. Ask judges to invoke power of contempt to deal with defaulters
.INEC, others know fate over Anambra Central senatorial rerun tomorrow
The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, has advised against unguarded comments on matters before courts of law, especially the pending dispute over Anambra Central Senatorial rerun, saying prejudice is contemptuous offence that will earn a term of imprisonment.
In a statement issued by his Senior Special Assistant (Media), Awassam Bassey, on Wednesday, the CJN reminded the public that it is contempt of Court for anyone to discuss any matter pending in any Court of Law in the country.
He said that his attention has been drawn to the emerging and continued practice of discussions of matters that are subjudice in the print and electronic media, such as the issues concerning the Anambra State Central Senatorial District dispute.
He said that to make matters worse, in such discourse, “the language being used in describing the judgments of the courts is not only ungentlemanly, degrading and contemptuous, but amounts to uncharitable insults which should not be encouraged in any decent democracy.”
The CJN said he will continue to encourage parties and the general public to use only lawful means in the pursuit of remedies for their real and imagined grievances.
He reiterated his appeal to litigants, advocates and the public to refrain from making unsubstantiated and malicious allegations and complaints against judicial officers and “reminds judges to consider invoking their inherent power of contempt where there are clear violations or infractions in respect of matters that are subjudice.”
The CJN assured Nigerians that the judiciary remains committed in the discharge of its responsibilities in line with the 1999 Constitution (as amended) without fear or favour; affection or ill-will.
He particularly drew attention of the public to decided case of prejudice involving Attorney-General vs Times Newspapers Ltd (1973) 3 All ER 54 at 65 (1973) 3 WLR 298, where Lord Reid opined thus:
“I think that anything in the nature of prejudgment of a case or of specific issues in it is objectionable not only because of its possible effect on that particular case but also because of its side effects which may be far reaching.
“Responsible ‘mass media will do their best to be fair, but there will also be ill-informed, slapdash or prejudiced attempts to influence the public. If people are led to think that it is easy to find the truth, disrespect for the processes of the law could follow and, if mass media are allowed to judge, unpopular people and unpopular causes will fare very badly.
“Most cases of prejudging of issues fall within the existing authorities on contempt. I do not think that the freedom of the press would suffer, and I think that the law would be clearer and easier to apply in practice if it is made a general rule that it is not permissible to prejudge issues in pending cases,” the CJN quoted the judge as saying.
He said that in the same case, Lord Morris held on page 68 that: “Though a judge would hope to be resistant to any pre-trial soundings of the trumpet, it must surely be contrary to public policy to allow them full blast.
“Furthermore, not only is it from the public point of view unseemly that in respect of a cause awaiting the determination of a court there should be public advocacy in favour of one particular side or some particular points of view but also the courts, I think, owe it to the parties to protect them either from the prejudices of prejudgment or from the necessity of having themselves to participate in the flurries of pre-trial publicity.
“In this connection, I agree with Lord Denning MR when he said “We must not allow trial by newspaper or trial by television or trial by any medium other than the courts of law.
“Many judicial expressions of opinion illustrate the viewpoint that I have set out. Lord Hardwicke L.C. in the St. Jamess Evening Post Case 2 said that there was nothing of more pernicious consequence, than to prejudice the minds of the public against persons concerned as parties in causes, before the cause is finally heard.
While back home, in Mobil Oil Nigeria Ltd vs ASSCAN (1995) 8 NWLR (Part 412) 129 at 143, Uwais, JSC, (as he then was) held that: “In respect of criminal proceedings, it is forbidden for parties, their counsel or newspaper commentators to freely offer opinions in respect of matters pending in court, including any situation where a conviction has been entered but the convicts appeal is pending at the appellate court”.
The CJN reminded the general public that the rule of law remains the solution to the country’s numerous problems.
In a related development, the Federal High Court in Abuja will tomorrow rule on an application seeking to vary its judgment that recognised Dr. Obiora Okonkwo as the lawful senator representing Anambra Central Senatorial District at the Senate.
Justice John Tsoho on Wednesday announced that he would deliver his verdict on the matter after taken submissions from lawyers for and against an application brought by the lawyer to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN).
When the matter came up on Wednesday, Awomolo informed the court of the pending application filed on December 21, 2017, asking the court to vary its consent judgment delivered on December 13, 2017 wherein Okonkwo of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was declared as the lawful candidate for the contested seat.
Justice Tsoho had also in the judgment, directed INEC to immediately issue Okonkwo with a certificate of return.
But moving the application on Wednesday, Awomolo, who argued that lawyers in the matter ought to have drawn the attention of the court to the three judgments of the Court of Appeal, said both the PDP and INEC were part of the processes.
He argued that since the appellate court in the three judgment ordered for a fresh election to be conducted within 90 days from the date of judgment, the lower court ought to defer to the upper court’s decision.
Awomolo said: “So if it is brought to the notice of the court that there are judgment of the Appeal Court that says election should be conducted within 90 days, the court should defer to the judgment”.
The senior advocate therefore urged the lower court to set aside its decision and not to discountenance the decision of a superior court.
He further argued that where a consent judgment is entered in error, it is bound to be set aside, adding that the court of law cannot compel illegality or impossibility.
But the lawyer to Okonkwo (the judgment creditor and first respondent), Mr. Sebastine Hon (SAN), urged the court to dismiss the application for lacking in merit and being incompetent.
He claimed Awomolo’s submission contradicts the key prayer of the application which he said is also vague.
He also argued that the absence of the seal of the deponent on the affidavit in support of the application has rendered it incompetent.
Responding to the issue of court hierachy raised by INEC, Hon argued that the lower court cannot defer to the upper court since the rule changes when it involves a pre-election matter.
He said the decision of the lower court was not unlawful in the face of the Appeal Court as the Federal High Court in a judgment delivered by Justice Ahmed Mohammed, held that the Court of Appeal process was unrelated to the pre-election matter. He added that INEC was yet to appeal the decision.
He also drew the court’s attention to a notice of appeal filed at the Supreme Court against the judgment of the Court of Appeal by the PDP as well as an application for stay of proceedings, adding that based on the appeal, the judgment of the upper court cannot be binding.
Urging the court to dismiss the motion for lacking in merit, Hon, however, asked if the court is inclined to grant the application to vary its judgment, it should however order INEC to issue his client with the certificate of return.
On his part, Austin Umaji, lawyer to the PDP and its former National Chairman, Adamu Muazu, aligned himself with the submission of Hon, adding that the application was unknown to law, incompetent and should be dismissed.
Similar position was also taken by Ernest Nwoye, lawyer to the sacked senator representing Anambra central, Senator Uche Ekwunife.
The Daily Times recalls that INEC, following the judgment of the Court of Appeal in Abuja, fixed Saturday for the conduct of a rerun election to fill the vacant senatorial seat at the National Assembly.
But a new twist came up following the consent judgment of the Federal High Court which declared Okonkwo as the lawful candidate for the senatorial district and consequently directed INEC to issue him a certificate of return.
Andrew Orolua, Abuja