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Body of Benchers steps into Supreme Court crisis

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The unprecedented rumpus within the apex bench – the Supreme Court – has attracted the intervention of the Body of Benchers, which has the responsible to regulate the legal profession in Nigeria.

Aggrieved Supreme Court justices had accused the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad of abandoning his responsibilities and diverting funds meant for the running of the apex court, while the CJN responded that the Supreme Court, like other establishments in the country, is affected by “a devastating economic crunch”.

According to the Chairman of the Body of Benchers, Chief Wole Olanipekun SAN, a seven-man committee, headed by former CJN, Justice Mahmud Mohammed has been set up to look into the matter.

He to THE Punch: “We held an emergency meeting today (Tuesday) and for now, we have set up a Body of Benchers Judiciary Advisory Committee. It will be a standing committee of the Body of Benchers and the Chair of the committee is Justice Mahmud Mohammed, former Chief Justice of Nigeria.

“I am a member and the Vice Chairman of the Body of Benchers is a member and four others. We are swinging into action. We are talking to parties concerned, individually and collectively.

“For now, we are advising that they should sheath their swords. The immediate objective of the committee is to resolve the impasse while the ultimate objective is to work out an acceptable package for judicial officers all over the country, particularly judicial officers in superior courts”.

Olaonipekun further said: “The committee has also been mandated to compare and contrast what the judicial officers take as their remuneration among others with what is obtainable in other parts of the world.

“The committee will confront the Executive with what we derive as the best condition of service, remuneration, among others, as obtained in other countries of the world. The CJN cannot do this; the organogram tilts against the independence of the judiciary as we want it”.

The Supreme Court Justices complained about their accommodation, vehicles, electricity tariff, supply of diesel, internet services to Justices’ residences, training for Justices and epileptic electricity supply to the court.

They also accused the CJN of receiving their demands without acting “after several persistent requests” to hold a meeting which was finally held on 31st March where a welfare committee was set up.

Among other things, the Supreme Court Justices are demanding to know what had become of funds set aside for the training of justices, alleging that they were denied the usual two to three international workshops annually.

In response, the CJN stated that given the economic crunch, the leadership of the Supreme Court could no longer meet some of its obligations to the Justices, especially in the area of welfare.

While berating his colleagues for bringing their complaints to the public, Justice Muhammad said the apex court was facing a cash crunch.

His reaction was contained in a statement signed by his Special Assistant on Media and Strategy, Ahuraka Isah.

The statement stated: “Judges in all climes are to be seen and not heard, and that informed why the CJN refrained from joining issues until a letter, said to be personal, is spreading across the length and breadth of the society. This was akin to dancing naked at the market square by us with the ripple effect of the said letter.

“The Supreme Court does not exist outside its environment; it is also affected by the economic and socio-political climate prevailing in the country. Besides that, the Apex Court has to a larger extent, been living up to its constitutional responsibility”.

Muhammad explained that the Supreme Court this year budgeted to re-roof and rehabilitate its complex built over 30 years ago.

According to him, two Supreme Court Justices died within the period under consideration while four retired costing the court some funds in form of gratuities and allowances.

He added, “Two weeks ago, eight Supreme Court Justices were nominated for a workshop in London as the court cannot take all of them there at once otherwise the job would suffer. They would be going in batches.

“Accommodations are being gradually provided for the few that are yet to get them. There is none of the Apex Court Justices without SUV and backup cars. If any of them were purchased but refurbished, the external and internal auditors are here in the court to take those that bought them up over it.

“The high cost of electricity tariff and diesel is a national problem. The Chief Registrar might have budgeted for N300 per litre but diesel is now selling for over N700 per litre and therefore has to find a way around it without even bringing it to the attention of the CJN. But there is no way the generator would be put off if the Court is sitting.

“Internet services have been restored to Justices’ residences and chambers, just as some allowances have been paid to them. The CJN held a meeting with his brother Justices last Thursday and another one is due to hold this week”.

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