There is uneasy calm in the nation’s judiciary over delay in the payment of pension of retired judges.
A cross-section of retired judges and lawyers yesterday decried the failure of state governments to pay as and when due the severance gratuity, pensions, arrears and other entitlements to retired judges.
The lawyers who spoke in separate interview with LEADERSHIP, unanimously called on the National Judicial Council (NJC) to seek for the immediate review of the Federal Judicial Officers (Administration of Pension) Act, 2007, the law which mandates the NJC to pay pensions of the Federal Judicial Officers only.
They asked the NJC to take over the payment of pension and other entitlements of retired judges at the state level so as to ensure they are paid promptly like retired judges of the federal courts.
While some retired judges who spoke our correspondent bemoaned the delay in payment of their pension for months and even years now, others lamented the non-review of their pension allowances in line with the operating pension laws in the country.
The retired judges lamented that the NJC was paying their salaries while in active service, but have now left them for the state governments to pay their pension, a development they described as unheard of in other climes.
Some lawyers cited Section 84 (7) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) which states that salaries and emoluments of all judicial officers of superior courts of records are paid from the Consolidated Revenue Fund.
They said curiously, the retirement benefits of the state judicial officers are decided by the whims and caprices of the state governors, adding that many of the retirees are subjected to untold hardship as a result of non-payment of gratuity, severance allowances and pensions, and delayed in some instances, and at times partial payment of pensions running into months and years.
The lawyers argued that it is imperative that the judiciary call for the amendment of Federal Judicial Officers (Administration of Pension) Act, 2007 by the National Assembly to allow the NJC to take over payment of the retired state judicial officers as a matter urgent necessity.
Besides, they noted that the judiciary has to create a distinct pension administrative body to manage its pension funds.
The lawyers said these retired judges are first and foremost lawyers but prohibited by the constitution to practice law after retirement, yet are denied payment of their pensions, the result being that many of them are dying in misery and hopelessness.
They cited the case of the 32 retired judges led by Justice Godwin Ononiba (rtd), who dragged the Anambra State governor, Willie Obiano, to the National Industrial Court over non-payment of their severance gratuities, pension and arrears of pension in December 2016.
They said the case reflected the depressing plight of retired senior judicial officers, especially judges of the State High Courts in Nigeria.
Reacting to the development, Justice Sunday Akintan, a former Justice of the Supreme Court, also said, “I retired over 12 years ago from the Bench. They promised to review my pension allowance every five years and I’ve never seen that done for once.’’
Also speaking, a former Grand Khadi of the Kogi State Sharia Court of Appeal, Justice Zakaria Idakwoji Mohammed, said, “The National Judicial Council was paying our salaries while in the active service, but we have been left for the state to pay our pension which is unheard of in other climes.”
But a former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais said, “I retired 14 years ago, I wouldn’t know what’s happening now, it might be different from then.”
A Nigeria Law School lecturer, Prof Ernest Ojukwu (SAN), said the only solution to the problem was to insist on the implementation of the constitutionally created judicial autonomy at all levels of government.
But the chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption (PACAC), Prof Itse Sagay (SAN) however argued that the state judicial officers served the states and not the federal government.
He said, “Yes, the NJC at the federal level paid their salaries when they were in active service.
“That was done to keep their morale high, to make sure they were less susceptible to pressure and temptation. But that does not mean the federal government should carry their pension responsibility.
“That should be the state responsibility especially now that everyone is clamouring for restructuring and true federalism. It would be ridiculous for states to continue to abdicate their responsibility’’.
For his part, legal luminary, Chief Mike Ahamba (SAN) said it was rather unfortunate the dictate of the laws of the country is not followed.
He noted: “We are in democracy but still governed by the military federalism, otherwise salaries of the state high court judges ought to be paid by the states. This why people are advocating for administrative restructuring of the country and making it mandatory for everybody to perform its statutory roles.”
On his part, a constitutional lawyer, Valentine Offia said, “The situation mirrors the confusion embedded in our Constitution where the control of resources and the responsibility for provision of public services are vested in different bodies, hence the breakdown in public administration.
“If the vision behind the establishment of the NJC is to insulate judicial officers from external pressures, then such insulation must continue after the retirement of the judicial officers or the temporal protection becomes meaningless. The nation must confer permanent responsibility for the welfare of judicial officers on the NJC”.
Also, another lawyer, Alasa Ismaila said, “This situation leaves much to be desired as these judges who have invested their youth and strength in the hallowed responsibility of judicial service, are left to eat crumbs at their retirement, and having lost the right to practice law, the result being that many of them are dying out of misery and hopelessness’’.
Another legal practitioner, Abanika Muktar, said, “The case of the 32 retired judges, including five retired state Chief Judges in Anambra State, led by Justice Godwin Ononiba (rtd), who dragged Anambra State governor, Willie Obiano, in December 2016 to the National Industrial Court of Nigeria in Awka for non-payment of their severance gratuities, pension and arrears of pension. That case reflected the depressing plight of retired judicial officers, especially judges of the State High Courts in Nigeria’’.
We’re Responsible For Payment Of Only Salaries – NJC
May see NJC taking over the payment of retired state judges’ pensions.
He said, “The NJC has taken over the payment of serving judges at the state level in order to give them the boldness to give judgement against the state if the need arises. They are staff of the states and the law enjoins the states to pay pension and gratuity of their retired staff, whether they are judges or civil servants.
“But under the ongoing constitution review, the pensions of both federal judicial officers and that of the states would be harmonized so that NJC would be paying both”.
