P.J.N. Azubuike Esq. v. The State, (2017) LPELR-42485(CA) p. 17, per Agbo, JCA:
“Judges must refrain from wearing their pride on their sleeves. They must show self-restraint even when they are uncomfortable with the language deployed by counsel or litigants appearing before them. It is however incumbent on them to uphold the dignity and authority of the court. In the instant case, there was nothing before the court to activate its jurisdiction to summarily convict for contempt.”
The facts of the above case are quite interesting. They present us with one of those unfortunate instances where a Judge like Hon. Justice A.O.H. Ukachukwu (Rtd.) is found abusing judicial powers thoughtlessly, bearing in mind that there would hardly be any consequence other than perhaps, a criticism by an appellate court.
The Appellant was a legal practitioner representing the Plaintiff in a suit (Suit No. HOW/78/02 – Anthony Opara v. Morecab Finance Co. Ltd & Anor) which at the time was pending before Ukachukwu J. of the Imo State High Court, Owerri Division, prior to his Lordship’s subsequent retirement. The Appellant had, on the instruction of the Plaintiff to his Law Firm, Messrs. Tony Momoh & Co., taken over the case from the Plaintiff’s former Counsel. The Appellant stated that before he took over the case, the Plaintiff had expressed doubts as to the impartiality of the trial Judge but he allayed the Plaintiff’s doubts so as to allow him go into the case proper. Upon coming into the matter, the Appellant stated that the trial Judge continued to descend into the arena of conflict. As a result, the Plaintiff instructed the Appellant to seek a transfer of the case. The Appellant therefore wrote a letter dated 10/1/2006 to the Chief Judge seeking a transfer of the suit and subsequently filed an application for stay of proceedings dated 20/1/2006 pending the outcome of the application for transfer.
The application for stay of proceedings which was duly served came up on 24/1/2006. The trial Judge asked the Appellant for the whereabouts of the deponent to the affidavit in support of the Motion (which deponent happened to be the wife of the Plaintiff). The Court was informed that the deponent was not in Court. The trial Judge then ordered the Appellant to remove his wig and gown and enter into the witness box. The Appellant replied the trial Judge noting that as Plaintiff’s Counsel, he was not supposed to enter into the witness box to serve as witness in the case. Enraged, the trial Judge made a ruling, ordering the remand of the Appellant, to the utter dismay of the lawyers present. The trial Judge swiftly signed the remand warrant and the Appellant was remanded. He was eventually bailed on 25/1/2006.
The Appellant filed an appeal against the order of the trial Judge contending that the Appellant did not commit any act of contempt and that the trial Judge failed to comply with the rules and procedure in dealing with the alleged contempt. The Court of Appeal took time to consider the entire circumstances and after stating the trite principles governing contempt proceedings, unanimously agreed with the Appellant that the Appellant never committed any act of contempt and that the trial Judge did not only disregard the relevant rules and procedure, but also was in arrogant abuse of his powers. (See the above quotation).
In delivering the leading Judgment, giving his opinion on the conduct of the trial Judge, Ita G. Mbaba, JCA did not mince words:
“In my view, that was indeed a very bizarre and frightful way to apply the power of contempt by a court of law. It showed the trial Judge as a very intemperate person, acting impulsively, without regards to rules and procedure. If the trial Judge wanted to commit Appellant for contempt of his Court, he completely missed the procedure and was, in my opinion, rather abusing his powers with regards to contempt of court, which, in my opinion, cannot even be contemplated in circumstances of the case.”
See page 11 of the report.
With the greatest respect, the trial Judge disgracefully failed to allow his judicial mind function at the time so as to allow him see the sound reasoning of the Appellant when the Appellant submitted that based on the authorities, he cannot go into the witness box. Unfortunately, to the trial Judge, reference to authorities on the state of the law is contemptuous. Mbaba, JCA captured it thus:
“Sadly, the learned trial Judge failed to consider and to heed the wise submission of the Appellant that he could not serve as witness in a case he was Counsel. The trial Judge viewed that submission as an affront, and summarily ordered the remand of the Appellant, without following the rules.”
See page 14 of the report.
One important lesson to learn from the conduct of the Appellant, one of the finest trial lawyers I have seen, is that as lawyers, we must always be firm, fearless and respectful.
I highly commend the Court of Appeal for this Judgment.