By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
The National Justice Council, NJC, on Tuesday, failed to persuade the Federal High Court in Abuja to hands-off a suit Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia filed to challenge her dismissal from the bench.
The Council, which has the constitutional mandate to discipline erring judicial officers, had in 2018, sacked Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia from the bench over alleged gross misconduct.
However, dissatisfied with the action, Ofili-Ajumogobia approached the court to seek redress.
She specifically challenged the process that was adopted by the fact-finding Committee of the NJC that found her guilty and recommend her dismissal.
The sacked Judge maintained that her fundamental right to fair hearing was breached, insisting that the Committee failed to hear her own side of the story before it entered verdict against her.
Among other things, she prayed the court to declare as illegal, unconstitutional, unlawful, null and void, the report of the fact-finding committee that recommended her dismissal.
Cited as Defendants in the suit were the NJC, the Attorney General of the Federation, President Muhammadu Buhari and members of the Committee- Justice Olufemi Akintan, Justice Ishaq Bello and Justice Julieth Kentu.
Meanwhile, before the court could commence hearing of the suit, all the Defendants, led by the NJC, filed preliminary objections to challenge the competence of the action.
The Defendants further queried the jurisdiction of the high court to enter the suit which they argued was employment-based.
The NJC argued that since the dispute was labour related, the Plaintiff ought to have gone before the National Industrial Court, NIC, to ventilate her grievances.
Likewise, members of the Committee, in their objection, said it was not true that the Plaintiff was denied fair hearing.
They equally argued that the suit had become statute-barred since it was not filed within three months after the Plaintiff was dismissed, as required by the Public Officers Protection Act.
They contended that Section 2 of the Public Officers Protection Act made it mandatory that such case should be instituted within three months for the matter to be competent.
However, in her counter-affidavit, Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia urged the court to dismiss all the preliminary objections on the ground that the thrust of the suit was on the constitutionality or otherwise of her dismissal.
In his ruling on Tuesday, Justice Inyang Ekwo, held that all the objections were misplaced and accordingly dismissed them.
The court held that the Defendants misconstrued the case of the Plaintiff which raised constitutional issues bordering on denial of fair hearing in the manner she was dismissed.
Justice Ekwo further held that the case of the Plaintiff did not fall under the provision of the Public Officers Protection Act as claimed by the NJC and as such, was not statute-barred.
The court held that since the suit raised constitutional issues, it could only be heard by a Federal High Court and not the National Industrial Court as argued by the Defendants.
Consequently, Justice Ekwo for April 5 to hear the suit.