The Nigerian judiciary has in recent times been in the eye of the storm, as it faces a barrage of criticisms over some judgments by the courts, especially the Supreme Court, which came under very close scrutiny. This has generated much ruckus, donnybrook, and rhubarb.
Some of these judgments have drawn the ire of all manner of critics, some genuine, some analytical, some pseudo and some political. Some critics directed needless crude and caustic umbrage at the very persons of the revered learned justices of the apex court over what they perceived as unfair or overtly political verdicts. Regrettably, some of those attacks were caustic, bizarre, uncouth, derogatory and went too far. Many crossed the fine dividing line of decency between constructive and scholarly criticism (which is permissible after delivery of judgments) and direct personal attacks on the judexes who delivered the judgments (which is not permissible under any circumstance). The questions are: where, how or when do we draw this thin line between fair critiquing of judgments and going for the jugular of the the judge? Does such a line even exist at all, either legally or otherwise? What remedies are available to judicial officers exposed to severe public censure, odium and ridicule on account of their judicial acts of deciding cases? Are they simply helpless and powerless? Do such sanctions include committing authors of such vile criticisms to prison for contempt, albeit ex facie curie (outside the court)? Are such authors liable to face disciplinary measures through the NBA Disciplinary Committee (where they are lawyers)? These are the issues this thesis attempts to provide answers to.
My personal stand
Let me state right from the outset and within the confines of this abstract my own humble position in this rather lengthy dissertation. I believe judicial opinions and judgments can be scrutinised, criticised and critiqued after delivery thereof. This is scholarship, which opens up new jurisprudential vistas. Critiquing helps deepen and widen the democratic space because court decisions affect the entire society. I do not, however, subscribe to piercing the veil of the judgments themselves to attack the judex who delivered the said judgments by questioning their motives, integrity, intellect, assumed political or other filial leanings, or backgrounds, for such judicial decisions. That goes beyond the bounds of decency and crosses lines of intellectual interrogation of such judgments. That also amounts to leaving the message for the messenger, deliberately hitting a player’s leg rather than the ball in a football match. Such attitude, whether from lawyers or members of the larger society, must be deprecated, denounced and condemned in the strongest words possible. I so do, most respectfully.
Reasons for critiquing and interrogating judgments
The greatest contribution of the judicial mind is usually deciphered not from the final result of a case but from the judicial opinion itself. It is the duty of every lawyer, academic and even members of the society to analyse, interrogate and critique judicial opinions embedded in judgments after they have been delivered. Learned journals, columns in newspapers, Ph.D thesis and dissertations, the print and electronic media and, lately, the social media are employed in this. This is the very core of scholarship and legal education. Such literary criticisms are aimed at pointing out the “defects” and the “beauties” of such judgments.
Mr. Swift, in his “A Tale of a Tub”, tells us that a “true critique is a discoverer and collector of a writer’s fault”. He did not say “fault of the writer, which has to do with his person and persona (and is thus not permitted), but the fault of his works” (which is permitted). Indeed such criticisms and interrogations help judges to perform better. I will, anon, show numerous cases in which judges have been attacked in their persons across the world, and even in Nigeria, but which I, as a person, lawyer, SAN and social critic do not agree with. There are many more reasons for allowing decent, genuine, and well-researched criticisms and interrogations of judgments after delivery.
The judiciary, like the legislature and executive (as created in sections 6, 4 and 5, respectively, of the 1999 Constitution, as amended), is subject to the tripartite doctrine of Separation of Powers, a doctrine most eloquently popularised in 1748 by Baron de Montesquieu, a great French philosopher. Their judgments are, therefore, subject to the same public criticisms as are legislative and executive acts. They must pass through the same crucible, rigour and accountability as the other two arms. The judiciary cannot be dressed in the cloak of infallibility. See Motors Ltd vs. Adesanya (1989) 3 NWLR (pt. 109) 250. The due administration of justice is a serious matter of public interest, which involves members of the entire public as ultimate beneficiaries and consumers of the effects of such judgment. Law, as the recurring decimal in our individual and collective lives, is too serious a matter to be left alone in the hands of only judges and lawyers (the Bench and the Bar). Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (“Part of the Law”), in a powerful speech delivered in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1897, put it most poignantly when he said, “The prophecies of what the court will do and nothing more pretentious are what I mean by the law”. He did not stop there. He further argued that “the law is the witness and external deposit of our moral life. Its history is the history of the moral development of the race. The practice of it, in spite of popular jest, tends to make good citizens and good men”.
