Normalising Law and Justice: The Call of Olabode Rhodes-Vivour, JSC

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Hon. Justice Kashim Zannah

Comfortable in his robes, as in his own skin. Not for him ungainly compositions as garments of gravitas. Take any judgement of the Hon. Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour, Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, it is all about the law and justice, simply and clearly expounded, devoid of unhelpful cant. The judgements are spitting images of the Judge, unpretentious dignity and depth. A short and simple sentence from his lordship’s judgement brings clarity to obfuscated principles: “miscarriage of justice is all about failure on the part of the court to do justice”, explained His Lordship, thus, arming one to wade through the thicket of contrived failings and amplified slips, and determine if justice was done. AFOLABI & ORS v WESTERN STEEL WORKS LTD & ORS (2012) LPELR-9340(SC).

Knowing him for only a short while, that is about twenty years ago, one cannot fail to be amazed at how personality and pursuit cohere in him: the clarity in his judgements are the projections of an affable personality that at the same time, exude the dignity of his calling. Never appears dour and stiff, yet epitomises dignity. The dynamics of even a casual conversation with his Lordship, is a study in enigma. The natural aristocratic mien inexplicably works to immediately put one at ease, yet enables one to walk away with a few insights into whatever was the subject of conversation.

Our First Close Acquaintance

The memory of my first close acquaintance with Justice Rhodes-Vivour, recurs frequently. I had the good fortune of being grouped along with His Lordship at a conference, to study a legal issue of concern. Each time he spoke, we saved about ten minutes, because he cut into the meat of the matter. So simply put were his insights, that even a simpleton could not have been left in uncertainty. Indeed, we completed our assignment first of all the groups and had the inadvertent reward of getting our orishi rishi freshest, having inevitably been first for the lunch break. The icing on our cake, was when the report went straight into the rapporteurs’ summary.

A Consummate Judge

The consummate Judge he is, I should have expected his verdict to cut another way one day. It did. When the late visionary Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon Justice Dahiru Mustapha (may Allah shower his mercies on him) embarked on the task of charting an informed course of reform for the judiciary, leveraging technology to enhance the judiciary’s effectiveness and efficiency was an inescapable route. It was also necessary to avoid the pitfalls that bedevilled the technology deployment efforts of other judiciaries, principally that of disparate vendor-driven projects. Under the auspices of the National Judicial Council (NJC) emerged a Judicial Information Technology Policy Committee (JITPCO), to formulate and implement a comprehensive policy to seamlessly automate the superior courts.

A Chairman with capacity and clout was needed, and the Hon. Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour was the obvious choice, and accordingly, appointed. His Lordship returned from, I was informed, an international engagement, the night before the inauguration and met the late Chief Justice. I still do not know what transpired at their meeting. But, at the inauguration ceremony, yours sincerely was ordered to take the seat of the Chairman, an order without any court to appeal to. Weeks later, I summoned the courage to seek explanation from Justice Rhodes-Vivour. I got it, short, simple and clear, just like the judgements. Not a word was uttered, just a look and a smile. Did I discern, or merely imagined the sternness?

By carriage, style and diction, His lordship leaves no one in doubt, that “cases are not decided on emotions, sentiment, or some misguided consideration. Cases are won on pleaded facts, supported by compelling evidence.” ADEKEYE & ORS v ADESINA & ORS (2010) LPELR-103(SC). A stickler for due process and evidence, but by no means beholden to crass legalism. The ink dripping from His Lordship’s pen becomes corrosive, on contact with undue technicalities. Where there is a discretion to exercise, His Lordship leaves no doubt that it shall be exercised to further the course of justice, substantial justice, being a firm believer that “courts are constituted for the purpose of doing substantial justice between the parties, and in so doing, Rules of Court must always be interpreted to achieve that purpose.” ABUBAKAR & ORS v NASAMU & ORS (2011) LPELR-1831(SC). Yet, the aversion to technicalities stops where whim starts, “when no credible excuse is given, no indulgence can be granted. Affidavit evidence must show something which entitles the Applicants to the court’s discretion” ADEGBOLA & ORS v IDOWU & ORS (2017) LPELR-42105(SC).

The Hon Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour never minced words highlighting flaws in law and procedure, by translation into the practical realities of our society: “Confessional Statements are most times beaten out of suspects, and the courts usually admit such statements as counsel and the accused are unable to prove that the statement was not made voluntarily. A fair trial presupposes that Police investigation of the crime for which the accused person stands trial, was transparent. In that regard, it is time for safeguards to be put in place to guarantee transparency. It is seriously recommended that confessional statements should only be taken from suspect if, and only if his counsel is present, or in the presence of a legal practitioner. Where this is not done, such a confessional statement should be rejected by the court.” OWHORUKE v COP SC.500/2012. His Lordship not only identified a real and felt dysfunction, but went on to proffer the solution, transparency as a condition for the admissibility of confessional statements.

Humanising Judges, justice systems and judicial processes is these days an endeavour in many parts of the civilised world, and many informed Judges steer towards that course. Ahead of his time, Justice Rhodes-Vivour’s mien, methinks, is innate and not cultivated. It’s the package. Effortlessly combining simplicity and swag, one often notices his attention being called by a simple “Bode”, instead of the usual Milord or Your Lordship. A personality that projects simplicity, an aura that awes not but elicits humane interaction, without detracting from the profundity of his thoughts and actions.

‘…..I did it my way…..’

As the Hon Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour clocks 70 and bows out at the pinnacle of his profession, it is difficult to reflect on his illustrious career without some lyrical intrusions. Ol’ Blue Eyes intrudes mine, because His Lordship did it his way. Unpretentious, yet profound. Starting as a Pupil State Counsel in Lagos State, he traversed the justice system highway, reaching the critical post of Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) before crossing over to the High Court Bench, and then passing through the Court of Appeal before ultimately arriving and sitting on two Supreme Court Benches, of Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Always stating his case with simplicity but certainty too, leaving behind profound footprints on the sands of justice, and more, much more than this, did it his way.

Honourable Justice Kashim Zannah, Chief Judge, Borno State