‘Justice at Supreme Court is not available to the poor’
Opinions about the need to decentralise the Supreme Court of Nigeria are growing gradually. The argument is that centralising it in Abuja, discourages aggrieved litigants who do not have the wherewithal to prosecute their cases to the apex court from pursuing justice. In this interview with JOSEPH ONYEKWERE, a Lagos-based senior lawyer, , stressed that the situation was denying the poor justice. He also spoke on President Muhammadu Buhari’s action at NNPC and the award of damages against officers of government agencies among others.
HOW do you assess the present federal government? By and large, many people have been pleasantly disappointed that Buhari has not turned out to be a dicatator that he was during the military regime.
It is a pleasant suprise that he is not ordering the detention of anybody and apart from the inaugual speech where he said he belongs to everyone and belongs to no one, we have not heard him talk tough again.
We discovered that the tension in the body-polity has reduced. The way he handled the leadership tussle at the senate and the House of Representatives is also a credit to him.
But many people believe that he should move faster because time is no longer on his side, when you look at his age and the fact that he has spent two months out of his term in office.
Whether he likes it or not, the truth is that he has three years and eight months to spend in office now; that is the reality! And effectively, one year to the election would not be useful to him again.
In effect, he has two years and eight months to prove the point and he has to prove the point quickly. NNPC is the creation of the law. He has been tickling with structures and personnel in the establishement.
Does the law empower him to do so without recourse to the national assembly? Every government parastatal is a creation of the law. There are some offices like the office of the Group Managing Director that the law empowers the President to appoint and further report to the National Assembly.
By and large, the law did not tie the hand of the President in shuffling offices. The law creates the office and leaves the mangement and the proprietor, in this case, the President to fill them.
By virtue of NNPC Act, cap 123, section 3 (1), the president is empowered to appoint the managing director who shall be the chief executive officer.
The managing director also undertakes the day-to-day running of the activities of the Corporation and its associated services. You cannot however, remove those people in offices created by law except in compliance to the provisions of the laws.
Where anybody finds out that the President has removed him unlawfully, let him go to court. But I bet you, they will not like to go to court because of their perceived misdeeds.
If they should go to court, propably, the pandora box that they have been hiding would be blown open and the EFCC or other security agencies would go after them.
So, they won’t like to go to court but to retire quietly and be licking their wounds or enjoying the loots. Does the executive power include restructuring of a legal entity? He has collapsed departments and subsidiaries of the NNPC.
The question is: are the departments and subsidiares creation of the law. If they are not, they are illegal in the first instance. There are some I know that the exigency of the day might cause to be created, but anyone that is not a creation of the law can be collapsed any day.
The question is: if they are sacked in a manner that is not in accordance with the law that engaged them, then there would be an issue. You have always hold the view that justice should be made available to all, including the poor.
What do you think of the situation where the Supreme Court is not decentralised and all litigants whose cases rise to the apex court must go to Abuja? Justice at that level is not available to the poor in this country.
Not because the judges made it unavailable, but because the system we run in this country does not take into cognisance the feelings and yearnings of the poor in the society.
When you look at the dockets of the Supreme Court, it is mainly made up of cases that involves big organisations, politicians, governments and very rich people and in some cases, cases that border on life and death.
But in some other cases bordering on contracts, unlawful termination of employment, minor commercial transactions and even matrimonial causes, aggrieved persons rarely get the money to support counsel to file cases and attend court sessions at the Supreme Court because it is very expensive to do so.
What is the way out? I believe the way out is obvious. Just as the Court of Appeal has been decentralised, the Supreme Court should follow suit.
Ordinarily, there should be about three panels of the Supreme Court, each one sitting in the North, East and West of the country. At least, you make judgement at the final appellate level a little more accessible to the poor.
If you bring it down to Lagos, people from the South West can easily come down to Lagos and prosecute the case. Ditto in the East, if it is in Enugu or Portharcourt.
North deserves two – one in Abuja and any other Northern state so there will be access to justice at the final level. With the current situation, I want to say that justice remains for the rich.
Recently your firm prosecuted a fundamental enforcement suit where a judge that officers of government agencies should be held responsible for their actions in conduct of their official duties.
What does this portend? It portends a new dawn in the area of abundance of enjoyment of rights by Nigerians. If you recall, when the present government came in, the vice president, Yemi Osinbajo SAN lamented that the amount of damages that emanated from court cases, particularly the Police is high.
I am sure it would be running into the tune of trillions of naira. This is brought about because some security operatives deliberately infringes on citizens rights and hide under the offices that they occupy.
Just as the Court of Appeal has been decentralised, the Supreme Court should follow suit. Ordinarily, there should be about three panels of the Supreme Court, each one sitting in the North, East and West of the country. At least, you make judgement at the final appellate level a little more accessible to the poor
For instance, when you sue the Nigeria Police, it is the human beings that are the eyes and hands of the Police. The Police as an institution would not go and arrest anybody unlawfully or inprison anybody unlawfully, ditto the EFCC.
If your client is unlawfully detained and you go to ask that he be released, you often hear the officers heckling you out of their offices. They start harrassing you with the question: do you want to teach them their job? My response is yes, I want to teach you your job because you dont know it.
What the law says is that if you are detaining anybody for offences that do not involve life sentence, you have to admit to bail. Where the person is not able to meet the bail condition, you must quickly arraign him before the courts within 48 hours.
In other words, he is not supposed to stay there more than two days. But in this case of Omowunmi Adebayo, I personally went to the EFCC office in Ikoyi and they told me that one Gbenga Ogunshakin was the one that orders the detention of the lady.
It was a contract between the ladies husband and another citizen who is the third respondent in the suit. The husband is a builder and the third respondent wanted him to build for him and the transaction went sour.
The husband was terminally ill. Therefore, were afraid to go after him, and so went after the wife, who is a civil servant and detain her for 14 days, claiming that she could not provide surety.
The consitution and African Charter on human rights provides that if the person could not meet bail condition, you charge him to court so the court would determine his fate. I have been looking for opportunity since I was a student to make this point that operatives should be held liable for misuse of power in office and I got one this time around.
The court awarded a damage of N500, 000 against Ogunshakin for misleading the EFCC. So, it is a noble course and a path that I believe that lawyers should key into any time their clients are detained unlawfully. They approach the court to sanction the officer personally.
It is then that they would stop the misuse of their office and authority invested in them by the law. I want to commend the judge for looking into the law and dispensing judgment in favour of the woman who was unlawfully detained for an offence she did not commit.