By Henry Ojelu
Mrs. Titilola Akinlawon, SAN, in this interview, shares her views on several critical issues confronting the country’s justice system.
Due to the sensitive nature of divorce cases especially when it involves children, some persons have advocated for close door proceeding in handling such matters. Do you agree?
Prior to the creation of family courts, there have been situations where some judges have had to adjourn matters to chambers at some point to handle sensitive aspects of divorce proceedings. It is not always in all situations that court proceedings are held in open court. When it concerns children, the courts have always tried to protect them. More often than not, you will find out that courts don’t name children when divorce proceedings involve them. I have handled several divorce cases and in each of the cases, I have always said that I am the lawyer to the children because they are innocent of whatever rancour that their parents are involved in. I am always fighting at compulsory conferences that the children must be protected. It doesn’t matter whether it is the father or mother that I represent; my primary concern is about who is in a better position to care for the children. With compulsory conference, we really don’t have a lot of issues again in open court. I have a case ongoing now that the judge keeps sending us back for compulsory conference. The judge insisted we must agree before coming to her. The idea is that once parties are able to agree and file their report of compulsory conference, there will not be any issue of disclosing any sensitive thing in the open court.
So you don’t think there is a need for reform with regards to how divorce matters are handled?
The truth is that most of those nasty divorce things you read in the papers are basically from the customary courts. With customary court, anything goes. They really don’t have rules that govern them. Maybe in that situation, we can be talking about reform to say that when it relates to family issues, this is the way it should be handled. In the superior courts of record, the rules are there- you agree at compulsory conference on custody, maintenance, access etc. It is only in the event that parties cannot agree that the judge would have to determine the case in the best interest of the children. Maybe we can come up with rules for customary courts to guide them, that when it involves children, they should observe certain procedure.
Some state judiciaries are making reforms to the Civil Procedure Rules to make Alternative Disputes Resolution, ADR compulsory. What is your reaction to this?
It is not all cases that can go for ADR because there are some cases that ADR cannot handle. Even in civil cases, there are fraud issues which the ADR cannot handle. There are civil suits that have elements of crime which the ADR cannot handle, but for those cases which ADR can handle, I totally subscribe to it. For instance, I had a defamation suit against a colleague and the mediator told us that this is an ADR case. Initially, I thought the ADR cannot resolve the matter but I was really impressed with the way the mediator handled the matter. The mediator played a big role in resolving the matter. The matter was filed in July 2018 and by January 2019, it has already been resolved. I didn’t even spend any money apart from filing the process. Going to the Lagos Multi-Door Court House is free. The truth is that life is about compromise. We just have to find a way to compromise. I think that if ADR can work, it would be better for everybody.
But the issue here is about the compulsoriness of the process…
The point here is that if they make it compulsory for you to go for ADR, it is not compulsory for you to agree or settle the matter. The rule says this is the way they are going to do this case; you can decide to carry your case somewhere else. You are not compelled to file the case there. You find a way to wrap it round another jurisdiction and take it elsewhere. You have the right to choose not to agree with ADR. I know the new rule in Lagos has made it kind of compelling on you to agree that if you don’t agree and you go to court and lose, you will be demnified in cost. That, I think, may be taking away the right of the litigant but what is important is for you to ventilate your right. It may be the rule to insist that people go to arbitration or mediation, but the rules cannot force you to sign. Even when you sign, you can still withdraw it.
Presently, it is almost impossible to execute court judgments against the police and other security agencies. Why is this so and how can it be tackled?
I have had that experience. I have had a case of a man whose child was killed by stray bullet from a policeman. We sued the police and got some few millions for him but till date, we have not been able to enforce that judgment. The rule that says you have to obtain the Attorney- General’s permission before you can levy execution need to be looked into. It is contrary to the right of a person who has been violated. If that provision is taken off from the Sheriff and Civil Process Act, it will be very good. If that is done, then people can attach the account of the police in the Central Bank in execution of their judgment. Another problem which we have not thought about is the Treasury Single Account, TSA. Now, all the monies are lumped together so it is difficult to separate what belongs to any particular government agency. All of these things are matters which I think Legislators at the prompting of lawyers and the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, should try and amend so that we can be able to enforce judgments against government agencies. This issue is really a pathetic one but my advice for most people is always to walk away from the police. Don’t ever give them any opportunity to violate your right because they know how difficult it would be for you to get justice. It is bad but that is the reality as of today. You take them to court, you get an empty judgment.
This appears to be a hopeless situation?
I think it is a societal problem. It is the image that the police have cut. Nobody respects the police here. Because they know that they have no respect, they have to wield their powers to make you understand that they are the law. It is like a circle. I look at them with disdain and so much disrespect. So they need to get at me and say ‘okay, you don’t like us, we will show you’. Because they can’t arrest me, they will arrest my driver and want to compel me to come and beg them. They can just arrest you and when they get to the station, they would just frame any allegation against you. Until the time when the society itself is ready to address all the ills in the society, the police will continue to do what they are doing. The society has completely lost its moral values. Everybody believes that they can do whatever they like and if the police arrive, it is just a function of giving them money. The impunity in the society is so horrible. We do not have respect for the law. We do not obey the rules. Unless and until we all resolve that we have to change, Nigeria cannot move.
