Justice Doris Tomilayo Okuwobi, Retiring Judge High Court of Lagos – A Valedictory Address Presented on Behalf of NBA Lagos Branch

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INTRODUCTION

May it please your Lordships.

  1. My name is Harry Ukaejiofor, Legal Adviser, Nigerian Bar Association, Lagos Branch. I hold the brief of Mr. Omoyemi Lateef Akangbe FCIArb. Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association Lagos Branch, the official spokesperson for the Lagos Branch by virtue of Article 7 (1) (d) of the Uniform Bye Laws for Branches, of the Constitution of the Nigerian Bar Association, and despite being the agent of a disclosed principal, I would plead that My Lords hold me solely responsible for anything I say here that is found to be erroneous, misinformed or perceived as utterly unacceptable. Having sought My Lords’ protection permit me to proceed.
  1. May I first express appreciation to My Lord, the Chief Judge of Lagos State, Honourable Justice Kazeem Olanrewaju Alogba for the privilege of the invitation to members of the Bar to the valedictory Court Session in honour of Retiring Honourable Justice Doris Tomilola Okuwobi who retires today. I am also privileged to speak today on behalf of the Premier Branch at this August gathering and on this auspicious occasion. While my mandate is to keep this address short and simple, and I intend to stick to my instructions, at the risk of doing great injustice to a Lady whose entire youth and active life has (up till today) been dedicated to the practice of law and to doing justice to others.
  1. My Lord, the celebrant, was born on this day 65 (Sixty-five) long years ago. If I may say so, happy birthday My Lord! My Lord also attains today the mandatory retirement age, which is the chief reason we are all gathered here today in celebration…and to take stock.
  1. My research for this address began on the internet, where I found only scores of news items on certain judgments delivered by My Lord. While material for My Lord’s personal details was available thanks to Who’s Who in Lagos State Judiciary 1967-2001 edition – an older edition, found in the High Court Library. I was unable to take advantage of a more recent edition on account that it was already borrowed from the Library by a Judge. I was left with nothing else to clutch at, and I turned to the better authority on matters like this – recollections of colleagues at the bar, staff of the Court and persons who have in the course of my Lord’s long career associated with her. I shall return to this matter anon.
  1. This is the finish line. Yes, the finish line of a race started 42 years ago. Hon. Justice Okuwobi has been running this race that officially ends today since 8th July 1978, that fateful day she was called to the Nigerian bar. Ever devoted and committed as she is, my Lord still delivered a judgment in Suit No: ID/999/2000-Cadbury Nigeria Plc v. Benkay Nigeria Limited minutes after 4pm yesterday.
  1. My Lord’s legal sojourn began at the respected chambers of Chief Kehinde Sofola SAN of blessed memory. My Lord subsequently worked for the Lagos State Ministry of Justice as State Counsel. She was to rise steadily, undaunted, to the status of the Solicitor-General and Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice of Lagos State after several years of grit and sheer hard work in the service of the public.
  1. My Lord was deservedly appointed Judge of the High Court of Lagos State, (which still remains the standard for all others in the Country) on 17th September 1998 where she successful sat and served in several capacities which culminates today with this session.
  1. As a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court, My Lord was industrious and talented. One of the cases handled by my Lord from the High Court of Lagos State to the Supreme Court is ATTORNEY-GENERAL OF LAGOS STATE v. THE HON. JUSTICE L.J DOSUNMU (1989) 3 NWLR (PT. 111) 552 SC.
  1. The brief facts of the cases are that, the Respondent, the Honourable Justice L.J. Dosunmu of blessed memory, owned several plots of land at Victoria Island, Lagos State. Following the enactment of the Determination of Certain Interests in Lands Edict No. 3 of 1976 (“1976 Edict”) and the Determination of Interests in State Lands Order LSLN No. 9 of 1976 (“1976 Order”) by the Lagos State Military Government, the Respondent’s interest in one of his plots of land was determined. The 1796 Edict and 1976 Order were to the effect that no one person should own more than one plot of State Land at Victoria Island and not more than two plots of such land at South West Ikoyi, irrespective of whether or not such plots were acquired by direct allocation or by transfer or by assignment. Following the above, the Respondent sued the Lagos State Government at the High Court of Lagos State challenging the constitutionality and legality of the 1976 Edict and the 1976 Order. The Appellant (who was the Defendant at the trial court) ably represented by a team of State Counsel including My Lord, raised an objection at the trial court challenging the jurisdiction of the Court (this same Court from which she retires today), to hear the Respondent’s suit on the grounds that there were several clauses in the laws which ousts the jurisdiction of the Court to hear and determine the suit. This High Court, as trial court held that the 1976 Edict and the 1976 Order were unconstitutional, null and void and that the Lagos State High Court had unlimited jurisdiction under Section 236 of the 1979 Constitution to adjudicate and determine the Respondent’s action. The Court thereafter granted the Respondent’s claim for perpetual injunction, order for accounts and a mandatory injunction that the Appellant should yield up possession of the Property to the Respondent. The Appellant dissatisfied with the judgment of the Lagos High Court lodged an appeal to the Court of Appeal. The grounds were on jurisdiction and competence of the trial court to adjudicate over the Respondent’s claim. The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal and held that the 1976 Edict and the 1976 Order are null and void to the extent that they are inconsistent with the Section 31(1) (a) of the 1963 Constitution for failure to pay adequate compensation; that the “one man one plot” policy infringes Section 31 (2) (b) of the 1963 Constitution in that it adds to the circumstances in which property may be acquired compulsorily; and that Section 4 of the 1976 Edict offends Section 31 (2) (b) of the 1963 Constitution in that its provision falls outside the purpose for which land may be acquired compulsorily. Undaunted and persuaded of the strength of her employer’s case, my Lord as counsel approached the Supreme Court. At the Supreme Court, the arguments canvassed by the Appellant’s counsel at the lower courts were carefully considered and the Supreme Court – a panel presided over by Honourable Justice Mohammed Bello CJN and made up of eminent Justices such as Andrews Obaseki, Kayode Eso, Augustine Nnamani, Adolphus Karibi-Whyte, Alfa Belgore and not least of all, Chukwudifu Oputa JJSC. came to the conclusion that the ouster clauses in the laws relied upon by the Appellant ousted the jurisdiction of this Court to hear the Respondent’s case, and that the courts can only expound their jurisdiction and cannot expand the jurisdiction beyond the enabling law, limited by the military style ouster clauses. The SC held that the judgments of the trial court and the CA were reached without jurisdiction and consequently set aside. Sadly, their brother Judge lost his land. Such were the times.
  1. Alas, My Lord, Justice Okuwobi was successful as a barrister and in that capacity carried out her principal’s instructions successfully and brilliantly. Counsel on the other side happened to be Chief Williams SAN and Mr. Ebun Sofunde SAN, such was her genius.
  1. Now, was it not the same Justice Chukwudifu Oputa JSC that held in the case of GODWIN JOSIAH v. THE STATE (1985) 1 NWLR 125 S.C. at 141 that:
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“Justice is not a one-way traffic. It is not justice for the appellant only. Justice is not even only a two-way traffic. It is really a three-way traffic, justice for the appellant accused of a heinous crime of murder; justice for the victim, the murdered man, the deceased, ‘whose blood is crying to heaven for vengeance’ and finally, justice for the society at large- the society whose social norms and values had been desecrated and broken by the criminal act complained of.”

