•  Orders police to arrest lawyer, registrar; warns two Lagos judges 

By Tobi Soniyi in Abuja

The Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Justice Walters Onnoghen has charged Justices of Court of Appeal to always resist blackmail and internal/external influences in the delivery of justice on matters before them.

Onnoghen’s charge came on the day that the National Judicial Council (NJC) recommended the dismissal of Justice Ugbo Ononogbo of the Abia State High Court and the compulsory retirement of Justice Nasir Gummi of Zamfara State High Court with immediate effect.

The Acting CJN who spoke on the occasion of 2016 Court of Appeal Justices conference in Abuja told the justices to uphold the tenets of independence of the judiciary with integrity and fairness in the discharge of their official functions.

He called on the justices not to allow the recent unprecedented assault on the judiciary to intimidate them into taking wrong decisions or steps.

As traumatic as the assault may be, he counselled that it should be seen as an opportunity for the judicial officers to re-affirm their commitment to the rule of law and independence of the judiciary.

Justice Onnoghen who declared the conference open maintained that the battle for the soul of the judiciary could only be fought and won from a position of integrity, judicial independence and fairness in the dispensation of justice to all those who will come before them.

He declared: “I therefore urge you to remain focused at all times. Be bold and try to resist all forms of undue influence, both external and within. Blackmail in any form must not be entertained. Shun all forms of corruption. The current fight against corruption by the present administration is real and commendable. We must all join hands to fight this monster, lest it consumes us. This is the only country we have, and we owe it to posterity to bequeath a safe and decent nation to future generations.

“I must remind you that the judiciary is the only organ of government that can guarantee its independence by the conduct and utterances of judicial officers. If you adhere to these guidelines, you are assured of protection.

“Always rely on precedent set by the Supreme Court. If you do, I promise you, you won’t go wrong in your judgments. Another concept I want to encourage you to embrace is information technology.

“Times have changed and the time has come to open up a window of communication to the public. You have to engage the media to showcase the activities of your courts, especially your efforts at better justice delivery to litigants.

“This will encourage public enlightenment and boost confidence in the judiciary, as well as remove the public perception of the judiciary as a closed society. This undoubtedly has its own risk. Today, we are witnesses of the horrific trend of some unscrupulous lawyers discussing matters that are before courts in the media, in brazen attempts to influence judgments of courts. To stem this ugly tide, I urge you to consider invoking your inherent power of contempt where there are such violations or infractions in respect of matters that are sub-judice.”

NJC Fires another Judge

Meanwhile, the NJC has recommended the dismissal of Justice Ugbo Ononogbo of the Abia State High Court and the compulsory retirement of Justice Nasir Gummi of Zamfara State High Court with immediate effect.

A statement by the NJC’s Acting Director of Information, Mr Soji Oye said the decision to sanction the two judges was taken at the council’s 80th meeting held on 14th and 15th December, 2016 under the Chairmanship of the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria.

NJC said the allegations against Justice Ononogbo and Justice Gunmi constituted misconduct contrary to Sections 294 (1) and (6) of the 1999 constitution  and Rules 3 (i), 11(ii) and 2 of the National Judicial Council Revised Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The council, in the exercise of its disciplinary powers under the 1999 constitution has suspended the two judges with immediate effect, pending the approval of the recommendations of the council for their dismissal and compulsory retirement respectively, from office by Governor Okezie Ikpeazu and Governor Abdul Aziz Yari Abubakar, of Abia and Zamfara States, respectively.

The statement said Justice Ononogbo was recommended for dismissal to the Governor of Abia State, pursuant to the findings by the council on the  allegations contained in a petition written against His Lordship by Mr. Urum Udensi Ifegwu.

The council said the judge in  Suit No: HOH/25/2013; Mrs Nnenna Enweliku and 4 Others Vs Udensi Dike Udensi and 2 Others made a blanket order for the payment of unascertained amount as estate fee from the Access Bank Account of late Lord Chief Dike Udensi Ifegwu to the Probate Registrar of the High Court.

The Assistant Chief Registrar, Probate Division of the Court, Mr.  Udeka U. C. was said to have altered the order of the Judge in a letter to Access Bank requesting the bank to release the sum of N200,000,000.00 (Two Hundred Million Naira) only into the personal account of E. M. Ojiako, Esq, counsel to the applicant in the case.

However, the bank was said to have refused to honour the request.

NJC said the judge also granted another order to vacate the first order directing the bank to pay any money assessed by the Probate Registrar for the Estate fee of late Lord Chief Dike Udensi Ifegwu into the personal account of E. M. Ojiako, Esq, without ascertaining the assessment made by the Probate Registrar.

The statement said: “Out of the N200,000,000.00 (Two Hundred Million Naira) withdrawn as a result of the second order, E. M. Ojiako, Esq, only paid the sum of N83,000,000.00 (Eighty-three Million Naira) to the Probate Registry.

“That there were discrepancies between the representations of parties in the order made by the Respondent and the representation of parties in the Record Book of the Court to which Justice Ononogbo admitted that he did not vet the order before signing same and that it was an oversight.”

Apart from recommending the dismissal of Justice Ononogbo, the council also recommended that the Assistant Chief Registrar, Probate Division of Abia State High Court, Udeka N. C., and E. M. Ojiako, Esq., the lawyer, be handed over to the police for investigation.

The council also decided to report the lawyer, Ojiako to the Nigerian Bar Association Disciplinary Committee for investigation and that Abia State Judicial Service Commission should take appropriate action against Udeka, the Assistant Chief Registrar Probate Division after investigation of the allegations.

The council recommended Justice Gunmi for compulsory retirement for  failing to deliver judgement in Suit No: ZMS/GS/13/2013;  Chiroma Vs Forte Oil Plc, almost twenty-three months after the final address by all counsel in the suit, contrary to the constitutional provisions that judgements should be delivered within a period of 90 days.

NJC also said that the judge allowed the judgement to be altered by changing the word “dismissal” to “struck out” to which his Court Registrar, Hayatu Wadata Bungudu admitted was done by him, after which he informed the Hon. Judge on phone, as he was out of the state at the time.

The council also said that the judge assumed jurisdiction in the matter by a ruling, only to dismiss the same action 22 months after, for lack of jurisdiction, after the cause of action had lapsed.

NJC said it would write to the Zamfara State Judicial Service Commission to take appropriate action against Hayatu Wadata Bungudu, Registrar of Hon. Justice Gunmi’s court for altering his judgement.

NJC also issued a ‘strong warning’ to Justice D. O. Oluwayemi of Lagos State Judiciary for granting an ex-parte order in Suit No: LD/2393LMW/16, relying on an affidavit of urgency which disclosed no threat of destruction of rights, or interest, in the subject matter of the dispute without putting the other party on notice.

NJC also said that it would issue another letter of warning to Justice M. A. Savage also of the High Court of Lagos State, for holding discussion with complainant’s counsel in Suit No: LD/179/2000 which he had judicially acted upon, and for serving as a bridge between him and the other party’s counsel.