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Lawyers examine impediments to execution of judgments

For 23 years, a Lagos-based lawyer has been frustrating the enforcement of a Supreme Court judgment delivered since April 1999 on a disputed land. The…

For 23 years, a Lagos-based lawyer has been frustrating the enforcement of a Supreme Court judgment delivered since April 1999 on a disputed land.

The apex court judgment was executed twice and the judgment debtors again repossessed the land twice, thereby frustrating the execution of the decision of the court.

In June 2016, the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice in Abuja fined the Nigerian government the sum of $3.3 million as compensation over the extra judicial killing of eight persons at an uncompleted building in Apo, Abuja in September, 2013.

The court had ordered the payment of $200,000 to the families of each of the persons killed in the raid and $150,000 to the 12 others injured in the attacks. Almost a year on, no steps have been taken to either review the order or obey it.

These are instances of what judgment creditors go through while trying to enforce court judgments nationwide.

Many other victims of civil infringements find it extremely difficult to benefit from court verdicts remedying their situation.

Presently, investigations reveal that it is almost impossible to enforce judgments against the police or the army or most other government agencies.

The judges and lawyers spoke at the just concluded 2022 edition of the annual conference of the Nigerian Bar Association Section on Public Interest and Development Law (NBA SPIDEL), which took place Thursday in Abuja with the theme ‘The Undermining of Judicial Authority in a Democracy’.

In his remarks, the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ayoola Ariwoola, said the judiciary is fully aware that in election periods, the executive, or those seeking for political positions usually don’t tread on the path of the rule of law, the Electoral Act and the Nigerian Constitution, but will rather act on their whims and fancies to cling to power.

A Supreme Court justice, Justice Inyang Okoro, X-rayed the consequences of undermining judicial authorities in a democracy.

Delivering the keynote address, he highlighted some of the consequences of disobeying a court or judicial authority.

According to him, whosoever disobeyed any order of court has committed contempt of court, adding that contempt is defined as “a disregard for or disobedience to the rules or orders of a judicial body or an interruption of its proceedings by disorderly behaviour or insolent language.”

He also noted that Idigbe JSC had stated in Alake vs AGF that although contempt is so manifold in its aspects, but generally it may be described as any conduct which tends to bring into disrespect, scorn and disrepute to the authority and administration of the law or which tends to interfere with and/or their witnesses in the cause of litigation.

He said in the same matter, Oputa JSC stated that “undoubtedly, one of the most important powers of the judge, is his power to make orders; if these orders are disobeyed, the judge has more weapons in his armoury which he can always use.

“He can punish the defaulting and disobedient party for contempt of court by fine or by imprisonment. All contempt of court has one thing in common, they obstruct one or other of the strings of justice.”

Okoro also noted that the dangers or consequences that come with disobeying a court order and undermining judicial authorities are unimaginable, especially where these acts of disobedience were being perpetuated by government officials or high-standing members of society.

Some of the dangers of disobedience of court orders, he said, are lack of confidence in the court and the judiciary as a whole; low level of foreign investment; collapse of rule of law; opposition to judicial independence and delays in hearing and determination of cases.

According to him, if anyone should be worried of the orders of court, it is the authorities of government for they, more than any other person, need the application of the rule of law in order to govern properly and effectively.

As a way out, Justice Inyang suggested that disobedience to court orders should be made a criminal offence directed not against the judge who made the order but as a calculated act of subversion from the law and order of the nation.

He noted that this is apart from the power of the court to punish for contempt.

He added that there is a need to overhaul the process of enforcement of judgments as well as the need for financial independence for the judiciary.

Justice Benedict Bakwaph Kanyip, President of the National Industrial Court (NICN), spoke of the impediments to the seamless execution of court orders in the country and the way out.

NBA president-elect, Yakubu Chonoko Maikyau SAN said, “The primary call on every legal practitioner is for justice, no more and no less; and justice must always be the focus of what we do, whether on the bench or at the bar.”

Human rights lawyer Chief Mike Ozekhome SAN on his part called for the privatization of the execution of court judgments.

According to him, it is too radical and far-fetched to consider privatizing the execution of judgments – with the police still playing more or less the same roles, while bailiff units are disbanded. This will, admittedly, require a paradigm shift which will, in turn, entail legislative (if not constitutional) amendment.

Other participants at the conference also mentioned the issue of Section 84 of the Sheriff and Civil Process Act and the difficulties in getting the consent of the AG/AGF before carrying out execution against government at all levels.