Federal Ministry of Justice, Nigeria Webinar ( Interactive session with States Attorneys- General and Chief Judges )
4th June 2020

Statement by South- West Attorneys- General

Presented by Olawale Fapohunda, Honourable Attorney-General & Commissioner for Justice, Ekiti State.

1. The South West Attorneys-General thank the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation (HAGF) for convening this webinar. We appreciate My Lords Honourable Justice Ishaq Bello and Honourable Justice Kashim Zannah for their progressive stance on the use of technology to further the ends of access to justice

2. We thank the Solicitor-General of the Federation for reaching out to us all and ensuring that we participate in this webinar. The presentations of Professor Yemi Akinseye George SAN and Godwin Iheabunike have been truly helpful and we look forward to receiving all the presentations for the purpose of sharing these within our Ministries.

3. The South West Attorneys-General held their first virtual meeting on 21st May 2020. This followed series of meetings held before the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the issues we discussed in our virtual meeting are subject of this webinar.

4. In particular we discussed COVID-19 and Administration of Justice in our States. Including the
Implications of the ‘National Judicial Council (NJC) Guidelines for Court Sittings and Related Matters in the COVID-19 Period’ on Access to Justice; the proposed amendment of the 1999 Constitution to enable Virtual Court Sittings and the Federal Government Directive on Closure of Correctional Centers.

5. While commending the NJC for its guidelines which will undoubtedly revolutionalise law practice in Nigeria, there appears to be an assumption that all the heads of courts particularly the Chief Judges of States are on the same page in support of virtual court hearings.

6. This is a wrong assumption. Across the country including the South West States there are two positions. That of the CJs who have accepted the reality of virtual court sittings and are getting on with the job, and those who insist that the idea is repugnant to the Constitution and have refused to even countenance the notion of limited use of technology in court proceedings. Both sides have a long list of Supreme Court decisions in their armory.

7. In the well publicized words of a CJ, His Lordship said “… I believe I have made my position very clear on that issue. A Practice Direction cannot amend the provision of Section 36 (3) of the 1999 Constitution as amended. While Practice Directions can be used to fill lacuna in statutes that cannot by any stretch of imagination or logic be used in the same manner where the provision of the Constitution is in issue. With the current state of our law, any purported remote hearing is illegal and is liable to be set aside on appeal”

8. It is necessary that the NJC consider additional measures to engage this position. This must also include consultations with the National Judicial Institute to examine the subject matter appreciation and capacity of CJs in the use of technology.
In our respectful view part of the problem may be a lack of understanding of the technology involved. For the objectives of the NJC to be achieved all the 36 States of the Federation and the FCT must be on the same page.

9. The South West AGs noted the ongoing constitutional amendment process in the National Assembly as it relates to Section 36 (3) & (4) of the 1999 Constitution. While there is an ongoing debate among us on whether this is necessary, we are agreed that there is the need for a clear pronouncement by the Supreme Court on this matter. The debate on the constitutionality or otherwise of remote court sittings is a distraction especially when we have to catch up with the backlogs of more than 3 months of courts closure. The South West Attorneys- General therefore resolved to approach the Supreme Court for a resolution of this issue.

10. We also discussed the Federal Government Directive on Closure of Correctional Centers. We expressed concern about the debilitating effects of Covid-19 on the administration of justice in the Six South West States specifically as it relates to criminal justice. We expressed concern about the continued closure of Correctional Centers in Nigeria and its effects on effective prosecution of serious crimes and we had agreed to write to the Minister of Interior to achieve the quick resolution of the closure of Correctional Centers.

11. Yesterday we received a press statement from the Controller General of the Nigerian Correctional Center advising on the reopening of correctional facilities across the country. A number of protocols were listed to facilitate this reopening. We will be sharing best practice information and experience on how to ensure safe reopening of our correctional facilities.

12. On the issue of Awaiting Trial Persons, across the six states efforts have been made to decongest our correctional centers. Our Chief Judges have been very proactive in this regard. The South West AGs are now exploring the modalities for plea bargain as a further measure to achieve decongestion of prisons. There is also an on-going conversation on the adaptability of the NJC guidelines on virtual court hearings to criminal trials. An important first step in this regard must be achieving certainty through a decision of the Supreme Court.

13. We have not discussed in depth the matter of Executive Order 10 issued by Mr. President particularly as it concerns judicial autonomy. None of our states are against judicial autonomy. Indeed in our view the ideal of judicial independence rests squarely on the ability of the judiciary to fend for itself. There is however a need to achieve clarity on the meaning of judicial autonomy.

14. There appears to be a misconception that judiciary autonomy is about physical infrastructure -state of the art courtrooms, comfortable cars and related matters. These are important however any discussion of judicial autonomy must necessarily include a reference to judicial salaries. This is as important as the infrastructure. A situation where a judge works in a state of the art courtroom, drives a comfortable official car, lives in a comfortable official house but has to survive on a poor salary makes nonsense of the concept of judicial autonomy. Indeed between May 1999 and March 2011, the Federal Government of Nigeria reviewed the salaries and allowances of Public Servants and Political office holders on four occasions specifically in 2000, 2005, 2007 and 2011. However, the salaries of judicial officers were only reviewed twice during the same period. As a result judicial officers have been on the same salary structure for more than 10 years.

15. While the South West Attorneys-General recognize the enormity of the economic challenges facing the nation, there is now a compelling need to upwardly review judicial salaries. It is our view that judicial salaries must be set at a comparatively high public service level in order to remove both the temptation to corruption and public contemplation of the possibility of such temptation.

16. May we therefore urge the HAGF to revisit the report of the Dayo Apata Committee on Judicial Salaries and Allowances 2018 with a view to ensuring implementation.

17. Finally, may we use this opportunity to draw the attention of the HAGF to the increasing cases of sexual violence across the country. In a number of our states we are grappling with the scourge of rape and more depressing child defilement. While our states have taken proactive measures including aggressively prosecuting sexual offenders and enabling appropriate administrative policies in support of victims of sexual violence, there is now an urgent need for a national approach to this matter. May we therefore invite the HAGF to convene a focused interactive Attorneys- General consultation on sexual violence in Nigeria, during which we could adopt a strategy that works for us all.

18. In conclusion, my brother Attorneys- General of the South West States and I express our gratitude for this session. We urge the HAGF to convene AGs consultations at least on a quarterly basis to enable us have a shared appreciation of topical issues in the administration of justice system in Nigeria.

Now that we have discovered zoom we do not have to travel to Abuja or elsewhere for these meetings.

I thank you.