Retired judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Taiwo Taiwo, tells EMMANUEL OJO what can be done to address the refusal of government agencies and officials to obey court orders and strengthen Nigeria’s democracy
What are your thoughts about the disregard for court orders by the executive arm of government and its agencies?
It is very sad that the executive or/and its agencies will treat orders of the court with disdain and flout the same. The law is settled that once an order is made by a court of competent jurisdiction, it must be obeyed until the same is set aside or discharged. The worst scenario is where a final order of a court is disregarded, especially one that has not been appealed against. It is unconstitutional and morally wrong for an order of the court to be disregarded. Unless we want to descend into a state of lawlessness, it is a must that lawful orders be obeyed. What do you expect of the governed, if its leaders treat the court with disdain? Do you expect them to regard the court with respect or take its orders seriously? An orderly society must be governed by laws that are enforced and obeyed by all its citizens, including people holding public offices. This is when a country can make progress politically, economically, and socially.
What impression do you think the disobedience of court orders by government agencies and public officers gives about Nigeria and its judicial system in the eyes of the international community?
No doubt, the international community is bound to take a country and its judiciary as unserious and it is likely to affect the interaction of foreign countries with such a country. The position of any country’s judiciary in its internal and external affairs is very important. Respect for the laws and orders of the courts will no doubt enhance the perception of our country positively.
What do you think can be done to address this impunity towards judicial decisions and the disrespect for the bench?
I am of the view that no one must think or feel that he or she is above the law and the orders of the courts. Security agencies must be empowered to ensure that the orders of courts are obeyed. The courts must be firm in ensuring that the orders are enforced. Personally, I am of the view that if any entity or person refuses to obey the orders of the courts, that entity or person should not be granted any indulgence until that entity or person complies with the orders of the courts.
Lawyers, especially senior lawyers, must ensure that their clients obey the orders of the courts. I am sorry to say this, but some lawyers encourage disobedience of court orders. The Nigerian Bar Association has a role to play in this regard.
Do you think that the influence of the executive in the appointment of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Supreme Court Justices, President of the Appeal Court, Chief Justice of states and Federal High Court Justices emboldens members of the executive to disregard judgements?
The influence of the executive has nothing to do with flagrant disobedience of court orders. The Constitution and the laws are clear on the appointment of judges. Leadership is the problem and the lack of respect for the judiciary as an important arm of government. We have had situations when governments even under the military accorded due respect to the judiciary and also cases when the judiciary had put its foot down and ensured that its orders were obeyed. It is more of the leadership style of the heads of the executive arm of the government. Let me just say that in a nutshell, the appointment of judges and the influence of the executive has nothing to do with disobedience of court orders. A lawless executive enhances disobedience but a lawful one, that leads by example, will ensure that court orders are obeyed in the interest of the society at large. Impunity aids violence and lawlessness.
Do you think the appointment of heads of courts should be completely devoid of the input of the President, governors, and the legislature?
I think in the interest of our democracy, the input of the President, governors, and the legislature must be limited to their Constitutional roles and nothing more. The Constitution has stipulated procedural steps. We must keep to these steps in the interest of the rule of law if we believe in it, I mean the executive and its agencies.
People have lamented the delay in hearing cases and dispensing judgements in Nigeria. What can you say about that?
Well, all stakeholders have a part to play. One, the judges, through case management and the provision of work tools to lighten their workload. We are a country where people take pride in approaching the court even when they know they have no case or a weak one for that matter. The lawyers can assist in advising their clients honestly and in tandem with the ethics of the profession. The phrase, ‘go to court,’ should not be encouraged. It is indeed an aberration and a clog in the wheel of justice, equity, and fairness. It emboldens the underserved to seek redress in court when they have none. I think lawyers who filed knowingly frivolous and nakedly unsupportable actions should be penalised and sanctioned by the Nigerian Bar Association. The NBA can go a long way in sanitising the toxic effect of frivolous actions in our society. The judges too should point out at the earliest opportunity the futility of any case to a lawyer and report such a lawyer to the NBA. Unnecessary and unwarranted adjustments should be discouraged and punished with costs. Rules of the court should be enforced to the letter to restore sanity in the judicial process.
What is expected of the NBA in this regard?
The executive (arm) of the NBA knows what to do. The will to do so is another thing, coupled with the expected cooperation of the members of the Bar.
You mentioned earlier that the phrase, ‘go to court,’ should be discouraged. Do you think it is something politicians use to manoeuvre their way through after elections, believing that their opponents will not get justice eventually?
