Supreme Court can’t be learning platform for lawyers – Retired judge

Supreme Court can’t be learning platform for lawyers – Retired judge

Justice Sherifat Solebo retired on November 25, 2022, after serving as a magistrate and high court judge in the Lagos State judiciary from 1999 to 2022. She speaks to NAOMI CHIMA about her experiences and the need for reforms in the country’s justice system

Was becoming a judge your childhood dream?

My becoming a judge was not a childhood dream though I would sarcastically say I wished to be a lawyer. Through a chance meeting with a coursemate, I joined the service of Lagos State Judiciary as a magistrate and rose through the ranks till I got elevated to the High Court bench as a judge.

As a young girl after leaving secondary school, I had wished to be a successful trader since all the women around me were successful businesswomen, but fate destined otherwise.

Did becoming a judge affect your relationship with friends and family members?

My appointment, first as a magistrate and secondly as a judge did not in any way affect my relationship with my family and friends, most of whom are successful in their chosen careers and businesses.

The work of a judge is very engaging, particularly in Lagos, sitting in court daily, with a long cause list, and writing numerous rulings and judgments. Do judges have time to unwind and how do they do it?

The job of judging is quite tasking, tedious, and engaging but judges do create time to unwind. In Lagos State, we have recreation centres for leisure and relaxation. At the centre, we have a swimming pool, gym and facilities for relaxation like other elite clubs where members go to enjoy, relax and unwind.

Judges’ pay has been a subject of debate for long. For instance, it seems awkward the Registrar of the Supreme Court earns more than the justices. The registrar earns N1.2m, while the justices earn N750,000 per month and surprisingly, the CJN, who is the overall head, earns N400,000. Why is this so?

Salaries of judges are fixed by the Revenue Mobilization and Fiscal Commission and the last time salaries of judges were last revised was unfortunately in 2007. About 16 years ago despite the inflation, devaluation of Naira, and series of adjustments of salaries of civil servants. These probably explain the disparity in the salaries of judges and some categories of civil servants.

I however cannot understand or explain why the number 1 judicial officer would earn less than his colleagues despite him being the numero uno, the primes inter pares.

May I be quick to add that Nigerian judges are the least paid in the world when salaries are denoted in dollars: currently it’s between $500-$700 per month while contemporaries in other jurisdictions earn between$5,000-$8,000 monthly. It’s quite shameful after putting so much effort and energy into the job only to earn a pittance.

Many believe that the judgments from the Nigerian courts are overly technical rather than do substantive justice. Why is this so?

Procedures in courts are regulated by the rules of the court, and the Evidence Act, among others, while judges are guided by precedents. Legislations prescribe penalties for noncompliance with rules or laws and once there is an infraction, the court will not indulge the violators. In rulings particularly judgments, a lot of issues are raised and determined. We need to read through to understand the rationale behind judgments and why the losing party lost. Furthermore, counsels need to be meticulous, and thorough and read through their pleadings to ensure compliance with rules and laws.

Nigerians don’t trust the judiciary. How can the judiciary win public confidence?

The integrity of judges, magistrates, and support staff is of paramount importance and justice must be seen and done at all times through courts’ judgments.

However, the citizens need to be educated, they need to be objective and rational in their perceptions knowing full well that there must always be a winner and a loser.

Some have suggested that judges should not have the power to determine winners in elections. That at best judges should only order a rerun, instead of outright taking over the power of the electorate by declaring a winner. What is your view on this?

The decisions of the courts, including electoral judgments are based on prescriptions in laws and not on the sentiments of the populace. Therefore decisions would be based on what the law states and precedents until the Act/Law is amended.

The judiciary is currently in the eye of the storm over the contradictions in the Certified True Copy of the Court of Appeal’s judgment on the Kano State governorship election. What are your thoughts on this?

Ordinarily, after the court pronounces, it becomes functus officio but it can correct typographical slips in judgments delivered within a certain number of days.

I have not read the judgment of the Kano State Election Tribunal in respect of the gubernatorial petition and therefore cannot expressly speak on same.

May I also be quick to add that since the appeal has been filed, the Appellate Court will look into it and take a decision thereon.

Do you think lawyers should be appointed straight to the Supreme Court or we should rather have appeal court justices being elevated to the apex court?

My opinion may be biased, being a judicial officer, but truth be said, judging needs expertise. Judging is a skill that needs to be learnt and practised over time.

My experience at the High Court level is that the advocates newly on the bench more often than not still judge as practitioners. In view of that the Supreme Court being the highest court of the land cannot be a learning platform.

How has retirement been for you?

I had thought I would retire at 60 as a magistrate and was prepared before destiny smiled on me and of course from the date of swearing in I was conscious of my exit date. I therefore didn’t have any problem re-integrating back into society (family and friends). I am relaxed and actively engaged.

I am lucky to be involved in all legally related activities I enjoyed while on the bench: legal education, family and children matters, gender-based issues, law, and religion, among others.

To the glory of God, I have also added writing; I have four books yet to be published. I am enjoying my retirement with family, while I still do all I enjoy doing.

What changes do you wish to see in the judiciary?

I would love to see improved salaries, condition of service, and improved court premises that are technologically driven for faster and more efficient service.

What can the judiciary do to reduce the rate of child sexual abuse and domestic violence in society?

The role of the judiciary in the trial of offences in gender offences, be it sexual abuse or domestic violence, is to ensure perpetrators are brought to justice. The essence is to punish offenders and deter likely perpetrators.

However, the major task lies with the executive through its policy, police investigations, and state counsel’s prosecution of offenders. These are the substratum upon which successful prosecution and convictions lie.

So many people have lost confidence in the judiciary due to the delay in judgment of these perpetrators. Do think the judiciary failed the society? 

The judiciary has not failed society. It has worked within its capacity and ensured that judgments are delivered as quickly as practicable. A lot of factors affect the delay in criminal justice and these include inadequate staffing, inability to match up technologically with increased filing of cases; insufficient funding, lack of education, inability of the correctional facilities to produce inmates in courts on trial dates, poor investigative, prosecutorial incompetence and, of course, overload of cases and the health of judges and magistrates.

The situation is complex.

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