The Presiding Judge, Port Harcourt Judicial division of the National Industrial Court has nullified the purported dismissal of Dr. Dirialakeibama Stephens from service and ordered the Rivers State Judicial Service Commission to immediately reinstate the Claimant to his position as a Chief Magistrate Grade I in Rivers State High Court with payment of all his salaries, allowances together with all other benefits from June 19, 2020, till date.
Justice Kola-Olalere held that the appointment of an Independent Auditor to audit the account of Rivers State Customary Court of Appeal for the period Dr. Stephens was the Chief Registrar of the Court, without making the said appointment through the Rivers State Auditor-General was unconstitutional.
From facts, the claimant- Dr. Dirialakeibama Stephens had submitted that he was shortlisted and recommended by the National Judicial Council for appointment/swearing-in as a Judge of the Rivers State High Court, and the swearing-in was never carried out as he was confronted with the purported findings of an “Independent Audit” and unfounded allegations of “unaccounted” sums of money during his time as Chief Registrar of the Rivers State Customary Court of Appeal five years after he departed the said office.
He maintained that his eventual dismissal based on the purported findings of the said Audit Report cannot stand due to the fact that the audit was not carried out by the Auditor-General of the State or an approved External Auditor listed in the office of the Auditor-General of Rivers State.
In defense, the defendants- Rivers State Judicial Service Commission and Attorney-General of Rivers State went on that following the submission of the Report of the Independent Auditors, the JSSC sat on the report and after extensive consideration of the Audit Report, accepted the findings and recommendations that the dismissal of Dr. Stephens complied with the Rules of Natural Justice and all extant regulations, urged the court to dismiss the case in its entirety.
The Counsel to the commission and the Attorney General submitted that the Rivers State Judicial Service Commission was vested with Constitutional power and authority to exercise disciplinary control over the claimant (including dismissal from service) who at all times material was a staff of the commission.
In opposition, Dr. Stephens Counsel contended again that his client was not provided with a copy of the Audit Report on which the 1st Defendant was relying to make its accusation of serious misconduct against him and the failure of Rivers State Government to swear in the Claimant as a Judge of High Court of Rivers State after the due recommendation of the National Judicial Commission is unlawful.
Counsel submitted that the effective date on which a judicial appointment takes effect is the date of appointment and not the date of swearing-in of that person in compliance with Section 290(1) of the 1999 Constitution (As Amended) by the Governor of the State is purely a ministerial duty or act, urged the court to grant the reliefs sought.
In a well-considered judgment, the court presided by Hon. Justice Faustina Kola-Olalere held that the defendant did not refer to any law or other authority that allows the defendants to appoint an Independent Auditor as they did in this instance.
Justice Kola-Olalere held that going by the Constitutional provisions the public accounts of a State particularly that of a Court of the State like in the instant case, can only be audited by the Auditor-General of the State and/or any other person/Auditor authorized by him in that behalf.
The Court stated that there is no evidence indicating that the Independent External Auditor was authorized by the Auditor-General of Rivers State to audit the financial account of the Customary Court of Appeal of River State at the material time.
However, the court held that Dr. Stephens could not substantiate the claim that he was already appointed as a Judge of Rivers State High Court, and the order to direct the Executive Governor of Rivers State through the 2nd Defendant to swear him in as a Judge of the State High Court was declined.