The phrase as stated by me should be discouraged and must not be allowed to remain in the judicial lexicon. When such a phrase is used, then it makes the user suspicious as to what he intends to achieve and may portray the user as having not done the right thing in the first place. He may want to hang his shortcomings under the judicial process which at times could be slow.
The Federal High Court in Lagos in 2019 ordered the Federal Government to recover life pensions collected by former governors serving as ministers and members of the National Assembly but this has not been obeyed. What will you say about this?
My lord, who issued the order has said so much on this topic and I share her sentiments as expressed in her valedictory speech. I need not add or say more.
A former Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, was recently convicted in the UK and sentenced for organ harvesting. Considering his social and political status, do you think he would have got a similar judgement if the offence was committed in Nigeria and the case tried in a Nigerian court?
Sentiment and conjecture have no place in law and as a retired judge, I know that we are not meant to be speculative. If he was charged before a court in Nigeria, where such a law under which he was charged in the UK exists, I do not think his influence would have counted. The law has no respect for anyone.
Do you think the judgement that was served on Ekweremadu is justified?
Well, as stated earlier, I’m a retired judge. I’ve not had the privilege of reading the full judgment and the English Law under which it was delivered. Mind you, the law itself is a novel law and the rights of the convicted persons have not been extinguished since they can still appeal to the Court of Appeal and the UK Supreme Court. Therefore, it will be premature to conclude whether or not it is justified. Until this is done, he and others remain convicted. My opinion is immaterial at this time. More so, I cannot sit on appeal, so to say on the subsisting judgment.
Do you think the judgment based on Ekweremadu’s status will deter others?
I’m sure the judgment will deter others not only within his status but others generally, including people from other countries
There are cases where courts give conflicting judgements, for instance, situations when a High Court in two states give conflicting judgements on the same issue. What do you think is responsible for that?
More often than not, this happens when the courts are not aware of the judgement of one another. It is another thing, where a later court is aware of the judgement of the former court on the same facts and circumstances but goes ahead to give a conflicting judgement. The law allows the court to distinguish facts and arrive at a judgement that conflicts with the former one.
What’s your thought on prison congestion in Nigeria?
I am of the view that our prisons are too congested. Cases that ought to be tried summarily are delayed and the accused person is sent to prison in custody. I think we should liberalise our bail system. Magistrates should visit prisons to hear summary cases and set free anyone that deserves to be free. Community services rather than jail terms should be encouraged.
Who do you think is responsible for the congestion? The judiciary or the executive?
All stakeholders should be held responsible, especially those who come in contact first with the accused. Bail, which is meant to be free, should be granted by the investigators in deserving circumstances. Delays in courts can lead to congestion in prisons and I am of the view that judges must be proactive in bail matters.
When a suspect is not taken to court and dies in custody while awaiting trial, do you think that is an infringement on their right to life?
Where the accused is known to be suffering from a terminal disease, he must be given adequate care and attention by the prison authorities under whose care the accused is. Where he is not given well-deserved attention and this is proved by evidence, then it is an infringement on the fundamental rights of the accused.
You mentioned that those to be held responsible are the stakeholders who came in contact with the accused first. Who are the stakeholders and what would be the charge? Manslaughter?
Of course, the prison authorities, police, and any investigative agency are to be held responsible. They can’t be charged with manslaughter except in other circumstances. They can be sued for negligence.
You had an illustrious career. Was studying Law your childhood dream?
Yes, I had always wanted to study Law from childhood. My mother also encouraged me and I stayed in this profession in her memory. She hated injustice when he was alive.
Your wife is also a retired justice. How did you meet her?
We met at the International School, University of Ibadan, (Oyo State,) when I went to study for my A Levels. She was already a student in the school. We met in 1977 but started dating around 1979.
Can you recall what the experience was for you practising law in Nigeria and reaching the height you attained?
There are so many instances that time cannot permit me to. I intend to share my experiences later in a book am putting together.
Do you think judges are given the honour due to them in Nigeria?
My simple answer is, they are not.
There are cases where some judges were given official quarters and official cars by state governments. Do you think these are part of the honour due to them?
This is not an honour. It is their entitlement as judicial officers.
Some have also said that these gestures by state governors influence judges. What do you think about that?
This is not true. You only need to go through the law reports and the number of cases state governors lose in state courts to understand that their influence is limited.
I find it hard to believe that any judge is on the payroll of any politician. Judges are paid through the National Judicial Council. If you know of any, I don’t.
But we have seen so much of the input of the President and governors in the appointments of Justices and so on in Nigeria. What can be done to address the interference of the executive and legislative arm of government in the judiciary and to make the judiciary have its uninterrupted autonomy?
The judiciary must be seen to be independent. This will solve any perceived interference.
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