Hon. Justice P.N. Bhagwati: A Man with a Social Conscience

The Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies on April 21, 2010, inducted Honourable Justice P.N. Bhagwati, into the Institute’s Hall of Fame, in a moving ceremony at Transcorp Hotel in Abuja. He expounded his “Public Interest Litigation” theory and practice in India. This has occupied his judicial work in the last four decades.

His opening statement captured the main issue in his jurisprudential endeavours in the defence of “men and women, who are being subjected to exploitation, injustice and even violence. In this climate of exploitation, conflct and violence Judges have to play a positive role.They cannot shut themselves in their ivory towers by invoking the doctrine of judicial restraint nor shut their eyes to the misery and suffering of the people to whom they have sworn to ensure basic human rights guaranteed by the Constitution.”Bhagwati.
Indian judges have moved away from “the worn- out values of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence,” to forge a potent judicial power to further the cause of social justice.
The Nigerian judiciary is yet to undertake far-reaching procedural and jurisprudential innovations that would protect the under-priviledged and abused citizens. This is because our colonial legal heritage and adherence to British-style legal practice have not “liberated us from the shackles of British through-ways” both economically and jurisprudentially.

There is need to forge new legal strategies that would empower judges to take bold steps that would help them evolve innovative judicial processes in defence of th under-priviledged in Nigeria.

All of us cannot be ministers, senators or well-connected contractors, their
heirs and assigns, who get re-cycled every time there is a change of administrations.
The wealth of the nation has been legally lodged in their busting arsenals through re-appointments.

As a result, social and economic rights are unavailable to deprived and maginalised minorities and the poor of the North. Justice Bhagwati passionately called on Indian and Nigerian judges and lawyers to recognise that ” The most important and paramount among human rights are freedom from indigency, ignorance and discrimination,as well as financial, corporate oppression, the right to a healthy environment, to social security and to protection from massive financial, commercial expliotation by vested interests and governmental repression and lawlessness.” Social justice is firmly anchored in society, where the judges form a judicial vanguard around these rights.

Under the able direction of Justice Bhagwati, the Supreme Court of India evolve d specific legal stratagems that have served to protect the poor in India.
His pet project,:” Public Interest Litigation” has formed the cornerstone of the emerging Indian jurisprudence.The British tradition is gradually receding gracefully in India.
.In Nigeria, it has died-hard, with little hope of fading away.. In my question to Justice Bhagwati about the transfomation from British-India to Indian legal system, I was eager to learn more how far India has jetiison the British colonial heritage.
A meddlesome interloper, gave an unsolicited opinion, which did not address my question. Bhagwati responded but Professor Ignatius Ayua, elucidated the issues about the emerging Indian jurisprudence to my satisfaction.

The Supreme Court of India has held that”it was necessary to depart from the traditional rule of “locus standi” and broaden access to justice by providing that a legal wrong or a legal injury caused to a person or a clas of persons by the violation of their constitutional or legal rights and such person or persons are by reason of poverty, disability, socially or economically disadvantaged position, unable to approach the Court for relief,any member of the society or such social action group can intervene on behalf of the underprivileged.”

In the ideologically coated days of socialist hysteria in Nigerian legal academy, Bhagwati would have been branded a socialist.
Out of the five legal systems of the world, societies which , still using the “out-worn Anglo-Saxon”legal order, are conservative, unmindful of social justice and social change.
These societies often suffer from instability, social dislocation, social contraditions, political antagonism and mindless violence.

The paucity of legal literature which should go beyong commercial or promotional ambitions, seems to hinder the emergence of a body of the legal thought that lead to the growth of law in a particular geographical region. America , Germany, France and Russia lead in the production of legal literature. In Nigeria, the culture of reading has been eclipsed by the pursuit of mammonic concerns. One does not have to be well-educated to hold high office or to be rich.

So, the urge to read and improve oneself remains elusive. Even amongst some judges and lawyers, social consciousness remains at a low rating.This is why Justice P.N Bhagwati ‘s social consciousness is worthy of emulation.The late Chief Gani Fawehinmi belonged to this class of social humans.

Conservative lawyers are those who are afraid to learn new theories and practices that tend to challenge what they laboriously imbibed years ago at the law school.
I have observed that in Nigeria, there are three types of lawyers. There are lawyers, who are in business to make money. They defend any case and any cause that yields money.
In an unorganised society, where the economy is prostrate, legal practice suffers .
The second group practice law with a social conscience, while the third use law as an instrument of social change.

It would appear that it has become a prevalent view that if Nigeria conducts free and fair elections, all will be well. In my humble opinion, this is far from the truth.
The most important political emergency now is for us to hold a National Conference of our Federated states, in order to arrive at a consensus as to what type of socio-economic system we aspire to entrench and what type of society we want to build.
Then, a durable Constitution that represents the will of our federated states would be written. Since 1960, we have not officially defined our goal.

Change has always been brought about by chance happenings. We have always hurriedly put the cart before the horse.

Written by
Emmanuel Omoh Esiemokhai
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