The Citizens Support for Lower Courts held its maiden Zoom seminar on the 11th of December 2023 on the topic, "The Role of the Magistrate and Customary Court Judges in Nation Building, Safety and Security."

The seminar was held largely to find solutions to the problems faced by the lower courts in carrying out their constitutional role as part of the judiciary.

It's very saddening that after over 25 years of APC's leadership in Lagos State and 8 years at the federal level, very little has been achieved in granting citizens access to justice.

While we acknowledge the extension of the retirement ages of all superior court judges and the recent increase in budgetary allocation to the National Judicial Council (NJC), the various States (save for Osun State) have done very little in reforms that aim to increase productivity and capacity within the lower courts.

I, therefore, appeal to all State Judicial Service Commissions, Law Reform Commissions, and Ministry of Justices in the State to take a closer look at the lower courts and apply some of the recommendations suggested below.

I will also strongly appeal to the legal community to partner with the government in this regard. I, therefore, call on the leadership of the Nigerian Law Society (NLS), the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), MULAN, CLASFON, Catholic Lawyers Association, FIDA, AWLA, and other stakeholders to work collaboratively to ensure that we enjoy democracy, rule of law and justice for all. 


Dr. Muiz Banire, SAN, who was the lead speaker emphasized the importance of the lower courts as being the grassroots court handling well over 70% of the nation’s disputes. He noted that the way and manner of appointment and the treatment of lower courts judges was well below the acceptable standards which need urgent reforms and a change of attitudes.

Dr. Banire, SAN, suggested the following solutions:

1. The law providing for the qualification of magistrates must be streamlined and specific to state that a person to be appointed a magistrate must be a person of integrity and good character who has substantial practice experience as a practicing lawyer.

2. Review the law establishing the customary court judges in the aspect of stating that a customary court judge must be a person with “adequate means”, how do you determine adequacy and what has it got to do with the administration of justice?

3. Lower courts must be insulated from all forms of political interference – merit-based appointments are crucial to ensuring that the lower courts are respected and effective.

4. The appointment process must be transparent and made public. Names of every applicant to the bench must be published in newspapers for all to see and comment on.

5. The working environment, courtrooms, general facilities, working tools, and technology must be improved. Lower court judges must have electronic law reports, computers, printers, and stationery to work effectively.

6. Lower court judges need cars, they need to be given homes under the government housing schemes where they can pay in installments, access to health care, and regular salary review.

7. The retirement age of lower court judges must be increased. 

8. Legislation must be made to take them out of the civil service structure and be regarded as judicial officers.

9. Lower court judges ought to be given priority in the process of elevation to the higher bench.

10. National Judicial Council rules regarding the need to be a chief magistrate in order to be considered for elevation as a judge must be removed.

11. Appoint lower court judges based on the availability of infrastructure and increase their monetary jurisdiction considering the rate of inflation and other economic indicators. This will reduce the burden on the higher courts.

12. Creation of a special appellate court for all disputes arising from magistrate courts and appoint deserving magistrates to those appellate courts as final arbiters to some categories of disputes like tenancy.

Justice Toyin Taiwo (Rtd.), a former Magistrate who was elevated and retired on the high court bench, spoke about improving the relationship between judges of the high court bench and the lower bench. Justice Toyin Taiwo while agreeing with the lead speaker on most issues noted that the government may not be adequately able to provide for all the needs of the lower courts, at least not all at once. Her Lordship agreed that there should be a special focus on the welfare of lower court judges with a view to making it better and more in line with the realities of the current economic situation.

Her lordship agreed that there is a need to improve the relationship between judges of the higher bench and the lower courts suggesting that they should meet more often in training conferences, mentoring sessions, and other opportunities, creating an atmosphere where magistrates can approach the high court judges for advice and other social issues.

Her lordship, in responding to the unsavory treatment meted out to lower court judges by judges of the high bench wherein the lower court judges are treated like subordinates, looked down upon, and literarily treated like servants of high court judges; said that she had no personal experience with such behavior but condemned it as not being ideal and unacceptable.

His Lordship noted that as a lower court judge, integrity is implied. “When you want to be an adjudicator, you must be above what is implicit in the job. So any magistrate, who is not performing efficiently and effectively, regardless of the remuneration, should be sent [out]. There is no excuse for corruption. After all, you knew what your salary was going to be before you joined. Except you came in with a preconceived idea that, oh, I'm going there to make money. That is it. Except you came in with a preconceived idea that I'm going there to make money. So the issue of corruption should also be tackled head-on.”

His lordship on the issue of judicial officers or civil servants noted that in the magistrate court law of Lagos State, they are referred to as judicial officers. “In the constitution, they're referred to as courts of inferior record. They are not referred to as judicial officers administratively. They are civil servants. Their salary is paid on a civil service scale. In the magistrate's court laws, they refer to only chief magistrates and magistrates. So there is a confusion. They are saying that look, we advocate on civil and criminal matters just like the high court. We are judicial officers. We are not civil servants. But the problem is this, their salaries are paid on a civil servant cadre level.” 

His lordship noted that the issue of corruption is very deep and needs to be tackled holistically.

His honour, Miakpo Emiaso, is a retired President of the Area Customary Court of Delta State who has written many books including a book titled “Perceived Corrupt: Memoirs of a Nigerian Judge”. His honour largely shared his experiences as a judge in relation to the theme of the seminar.

He noted that the monetary jurisdiction for judges of the lower court in Delta State where he served is 50 million naira. On the issue of there being too many magistrates, he opined that considering the number of policemen in any given state, the state can make use of more lower court judges which they can adequately provide for.

On the issue of how lower court judges are treated; his honour bore his mind and stated “…The idea of somebody being discriminated against just because he serves at a level of court that is low, which is described as magistrate, which is described as chairman of customary court, does not take away the risk, the very many risks that are involved in performing that kind of job, the risk of safety to his life, because he lives within the same society as the very many persons over whom he has to preside make pronouncements as to their fate. You as the magistrate, you as the high court judge, you do not necessarily recognize them when you meet them on the road or you attend a football match and he's sitting next to you would never know that he once was before you in your court. And so there is a need to make adequate provision, no matter how much it costs the state.”

He continued; “Adequate provision must be made for all judges, irrespective of at what level they are serving. They must be provided for. Their welfare must be looked into, their security must be looked into, and how they live, and the environment in which they live must be secured. There cannot be too many.”

He noted that some lower court judges have better legal qualifications and are senior at the Bar than high court judges but some high court judges disrespect and disregard their colleagues in the lower courts. He appeals that these discriminatory and derogatory attitudes cease henceforth.

His honour noted that “…when you look at the definition of a judicial officer for purposes of discipline and control, as provided in the code of conduct for judicial officers, he [lower court judge] is a judicial officer for that purpose, to be able to control him and discipline him, he's a judicial officer. But when it comes to purposes for remuneration, especially post-retirement, he's not a judicial officer and he cannot benefit. So you find that in most states, whereas a high court judge retires and gets his package on the last day of his retirement, I, for instance, had to wait for five years before my pension, gratuity was paid to me. What was the system expecting me to survive upon for that five years? And then I had worked, served the country as a judge.”

The seminar ended with assurances that the campaign for better working conditions and welfare of the lower courts in Nigeria would continue and would advance in 2024.

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