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Judges giving judgments against higher courts’ precedents deserve to be punished

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We welcome the report from the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Mahmud Mohammed, that judges who gave conflicting judgments from precedents set by higher courts are under probe. By the doctrine of stare decisis, a lower court is bound by the decision of a superior court on any issue, when a similar point arises for decision.

In the words of the CJN: “I am of the firm conviction that every court in Nigeria is bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court and shall not graft a different outcome from those expressly laid down by the Supreme Court”. To disregard this standard is an abuse of the judicial process.

Speaking at a special Supreme Court session to mark the opening of the 2016/2017 legal year, the CJN further observed: “such departures from precedent therefore risk creating the type of confusion which is inimical to the trust reposed in us by the people and we risk our reputations, our integrity and even our existence by such indiscipline”. The words of the CJN are apt, and considering that judges are well versed in these judicial standards, it is strange that some judges wantonly disregarded this general rule.
To probe the reason for such fragrant abuse of a fundamental principle of our judicial system is therefore in order. Indeed, with corruption besmirching all aspects of our national life, it is in the interest of the National Judicial Council (NJC) to quickly exorcise judges who engage in such bad practice, before the general public ascribes such travesty to the festering corruption in the country. Even more intriguing is that judges of the Court of Appeal were also involved in the disregard of precedents emanating from the Supreme Court.

According to the CJN, “several conflicting decisions were recklessly dished out by the Court of Appeal last year in appeals arising from various decisions of the Election Petition Tribunals.” He expatiated: “such decisions were made as a result of flagrant refusal of the panels of the Court of Appeal involved to be bound not only by its own decision but also by the decisions of this court”. We agree with the CJN that a panel of judges or indeed a court that fails to follow its own rule is reckless, and it is the duty of the NJC to find out why the judges engaged in such anomaly

Also recently the country’s judiciary was ridiculed with the conflicting judgments, over the same subject matter, emanating from the high courts, particularly the Federal High Court. Particularly embarrassing was the opportunity granted litigants to choose and pick which of the courts to approach, and which decision of the courts to obey. This was made possible because the judges were willing tools. Indeed, it got so bad that it appeared the judges were monitoring each other, extending their sitting time, and making references to each other, all in other to be seen as superior and to counter the decision made by the opposing other court.

As the CJN noted in his address, it is in the overall interest of the judiciary that those who engage in the abuses we witnessed recently are made to account. While a failed judiciary may hamper the practice of lawyers and judges, as he noted, it may even in some cases, result in national crisis. When parties approach the courts, they reasonably know what to expect, particularly where the superior courts have made pronouncements on the same subject matter. So, any judge that will allow his emotions to becloud the established standard of judicial precedence needs to be checkmated.

With corruption ravaging our country, the judiciary must do all in its powers to give the public the benefit of the doubt about its integrity. It is better imagined if Nigerians are given good reasons to doubt the integrity of judgments of the courts. So, to allow judges to also disregard clear judicial standards in arriving at their judgments is to compound an already dangerous development and that is an invitation to anarchy. The CJN must have borne that possibility in mind when he admonished thus: “I therefore call on our judicial officers to have due respect for the law and strive to adjudicate in a manner that is premised upon the principles of justice”.

The common saying that the judiciary is the last hope of the common man, must be appreciated in its very essence. It will be foolish to believe that the person referred to as the common man is always the poorest of the earth. Well, not at all times. For, as our nation’s trajectory has shown severally, many of those whose very life depended on the integrity of the judiciary at the critical junctures of their life, cannot be classified as commoners. So, it is in our common interest that standards are maintained in the judiciary.

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