Holmes (also called “The Great Dissenter, associate justice of the US Supreme Court, legal historian, and philospher of the School of Legal Realism) thus advocated judicial restraint. He it was who stated that the concept of “clear and present danger” is the only basis for limiting the right of freedom of speech. So, when members of the public critique court judgments fairly and decently, they are merely exercising their right to freedom of expression (section 39 of the 1999 Constitution) to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference. That surely cannot be criminalised.
However, such critiquing must be fair, reasonable, responsible and must pass through the acid test of bona fides, rigorous and intellectual interrogation. It must not be anchored on sheer vulgar, abusive and offensive vituperations, rude expletives or disrespectful name-calling. It must shun revilement and chastisement. There is, perhaps, a more serious reason why courts should be kept on their judicial toes to deliver justice-driven, rather than technicality-dependent judgments. Court decisions impact business, economy, and foreign direct investment. No responsible foreign investor will put his hard-earned money in a climate of unfair judgments or prolonged disputes. This was perhaps why Lord Atkins once told us that “Justice is not a cloistered virtue. She must be allowed to suffer the scrutiny and respectful, even though outspoken comments of the ordinary men” (Ambard vs AG of Trinidad and Tobago  AC 322)
Situations in which Nigerian courts had criticised themselves
There is a sense in which courts are, in the words of George Alger, “peculiarly the subject of criticism of experts.” These “experts” are no more than lawyers and fellow judges. In the former case, according to him, “lawyers who appeal from a lower court to a higher court are engaged in criticizing a Judge who was responsible for an unsatisfactory decision. The appeal Judges are paid by the state to act as critics of their brethren in the courts below”.
When Nigerian courts criticise themselves
A graphic illustration of courts criticising themselves, using the internal mechanism of appeals, is the Supreme Court case of MENAKAYA vs. MENAKAYA (2001) 16 NWLR (pt 738) 203. In the lead judgment of the apex court (delivered by Mohammed, JSC, as he then was), it minced no words, when it held that: “it is a misdirection for a trial Judge to give judgment on an issue on which there is no evidence adduced whatsoever . . . It is plain, therefore, that judgment of Ononiba J, having been written without any evidence supporting the decision is void. Equally the majority judgment of the Court of Appeal which affirmed a void decision is also a nullity.” The contributory judgment of Ogundare, JSC, was even more breathtaking. He moaned: “I find myself having painfully to observe that there are other portions and passages of the judgment which are clearly inappropriate in a judgment intended as a sober and sublime reflection. Admittedly, allowance must be made for the peculiar sense of narrative of individual Judges. Some make theirs rhapsodically on purpose, as was obviously demonstrated in the case in question. But even so, I think it will be of much profit if journeys in light-hearted digressions are not made a prominent feature in any judgment, particularly of a superior court, even to the extent that the real issues are missed or misunderstood. That was the position in the present case.”
Self-criticism by the Supreme Court itself in Hope Uzodinma vs. Emeka Ihedioha (2020) pelr 86967 (SC)
In March 2020, the Supreme Court refused the request of Chief Emeka Ihedioha, former Governor of Imo State, to set aside its earlier judgment which had declared Chief Hope Uzodinma of the APC Governor of Imo state. Ihedioha’s team of lawyers had argued that Uzodinma deceived the Supreme Court with his self-tabulated result from 388 polling units, which made the number of voters in Imo state outnumber the accredited voters for the election (which was 368).
The apex court led by the then CJN, Tanko Mohammed, held that it lacked powers to sit on appeal over its own judgment delivered on merit and in accordance with the dictates of the law.
God bless my numerous global readers for always keeping faith with the Sunday Sermon on the Mount of the Nigerian Project, by humble me, Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, OFR, FCIArb., LL.M, Ph.D, LL.D. kindly, come with me to next week’s exciting dissertation.
Thought for the week
Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things”.