Court strikes out corruption charges against Justice Ngwuta
It was relief for embattled Supreme Court Justice Sylvester Ngwuta as the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, on Friday, struck out the 13-count criminal charge the Federal Government preferred against him.
The court, in a ruling that was delivered by trial Justice John Tsoho, held that FG failed to fulfill the condition precedent that is required before a serving judicial officer could be arrested or charged to court over corruption related offences.
Relying on a recent decision of the Court of Appeal in the case involving Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa, who was also accused of engaging in acts of corruption, Justice Tsoho, maintained that FG ought to allow the National Judicial Council, NJC, to “appropriately scrutinize” allegations against judicial officers, before charging them to court.
“Any direct arrest and prosecution of a judicial officer by security agencies as in the present case should be declared a nullity”, the court held.
According to the court, it was not in dispute that Justice Ngwuta is a serving judicial officer, stressing that sections 152, 158 and Paragraph 21 Part 1 of the Third Schedule of the 1999 Constitution are clear and unambiguous to the effect that only the NJC has administrative and statutory powers to disciple judicial officers.
“No matter how incompetent the NJC may seem to the security agencies, its powers are constitutionally vested”, Justice Tsoho held, adding that such powers “cannot be switched or overrun under democracy.
“This court is of the view that it will be tidier and safer that all kinds of offences against judicial officers must first pass through the NJC”.
He said the NJC should be allowed to “first consider cases involving judicial officers across all offences before the involvement of security agencies”.
Besides, the court noted that some of the charges against Ngwuta were vague. “This court has difficulty seeing a clear distinction as to whether the alleged acts are within the scope of Applicant’s performance of his official function or outside the scope of offences within the rank of theft, arson or murder”.
The court said it was not persuaded by FG’s argument that the appellate court had in Nganjiwa’s case, held that judicial officers could be prosecuted for committing offences like theft, arson or murder, without recourse to the NJC.
It maintained that FG has no option than to report erring judicial officers to the NJC, pending the filling of lacunas in the constitution. “It is the humble opinion of this court that condition precedents to the filing of the charge herein against the Applicant was not fulfilled.
“Consequently, the jurisdiction of this court to try same was not properly invoked. Therefore processes herein before this court is declared a nullity. The charge is struck out and the applicant discharged”, Justice Tsoho held.