Prominent judicial personnel including the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mariam Aloma-Mukhtar, are complaining of, indeed protesting, the poor budgetary allocation to the third tier of government. In the last couple of years, to underscore the problem, the annual financial allocation to the judiciary has nosedived from N95 billion in 2010 to N67 billion in 2013.
That is not all. There is discontent, too, regarding the manner in which the funds are disbursed given the fact that they are warehoused and shared out by the Ministry of Finance or the Ministry of Justice. The 1999 Constitution stipulates that funds for the judiciary should proceed directly from the Consolidated Revenue Fund, a requirement that is observed in the breach. The warning by the CJN that “our courts are increasingly finding it difficult to effectively perform their day to day constitutional roles” has not come too soon. For, even in the best of times, there are wide gaps in the infrastructural condition of the judiciary, illustrated by overcrowded and poorly lit court rooms with judges taking down notes in long hand. We can only imagine what a marked deterioration in the circumstance would look like.
True, budgetary cuts affecting the judiciary are something of a global trend considering that many economies are in the throes of a recession or are beginning to gain an unsteady foothold in economic recovery. We are familiar, for instance, with the outcry recently of the United States Chief Justice, John Roberts, about what he called the ongoing ‘impact of automatic spending cuts’ leading to a rollback of judicial personnel such as court clerks, probation and pre-trial services, among others. It is fair to say nonetheless that in the advanced democracies with established institutions, the impact of spending cuts are likely to be less severe than in contexts like Nigeria’s where the judicial institution can be regarded as immature. It is well known, for example, that the situation of the High Court and the Magistrate courts is notably appalling even without the current meltdown; the degradation occasioned by the current slash in the judicial budget can only be imagined.
Another reason why the nation should worry about dwindling allocation to the judiciary is the possibility, if not probability, of opening up hard pressed judicial officers to seductive gratification. Even without the current financial squeeze, there have been increasingly loud complaints about corruption in the judiciary. There are also hair-raising stories concerning the sale of judgment to the highest bidders. Interestingly, some of the stories are told by judicial officers themselves, thus lending them credibility.
Although there is no direct relationship between inadequate funding and corruption given that the human agency is an important variable, it is right to assume that under normal circumstances, a financially enfeebled judiciary will be more susceptible to manipulation, intimidation and outright bribery. It is therefore not in the interest of Nigeria’s budding democracy, particularly as the elections approach, to retain the current impecunious status of the judiciary in the context of the oft-heard expressions that the courts are the last hope of the common person and that the judiciary is the conscience of the nation.
One area where underfunding bites hard is the delay in the computerisation of the judiciary which would have enabled the nation’s judges to leap frog such lacuna as the non availability of decent libraries and legal research infrastructure which can tone up the quality of their judgments. The lack of attention to the need to computerise the Nigerian court system due to financial reasons obviously keeps the system in the obsolete closet, lacking in basic amenities to which it had been condemned for many years. In other words, at a time when the system ought to be in the grip of a modernising impetus, it is now apparently sentenced to a hand to mouth existence in which it is forced to rely on increasingly inadequate financial subvention.
As is well known, the judiciary derives its constitutional importance from the doctrine of the separation of powers which requires that the three arms of government have autonomous spheres of influence as well as the doctrine of judicial review which makes the judiciary the arbiter in matters dealing the interpretation of the constitution. Given its hallowed place therefore in the scheme of things, it is preposterous to underfund the institution on which both the constitution and the normal practice of democracy pin such great hope.
It is suggested therefore that government takes a long, hard look at the current paltry funding of the Nigerian judiciary with a view to reversing it. Along the same lines, it should also begin the safeguarding of judicial sanctity by reverting to the constitutional imperative of protecting judicial funding from bureaucratic meddling of any sort.