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Afe Babalola: Allow Supreme Court Justices stay on Bench for life

Foremost legal icon Chief Afe Babalola (SAN) has proposed that Supreme Court Justices should remain on the bench for life.

Justices of the apex court retire at the age of 70 in the subsisting arrangement. But, Babalola said Nigeria should take a cue from other jurisdictions to make the Justices remain in the bench for life.

Babalola (SAN), a founder of Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, made these views known during a virtual book presentation in honour of Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, who retired from the Supreme Court on March 22 after spending 27 years on the bench.

Babalola’s views was made available by Director of Corporate Service  of ABUAD, Mr. Tunde Olofintila.

The lawyer and educationist also warned that the country might continue heading down hill unless it rearranges how its affairs are administered.

Babalola traced the root of of Nigeria’s major problems to the military’s abandonment of the 1963 Constitution in favour a defective 1999 Constitution.

The solution, he said, is to urgently restructure the country to make politics unattractive, cut down on cost of governance, make each state or region develop at its pace, develop its resources, provide employment and eradicate poverty.

According him, Supreme Court Justices in many other judicatures often times, stay on the bench “as long as they probably can. In fact, many die while in office. But for those who opt for retirement, the average age is 78.7years. The average retirement age has grown to a whooping 103 years”

The lifetime tenure of Supreme Court Justices, in his view, will enable Nigeria to benefit from the wealth of wisdom, insight, experience, fairness and compassion of a jurist like Justice Rhodes-Vivour.
On the importance of the position of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Babalola contended that the sacredness and high calling of the office combine to make it more imperative that appointment to the office of the CJN should not be based on promotion, but strictly on merit.

He said: “I know from experience that the best judges are those who have been in active litigation, who have interacted with clients, who have drafted claims and pleadings and who have addressed legal issues at different levels of the courts. This is why in other climes, judges are chosen from seasoned legal practitioners.

“I recall the case of the late Hon. Justice Teslim Olawale Elias, SAN. He was Attorney-General of the Federation when he was a Professor at the University of Lagos and was invited to the Supreme Court where he eventually became the CJN and later, President, International Court of Justice”.
Babalola frowned at the present situation where strong and mentally alert Judicial Officers are eased out of the Bench on account of a constitutional retirement age of 70 when their services and experience are still most needed.

He said: “Experience has shown that a person becomes wiser and more experienced as he advances in age.

“Under our judicial system today, Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour JSC (Rtd) is retiring at the young age of 70 when he has not shown any sign of physical weakness and when Nigeria would have benefitted more from his wealth of wisdom, insight and experience.
“A brief look at other countries shows that appointment to the Supreme Court is a lifetime appointment.”

Enumerating Rhodes-Vivour’s “sterling qualities”, Babalola said: “I know Hon. Justice Rhodes Vivour (Rtd). I have seen him at work, I have interacted with him in the court. He is a genial, decent, and disciplined person. He is a judge with unquestionable integrity, character, industry and dignity. A professional to the core; the legal colossus is a fervent believer in the rule of law. The professional ways he conducts himself both at the Bar, on the Bench and outside the Bar and the Bench will ever remain fresh in our memory for ever.

“As we proceed to launch three books in honour of Hon. Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour Jsc (Rtd), CFR, I have a personal question to ask him. The question is simple. My respected Jurist, are you fulfilled as you bow out from the Supreme Court at 70 years? I know you answer: ‘I am fulfilled’.

“But if we ask lawyers to answer the question, the answer will be ‘No, he is not fulfilled’. The question is why is he not fulfilled? Because we believe that Justice Rhodes Vivour (rtd) is a very strong and able young man. He doesn’t look 70. We believe that he should remain on the Bench until he becomes Chief Justice of Nigeria.

“Hon. Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour spent 11 years as a High Court Judge, five years as a Justice of the Court of Appeal and 11 years as a Supreme Court Justice. He should be commended because throughout his 27 years on the Bench, he served without any blemish. More importantly and remarkably too, he was never absent from work for a single day either due to illness or any other reason.

“While on the Bench, he was known for his fairness, impartiality and compassion. He wrote many lead judgments. But on this occasion, I wish to refer to two landmark cases. Ukeje vs. Ukeje (2014) 11 NWLR Pt. 1418, 384 at 408 where he declared that the Igbo Customary Law which disentitles a female child from partaking in the sharing of the deceased father’s estate as illegal, discriminatory and in breach of fundamental human right.

“And also, the case of JES Investment Ltd v. Brawal Lere Ltd & Ors (2010) 18 NWLR (Pt. 1225) 495 at 544 on the need to reform limitation laws in Nigeria and for judges to be conferred with discretion to extend limitation periods for some actions.”


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