Justice Serifat Solebo retired gracefully on Friday, November 25, 2022, after serving in the Lagos State judiciary. She served in various judicial capacities between 1999 and 2022, both as a Magistrate and High Court Judge. She spoke to Yetunde Ayobami Ojo about her experience on the bench, judicial reforms and the significance of the new Electoral Act 2022.
What inspired you to read the law?
I never intended to be a lawyer. My parents were successful traders and the environment I grew up in was full of successful traders, and of course, we grew up with silver spoons. There was so much to live for and with, so my dream was to become a successful trader like my parents.
I had primary and secondary school education, after which I said I was educated enough to run my own business. My parents wanted something better, so I had to work at the Department of Post and Telegraph as a poster clerk. I was there for two and a half years. Then I had my daughter, thereafter my parents sent me to England to do a one-year crash course because they wanted me out of Lagos, just to be sure I could reset my brain to do something different from trading.
When I returned from London to Nigeria, I started working as a confidential secretary with Elder Dempster Agencies (Nig) Limited, Apapa and then ITT Nigeria Limited, Abiola’s company. I went back to business, but fate took me to the doorstep of the office of the late Chief Bola Adedipe & Co, a firm of solicitors and barristers.
When Chief Adedipe interviewed me, he was impressed with my performance and said, ‘Seri, you are too brilliant to be an ordinary secretary.’ So, right from the first day, he kept saying I must return to school; that I needed to go to College and read something. I didn’t really put interest in what he was saying because I was so engrossed in my own plan that I wondered what this man was saying. What was in my brain then was to make money.
I went to Chief Adedipe when I left ITT and began trading. I was taking some goods and supplying them at Apapa and Marina. We were doing well until the Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon military regime came in 1983. They accused us of hoarding essential goods. As a result, soldiers forcefully opened our shops and sold out our goods in a bid to control prices. Those were prices I didn’t even buy at. I was devastated and one of my friends advised me to keep business aside and go back to the office. And that was what led me to Chief Adedipe for four or five years.
Eventually, I went back to the University. It happened that one Friday afternoon, I was at Broad Street Lagos when I saw a classmate of mine who was running towards PZ; we exchanged pleasantries and I asked where she was going. She said ‘I’m off to the University of Lagos.’ What for? That was how she said she wanted to read the law on a part-time basis so that when and if she left her job, she would have something to fall back to. That was the trigger I needed.
The following day, I went to Unilag to take the form for evening law, we used to call it evening law. It was a part-time programme. When I matriculated and classes started and I saw dignitaries like Mrs Fatimoh Rasaki, wife of a state governor, Mike Aigbe, managing director of banks, permanent secretaries and federal ministers, all of them in that class, I told myself, Seri, you have been foolish. These people have made money. They’re here to study and that shows that money is not everything.
Even when you have it, you may not be satisfied, there will always be this quest to do something else, to do something different, and that was how I got into it. But up to the law school stage, I never gave it a thought as to what I would do with the law certificate.
Did you practice after law school?
I was still focused on making money through trading. I kept on with my life of trading, and I was doing well. But one day, about two and a half years after we left law school, I met a classmate of mine at Unilag, who was a member of the staff of the High Court.
She said, “Seri, what are you doing?” I said I have an office at Bode Thomas and I’m into private practice, doing solicitor’s work and she said that’s the problem with you Lagosians. You won’t come into service and when there’s a crisis, you will start saying nobody cares about you. I rejected the idea with the mindset that the courts are dirty and shrouded in so much corruption.
The following day, I met another course mate from law school. He was at Lever Brothers. He asked me what it would cost me to pick the form for service. I picked interest from then.
In November 1999, I was sworn in as a Magistrate Grade 2 and I rose through the ranks to Chief Magistrate. I was appointed the Deputy Registrar, Special Duties before my elevation to the High Court in March 2017.
Can you recall some of the difficult cases that you heard and delivered judgment on?
I have been in criminal court. I don’t quite have challenges in most cases, except when I have the course to pronounce death by hanging sentence in a murder case. And also, in sexual offences, which is also life imprisonment. The challenges, most times, arose from where the investigation was shoddy. Sometimes, my inner self knew that the accused person likely committed the offence, but the law is that justice must be seen to be done.
Your evidence must be such that any lay person who picks the file can say, oh, this person committed the offence. But most times, the defendant will say, I didn’t do it. The lawyer, in his written address, will sometimes even write something different from the evidence led just to see that his client goes off the hook.
And then you wonder, should I let this person go, having taken somebody’s life or engaged in a sexual offence? The law says to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. So despite the feelings, I would have to let go when doubts are created.
But in civil matters, I rarely have any challenges. The challenge comes when you are to take a decision on children or family matters that have to do with children. For example, in cases of incest, where a father who ordinarily should be a good husband to the wife and the children, sleeps with his daughter, the law is that I should give life imprisonment. What should I do? This is a breadwinner, whose wife is a petty trader. They are living in a rented apartment.
So, if I sentence him to life imprisonment, who pays the rent? Where do they go? So at the end of the day, there’s no way the issue of courtroom bias will not come in because even though the law does not say so, I must consider the interests of the other children, their education, and their welfare. So those are the kind of challenges I faced.
