Law

Lawyers: Razing Lagos court’ll bring backward scale of justice

Lawyers have rued the recent arson attack on the Lagos High Court in Igbosere by hoodlums, saying the sad incident would pose a major setback for administration of justice. They, however, emphasized the urgent need for the state government to put an ad hoc arrangement through which judges will continue with the hearing of pending cases because judiciary still remains the last hope of the common man. AKEEM NAFIU reports

 

 

Some senior lawyers have vehemently condemned the recent arson attack on the Lagos High Court in Igbosere by hoodlums who took advantage of the #EndSARS demonstrations to unleash mayhem on the state.

 

To them, a situation whereby hoodlums invaded the court without any hindrance and carried out such humongous destruction on the temple of justice is quite worrisome. They further expressed deep concerns that the hoodlums’ action would further complicate the already slow administration of justice, particularly in Lagos State, which has the highest volume of litigation cases.

 

The Lagos State Government has been counting its losses from a number of public property including the High Court which were torched by the hoodlums.

 

The attack came amidst imposition of curfew across Lagos State by Governor Babajide Sanwo. Condemning the attack, the Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Kazeem Alogba said property worth billions of naira were lost to the sad incident.

 

He, however, allayed fears about the fate of court records, saying substantial part of them was still intact. He, however, disclosed that many exhibits and files of ongoing cases at the court have been burnt.

 

The Chief Judge while on an inspection visit to the court shortly after the incident also pleaded with the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Olumide Akpata, to prevail on lawyers to make case files available to the court in order to rebuild those destroyed in the attack.

 

Justice Alogba also revealed that plans are underway to find alternative sitting accommodation for judges and magistrates who lost their courtrooms to the incident.

He said: “We are working day and night to ensure that we find alternatives for our judges and magistrates and they will soon start sitting but please give us this week to be able to assess what we have.

 

Thank God, I was at TBS with other judges and admins and we have found some space to move a number of judges.

 

That is how we would gradually evacuate the judges and the courts and then they can start sitting. “As for our records, please let the whole world knows this that it is not all our records that we lost. No, and I thank God for that. In some of the key areas, we still have substantial parts of our records intact, like our archives.

 

In the probate registry too, to a reasonable extent, some of our records are still intact. So many other places and in some courts too, particularly that wing, which was not really burnt, we still have our records intact, although scattered all over the place.

 

“So, we are going to be able to piece so many things together and move ahead. Apart from that, we are sending out words to the Bar association and the public. We are going to reconstruct our case files.

 

Where we cannot find our own, we call on both parties or all parties involved to submit their own proceedings and then from there we can piece a file together and start with such a file and move ahead. “We are not going to look back at all, we are looking forward.

 

And like I said it is a temporary setback. So, once you have God, you have nothing to fear. These are trying times and we must go through it but we are going to come out of it valiantly like I said before.” In line with the revelation by the Chief Judge, some judges whose courtrooms were affected by the fire incident have been temporarily relocated.

 

A notice by the Lagos State judiciary indicated that the judges, seven in number, will be sitting temporarily at the Lagos State High Court Annex, TBS.

 

The judges involved are:

  • Hon. Justice T. A. O. Oyekan- Abdullai (Court 2) relocated to the ground floor at TBS.

 

  • Hon. Justice O. A. IPAYE (Court 4) relocated to the 2nd floor at TBS.

 

*Hon. Justice S. B. A Candide- Johnson (Court 5) relocated to the 2nd floor at TBS.

 

  • Hon. Justice I. O. Kasali (Court 6) relocated to the 1st Floor at TBS.

 

*Hon. Justice A. M. Nicol-Clay (Court 7) relocated to the 2nd Floor at TBS.

 

  • Hon. Justice J. E. Oyefeso (Court 14) relocated to the 3rd Floor at TBS.

 

  • Hon. Justice Y. A. Adesanya (Court 15) relocated to the ground floor at TBS.

 

Lawyers speak

 

Some senior lawyers have frowned at the unfortunate arson and attack of 21st October, 2020, on the Lagos High Court in Igbosere.

 

The lawyers while baring their minds on the issue at the weekend said the destruction has further set the machinery of justice backward. They however want those in authority to look beyond the damage done to the edifice and focus more on how on-going cases will not be perpetually stalled.

 

This, they added was due to the fact that the sanctity, security and peaceful co-existence in any society is largely a function of judicial activities. Speaking on the issue, a former Vice-President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Adekunle Ojo, linked the incident to inadequate security within the court’s premises.

 

 

He said: “It’s unfortunate that we found ourselves where we are and it shows without mincing words that the structure of the court does not enjoy enough security. If the Lagos State Government will go back to the report of the committee that was set up to investigate the bomb scare in the High Court in 2005, it will find out that certain recommendations of the committee were not yet implemented, particularly in the area of security.

 

This was why we are experiencing this unfortunate incident again. “A situation whereby hoodlums invaded the court without any hindrance and carried out such humongous destruction on the temple of justice is quite worrisome.

