Members of the 1977 class of the Nigerian Law School converged on the Lagos campus of their alma mater on Victoria Island, to commemorate their 40 years of being called to the Bar with a lecture entitled, “We are lawyers, we are judges: Now justice.”
Having been called to the Nigerian Bar 40 years ago, members of the 1977 class of the Nigerian Law School have undoubtedly seen the best of the Nigerian legal system. In the last 40 years, they have climbed up the rung in their profession — at the Bar to become very senior lawyers and on the Bench as judges from the high courts to the Supreme Court.
The class boasts of four Justices of the Supreme Court, two serving Justices of the Court of Appeal, several judges of state high courts across the country — among them many Chief Judges, including the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta — while a good number of legal practitioners among them have earned the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria.
One of their own, Dr. Olanrewaju Onadeko (SAN), who is now the Director General of the Nigerian Law School delivered the lecturer under the chairmanship of a former lecturer at the law school, Dr. Kole Abayomi (SAN), who led a panel comprising a professor of International Law and Jurisprudence, Akin Oyebode; Prof. Ameze Guobadia of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies; a former President of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, Boma Ozobia, Lagos-based human rights lawyer, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa and Mr. Yomi Orimobi, to discuss the paper.
In his lecture, Onadeko had posed the question whether legal practitioners, both on the Bench and at the Bar who had the privilege of controlling one of the three arms of government were awake to their sacred duty of ensuring that the societal aspiration for substantial or real justice as opposed to “technical justice,” was met.
The lecturer wondered whether some of the tactics employed by lawyers in the courtroom were not rather specifically calculated to delay or defeat justice than promote the course of justice.
Onadeko had posed, “From the perspective of non-lawyers, can we, lawyers, comfortably say that we have earned the reputation of reasonable compliance with promoting and fostering the course of justice?
“Is it not correct to assert that many of us have ‘commercialized and monetized’ the course of justice? In my early years of practice, I often wondered if some of the pursuits of lawyers, especially in courtrooms, were in consonance with the doctrine of and the quest for justice.”
Among common tactics used by lawyers to deny the society of substantial justice, Onadeko noted, was delay tactics, including unmeritorious requests for adjournments by lawyers, which ultimately lead to a situation where cases last for decades in court.
The panelists could not agree less with the lecturer.
One of the Panelists, Boma Ozobia, who is a former President of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, as long as Nigeria is still grappling with the problem of delayed justice, there is no justice in the country.
Ozobia’s reaction, when she took the stage to comment on the lecture, was more like an outburst.
“We do not get justice in Nigeria!” she said, noting that, “If justice is delayed, it’s denied! I tried to get some cases at the Supreme Court but I couldn’t, but we know that they are still dealing with cases from 10 years ago. Whatever the judgment, that is not justice!”
Driving the graveness of the problem home, the panel chairman, Abayomi, turned to the cross-section of the lawyers and judges and retorted in a solemn tone, “Your profession is hanging in the balance. The common man does not even understand whether there is justice in this country anymore. People have refused to go to court and they prefer to settle disputes in other manners or ways.
“There’s an interesting case that I just concluded, I started it in 2007 and this is 2017. Yesterday, I was to adopt my written address and the judge said, ‘sorry, I have had enough cases that I set down to write judgments on during the vacation. Therefore, I’d not ask you to adopt; I’d adjourn this case until October’. Of course, you know what she’s trying to avoid, just not to be caught by the three-month rule. So, I have to go back in October and say My Lord, I rise and I adopt. My client couldn’t understand it and the public do not understand most of the things that you do. What are we going to do about it?”
Adegboruwa, in his comment, told the audience about a case he just concluded at the Supreme Court after 33 years, concluding that the problem of delay in justice dispensation was blamable on the executive arm of government, which had ensured that the judiciary was starved of funds.
He said, “I just got a judgment in the Supreme Court on Friday, 23rd of June; the case started in the high court in 1984, that’s 33 years ago; by the time the judgment was delivered it was 33 years, all the litigants had died. Fred Agbaje did everything possible to have the appeal heard before he died, but we were told every time we filed an application for accelerated hearing that they were only treating 2003 appeals. And so, it got to our turn this time because they were now treating 2006 appeals. So, by next year, they will be treating 2007.”
But apart from the problem of delayed justice, there is also the problem of inequality or double-standard and corruption in the judiciary, Oyebode, a professor of law, noted.
He said it was perhaps time that the veil covering the face of the statue of the Lady of Justice at the Nigerian courts be unveiled so that “she can see that people are not equal and tilt the scale in order to ensure that people get the justice that they deserve.”
Warning that the public should not raise their hope too high as to what to expect from lawyers, Oyebode quipped, “Lawyers really are not interested in justice; they are interested in law. There’s a rigid dichotomy between law and justice.”
