A judicial advocacy group, Access to Justice, has called for the cancellation of the ongoing process to recruit 25 new judges for the Federal High Courts across the country.
In a statement in Lagos, Thursday, the group said the process for the appointment of the judges was flawed on the grounds of “substantial non-compliance” with the Revised National Judicial Council Guidelines and Procedural Rules 2015.
“The breaches of the said Guidelines are considerable, and if the current recruitment is allowed to proceed, it would seriously undermine the integrity of the reforms made in the Revised Guidelines,” the group said in the statement by Joseph Otteh, its Executive Director.
“For this reason, Access to Justice urges the National Judicial Council (NJC) to hold the process leading to the selection and nomination of candidates for the existing vacancies in the Federal High Court (FHC) to be in manifest and substantial contravention of the Revised Guidelines and is irredeemably flawed; and to direct that the process be begun afresh.
“We also urge the NJC to insist that any fresh exercise must adhere with, and be in compliance with the Revised Guidelines 2014.
“The Revised Guidelines seek to ensure openness, competitiveness, merit and transparency in recruitment processes as well as safeguard judicial appointments from being lobbied and politicized.”
The group said the current Federal High Court recruitment had been done in ways that conflict with the core goals of the Revised Guidelines.
“Rule 3 of the Revised Guidelines provides that the Judicial Service Commission ‘shall: call expression of interest by suitable candidates by way of public notice placed on the website of the Judicial Service Commission/Committee concerned, notice Boards of the Courts and notice Boards of Nigeria Bar Association Branches;
“Rule 3 of the Revised Guidelines clearly mandates the publication of a Public Notice of existing judicial vacancies calling for an expression of interest by suitable candidates in at least 3 publicly accessible forums: the website of the JSC/FJSC, Notice Board of Courts and Notice Board of the NBA Branches.
“The word ‘shall’ makes it mandatory that a call/ announcement be made, in the stipulated forms, for interested candidates to express interest to fill the vacant positions.
“According to Rule 3(3) of the Revised Guidelines, such a call for expression of interest/Nomination must bear a closing date. This rule was clearly not followed in the current recruitment process.”
Following a notice by the judicial council calling for the recommendation of qualified judges, Access to Justice had filed a Freedom of Information requesting information of the criteria adopted to fill the judicial vacancies.
The FOI requests, made to Mahmud Mohammed, Chairman of the Federal Judicial Service Commission, and Ibrahim Auta, Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, were responded to by letters dated 27th August, 2015 and 8th September 2015 respectively.
“According to letter signed by Mrs. B.A. Bashir, OON, the Secretary to the Federal Judicial Service Commission, the only publication made on the existing vacancies was an advertisement placed on the website of the Federal High Court,” Mr. Otteh said.
“Unfortunately, our investigation reveals that no such call for expression of interest by suitable candidates was made. All that was placed on the website of the Federal High Court was a copy of the letter written to judges, heads of courts, Attorney General of the Federation and the President of the Nigeria Bar Association inviting them to make recommendations of suitable persons for consideration.
“In his response to the FOI request, the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court respectfully begged the question.
“We asked to know the details of the modes and avenues used in publicizing/advertising the available Federal High Court vacancies. His response was to the effect that: ‘That the mode of and avenues in publicizing the vacancies are as stated in the Rules 3(1)(a)(i)(ii)(iii) of the 2014 Revised National Judicial Council Guidelines & Procedural Rules for the Appointment of Judicial Officers of All Superior Courts of Record in Nigeria.”
Mr. Otteh said that the only notice that was published at the instance of the Federal High Court was a letter posted on the website of the Court to specific judicial officers and the Attorney General of the Federation asking for recommendation of ‘….any fit and proper legal practitioner in Nigeria for consideration for appointment as Judges of the Federal High Court.’
“This is not the form or the substance of what the revised guidelines require. This procedure negates the goals of the NJC Revised Guidelines as information of the existing vacancies was not published in the required forums, neither was information of the vacancies offered to the public or interested suitable persons.”
Mr. Otteh further stated that there were no appropriate parameters used in shortlisting candidates who were recommended to the Federal Judicial Service Commission and the NJC.
“In the FOI request, Access to Justice had requested for details of the criteria adopted in drawing up the provisional shortlist of candidates submitted to the Commission as well as to the NJC,” Mr. Otteh said.
“Specifically, we had asked: ‘Was there a panel or committee set up to scrutinize the applications? If yes, please provide us with the names of persons constituting the panel/committee, its head and its terms of reference. If No, provide information on how the selected candidate were shortlisted, by whom they were shortlisted and the parameters of selection.’
“The Chief Judge of the Federal High Court responded by saying that the professional status of those who recommended the candidates was an initial consideration, followed by the quality of judgment/ruling, the available vacancy for the State and the Federal Character, without more.
“Rule 3(4) of the Revised Guidelines provide:
‘Soon after the closing date for the receipt of applications and or nominations, the Chairman of the Judicial Service Commission/Committee concerned shall make a provisional shortlist on the merits consisting of not less than twice the number of Judicial Officers intended to be appointed at the particular time and circulate the provisional shortlist together with a request for comments on the suitability or otherwise of any of the short listed candidates.’
“The Rule provides that the provisional shortlist shall be made “on the merits.” The idiomatic phrase ‘on the merits’ is defined to mean: ‘based on the qualities of someone or something, or on the facts of a situation.’
Mr. Otteh said the process adopted for the recruitment of the judges was not transparent, open, accessible and fair and denied a level playing field to all prospective and qualified candidates.
“They were also not merit-based,” he said.
“We urge the NJC to reject the list forwarded by the Federal Judicial Service Commission. By so doing, the NJC will be sending a strong signal to all Judicial Service Commissions and heads of Court that it will not return to the ‘business as usual’ status quo in relation to judicial appointments and that it will respect its own mandatory policies and rules governing the appointment of Judges in Nigeria.”
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