At what point do we start this change?
Like I said, unless and until we resolve to change, Nigeria cannot move. What we are talking about will remain. The regeneration has to start from the home. When I was growing up, I always woke up to meet my mother cooking. But now, how many mothers are at home to cook? They would have left home by 5:00am. They will not come back until 10:00pm. When do they see their children and impact moral values into them? Everybody now worships at the altar of money. Everybody is racing after money. Everybody wants money at all cost because nobody will respect anybody that does not have money. Even in churches, you must be a rich man for you to be able to sit in the front row. So we all have to have a complete moral rebirth. Until we decide that money is not our god, we are not going anywhere.
Cases of rape of young children appear to be on the increase now. Why is this so?
The truth is that it is not as if it is just happening. It has always been happening way back but there was no social media to amplify it. It is the advent of social media that has brought it to the fore. It may not have been rampant as it is now, but there were cases of fathers sleeping with their daughters and the mother will know and not say anything because of shame. They cover up because they don’t want the shame. But you see, with the advent of social media, everybody is now aware. For me as a Christian, I believe that we are at the end-time and all these things must happen. That is what my Bible tells me that there will be too many horrible things.
I think we are at that stage where the antichrist is coming very soon so he has to throw his demons into the society and afflict people.
How do you explain that a man would rape his sister’s six-month- old baby? It doesn’t follow common sense. What enjoyment can that give? So, it is not normal. We put things that are not normal in the Para-normal.
This is why I believe that it is the prelude to the advent of the anti-christ.
Do you believe that things can get better in this country?
I cannot imagine that things will get better. How will it get better? Who will make it better? Is it the mother that is not at home to nurture the child in a way that will make the society better? Are we getting better as a people? Do we have welfare for our people? Look at Federal Government officials going around markets and giving women trader moni. How long will that last? It is not going to ameliorate their problems. How much is a cup of rice? I just can’t see any way out of it. The only thing that keeps me going is my faith in God because there is nothing impossible for God. So I won’t say things cannot change in Nigeria. But from my personal perspective, I cannot see it.
Politicians still wield enormous influence in the appointment of judges in the country, how can this be completely curbed?
You see, my people say that when you are brought up right, there is nothing that can make you change. If you are well brought up, nothing can influence you to change. The problem now is that people who are incompetent are now appointed as judges. When a judge is incompetent, does not understand the law, cannot apply the law, then he or she has to be influenced one way or the other either for money or something else. Before now, nobody applies to become a judge. It is a serving judge that will see you and recommend that this person has the quality to become a judge. Then the person will be invited and considered. Judges were respected back then. Those days, you never see judges at parties. They didn’t belong to social clubs. But now, the reverse is the case. The bottom line for me is the quality of people who are appointed as judges. There are so many judges that are good, but the few that are bad, are giving the good ones a bad name. I think that the way and manner judges are appointed should be changed. It should not be an all-comers affair. It should be the very best of the very best that should go to the bench. It should be the best of us that should be there.
What should be the ideal process for selecting judges?
I personally know people around me who are good. But the truth is that they will not accept the offer to become judges because they know that he who pays the piper dictates the tune. The good ones will not go there. Those who will not compromise will not go there because of the way the system operates. I honestly believe that we should go back to what it used to be. Those who are good and are already there should identify and recommend those who they think should become judges.
One of the common features of courtrooms back then is the robustness of argument and advocacy among lawyers; we no longer see that in court. Why?
It is not the fault of lawyers but the rules. The rules say you file written address so you don’t argue again. All you do is go to court and adopt your written address believing that the judge will read and consider both sides. Sometimes maybe they don’t even read it.
The quality of lawyers these days is becoming a major problem to the legal system. Why?
Are lawyers not part of the society? We cannot divorce lawyers from the society. It is a general malaise in Nigeria. Where is the value in anything? Where is the quality in anything? Here you see a child that will go to the university and does not understand what the lecturer is saying but will come out with a first class. The situation is so horrible that we don’t know where we are going in this country.
So where should the inspiration for a better Nigeria come from?
Every day, I tell lawyers in my chambers that I feel sorry for them because I have had the robustness of legal practice. I have enjoyed every moment of legal practice. I really pity them. Imagine appearing before a judge that does not even understand the law. Look at the society, you want to do right and everybody will abuse you. I can’t see hope anywhere.
Some persons have suggested revolution as a way out of our present challenge. Do you agree with that suggestion?
My take is that there may be revolution in Nigeria and when that happens, you and I may not be spared. I am afraid that it is going to happen one day. All it takes is one incident. It is true that we are resilient people and we endure a lot, but I can tell you that the signs are already there. When the president went to Ogun State to campaign and introduced the Governorship candidate of his party, the people threw sachet water at him. That is telling us something. People are getting fed up. You can only push people so far. Once they get to the wall, they will turn back. The poverty in the land is palpable. May God save Nigeria.