  1. We are gathered here today, not for Justice Oputa of blessed memory, but for the retiring (but not tired), Honourable Justice Okuwobi and that same 35 years old dictum of Oputa JSC still rings true. Yes. We are gathered here, Bench, Bar and the larger society – the same stakeholders of the business of administration of justice…and my Lord, a barrister no longer, but a retiring Judge. I suppose, if I may, that My Lord, looking back at the Dosunmu decision today would agree that the decision was unjust and should a similar law be re-enacted today will cause untold hardship on several distinguished persons seated here. That is the way of the world.
  2. High and low, rich and poor, old and young, strong and weak, someday somehow, directly or indirectly, we tend to find ourselves more often than not tomorrow, at the receiving end of causes we advanced today. So what is the lesson here? I would say it is, the duty to love your neighbor as yourself. The above statement is merely my simplistic analysis of the duty of courtesy, duty to treat each other with respect, fairness, decency, good manners, candour, required of us one to another and in the best traditions of the bar. An issue I shall comment on again shortly.
  3. The above comments however are not meant to impugn the shinning character of My Lord, God forbid. I wish only to use this opportunity to urge us all to show more kindness to one another. The very example that the person of Honourable Justice Okuwobi has set for us here, in and out of the Courtroom; as I have never received such testimony of grace, respect, self-contentedness and of scrupulous fairness as I did about my Lord while researching for this Address.
  4. A respected Senior Advocate and member of our Branch who was classmates with the retiring Judge said of her:
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“She is a pleasant and fair judge. No favouritisms. You will surely get justice in her court.”

A colleague said to me in confidence:

The lady is thorough. Her judgments can hardly be punctured on appeal. A mother par-excellence. A punctual judge, firm, accommodating, good knowledge of the law. She will listen to you and do what is appropriate as long as it is within the law. As administrative Judge, she was objective. A lady that will never encourage corruption. That is the little I can say. Then he added exclaiming:

“Ahhhh!!! She sits at 8:59am. She is already there at 9 O’clock. Highly disciplined and respectful, to the bar and everyone around her”

Another senior member of the bar who was her classmate at the University of Lagos and at the Law School said of her:

“It has been over 40 years, what can I remember of her? She is a very nice person. Very warm and serious with her work. Always very well dressed.”