Reps Seek Upward Review Of N110bn Statutory Allocation To Judiciary
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has called for the upward review of annual statutory allocation to the Judiciary pegged at N110billion as part of efforts aimed at engendering efficient dispensation of justice in the country.
Chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary, Hon. Onofiok Luke, who presided over the 2020 budget performance and 2021 budget defence of the NJC yesterday, applauded President Muhammadu Buhari for the appointment of eight Justices of the Supreme Court, which raised the number of justices to 20.
Luke said that the recent appointment and confirmation of the newly appointed Justices of the Supreme Court will help in fast-tracking administration and delivery of justice, acknowledging the background and wealth of experience of the appointed Justices and the need for President Buhari to immediately fill the vacant positions in the Court of Appeal.
The lawmaker explained that the committee was aware of the challenges of the Judiciary as exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with security challenges, occasioned by prevailing restiveness that undoubtedly slowed down development in every aspect of the country.
He said, “The recent security threats to Judges, denigration of the sanctity of courts and vandalisation of court infrastructure are few examples. These destructive acts are highly condemnable and call for concerted action.
“The House believes that the Judiciary is mindful of the challenges being globally experienced while attempts are being made by Courts and Judicial Bodies, through budgetary allocations, to ensure that adequate provisions are made in priority areas like the welfare and security of Judicial officers, Staff of the Judiciary and litigants, electro-fitting and automation of Courts Rooms in line with global best practices as well as provision of modern infrastructures in courts which is sacrosanct for effective and efficient justice delivery and administration.
“The destruction of Court by hoodlums that hijacked the EndSARS protest has once again brought to fore the exigency of automating our court system right from the filing process to judgement delivery. The incident has led to the loss of some vital court documents in some courts, which will stall several lawsuits and trials.
“There is urgent need to implement electronic filing of court process, electronic recording and transcription of court proceedings and electronic collection of judgment and having a central saver that backs up court processes and documents and synchronise data across all remote locations. This will expedite justice delivery and forestall loss of court documents.
“It is worrisome to note that the 2021 Budget Estimates for the Judiciary in the sum of N110 billion only, which represents Statutory Transfer to the Judiciary, is inadequate in view of current realities.
“The committee will engage the leadership of the House, and indeed the National Assembly for more funds for the Judiciary to address the observed and obvious challenges of the judiciary for expedited and efficient dispensation of justice in the country”.
He further said that there was need for adequate funding of the Judiciary in order for it to independently carry out its constitutional mandate of check and balances, settlement of disputes and protection of fundamental rights of citizens.
“The Committee under my leadership will continue to assiduously work at ensuring the independence of Judiciary, quick and efficient dispensation of Justice for Nigerians while ensuring better welfare, security and working conditions for Judicial Officers and staff of the Judiciary,” he said.
He reiterated the resolve of the 9th Assembly to engage in every legislative initiative that will guarantee effective and efficient justice delivery and respect for the rule of law in the country, as well as the reforms of the Judiciary as encapsulated in the House Legislative Agenda.
Earlier, the Secretary of the NJC, Gambo Saleh, called for a paradigm shift in the budgeting system to the judiciary, disclosing that the Council was constrained to reduce the initial budgetary proposal of N188 billion to N110billion envelope given by the federal government.
He said, “I want to thank President Muhammadu Buhari for the sustained funding of the judiciary, the Chief Justice and chairman of National Judicial Council, wish to give their profound appreciation to Mr President, to the National Assembly for the 2020 appropriation.
“While we appreciate the sustained funding of the judiciary by the government, but permit me to re-echo the position of the chairman on the need for increased funding to the Nigerian Judiciary, we are all living witnesses to the current situation in the country. In view of this, I want to reiterate the same position that the Nigerian Judiciary is indeed in dire need for increased funding.
“At the instance of the Executive and coupled with public outcry for a fast efficient judicial system, the Supreme Court of Nigeria was made to increase the complement of that court to 20 including the Chief Justice.
“We were promised a special intervention and that intervention is yet to come. As a response to these yearnings, the Court of Appeal also had to establish four additional divisions, not only that they are also in the process of appointing additional 2- justices of the Court of Appeal. The Federal High Court, the National Industrial Court are also in the process of appointing 20 additional Judges so also are the various State Courts”.
“Without an increase in funding, I do not think Nigerian judiciary will be able to contend with this. Apart from this the challenges caused by Covid-19 pandemic has also now more than before compelled Nigeria Judiciary to continue to deliberate on ICT and technology, this Mr Chairman will definitely come with additional cost if we are to effectively function”.
Saleh further said that the unfortunate instance occasioned by the
recent #EndSARS protest resulted in the destruction of different court rooms across the country apart from the vandalization, looting of court facilities, that for them to be able to get the court back to work, they will require a lot of funding.
“Please do consider an increase in funding of the Nigeria Judiciary; that will be a great service to this country. Our initial proposal for the entire Judiciary is N187,945,531,476 but we had to make a lot of adjustments, so our general overview now will be based on the N110billion given to us.
“For Federal Courts, we are proposing N3,804,500; total personnel proposal for 2021 is N29, 908,808; Salaries and allowances for State Judicial Officers: N13,893,404; Pension and gratuities of retired Federal Judicial Officers – N5,274,274. Our total capital proposal is N29,410,229; total Overhead for entire Judiciary: N21,201,460; Statutory retirement benefits: N390 million; IT infrastructure for the judiciary: N2,743,840 while Service Wide Votes was pegged at N200million”.
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