LAWYERS4CHANGE

Friday, February 13, 2009

SQUIB EDITOR ON TRIAL FOREVER?


The much celebrated ‘love story’ of Honourable Justice Ibitola Sotuminu former Chief Judge of Lagos State and her ’beau’ Adesina Ogunlana Publisher of the Squib Magazine which started in 2001 and hit a furious peak in 2002 is not yet over.


In March 2001, Ogunlana a lawyer started the Squib publication soon to be famous for its strident and muscular activism against corrupt practices in the Judiciary and in the legal profession. For the Squib, it was total war against misconduct in the legal profession. And no cow was sacred before its scorching attack. Within six months, it had run into troubled waters as the leader of the Lagos State Judiciary then, Sotuminu J. became very uncomfortable with the bold and pugnacious brand of journalism practised and still practiced by the Squib. In sometimes in November 2001, the Chief Judge put out a notice banning the sales of the Squib magazine in the premises of the Lagos State High Court. According to Sotuminu C.J, the Squib was “an obnoxious publication.”


The magazine publisher promptly defied the order citing discriminatory practices against his magazine. The Chief Judge reacted with force, employing private security guards and the police to enforce her patently illegal and absurd order. The enforcement failed woefully as the Squib, supported by lawyers and waves upon waves of activist cadres overwhelmed the Chief Judge’s foot-soldiers to get the magazine on in the court premises just like other newspapers and magazines. The Chief Judge even got some Squib’s vendors charged to court. However it was a half-hearted effort as the case died a natural death when the complainant (Sotuminu C.J) repeatedly failed to show up to prosecute her case in Court (Magistrate Court 2, Ikeja). Frustrated and embarrassed by her failure to stop the Squib from getting into the Courts, the Chief Judge filed a petition, interestingly to the Chairman of the Disciplinary Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association, against Ogunlana asking among other things for the disbarment of the publisher. Without hearing from Ogunlana, (who was protesting that the letter inviting his response was unsigned) the NBA’s Disciplinary Committee headed by Chief Bandele Aiku S.A.N found for Sotuminu via a 4-3 split decision that Ogunlana was guilty prima facie, of professional misconduct and in July 2003 referred his matter to the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee of the Body of Benchers for trial. So far in about six years the LPDC had sat five times on the matter but no hearing has taken place. The history of the case goes thus:

Date Event
1st Sitting October 23, 2003 LPDC formed quorum. Petitioner absent. No witness for the prosecution. Prosecutor present. No charge, or report served on respondent. Respondent and his counsel (7 in all, led by G.O.K Ajayi S.A.N) present. Case adjourned indefinitely.

2nd Sitting May 7, 2007 LPDC formed quorum. Petitioner absent. No other witnesses for the prosecution. Prosecutor present. The respondent and his counsel, present. Matter adjourned.

3rd Sitting October 23 2007 LPDC sat but did not form quorum. Petitioner absent. No other witness for the prosecution. Respondent and his counsel, led by Chief G.O.K Ajayi SAN present. Matter adjourned.

4th Sitting April 22 2008 LPDC sat. Formed quorum. Petitioner absent. No witness for the prosecution. Prosecutor present. Respondent present. Respondent’s counsel absent. LPDC refused to allow Respondent to address them on the need to strike out the case.

5th Sitting 27th October 2008 LPDC sat. Petitioner absent. Mrs. Latifat Folami, Chief Registrar, Lagos State High Court supposed witness for the prosecution, arrived late for the case, as the matter had been called and adjourned before her arrival. Respondent and counsel absent. These was notice in the newspapers that the case was not coming up again on the 27th October but on 10th November 2008.

6th Sitting 10th November 2008 The sitting could not go on as the hearing was changed at the last minute. According to Mr. Abubakar Maude, the Secretary of the LPDC, in a telephone chat with the Respondent, the LPDC would not be forming quorum on the 10th November 2008. The matter was eventually put for hearing on the 19th January 2009.

7th Sitting 19th January 2009 The LPDC sat, but could not form quorum. Petitioner was absent. Witnesses for the Prosecution absent. Prosecutor present. Respondent and his counsel, Chief G.O.K Ajayi present. Matter adjourned indefinitely.

On the 19th January 2009, the last time the matter came up for hearing, the prosecutor Dele Oye Esq. asked for adjournment of the hearing of the case on the ground that the LPDC did not form a quorum. The minimum number of LPDC members to form a quorum is five, but the members present were only four.
In his reaction to the prosecutor’s application, Ogunlana’s counsel, Chief G.O.K Ajayi S.A.N, called to the inner bar 31 years had this to say among other things.
“Your panel will agree with me that since this case started, the petitioner has never, for once appeared before you. I myself have appeared before you 5 (sic) times while the respondent has appeared before you 7 (sic) times. So what is this matter still doing on your cause list? No reason can be good enough to justify why your panel cannot form quorum, when you consider that respondents come from all over the country to appear before you. I am disappointed in your panel in the way this matter has been conducted so far. You should know that your body is a model for dealing with disciplinary issues in the profession.”


And I do not know how to moderate the intensity of my feelings about it. For even the courtesy of a telephone call even if only yesterday night to inform us of this situation would have sufficed. One other issue I want to address your panel on is the practice of advertising notices of hearing of these cases in the newspapers. In our ordinary courts we do not advertise cause-lists. Of course you all appreciate that all these respondents until their cases are determined are presumed innocent. But when you put up their names in the newspapers, the impression is formed in the public, that they are guilty. But when at the end of the day, you absolve them, how do you change the wrong impression? Chief Ajayi’s speech was a blistering fusillade but delivered without any cacophony or commotion.


Clearly the veteran counsel and one of the biggest icons of the legal profession in Nigeria was upset, even dismayed by the extremely tardy pace of the prosecution of the case. The panel however took Chief Ajayi’s umbrage in good faith. The presiding Chairman, Umaru Eri J, former Chief Justice of Kogi State tried his best to mollify Chief Ajayi, pouring encomiums on him and urging him “not to be disappointed in the Panel as you are a respectable individual in the profession.”


According to the Chairman, it was only unfortunate that the Panel could not form quorum that very, since all preparations and expectations of the Panel had been geared to having a definite hearing of the matter “today”. One major reason for the failure to form quorum, said the Chairman was the pre-occupation of members of the Panel who were judges with election petition matters.


On the issue of advertisement of the hearing notices of cases before the LPDC, in the newspapers, the Chairman explained the practice is now legal under the rules of Procedure guiding the LPDC and that it is a means that was created in response to the attitude of some respondents who deny knowledge of processes duly served on them by the LPDC.
At the end of the day, the Panel adjourned the matter promising Chief Ajayi SAN two things:


(a) not to advertise the hearing of his client’s case in the newspaper again.
(b) to summon him (Chief Ajayi) and his Client, only when the Panel is absolutely sure of forming quorum.
The Chairman ended the meeting on a humorous note when he told Chief G.O.K Ajayi thus:
“At the end of this matter we will arrest you here in Abuja to explain the secret of your continuous youthfulness.”

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