I also had one where a boy of 17 raped and impregnated a girl who was 15; where do I send the boy, where can I keep the boy? And even the principal in the school came to court to let me know that he’s a brilliant student. The same thing also happened in a matter where a very brilliant boy beat a girl and the girl fell down and died. And that happened just two months to the student sitting for his WASSCE. Do I truncate his education? So, those are the challenges within the criminal justice system that I had during my time and short period.
How did you finally decide on these cases you mentioned?
The boy whom the principal and teachers came to lead evidence and the social inquiry reports attested to his brilliance, bringing his reports; though at that time it was not part of our law that we could suspend a sentence, I suspended the sentence so that the boy could sit for his WASSCE. It was at that point I became a judge. So what happened (to the case)? I don’t know.
In the case of the father who impregnated the daughter, I also was a magistrate at the time. I locked him up and while I was thinking of what to do, elevation came and that ended my interest. What happened to him thereafter I don’t know.
In the case of the one who pushed a girl that died and was a brilliant boy and the other one who raped a 15-year-old, I just put all of them under supervision. Under the law, the last resort of punishment for children under 18 should be incarceration, so I directed them to counsel and I also ordered that during their holiday they should come and cut grass within the court environment. And they did it conscientiously, but I also placed them on supervision, till the two of them were 18, because there was no point in sending them to jail.
Moreover, the boy at that time said it was even the girl who invited him and he slept with her. So, should I change the charge to make it look like it was the girl who raped the boy? So I punished the two of them.
Now that you have retired, what is your next plan?
Firstly, I want to be a grandma. I want my grandchildren to feel me. By the grace of God, starting this 2022 Christmas it will be a full holiday; I won’t need anybody’s permission to visit my grandchildren. I am very passionate about children. I have worked with UNICEF since 2002.
I have worked with the domestic and sexual violence agency since its inception. I look forward to meeting a lot of the founders, operators of the real NGOs, and my friends and colleagues through UNICEF. I’ve worked in the family court, called the juvenile court, and I have a good relationship with the social welfare people. I look forward to that relationship and collaboration.
Based on your experience as a member of the Election Petition Tribunal in the past, do you see the Electoral Act 2022 resolving issues concerning election petitions?
I believe strongly that the 2022 Electoral Act is an improvement over the previous Act. The moment the first law came and gave limited time within which to hear cases, you could see that things improved and I’m sure with this current one, it will be better and faster. Cases would be decided faster than before and a lot of the grounds upon which they come have been narrowed down and few had been eliminated. So, there’s no ordinary room for frivolous applications.
What reforms would you recommend in the judicial sector?
Generally, my opinion is that we have too many laws that address too many things. Sometimes as practitioners, we even forget that we have some laws. There are so many, I’m not saying they’re irrelevant, but what I’m saying is that we are studying those old laws? We don’t know what is in the new laws. So, we are still working with the past laws, that had been overtaken. That’s one. Even where we know, are we working in accordance with the laws of the land? Most times, we are not. Ignorance cannot be an excuse in law. But a lot of us are ignorant of current laws and where we are aware of the current laws, the cankerworm called corruption has eaten deep into our system, such that it inhibits compliance. It is systemic and endemic.
Back to the judiciary, it happens here too. For instance, the law says a lawyer must sign a form, and put your email, but I have received a couple of processes in my court that these things are missing. Can we say the lawyer was not aware of the law? He’s well aware but because he believes that you can always turn your eyes away once you receive something from him. We have adequate, and more than adequate laws. There’s no law they have abroad, we don’t have it in Nigeria, but the issue is the difference in the enforcement of the laws. Those who are supposed to enforce the laws are the ones circumventing the laws and that’s why in my opinion, things are not working.
How is the funding of the judiciary in Lagos State?
No doubt, the Lagos State judiciary is the pacesetter throughout the federation. We lead other judiciaries. Good things are initiated in Lagos first and of course, implemented, and others would adopt and improve on it. With regards to the issue of funding, I have never worked in the accounting department, so the chief judge and maybe those in Account can better answer the question.
I don’t know anything about funding. Maybe the chief register also, who is the accounting officer for the judiciary. But there’s no doubt that we still go cap in hand to the executive for the implementation of a lot of things, particularly the welfare of judges and magistrates. And contrary to the provisions, I think the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) law says it should provide and prepare retirement packages for judges and magistrates. I can tell you it is still done by them at Alausa. And of course, it is not well suited for the purpose of judicial independence.
The House of Assembly does not go before the budget departments of the ministries, but the Lagos state judiciary still does, and whatever they give the judiciary is at their whims and caprices. So, it’s even one thing for it to be in the budget and another for them to release the money.
It could even be budgeted for and approved by them and funds are still not released or even when they are released, it would be released late. So, if we interpret the laws well, there ought to be financial autonomy for the judiciary.
In your early days when you started sitting, how were you able to manage both your home-front and work?
I am very lucky. I started life as a very young girl. I finished school at 16. I worked till 18 plus and had my first child at almost 20. So by the time I went back to the university, my daughter was already going to the university to study medicine, so at the end of the day, my son, that’s my second child, had gone back to England, for his A Levels. I actually didn’t have a baby at home, which made me devoted dedicated to my duty.