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Lawyers hail sanction against judicial officers

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Onnoghen

The judiciary has been in the news again for the bad reasons. There are manifest evidences of misconduct against some judicial officers resulting in serious disciplinary measures, which perhaps indicate that the judiciary is on a determined self-cleansing mission.

Just last week, a theatric ensued between the National Judicial Council (NJC) and embattled Justice of the Federal High Court, Abuja, Adeniyi Ademola. While the judge claimed he resigned voluntarily, the NJC said it recommended his removal, meaning his ‘voluntary’ resignation was an afterthought to avoid obvious sack.

It is instructive to note that Justice Ademola was one of the eight judges whose apartments were raided by the Department of State Security Service (DSS) for alleged corrupt practices and money laundering.

He was consequently prosecuted by the federal government on allegations of money laundering and corrupt enrichment.

However, Justice Jude Okeke of the Federal Capital Territory High Court discharged and acquitted him recently.

He was due for his statutory retirement in April, 2018, when he would have attained the mandatory retirement age of 65 years, but he suddenly turned in his letter of voluntary retirement, dated December 6, 2017.

The information is that the NJC under the chairmanship of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen at its 84th meeting, which was held on December 6, 2017, recommended the compulsory retirement from office of Justice Ademola and Justice O. O. Tokode both of the Federal High Court for misconduct.

The recommendation for his removal was sequel to the findings by the Council on the allegation contained in the petition written against him by a group of eight persons under the name of Committee of Anambra State Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) House of Representatives Members-Elect, alleging the following against him:

“That his Lordship heard their Suit No. FHC/ABJ/CS/177/2015 which was adjourned for judgment on 25th March, 2015;

“That on the adjourned date, his Lordship did not deliver the judgment but adjourned the case sine die, to await the decision of the Supreme Court on another matter on the same issue, on the list of PDP candidates for Anambra State for the General Elections of 2015;

“That his Lordship speedily heard and delivered judgment in another case in Suit No. FHC/ABJ/CS/254/2015 filed later on the same issues, with intent to confer undue advantage on the plaintiff who is from a family with which the respondent has relationship;

“That the Certified True Copy (CTC) of the judgment ultimately given to the petitioners contained a paragraph that was not read in open Court by the Judge and that a phrase was altered, all to address an issue raised in the appeal that had already been filed by the petitioner before the issuance of (CTC);

“That some of the reasoning and conclusions of the judge were somersaults;

“That the judge finally delivered judgment in the case on July 8, 2016, five months after the Supreme Court delivered the judgment he was awaiting, contrary to the Constitutional provisions that judgments should be delivered within a period of 90 days.

“Though the petitioners withdrew their petitions in accordance with Regulation 16 of the National Judicial Council Judicial Discipline Regulations of March 9, 2017, Council viewed his lordship’s action of non-delivery of judgment within the stipulated time as misconduct contrary to Section 292 (1) (b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended and Rules 1.3 and 3.7 of the 2016 Revised Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”

The NJC went ahead to inform the public to disregard news circulating that Justice Ademola voluntarily retired. “The purported voluntary retirement is clearly an afterthought as Council had taken action before his decision to forward any voluntary retirement letter,” NJC declared.

Also, Justice O. O. Tokode of the same Federal High Court was also recommended to President Muhammadu Buhari, for compulsory retirement from office with immediate effect sequel to the findings of Council on the allegation contained in petitions forwarded by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and Miss Abimbola Awogboro.

The petitioners accused the Hon. Judge of misleading the Federal Judicial Service Commission and the National Judicial Council, by submitting six judgments he claimed to have personally conducted while practising as a lawyer; a pre-requisite for his application for appointment as a Judicial Officer and was so appointed.

The Investigation Committee of NJC however found that the Judge personally conducted only one of the six cases submitted. Therefore, Council decided to recommend his compulsory retirement and asked him to refund all salaries and allowances he earned since his purported appointment to the position of a Judge to the coffers of the Judiciary.

“In the interim, the National Judicial Council in exercise of its power under paragraph 21 sub-paragraph (d) of the Third Schedule of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended, has suspended Hon. Mr. Justices A. F. A. Ademola and O. O. Tokode from office with immediate effect,” the NJC said in a statement signed it’s director of information, Soji Oye.

Former deputy director general, Nigerian Law School, Prof Ernest Ojukwu (SAN) is upset over the development. According to him, instead of suspending the culprit, the NJC should have just dismiss him immediately.

He said: “The recent actions taken by the NJC on the discipline of judges must be greatly commended. Most of the decisions are bold and courageous and the decisions would in no small measure send the right signals to all especially lawyers from the Bar.

“We have had a rising trend in corrupt practices from the bar. Many have complained that the bar has not been sending her most competent and ethically balanced members to the bench.

“This case of Justice Tokode is an example of the rot in the bar where as stated by the NJC the Judge misled the Federal Judicial Service Commission and the National Judicial Council, by submitting six judgments he claimed to have personally conducted while practicing as a lawyer; a pre-requisite for his application for appointment as a Judicial Officer, and was so appointed.”

The law teacher stressed that nothing could be more heinous than that where a practicing lawyer would present false evidence of qualification to be appointed a judge.

“It is on this basis that I think that the NJC got it wrong when it recommended a retirement of the judge. This judge or lawyer should have just been dismissed,” he said, adding that that is the only way to deter other lawyers from attempting to corrupt the Judiciary.

He therefore called on the NJC to revisit their recommendation for retirement and rather recommend dismissal.

Also, a constitutional lawyer and author, Chief Sebastine Hon (SAN) described the circumstances of the retirement of justice Ademola as rather unfortunate.

He said: “As between his claim of voluntary retirement and the claim by the NJC that he was compulsorily retired, I will believe the NJC more. “The reasons are plain enough. First, omnia praesummuntur rite essa acta (things are presumed to be done rightly, unless otherwise proved). The burden is on justice Ademola to prove that contrary to the official position of the NJC, he had exited voluntarily from the Judiciary.

“Related to this is the settled legal position that there is a presumption of regularity of official acts, until the contrary is proved. The burden in this regard is heavy on the shoulders of Justice Ademola.”

On Justice Tokode, the learned silk urged the NJC to deepen its screening exercises for the recruitment of Judges. “This will prevent us from being confronted, once again, with a Tokodegate or something similar to that,” he advised.

In the same vein, Solomon Ukhuegbe, a lawyer described the recommendations for the retirement of the judges as somewhat remarkable.

He commended the NJC for carrying out the disciplinary measures. “Nonetheless NJC is clearly acting with its powers to sanction judicial officers for ‘misconduct.’ For the present purpose, I shall take the decision of the NJC at face value and as a proper exercise of its disciplinary powers,” he said.

According to him, it is important to accord due deference to the NJC in the exercise of its disciplinary powers over judicial officers because the institution is the central element of the mechanism of judicial self-governance, which is vital to ensure judicial independence.

Ukhuegbe noted that the process of disciplining the two judges up to the decision to sanction them did not involved the executive or legislature directly or indirectly. This, he noted, is a mark of judicial independence.

His words: “The Constitution permits the removal of a judge for misconduct on the recommendation of the NJC under S. 292(1)(b)).

Although there have been previous instances of judges being sanctioned by the Council for the same misconduct, it seems the Council’s decision to make this recommendation so late in the career of this judge was because of certain aggravating factors mentioned in the press statement suggesting that he acted deliberately in order to frustrate justice in the matter.

He added that having been discovered to gain judicial appointment through falsehood, the NJC was right to declare justice Tokode unfit for the office.


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