Hon. Justice W.S. Nkanu Onnoghen GCON

Some issues were unresolved by the judiciary last year. Will they be resolved this year? ROBERT EGBE asks

Religious garment and the right to legal practice

The place of a mandatory religious attire such as a scarf or hijab in law practice

Should a law school graduate, who has fulfilled all the requirements necessary to becoming a lawyer be prevented from participating in the call to bar ceremony merely because she refused to contravene her faith by exposing her hair?

The Council of Legal Education has made its position clear. Last December 13, it barred a University of Ilorin Law graduate, Firdaus Amasa, entry to the International Conference Centre, Abuja, venue of the Call to Bar because of her refusal to take off her hijab.

On December 21, another Muslim Law graduate, Aisha Zubair, said she was victimised and forced to remove her hijab by officials of the Council of Legal Education and the Law School immediately after the same call-to-bar exercise.

According to a report by Premium Times, Zubair had already received her call-to-bar certificate when the alleged incident occurred.

“When I got to my seat, a law school lecturer was waiting there and she started shouting at me and hurling insults at me for daring to wear the hijab in the hall, saying I wanted to disgrace them. She demanded I remove the hijab and throw it on the floor, which I did. Then she started to rub the hijab on the floor. She kicked it around several times before asking a guard to guard the hijab and not allow me retrieve it. Then she came back with another lecturer to seize the certificate I had just collected from me. I begged but they didn’t listen. After the ceremony, I went to them and after so much pleas, I was given back the certificate with a stern warning,” she said.

There was no suggestion that the alleged action of the officials was authorised or approved by the Council of Legal Education or the Nigerian Law School. The Council’s strict position on dress code for aspiring lawyer, which is in line with its practice from inception, has drawn divergent reactions from many lawyers, rights groups and the House of Representatives.

It is certain to generate more reactions before or during the next call-to-bar ceremony later this year.

Several lawyers reasoned, among others, that Amasa deliberately breached the rules on dress code for the ceremony, but others disagreed, saying there was no such rule.

The incident drew the attention of Muslim rights groups, which described the action as unconstitutional and a violation of her fundamental human rights.

The groups include Muslim Media Practitioners of Nigeria (MMPN); Muslim Lawyers Association of Nigeria (MULAN); Federation of Muslim Women Association in Nigeria (FOMWAN); Muslim Students’ Society of Nigeria (MSSN); Muslim Consultative Forum (MCF) and Muslim Ummah of Southwest of Nigeria (MUSWEN).

MMPN National President Abdur-Rahman Balogun said: “We have taken our time to study, listen and hear all shades of opinion on this matter and we are of the opinion that despite Firdaus’compromise of adorning a harmless and simple Hijab, her refusal to be called to the Bar is an infringement on her fundamental human right.

“One is not sure of what is the Nigerian Law School and the Council of Legal Education are afraid of. The world is moving away from that rigid thinking and leaving Nigeria behind as wig on hijab are allowed in countries, such as United States, United Kingdom and Kenya to mention just a few.”

Justice delivery and court officials

How can the culture of lawyers having to part with money before they can get service from court workers be eradicated?

Many lawyers say they have lost clients or had to turn down briefs relating to bail because of the problem of inducing court workers.

Last December 22, a lawyer from Badagry, Lagos State branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) tried to perfect the bail of his client at a magistrate’s court. The bail conditions were stiff: N5 million with two sureties in the like sum, one of whom must be a bank manager. Each surety was required to deposit N1million in the chief registrar’s account and both were asked to surrender their international passports to the court. A court official advised him that the going rate in that courtroom to secure his client’s release “without necessarily complying with the bail conditions” was N450,000, which would be shared between the magistrate and the registrar. It came down to ‘last price’ of N300,000 after negotiations. But after pretending that his client could only afford N200,000, the talks broke down and his client remained in detention. Following advice from other lawyers, he petitioned the state’s Chief Judge, who is now investigating the matter.

The experience of the lawyer appears to be the norm. Two Facebook posts on December 28, 2017 and January 4 this year, by lawyers involved in the matter garnered 94 comments from over 50 lawyers from different NBA branches, mostly lamenting their difficult experiences while trying to get service from court workers without providing financial incentives.

Convener of Fight Against Corruption in the Judiciary (FIACIJ), Bayo Akinlade, noted that he has been “laughed at, mocked and ridiculed by unprofessional and less educated court officials, who will boldly tell me that I can’t get a service in court without parting with some money”.

