Barrister Toyin Mohammed Onaolapo is an Ilorin-based lawyer who has practised law for over 20 years. In this interview, he speaks on life as one of the most prominent defence lawyers for armed robbery cases in the state and the challenges among other sundry issues in the polity. Excerpts:
You appear to be very active in the criminal aspect of litigation, why this interest?
Right from my days in school, I have always had an interest and passion for criminal matters and fundamental rights law. Back then, I was nicknamed criminologist by my mates in the university.
Did that dictate what you’re doing now?
No, but you have to know your strengths. Although we handle land matters here also, people recognize me for criminal matters up to Ibadan, Lagos and other jurisdictions. Our clients over there usually say the person that can handle such matters for them is Barrister Toyin in Ilorin.
I can say that I have handled at least half of all the criminal cases of the inmates in Ilorin prisons. Not that I win all the cases I handle, but I have a very good win rate, at least two-thirds of the cases and people recognise my prowess in that aspect of law which is the prosecution of criminal matters.
Has your line of litigation in any way put you in danger or under any threat by suspected criminals?
The first thing is that there is no profession that has no hazards of its own. Likewise, I also face numerous problems even from the people I’m defending. But since I know what I am doing is right and within the purview of the law, there is nothing we can do. More so, by the ethics of our profession, you must defend the criminal no matter what. Even the law allows a defendant to be granted counsel by the court to defend him if he or she has none. So, whatever the case, there must be a lawyer representing somebody in a case.
What I’m doing is within the confines of the law but I’m always on the defence side. In my firm, we have up to 70 to 85 cases we’re handling presently out of which 50 are criminal cases in the lower court, high court and Court of Appeal.
Do you have any regrets in the pursuit of this aspect of law?
Whatever you’re doing, just make sure you have a clear conscience. I’m also human with blood flowing in my veins. I don’t just take every case that comes my way. I reject some that contravene my faith and conscience. Presently, I have a case at hand which, maybe very soon, I will drop.
I have started the case but later discovered that the person I’m defending who is a herbalist killed someone. He invited the person from Lagos and asked him to go and take a bath in the bathroom. He then attacked him in the bathroom with a pestle. He later started selling the victim’s flesh at the rate of N5,000 per kilogramme. I got to know this fact recently and I told my colleagues that we have to drop the case because it is against my conscience.
We heard of instances where criminals, after serving their jail term, return to attack the lawyer that prosecuted their case. Have you experienced that?
No. That has never happened to me because I always try my best in any case I’m handling. As I said, I don’t win all my cases but the client will be satisfied that I did my best and we are very committed to getting him justice.
Some people say lawyers who mostly defend criminals are usually their friends. What is your view on this?
No, it is not possible to be a friend to a criminal. If a lawyer befriends criminals outside the official duty, one day he will be rubbished by them. I’m not a friend to criminals but only give them advice. There was a case I handled and the boy was later arrested. I met with him in prison and he said to me “Lawyer Toyin, there is nothing in criminality”.
I asked him why he said that. He said they once robbed a bank and his share from the robbery was N10 million and that he later went to lodge in a hotel in Ilorin with the money. In the evening, he wanted to go out and look for girls, typical of their lifestyle, but that saw a former OC SARS of Ilorin, Gbenga in the reception of the hotel. He said he immediately fled from the place thinking he had been traced to the area by Gbenga.
He said if he had died in that operation, that would have been it. He promised that if he was given a second chance he won’t repeat his mistakes.
How lucrative is this aspect of law, I mean handling criminal matters?
In legal practice, apart from our successful senior colleagues, you can’t be expecting huge sums of money every time, but we give thanks to God, we are able to pay our bills, but there is no big money there.
Has this line of law affected your relationship with other lawyers?
You know jealousy is part of every profession and some of the cases I handled were taken away from some other lawyers. The clients prefer us because we know how to handle them. So they don’t see us as an enemy. I will even not take some of the cases, instead, I will call the lawyer and advise him for the success of the case.
Is there any time you regretted any case you handled, thinking you should have done it differently and better?
Well, as a human being, whenever I lose a case I will first assess myself; was the fault from me or the judge? Some time ago, we had a case of armed robbery. Our client bought an ordinary phone and he ended up being convicted. When we got back to the office after the judgment, I summoned a meeting with my colleagues at the chamber to review our defence and we agreed that truly we tried our best. But we later discovered that by the time the evidence was exhibited, he had admitted to having bought the phone which was a product of armed robbery. That means the fault wasn’t on our part and more so, the boy didn’t come to our office for a pretrial briefing for us to know what he had in mind.
How can someone be given life sentence because of a phone? The judge gave maximum punishment, but as a first offender, we thought he should have reduced the sentence. Notwithstanding, we know the fault wasn’t ours but from the defendant.
Would you relocate from Ilorin to seek greener pastures if you have the opportunity?
No. And I don’t think there is any need for that. Sometimes in a day, we have up to five to six cases and at other times, we do have up to 50 cases in a week. So where am I going to? I think I have more than enough clients here in Ilorin and I’m quite contented with what I’m earning.
What is your greatest satisfaction as lawyer?
I thank God for the name I have been able to build. Today in criminal matters, people reckon with me greatly just like some lawyers are well known for their handling of land matters. I’m able to maintain both my work and family. I’m not a millionaire but I’m contented.