A bill recently passed by the Nasarawa State House of Assembly has amended the Area Courts Law to stipulate that judges working in the Nigerian state get a law degree within the next ten years or they’ll be laid off.
The bill, which was introduced in 2022, was passed by the assembly earlier in May and has since gone over to the final stage – governor’s assent – confirmed Mohammed Omadefu, spokesman of the state parliament..
During the consideration of a report by the standing Committee on Judiciary, Ethics and Privileges, the speaker of the state assembly, Ibrahim Abdullahi, noted the implications of the amendment. “Going by the principal law, if it is to be implemented it will lay off some staff of the judiciary … hence the need to amend the principal law,” he said.
“The principal law provides that for one to be a judge of the upper area court, one must be a legal practitioner with at least four years post-call. And for one to be a judge of an area court, you must be a legal practitioner with at least three years post-call,” he explained.
“The committee strongly recommends that a window period of ten years be granted to the affected staff, (to allow them to) enrol into a degree programme of law (and) to be called to Bar, for them to fit in,” Abdullahi stated.
While judges in most countries are generally expected to get a law degree before being appointed to the judiciary, this is not the case in Nigeria, where some local courts have non-lawyers as judges.
Habeeb Lawal, a lawyer and the national publicity secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association, said the varying customary laws enable non-lawyers to be judges. However, he explained that judges without law degrees are only allowed to head an inferior court, and this practice is not limited to northern Nigeria.
The inferior courts are established by laws other than the constitution of the country; these include the area courts in northern Nigeria and customary courts in the southern parts of the country.
“In some southern states, including Delta state, the customary courts are empanelled by a lawyer-judge and two non-lawyers versatile in the customary native law and custom of the area,” Lawal explained.
Likewise, the customary law of Lagos state 2015 says that while the President of the Customary Court has to be a legal practitioner or law graduate, members of the court do not have to be: “A person shall be qualified to hold office as a member of a Customary Court if the person is- (a) a holder of a degree in any recognized university or polytechnic; (b) at least fifty (50) years of age; and (c) of proven integrity and good standing in the society.”
Muhammed Adam, a Lagos-based lawyer, believes that it is pertinent for the varying laws across different states to be amended because they create an imbalance in the local courts. “There are cases that say lawyers have the right to appear in these courts, so if the judges are not lawyers, it makes it difficult to have a balance. And lawyers can easily take advantage of them not being lawyers,” he stated.
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