By Alex Enumah in Abuja
After nine years of legal battle, the Supreme Court has reinstated Mr. Bode Thomas as the Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal from where he was compulsorily retired in 2009.
The apex court re-absorbed Thomas to the position on the grounds that he was denied fair hearing in the circumstances that led to his being pushed out of office by the Federal Judicial Service Commission.
In a unanimous judgment, delivered by Justice Kumai Bayang Akaahs, the Supreme Court held that the former President of the Court of Appeal, Umar Abdullahi, who accused the appellant of gross misconduct, erred in law when the same Appeal Court boss presided over the investigation and compulsorily retired of the appellant.
In the judgment, the apex court held that the proceedings of the Investigative Committee, together with the decision of the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) are a nullity, for failure to adhere strictly to the rule of natural justice.
Justice Akaahs, who read the lead judgment of the five-man panel of the apex court, voided and set aside the compulsory retirement of Thomas by the FJSC as the Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal on March 5, 2009.
Thomas was on November 17, 2008 issued a query by the President of the Court of Appeal on series of allegations of serious misconduct.
The allegations among others were that the appellant unilaterally fixed his salary at the last step of the consolidated salary of Chief Registrars, contrary to law and that he recruited several junior staff without due clearance from the president of the court.
He was also accused of authorising foreign trips for some staff of the court and that he had a soured and dis-cordial relationship with Deputy Chief Registrars of the court due to alleged ineffective leadership style.
The response of the appellant to the query dated November 18, 2008 was said to have been found unsatisfactory by the president of the court, prompting his matter to be forwarded to the FJSC for consideration.
The FJSC at its meeting of December 2, 2008, upheld the report of the Court of Appeal against the appellant interdicted him pending the completion of investigation into his matter.
He was subsequently found guilty of serious misconduct and was compulsorily retired from the Judicial Service Commission (JSC).
In a writ of summon at the Federal High Court with No: FHC/ABJ/CS/313/09 dated May 27, 2009, the plaintiff had challenged his compulsory retirement and prayed for an order of the court to reinstate him and to ensure payment of his entitlement from March 2008, when he was retired.
The Federal High Court in its judgment delivered on May 12, 2011, granted all the reliefs sought by the plaintiff, prompting the FJSC being the defendant to approach the Court of Appeal for intervention.
The Court of Appeal in its own judgment delivered on January 16, 2013, resolved all issues in favour of FJSC, set aside the judgment of the high court and also awarded a cost of N30, 000 against Thomas.
However, Thomas through his counsel, Joseph Daudu SAN, on April 3, 2013, approached the Supreme Court for its intervention in the matter on eight grounds of appeal.
Among others, Thomas complained of denial of fair hearing on the grounds that the President of the Court of Appeal, who brought allegations against him presided over the committee that investigated and placed him on compulsory retirement.
Justice Akaahs after reviewing the issues agreed with the appellant that the issue revolves around fair hearing and the participation of the President of the Court of Appeal in the disciplinary proceedings.
The Supreme Court judge agreed that the participation of the Appeal Court President in the disciplinary action and where he was the accuser was in a grave error and a breach of the principle of fair hearing.
Â â€œIn view of all that transpired and especially based on the fact that the President of the Court of Appeal had made up his mind when he wrote to the FJSC Secretary on November 24, 2008 that he could no longer work with the appellant as the Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal and requested that disciplinary action be taken against him, it is obvious that the appellant did not stand a chance of getting any verdict from the FJSC order than the one which was recommended by the investigating committee.
â€œIn other words, the commission was to merely rubber stamp what the committee had recommended. Most of the members of the committee were among those who sat at the FJSC to approve the compulsory retirement of the appellant.
â€œIn conclusion, the appeal succeeds in the main. The proceedings of the committee together with the decision of the FJSC are hereby declared a nullity for failure to adhere strictly to the rule of natural justice.
â€œThe decision of the FJSC to compulsorily retire the appellant as Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal since March 5, 2009 is hereby set aside. â€œThe appellant is reinstated to his post as Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal with effect from the date of his compulsory retirement.