In this interview with KAYODE ADEOTI, the Senior Advocate of Nigeria, (SAN) Barr. Kolawole Kehinde Eleja speaks on various issues ranging from the operation of the Nigeria court to the brouhaha between the Senate and Customs Controller-General among other sundry issues. Excerpts:
What will you say to the insinuation that the court has been hijacked by bigwigs in the society to protect their corrupt practices?
That, to me, is an assertion of some people. Court has never been hijacked. To a large extent, it still remains the home of refuge for the common man. I will suggest people should not be overwhelmed with this mentality but should approach the court whenever the need calls. Also, the common trend of happenings in the society cannot be isolated from the legal profession. Corruption, as we all know has become part of the system. But, if you consider the number of lawyers and judges we have in the country and the number of those against whom allegations have been made with the level of corruption in some other sectors, you will agree with me that high level of sanity still reign in the legal profession. This is because the profession has its own cleaning system. At the level of practitioner, we have what is called, legal practitioner disciplinary committee. This body disciplines erring lawyers. In the last 24months, many lawyers have been de-robed due to misconduct. Even at the bench too, we’ve had outright dismissal, compulsory retirement, warnings to erring practitioners. As we speak now, corruption issue in the profession is still an allegation because, among those alleged to have committed corrupt practices, none of them had been convicted. In a country where we have close to two hundred thousand lawyers, if a few are been tried, I don’t think it portend any danger. Also, the profession is guided by rules, under which a lawyer has the liberty to defend any person who has been accused, except on a personal ground. You cannot just decline a brief because the supposed client was accused of committing a crime even if it’s most heinous crime. Under the law, armed robbery that carries death sentence, culpable homicide, treason and the likes, the law cast duty upon lawyers to defend whoever is accused. Another dimension to it is that under our constitution, every accused person enjoys presumption of innocence such that it becomes responsibility of the state to establish his guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
What is your take on conflicting judgment we have when cases are pursued to Court of Appeal after been defeated at the lower court.
Conflicting decision brings lot of worries and uncertainty of the law. It makes rule of law difficult to prevail. It’s very bad and I think it’s something that needs to be condemned. Conflicting decisions will always arise when litigants are not been faithful in the pursuit of their matters in court. Mr ‘A’ instituted case against B in a court, Mr ‘B’ felt it won’t favour him, then he rushes to another court and he did not disclose there that the case was in court elsewhere before, at the end, we start having conflicting judgments. It’s good for litigants to have faith in the judicial system in order to prevent proliferation of cases. On the side of lawyers too, we have responsibilities, we should ensure we don’t involve in such practices
Do you think it is justifiable of the higher court to order the lower court to stay its proceedings over a trial.
There is hierarchy in our court system. We have courts that are of different grades and power. The higher courts have supervisory power over lower ones, and the court of Appeal has power over them all. There could be inevitable reasons where a lower court will be asked to stay its proceedings. For example, if interlocutory decisions have been given, and the party have submitted the matter to the higher court, in this sense, if the matter is allowed to go on at the lower court, it may render whatever decisions of higher courts useless.
Do you think refusing the appearance of the Custom Controller-General by the Senate is justifiable?
One need to appreciate that the Nigeria Customs under its paramilitary law, is treated as a military organisation by virtue of which its officers are entitle to carry out certain functions, by extension, it officers are also identified with uniforms which is prescribe by the board of Customs itself. As a matter of fact, regulation 31, which is contained in part 5 of the Customs Regulation…vest in the Customs boss with the discretion to provide clothing and equipment, and I want to believe that it is in pursuant of that provision that over the years we have Customs wearing uniform. If this regulation exists, it will not be out of place for the senate to insist that the boss of the agency should appear before them in uniform. You will recall that he made some utterances which were not complementing and I think that is the genesis of his clampdown, after all, the most important thing is for the man to come and clarify himself. Don’t forget, a retired army General was appointed to head the Federal Road Safety Corps, all through his reign; he was wearing the uniform of the commission.