BY IKECHUKWU NNOCHIRI
ABUJA— The Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, yesterday, turned a valedictory court session that was held in honour of the retired Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Daniel Dantsoho Abutu, to a tribunal of sort, as it openly slammed the incumbent CJ of the High Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta, saying the courtesy visit he made to the office of Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, on Monday, was questionable.
The legal body, which bared its mind through a speech presented by its National President, Mr Joseph Bodunrin Daudu, SAN, insisted that “no matter how well intentioned and harmless the visit may be, it is inappropriate, considering that the EFCC is a prime litigant having so many high brow cases before the Federal High Court; it is for all intent and purposes a party before that court.”
Adducing reasons the CJ’s visit to the anti-graft agency should be deemed as ‘unholy’, the NBA contended that “it will raise so many questions that will bring the independence and impartiality of the court needlessly into question”, adding that it was unseemly for a trial High Court Judge to visit a prosecuting entity that has so many pending cases before his court.
Meanwhile, both Justice Auta and the EFCC boss, Farida Waziri, who equally graced the event as a special guest yesterday, wore embarrassing looks as the NBA president continued to inveigh against their alleged uncanny meeting.
Several dignitaries from both the legal and political sphere who attended the valedictory session held at the Federal High Court Headquarters in Abuja, discussed the issue in hushed tones, as the NBA continued to tongue-lash the newly appointed CJ over his courtesy visit to the EFCC.
According to the NBA President: “I have received calls from well meaning members of the Bar concerning the visit of the new Chief Judge, the highly respected Justice I.N Auta to the office of the EFCC chairman a few days ago.
“No matter how well intentioned and harmless the visit may be, it is inappropriate for the following reasons.
“The EFCC is a prime litigant having so many high brow cases before the Federal High Court; it is for all intent and purposes a party before that court. It is therefore unseemly for Judges of that court to visit a prosecuting entity. It will raise so many questions that will bring the Independence and impartiality of the court needlessly into question.
“It is not dignifying for a court to make such courtesy visits. It is demeaning to the dignity and prestige of the Court of Judges to file out of their hallowed chambers and troop to the office of Government functionaries for whatever reason. Will the Lord Chief Justice of England and his Judges pay a visit to the Metropolitan commissioner in Scotland Yard over matters that are before his court? That will never happen.
“The courts must strive to adhere to the concept of separation of powers. That laudable concept is eroded by unnecessary interaction between functionaries of these arms of government. Justice, my lord is a delicate ornament. It must be kept shining and transparent at all times.
“The Impression must never be given that one party (litigant) before the Court has an advantage over the other. It is likely the concept of fair hearing. It is not the hearing that matters it is the availing the parties the opportunity of being heard. So is the concept of bias.
“This is the position of the Nigerian Bar Association on this matter. We hope that our advice will be heeded. We consider this isolated happening as a faux-pas, which was not intended to be deleterious. Before it becomes a practice, it should however be discontinued”, he stated.
Meanwhile, the celebrant, Justice Abutu, faulted the present composition of the National Judicial Council, NJC, insisting that it would be wrong to allow the Chief Justice of Nigeria, who he said is the head of the Nigerian Judiciary by virtue of his position, to continue to function as the chairman of the council.
Justice Abutu said: “Experiences in this country have shown that petitions can be addressed to the NJC not only against non-members and members but also against the chairman of the council.
“I think because the council has disciplinary powers, the head of the judiciary should not be the chairman of the NJC. If the head of the judiciary is the chairman of the council, when, God forbid, we have a delinquent head of the judiciary, it will be difficult to discipline him.
“The president should appoint the chairman and members of the council from among retired former Chief Justices of Nigeria, retired Supreme Court Justices, retired Presidents of the Court of Appeal and retired Chief Judges, however, the head of the judiciary and the current statutory members should continue to be members of the council” he added.
Abutu equally maintained that the only way to overcome the unnecessary delays often experienced in the trial of cases in court, would be a further amendment of the constitution with a view to divesting parties’ of their right to interlocutory appeals.
“Interlocutory motions and interlocutory appeals are the major causes of delays. It seems to me that the only way we can combat the problem of delay is by regulation.
“The constitution must be amended and the provisions therein which gives parties the right to file interlocutory appeals and to apply for stay of proceedings pending appeal should be amended” he said.