It is no longer news that yours truly takes the happenings in court as she sees it. I am gradually learning that being assigned to appear in court with a senior is no guarantee that you will not appear alone. However, what happened to me last week showed me another level of litigation practice. I must say here that the office I work for, maintains one of the highest levels of professional courtesy. It is a firm that hardly asks for cost against an opponent. In fact you are instructed not to ask for cost if the other side has a cogent reason for delay. You are consistently reminded that counsel on the other side is not your enemy. So, I am learning things like; when the counsel on the other side is senior, you must walk up to him or her and greet. You must concede for adjournment when it is for a good reason. You must not ask for cost when there is a good reason. You must never exchange words with counsel on the other side no matter the provocation. And so on. So, in my little mind, it exists that when I need a favour, the counsel on the other side must necessarily grant the favour. How wrong and what a nasty way to learn this.
It was a Court of Appeal case. An appeal that was ripe for hearing. I was assigned to appear with NO and SAN. SAN said he was interested in arguing the appeal himself. A day before the case, the Litigation Manager was at the Court of Appeal to ensure that everything needed for hearing the appeal was in place. We were the Appellants. At close of work, SAN summoned me and asked that I collect the file for the Appeal and take it to his car. He also gave me a list of authorities to pick up from the library. That SAN is a moving encyclopedia. He was calling Parts of the NWLR like he had some microchips inserted in his brain. He has known some cases to the extent that he knows even the pages. When you see a law report that SAN has read, it is very obvious. He would have about 5 different colours of stick-on. He mentioned about 6 NWLR parts, about 9 cases to search for and two volumes of the LFN and of course the rules of court. I dutifully ensured that all these were delivered to the back of his car next to his sit before packing my bag. NO reminded me to ensure that I get to Court of Appeal early to write our names on the about 9 lists maintained by the Court of Appeal. I wanted to spare a thought about making photocopy of the appellant’s brief but with the ceremony that went into preparing the file for court and the nature of the case I relaxed. I only just wrote the names of the parties and the Appeal number before going home.
The next morning, I was woken up by NO’s call at about 4:30. “Cece, howdy? Morning. Please make sure you get to court early this morning. My wife is in labour and I cant come to court. I have already informed SAN and he says he can work with you. I have also asked the Litigation Manager to join you in court. He will help you to carry those files and bags into court. just make sure you have that list and sit directly behind SAN.” All I was saying was “ok sir.”
I quickly got ready and at 8:am I was at the Court of Appeal Lagos. As expected, the court was still under lock. We were all hanging around hoping that these Registrars save us from the mad rush to beat 9:am. The waiting continued until around 8:40. When the two doors were opened simultaneously. My first bad day started with not knowing which of the two courts our matter would be coming up. I called NO frantically, several times and there was no response. I also called the office to get someone to assist with checking the court report folder. For some reasons, everything was on the folder except the court number. I rushed into Court 1 and was flipping through when the Litigation Manager arrived. He had gone to Court 2, checked our names on the list and confirmed that we were number 3 on the list and was wondering why I had not arrived court. When he worked in, it was a sigh of relief. I completed our names on each of the 9 lists and walked into the second bad day.
There was no space behind the front inner bar where the SANs occupy. Remember I was told to ensure I sat right behind SAN. Well, I didn’t give that a big thought I just put his stuff on the front and went to the next closest seat and occupied.
At 9:am, there was no sign of SAN. The Registrars filed in and began to fall on themselves like they were just informed that the court would sit the said day. At 9:20, there was still no sign of SAN. I became tensed. The SAN on the other side arrived with all his paraphernalia. (Let’s call him Chief K SAN). The Litigation Manager sensing my uneasiness walked up to me like an experienced guru and said to me I had two options. Call SAN, or go and greet Chief K SAN and tell him my predicament. At that point it was obvious the Lord Justices were about to step out. The Registrar had announced that lawyers switch off their phones.
Without thinking, I started dialing SAN and he picked at one hand. “Hi Cece, is the court sitting already?”
“The Court is about to sit sir” I heard him instruct his driver to speed up, then he said.
“What number are we?” I answered. “Is Chief K SAN in court?” I answered in the affirmative.
“Go to him let me speak with him to get a stand down”
With the speed of light I rushed in. Gave the best of my smile and greeted him with my knees bended. His face was lit as he also gave a very deep smile before I now said:
“Chief, my Boss wants to speak with you.” He looked at me like a stranger, the smile on his face disappeared immediately and his countenance changed. Apparently he knew what I was up to. He became hostile and said to me bluntly with some note of finality. “I do not wish to speak with anybody, court is about to sit.” I stood there transfixed but I had to say something. One of the things we are taught in chambers is to always make sure you say what is important before you are thrown out or shut up. I quickly said:
“Sir, my Principal XYZ has said to inform you that he was held up in traffic but is close by and requests that you get a stand down”. He did as if he didn’t hear me and continued chatting with the SAN sitting next to him.
My message was delivered, that was what mattered. I didn’t know that my Principal was still on the line listening.
As I made to return to my sit, the three horrible sounds came blasting; “Coooooooourt”
First matter was called and one party was absent. In less than 5 minutes it was adjourned. As the Registrar made to call the second matter, Chief K SAN stood up to indicate that he was the most senior SAN. I froze. Court of Appeal! I didn’t have a file. I began to invoke all the names of God I could recall.
Chief K SAN stood up almost immediately our appeal was called. I made to stand up but seeing that he jumped to his feet, I sunk back to my sit shaking all over. He mentioned his name, and about three juniors with him and just sat down. I was supposed to speak first as the Appellants but he did not even hesitate to allow me speak. When he said “for the Respondent”, the Presiding Justice asked immediately for the Appellants. Slowly and fearfully, I stood up. Court of Appeal Lagos Court 2 was filled to capacity with some litigants standing. I mentioned my name and also made to sit.
Then the Presiding Justice’s voice brought me back to my feet. “You wrote two names, may be your principal’s name, why are you appearing alone madam?” I just spoke:
“I am to be led by my principal my lord but he is held up in traffic and has asked me to seek a stand down. Chief K SAN didn’t allow me to finish the line. He jumped to his feet and began to speak lengthy grammar of how the appeal should be struck out for want of diligent prosecution and how I am a lawyer and should be able to handle the appeal and how if my Principal knew he wasn’t coming to court he should have given the file to me and how he passed the roads this morning and they were unusually free. When he was done, the Presiding Justice called my name and said “Mrs. Eyisi, is the appeal ripe for hearing?” I answered in the affirmative. The back to Chief K SAN, “would you want us to dismiss an appeal that is ripe for hearing? Why are you not asking to adopt your briefs?” Then facing me again he said: “What is your reaction counsel?” I swear I did not have anything on my head except tears. But just as I was about to open my mouth. I heard SAN’s voice roar from behind.
“I am sincerely, truly, so so sorry my Lords. My wife had an emergency this morning, I left the hospital in Lekki at exactly 8:am but was stuck at Lekki Toll gate. He continued and before you could say jack, they were all chatting and laughing even from the Bench.
Well, long story short, appeal was argued. If what the Chief K SAN did pained SAN, he didn’t mention.
In the car on our way back to the office, he said;
“Cece, I heard you speak to Chief K SAN. You did well, do not expect any favour from the counsel on the other side. If they give you it’s a bonus”
I learnt another valid lesson.
Extra: NO’s wife had a baby girl!