Some of her former staff said:

“She is an early Judge. Her car is usually the first at the car park every morning.”

The Judge’s disposition towards staff, lawyers etc. was palatable. Even when we are in error she corrects us with respect. Unlike some other Judges junior to her who would punish their Registrars by directing them to remain standing throughout proceedings and also shout at lawyers. She compliments her staff and appreciates their efforts. She does not take it for granted that her staff are doing the jobs they are being paid for. She is a team player. She classified everyone as a team member. She does not discriminate and is not tribalistic. She is magnanimous and gives good recommendation to her staff. She once recommended a female security guard who was as a result employed as a secretarial officer. A woman of great character. She advices her staff and cautions them on the benefits of contentment. We will miss her so much!”

“Everywhere I go when I identify myself as her staff and my colleagues all say good things about her. Calling her Mama, Mama, Mama. She is down to earth, of a truth, one of the best… She makes sure everyone is happy and at peace”

The Registrars at the Appeal section of the High Court Registry always ask us, why are case files from her Court never being requested for Appeal? She takes her time to write her judgments and rulings. Sometimes, after delivering judgment, opposing parties would be at peace and embrace. She is humble to a fault. Carries her bag by herself. It is difficult to see a judge treating everybody like she is not a powerful person. She is humble to the point that she assigns tasks by asking politely.”

Another colleague said of my Lord, Justice Okuwobi:

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“We did a case together when she was Senior State Counsel and thereafter as a Judge, I handled 3 cases before her as a Judge. From my interactions with my Lord, I can confidently say that before her elevation to the Lagos Bench my Lord was a very hardworking counsel, so hardworking to the point that her elevation was delayed (and it was rumoured this was on account of the government not being eager to release her to the Bench)…As an administrator she rose to the peak of her career in the State Ministry of Justice as Solicitor-General and Permanent Secretary. Both as counsel and administrator, my Lord is a person who desires justice to be done in all cases, and she brought this quality to bear in the discharge of her duties as a judicial officer. Having appeared before my Lord, I testify that she is always in control of her Court and the proceedings before her as she exudes warmth and respects both litigants and counsel. She dispenses justice without fear or favour and reminds you of the quintessential image of a judge.”

  1. It is not surprising that My Lord was of the same graduating class with the likes of O.C.J. Okocha SAN, Olisa Agbakoba SAN, Seyi Sowemimo SAN, Chief Bayo Ojo SAN, Governor Rotimi Akeredolu SAN, Chief Awomolo SAN, Kola Awodein SAN, several Justices of the Supreme Court and countless eminent and highly accomplished individuals who have impacted this Country in no little way.
  2. The general theme of decency, modesty, good manners and respect runs from these tributes. The very same foundation on which the traditions of the bar and our Rules of Professional Conduct are built upon. I am afraid that my rigmarole has brought me to the same concept of ‘respect’. And I quickly recall an article written by a younger lawyer, a few days ago on his frustrations with the shortcomings and injustices of our profession wherein he identified lack of respect as a factor besetting our profession and the larger society. The thought of that article by Fernandez Obienye Esq. appeals now to me even more.
  3. I imagine the absence of respect for elders, respect for the Court, respect for the law, respect for authority, respect for seniors, respect for juniors, respect for human beings, respect for the sanctity of life, respect for the court system, respect for court orders, respect for rule of law, respect for proper procedure, respect for hierarchy, respect for human rights, respect for separation of powers, respect for the independence of the judiciary, respect for the welfare of its officers and so many more.
  4. Before I exceed my brief, which is to wish the Honourable Justice Okuwobi well on her retirement from the Bench and to be brief, I shall stop here. With a tinge of sadness, I say we will miss you. To a nonpareil of judicial etiquette and comportment, we hope you will find plenty of peace to enjoy other pursuits, family time with your children and many grandchildren. Read and write for leisure, travel, learn to fish, go swimming … away from Writs and Originating Summons, from writing Judgments and Rulings and of course away from National Judicial Commission returns or filings.As Max Ehrmann put it in Desiderata:

    Beyond a wholesome discipline be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here…Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”

    On behalf of the Lagos Branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, I say you have fought the good fight, you have finished the race and kept the faith! We wish you a long and very happy retirement.

    Thank you, My Lord, the Chief Judge of Lagos State for the privilege of delivering this address.

    Harry Ukaejiofor Esq.

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