For him, it beats common sense how the courts arrived at the decision, discharging some of the accused persons in the current anti-corruption fight by the government.
He said, “I don’t know how the court found the grounds for discharging and acquitting those that, shall I say, admitted their guilt and that’s why I believe the Federal Government is proceeding on appeal in certain matters and we are awaiting with great anticipation for what the highest court in the land will say in terms of the sanctity of the judicial process.”
According to him, recent happenings in the judiciary are testimonies to the rot that has crept into the judiciary.
He said, “The Nigerian judiciary today is at crossroads, we are witnesses of recent happenings in the Nigerian judiciary and some of us wonder if gold rusts what should iron do? Because when you enter a courthouse, the architecture itself that the judge sits on a higher pedestal vis-a-vis the rest of the court and the judge hands down judgments which are binding on lawyers, clients, and the society at large suggests something. But what we are seeing today are instances of judges announcing their daughters’ weddings or the burial of their parents and some very highly celebrated lawyers trying to offer, shall we say, gratification so that the scale of justice can be tilted in their favour.”
But Adegboruwa would have none of it that lawyers are only interested in the practice of law and not in justice.
He said, “I just want to disagree with the view that lawyers are interested in law alone. A lot of lawyers are interested in justice but the society cannot expect the justice that it is not investing in.”
Adegboruwa said the reason why some of the high-profile accused persons, including some judges being tried for corruption, were being discharged was not far-fetched, because most of the cases filed in court by the anti-graft agencies are poorly investigated.
He argued, “Our system is adversarial. If you are accused of corruption, it’s not your responsibility to prove your innocence. It is the person bringing you to court that has the onus of proving the facts. So, I don’t accept that judges should be condemned when the matter has not been tried. And if the person who brings the judge to court to say they are corrupt cannot marshal sufficient evidence to justify that corruption, the judge must be acquitted.
“I followed the case of Justice Ademola, and I read all the facts. The sole witness they brought could not link the money collected or given to him to any case that was pending before him. So, the problem we have is not about lawyers are not fighting corruption.”
But Abayomi had an answer for Adegboruwa. He said may be it was time that the law should be reviewed to put the onus of proof on the accused person rather than the prosecution.
He said, “Gentlemen, you have a judge, whose salary is N9m a year, you found out that he has in his possession, about N150m that year; it’s difficult to prove corruption cases, but I’m just saying, why don’t you do it the other way round?
“If you are found with some amount of money that cannot be sustained by your earnings, the onus is on you to prove how you got it. We do it for people who receive stolen goods. So, if you do it that way, a judge with plenty of money and you charge him to court, then he should now prove the source in court. He could have got it by inheritance, by other means, but let’s him prove it.”
In the audience was retired Justice Adesuyi Olateru-Olegbegi, who shared the story of what Cameroon had done to bypass the problem of “burden of proof” that Nigeria was still battling with.
He said, “Dr. Abayomi spoke about the burden of proof. When we are trained the way we are in this jurisdiction, we assume that the burden of proof as we know it is eternally settled, that a person is presumed innocent until the contrary has been proven. I used to imagine it as being fundamental to our philosophy or jurisprudence here, which it is, but it doesn’t have to be.
“I was at a seminar, when a colleague at a time who was representing the Cameroonian Bar, in a paper he presented, showed that in Cameroon, the presumption is of guilt, that a person who is accused of a criminal offence is presumed guilty unless he proves otherwise.
“I’m not advocating it but I merely mention it that we have to examine the system that we have and ask ourselves whether indeed it serves the end of justice in this country. And I think it doesn’t.”
But for Justice Abdu Aboki, a member of the class, who sits on the Court of Appeal bench, there was no greater worry than the media attack on the judiciary.
He said, “One most worrisome thing is the attack, the press attack, on the judiciary. That is a constraint because even before we make our decisions, the press will give their decision in the matter and the Nigerian society is so gullible, the common man on the street is willing to take anything that is said from the press.
“We know, as a fact, that not all of us are corrupt, not all of us are perverted. The issue of corruption in Nigeria, in the judiciary is at the lower ladder, the lower strata of the judiciary; that is, the lower courts — the magistrates’ courts, the area courts and the customary courts.”
To address the problem of delayed justice, Adegboruwa prescribed the abolition of stay of proceedings in civil cases, Justice Olateru-Olagbegi prescribed a law limiting the kinds of appeal that could be taken before the appellate courts while Ozobia canvassed for sanction for lawyers whose irresponsible behaviours lead to delay.
She said,”I will give you an example of what happens in England because we have Dr. Onadeko talk about the frustration of the judges to the extent where they admonished counsel not to appeal a judgment. An admonition is insufficient! Actions have consequences. In other jurisdictions, you will not be admonished, you will be sanctioned. It is commonplace for judges to award costs against counsel because they know that you are the professional, the bad behaviour is coming from you and not from the client.”
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