“I still recall my first experience. It was sometime in 2010. The first case I handled after relocating to Nigeria. I was briefed by a family member to get me going. I was in the Sheriff’s Department, Ikeja High Court where a sheriff of court treated me like crap. I had gone to inquire about serving my process and he showed me my process and told me bluntly that I must pay him before he goes to serve the process and I must pay him before I collect the proof of service. Nothing I said moved him. I tried to see the person in charge, but I was given the run around,”he said.

Akinlade, however, noted that Chief Judges and other judicial officers are now warning both lawyers and judiciary staff against encouraging such practice.

Last May 31, a Judge of the Federal High Court, Lagos, Justice Mojisola Olatoregun, cautioned lawyers against giving court bailiffs money to serve court processes on parties.

The judge said it amounted to bribery and condemned the practice where bailiffs have to be tipped or mobilised before they agree to deliver processes to parties.

Justice Olatoregun gave the warning following complaints by a counsel, who appeared before her in a suit and complained that the defendants were yet to be served even though he mobilised the bailiffs.

The judge asked: “Did you say you mobilised them? How much did you give them? Let me know if it was enough.”

The counsel said he gave the bailiffs N8,000.

The judge then threatened to order the lawyer’s arrest for offering a bribe. She also sent for the court’s registrar and bailiff.

“When you give a bribe, both of you are liable. We’ll get the Chief Registrar. You will be handed over to the police for bribing a bailiff. You will explain how you have been bribing bailiffs. That is how you will be collecting money from Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) when you become a judge,” she said.

Lawyers as Supreme Court justices

Is this the year lawyers will be appointed directly from the Bar to the Supreme Court?

On January 30, 2017, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Walter Onnoghen asked the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to nominate lawyers for appointment as justices of the Supreme Court.

The NBA recommended nine senior lawyers, including former NBA President Dr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN); former Abia State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice Prof Awa Kalu (SAN); Chief Anthony Idigbe (SAN); Yunus Usman (SAN) and Babatunde Fagbohunlu (SAN). The shortlisting was said to have been done by a committee chaired by NBA President Abubakar Mahmoud.

Strange as this may seem, the practice is not without precedent in the Nigerian judicial system. Under the military a couple of appointments to the Supreme Court were made directly from the bench, the first being Justice Teslim Elias, an academic, who was appointed CJN by Gen. Yakubu Gowon in 1972, having been Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice at various times since 1960.

Another lawyer so appointed was Justice Augustine Nnamani (SAN), who was nominated by Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo to the Supreme Court in 1979 from his position as the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice. He was at the Supreme Court for 11 years.

One of the reasons for Justice Onnoghen’s decision was that the Supreme Court can have a full complement of 21 Justices. This will enable three of its courts to sit separately every day, a measure that will reduce drastically the backlog of cases pending before it. Presently, there are 17 justices of the court.

However, nothing has been heard on the matter since then.

How will the special anti-corruption courts fare?

In September 2017 the CJN directed heads of various courts to designate some courts as corruption courts. This move was applauded by several prominent lawyers including Prof. Itse Sagay (SAN), who is the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), and Mr. Femi Falana (SAN). They saw it as part of the CJN’s reforms aimed at tackling the delay and other ills associated with the trial of high-profile personalities.

But not much else has been heard about it since.The special anti-corruption courts are particularly important because several corruption cases have dragged for many years. For instance, corruption trials involving several former governors have lingered for 10 years.

Former Chairman of the Calabar branch of the NBA, Mba Ukweni SAN, urged the CJN not to relent in his drive to aid the anti-corruption war this year. He encouraged him to consolidate on the gains already made.

Ukweni said: “He has taken proactive steps on the issue of ensuring that we have an impeccable judiciary. He is following in the footsteps of his predecessor in ensuring that there is little or no corruption. He is taking complaints about judges and justices very seriously.

“Just last December, the National Judicial Commission disciplinary committee sanctioned some judges. So, I feel that the judiciary must continue in that light in 2018. The CJN should be fair and firm. If we have a corrupt judiciary, public confidence in the judiciary as the last hope of the common man will be eroded. So, he has started well on that platform and we also see that this year he should consolidate on the gains of 2017, such as ensuring that we have a reasonable number of judges to dispense justice quickly, appointing judges when the need arises. Of course, there should be proper screening in the appointment of judges, because without this there cannot be a proper judicial system.”

Culled: The nation

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