disciplinary measure being given by NJC should not be a pat on the back. It should not be a slap on the wrist by saying that the judge is hereby compulsorily retired and such judge will still continue collecting salaries or gratuity. But by the time such a judge committed the same act for which he has been sentencing people to jail for and he is being openly prosecuted, it would serve as a deterrent to others.

Today, you find judges lousily attending parties and dancing recklessly, twerking to indecent music and a system in which the NJC is not taking a hard stance on this is a way of compromising the system. It shouldn’t be a pat on the wrist. There must be stricter punishment.  Let him face the full wrath of the law by being openly prosecuted. Let him taste the bitter pills of imprisonment that he has been subjecting people to whether rightly or wrongly. So, by the time you find a judge that was sitting on cases of people and is now being prosecuted and probably subsequently sentenced to a term of imprisonment, then you will see that others will sit tight. So, we need to make punishment stricter for the society to really appreciate that we are doing what is required by a body like NJC.

Source: Vanguard

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