 

The arson attack is unwarranted and amounts to a sheer destruction of public property. “The Lagos High Court is like a tourism center where people go to see how courts of those days were built.

The destruction of the place means this is no longer possible. The future generation can no longer be privileged to see the beauty of that court again. “There are certain reports in that court that cannot be located anywhere again with this destruction. This is a major setback. Without mincing words, there’s no way the judiciary can recover from this great loss. What is lost cannot be recovered again. This is the bitter truth.

 

This destruction has also set the machinery of justice backward. As we speak, case files have been consumed, people’s wills may also have not been spared.

 

Only God knows what condition people who have kept high profile documents in the court premises will be at the moment. This is an indication that a lot of people might have been affected even beyond the judges, lawyers and litigants. No one can even be talking about any case now”.

 

A former National president of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CDHR), Mr. Malachy Ugwummadu, while also condemning the incident also asked government to ensure ongoing are not stalled perpetually. “First and foremost, it is regrettable that a court which is the oldest judicial institution in Nigeria was brought down by arson.

 

Secondly, this action will further complicate the already slow administration of justice, particularly in Lagos state, which has the highest volume of litigation cases. “Another implication of this unfortunate incident is that it would affect the progress or otherwise made in specific cases whether civil, commercial, criminal or probate, which are at different stages of trial.

 

“However, going forward, what I think can be done is to creatively encourage parties. For instance, I have up to fifteen cases in that court. In fact, one of the cases is for adoption of terms of settlement. The court sadly did not sit on the day we are to do so, before the hoodlums struck. “What I think can be done is for government to provide a temporary location for judges to sit where notices will be issued out to invite parties.

 

This is important because the sanctity, security and peaceful co-existence in any society is largely a function of judicial activities. If parties are thrown on board as we are now, individuals depending on the level of resentment could decide to settle disputes by resorting to self-help. So, court can creatively invite parties and encourage parties to duplicate and supply processes already filed to court.

 

Through that, the court can generate processes that are already in existence and parties can then settle records with the supervision of the court. They can then move on one way or the other with the matter because it will be dangerous not to find a way to deal with pending cases”, he said. A rights activist, Mr. Kabir Akingbolu, also described the incident as a big setback for the judiciary saying there was no basis for the attack.

 

He said: “It is a big setback for the judiciary, particularly judges, lawyers and litigants. I spoke with a silk a while ago and he told me of a case he has been handling in that court for 13 years and he was on his last witness before the incident happened. In fact, he told me that if not for the inability of a counsel to attend court for the last proceedings, he would have taken the witness. So, you can imagine this kind of situation.

 

There are several other cases in that court with longer lifespan that would now have to start afresh because of this unfortunate incident. “So as far as I am concerned, this is a big setback for administration of justice.

 

Although, the Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Kazeem Alogba, has urged counsels to assist the court with case files and other documents, but what about the exhibits? Most exhibits would have been destroyed. So, where do we start from?

 

“The most unfortunate thing is that one cannot place the incident within the ambit of the demonstrations by EndSARS protesters. Even, if those who carried out the nefarious act are saying they don’t trust the judiciary, it still remains the last hope of the common man whether they like it or not.

 

Cases can only be settled at the court. Besides, the judiciary still remains the only arm of government that is still functioning in the country.

 

The incident is a big setback for the judiciary”. Speaking in the same vein, a Lagos-based lawyer, Mr. Destiny Takon, expressed shock at the level of destruction in the court. He also emphasized the need for government to ensure hearing of ongoing cases are not stalled. “First of all, I am still in shock as to why the High Court premises fell victim to the onslaught of hoodlums.

 

My reaction is borne out of the fact that everyone at some point or the other, resorts to the court for redress, for perceived wrongs, including the hoodlums themselves.

 

So, why destroy the edifice that serves all and sundry. Perhaps those behind the arson thought that by burning the premises, case files, especially criminal ones, may be destroyed and thereby the charges against them, would be frustrated thereby.

 

“If indeed that was their intention, then, they are seriously mistaken because this is the era of e-filing and court processes are now stored in the clouds. The criminal case files come from the office of the Directorates of Public Prosecution and not at the court premises. The only area damage may have been done would be with exhibits which have been tendered and admitted in evidence and kept in the court premises.

 

Those may have inescapably been affected. “The courts’ own files may have been affected too because apart from the processes of court which are filed and stored in the clouds, the judges’ notes, which are not so stored, also form part of the courts’ files, which were burnt in the fire.

 

Another area the sad incident would impact negatively on the dispensation of justice is that until the courtrooms are repaired, if the building is found to still retain its structural integrity, the day to day sitting of court would go into abeyance, until alternative ad hoc arrangements are made, to accommodate the sittings of court or until new buildings are put in place.

 

“On how the sad incident may not recur, I have my doubts if under the circumstances that prevailed in the state following the massacre of unarmed and peacefully protesting youths, any security presence at the court premises would make a difference, in the future.

 

However, at peace time, security should be beefed up at all court premises in the state, to include armed mobile policemen to avoid a recurrence.”

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