A Federal High Court in Lagos has suspended the hearing of a N5.5 billion debt case between Honeywell Flour Mills Plc, its sister companies and Ecobank Nigeria Limited.
The companies are praying the court to hold that they are not indebted to Ecobank.
Justice Mohammed Idris adjourned hearing in the suit pending the determination of an interlocutory appeal filed by Ecobank.
The bank had appealed against the judgeâ€™s refusal to recuse himself from continuing to hear the case.
When the case came up for continuation of defence last Thursday, the bankâ€™s lawyer, Mr. Divine Agbua, told the judge that the Court of Appeal directed him to suspend further hearing of the suit.
He said: â€œThe appeal filed by the defendant came up for hearing at the Court of Appeal. Judgment was reserved. They made a directive to await their decision. May I apply that this case be adjourned sine dine (indefinitely). We shall notify your lordship upon delivery of judgment by the Court of Appeal.â€
Plaintiffsâ€™ counsel Olabode Olanipekun confirmed that the Court of Appeal directed that the case be halted â€œout of respect for the hierarchy of courts.â€
â€œMy application would be for the court to adjourn, not sine dine, but till a further date for us to report the outcome of the appeal,â€ he said.
Ruling, Justice Idris said he would comply with the appellate courtâ€™s directive.
He held: â€œI have listened to learned counsel. I have read the orders of the Court of Appeal. It is clear that the Court of Appeal had directed this court to await its judgment on this matter out of respect for the hierarchy of courts.
â€œAs a trial court, subordinate to the Court of Appeal, this court shall abide by the orders made by the Learned Law Lords of the Court of Appeal. This court shall, therefore, await the judgment of the Court of Appeal in this matter before further proceedings are continued herein.
â€œIn the circumstances, further proceedings in this matter are hereby adjourned pending the determination of the appeal. Either party shall be at liberty to apply for a hearing at the conclusion or the delivery of judgment by the Learned Law Lords of the Court of Appeal. This shall be the decision of the court,â€ the judge ruled.
Ecobank had asked Justice Idris to recuse himself because it no longer had confidence in the judge to do justice in the case.
The judge had refused the application, saying he would stick to his judicial oath in determining the case.
His words: â€œIt is always tempting for a judge against whom criticisms are made to say he would prefer not to hear further proceedings in which the critic is involved.
â€œBut it is important for a judge to resist the temptation to recuse himself simply because itâ€™ll be comfortable to do so. The danger is that weâ€™ll soon reach a position in which litigants were able to select judges to hear their cases simply by criticising all the judges that they do not want to hear their cases, whether the criticism is justified or not.
â€œThese issues are either for the appellate court or appealable issues and the defendant can exercise the right of appeal if it so desires. The application for the judge to recuse himself from this matter is most frivolous and it is refused,â€ he said. Ecobank subsequently appealed against the ruling.