Chief Macdonald Omijie-Omolemen read law at the former Bendel State University now Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma, Edo State and was called to the Bar almost three decades ago. 50 years-old Omolemen, holds two Master’s Degree in International Law and Diplomatic Analysis (MLS) and LL.M in Maritime and International Commercial Law from the Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos. He spoke on the judiciary, the general elections and the election petition tribunal. PETER FOWOYO, met him.
What is your assessment of the nation’s judiciary, I mean how will you compare the judiciary of those days to the modern day judiciary?
Well, I don’t think there is any difference between the old and the new but, I want to say the new has improved a lot. Unlike the long hands the old was using now, we have recording systems and all important gadgets that have made the job easier for the present day Judges. We also have improved courts with air-conditions unlike those days, it was not like that and I want to say that some of the Judges are so hardworking that even when there is no light they still work without fans but, it is being made more conducive than before for the present day Judges. I think they are trying.
The judiciary is not corrupt, I wonder what they are talking about, apart from the few cases you hear about and if you want to juxtapose it with the executive arm of government, you will discover that judiciary is far better than the two other arms of government. What I feel needed to be done is to extricate the involvement of politicians in the appointment of Judges like the appointment of State High Court Judges is under the control of governors and the god fathers meanwhile the Chief Judge, his apparatus and the Nigerian Bar Association are supposed to be more involved in the appointment of judges. With the involvement of politicians you find situations where mediocre are made Judges which is not supposed to be.
About the upper courts, in those days, Justices of the Supreme Court were appointed from practice. I remember the time when the late Chief Rotimi Williams SAN, was approached to come and become Justice of the Supreme Court. I also knew when one time Chief Judge of Lagos state, the Late Justice Adefarasin was approached as a CJ of a State High Court to become Justice of the Supreme Court. I think the way they were appointing Justices then is far better than now.
The elevation from one court to another does not actually explain that that character is competent, the system should expand beyond that, we all know who is good like in our legal practice, we know who is sound and lawyers that are equally hardworking, I think they should look at that aspect. I believe if the judiciary has a clear cut independence from the executive they will be able to do their things in their own way without the involvement of the executive.
There are claims that the Supreme Court undertook extra ordinary processes of accelerated hearing on some political matters, such processes are said to be a departure from the lack of judicial activism concerning the poor who are imprisoned endlessly without trials. Do you share such view?
I think the Justices of the Supreme Court need to be increased because of the quantum of cases that is there now. I am not saying Supreme Court should be in all states, it can continue to be in Abuja but the number of Justices should be increased since we are so federal character conscious, by the time we make a system whereby three, four Justices are from a state, the number of Justices will increase and the workload will be reduced.
The idea of giving preference to political matter is good. For example, if there is a political case that affects the presidential election and is not resolved within a stipulated period, it can lead the country into serious crisis; I think that is why it was made to be like that. I have a matter there since three years now and I’ve not heard anything from them, we’ve completed our pleadings, filed our final written address but, up till now, we’ve not got any hearing notice from the apex court and when I enquire I was told mine is not a matter of urgency, it bothers on customer and bank relationship and that in due course of time, I will hear from them.
But, between you and I, it is too long perhaps in other countries where things are better structured, it will not take more than six months to dispense with the matter, not to talk about matters that has to do with life or fundamental rights. Judiciary should be given independence, restructure itself to get the best out of it that is what the executive should try and do and not keep treating the judiciary as their baby because of the fear that if the judiciary does not depend upon them, judgment will not favour them and such ideology is more with the state governors. A critical assessment of that area should be made so that things can move on properly.
Do you think all matters should go to the Supreme Court or only constitutional matters should be allowed to get to the apex court so as to reduce the volume of work?
The Supreme Court is a constitutional court, it is the last hope of the common man, I don’t see why some matters should go there and others shouldn’t go there. Like I said before, if the numbers of Justices are increased, I believe we will get a desire result. I know as a matter of fact that they are under staffed, if you look at their judgment, it is not a child’s play, they go into the nitty gritty of every matter and each Justice will write his or her own judgment, in a situation when they are concurring they will still have something to say, if you see the records of appeal that emanates from the High Court to the Court of Appeal and then to the Supreme Court, you will know that it’s not a child’s play for somebody in that age to be able to go through all of that in a month is not easy.
The only way out is to increase the number of Justices just like they’ve expanded the Court of Appeal that matters no longer delays there anymore. I remember there was a time we had a matter at the Court of Appeal that was pended for more than nine years now, our matter was disposed of within 18 months, it is because of the restructuring so such a restructuring should have been done to the Supreme Court as well, with that, matters can be disposed of expeditiously or we go back to how the Americans operate theirs. In America, each state has a Supreme Court, if you don’t accept the verdict of the Supreme Court, you can now move the case to the Federal Supreme Court but in most cases, litigants after getting to the state Supreme Court will accept the verdict but, I think the best way is to increase the number of Justices and staff of the Supreme Court and the judiciary should be allowed to have its own autonomy. The executive should learn to leave the judiciary alone; the problem with the judiciary is with the executive, nothing else.
There are suggestions that the age limit of justices at the Supreme Court should be reduced to enable them perform optimally and effectively. Do you share this view?
The older the wine, the sweeter. In legal practice whether at the Bar or on the Bench it is like that. I would rather suggest that they should increase it to 75 years if the retirement age of a professor in the university could be increased to that why not the Justices? Supreme Court Justices don’t go into adjudications, adjudication ends at the court of first instance, what they do is that they look at areas where injustice has been occasioned, you filed your notice of appeal, your brief of argument, the other party replies, fix a date for adoption. The stress is not with friction between parties, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court looks at areas where justices have been miscarried and prevent that though it is not easy but, that argument is not very sound. You don’t acquire experience; people that earn the experience are those that should be there. That argument to me is not tenable.
Contrary to the constitution that prescribed 180 days to end all electoral matters, some lawyers are saying it is too short. What is your view?
It is not too short that time if everything is operative to its optimal then that time is more than enough for any matter to move at the tribunal to the Court of Appeal and terminate at the Supreme Court. Anytime longer than that could lead to anarchy just imagine increasing the time to a year, 366 days, what will happen to the people? It means the country will end up having interim regime because the constitution spelt out the time a government is supposed to hand over power to another government, I think that time is alright, I don’t know what people calling for extension of that time have in mind. 180 days is just enough for the matter to start and terminate without any problem.