My View On Bar-Bench Relationship- Justice Peter Umeadi Speaks
LAW PERSONALITY INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
You had brushes with the Bar Association as a Chief Judge. from the benefit of hindsight, what is your view on Bar-Bench relationship and how best will differences between them be resolved in the best interest of the society?
In suit No. A/53/2013 Chief S.U.S Mbanaso v Incorporated Trustees of the Nigerian Bar Association NBA & 8 Ors, I made an order of interim injunction against the 9 defendants on 19/3/2013. The copious pleadings in the matter show that the plaintiff was the Chairman of the NBA Awka Branch (AwkaBar). In the preceding National NBA election he backed a candidate who lost. The majority of the members of Awka Bar who backed the candidate who won vowed to unseat him supported by the powers that be. In order to save his position the plaintiff filed several suits in the High Court of Anambra State. I spread the suits to different Judges within the Judicial Division and some remained in my court. Each time the matter came up in my court I persuaded the legal practitioners for both sides to find a meeting point and settle their differences for the sake of the Bar. I counselled that the Bar ought to remain united and strong and at the same time should be vigilant for the protection of the Judiciary. I was surprised at the utterances and behavior I saw from Bar members in court who had been mandated to disrobe the sitting Chairman at all cost, and they said not even the cases in court could change that. The fears came to the fore when in one of the cases in Suit No. A/Misc. 109/2012, Chief (Bar) S.U.S. Mbanaso v J.C Anekwe Esq. and 6 Ors. The High Court per Hon. Justice J.C Iguh, of blessed memory, the Administrative Judge of Awka Judicial Division, made an order of interim injunction maintaining the status quo pending the determination of the motion on notice. The order was made on 3/9/2012. The motion on notice was fixed for 10/9/2012. The members of the Awka Bar refused to obey the court order and continued with the harassment of the plaintiff. It was in the wake of all these that Suit No. A/53/2013. was filed. The Awka Bar Executives were chasing plaintiff around the town and his residence to divest him of the property of the Awka Bar Branch including the official bus in the style of NURTW. After I reviewed the affidavits and annexures I made an order of interim injunction against the 1st to 9th defendants. Trouble broke loose. The leadership of the National NBA sent word out that I had committed sacrilege by ordering an interim injunction against the NBA. Many lawyers did not agree with them and both sides now engaged themselves on the social media. The date for 2nd Chief Judge’s Dinner was fixed for 21/3/2013. The National NBA issued orders to lawyers to boycott all activities of the Chief Judge based on the interim order of 19/3/2013. The Judiciary had expended huge resources to invite Judges from Ghana and Nairobi to build the capacity of the Bar and Bench in Anambra State on matters of Mediation and Case Flow Management. If I was not a Bar man, why should I spend scarce Judiciary resources to beef up capacity of the Bar in Anambra State only to have the National NBA sabotage same with connivance from members in Anambra. The National NBA pursued me and still the President of NBA wrote a petition against the Chief Judge of Anambra State to the National Judicial Council, (NJC), which petition was referred to me to answer. Amidst many complaints they raised the decision of the Supreme Court in Mohammed v Olawunmi (1993) 4 NWLR pt 287 p. 254. On my defense I countered with the case of Comex Ltd v Nigeria Arab Bank Ltd (1997) 3 NWLR pt 499 at p.643 where Mohammed v Olawunmi and Ors was raised, and it did not stop the Supreme Court, Coram Wali, Kutigi, Ogundare, Mohammed and Onu JJSC to hear the appeal on the merits. By a letter dated 23/7/2013 the NJC wrote to the President of NBA and copied the Chief Judge of Anambra State that the National Judicial Council (NJC) considered the explanations of the Chief Judge of Anambra State as satisfactory. That was the end of the petition. It need be said that there is a lot of malice at the Bar. The Bench from time to time get their fair share of terrorism from the Bar. It could be better. All the above notwithstanding it did not affect my preference to enhance the position of the Bar. That open minded approach paid off exceedingly. I left the Bench with the strong support and appreciation from the Bar which endures till today. Then the Chairman of the NBA Branches in Anambra State wrote a letter to see the Chief Judge, which letter did not contain the purpose of their visit. The Chief Judge was busy preparing for the legal year ceremonies for 2014/2015 coming up on 22/9/2014. The arrival proceeded well, spiced with light banter. Then things began to change, the Chairman of Chairmen asked another Chairman to speak for them, who began in a rather belligerent and disrespectful manner. I was told that they were sent by the National NBA to get answers on several issues. Their speaker reeled out 12 points of which I took notes as he spoke. It became clear that they came to my chambers to make trouble. The issues raised were purely administrative issues. I thought it preposterous and provocative but I kept quiet. The was abusive and spoke as if he came from a higher authority to with the Chief Judge would obey. But they were dabbling into matters which they knew absolutely nothing about. They left the worst for the last when they told me that all the Chairmen and their Executives have been invited by the new NBA President for a cocktail in Abuja and would be absent from our legal year ceremonies and only the Chairman of Chairmen would be left behind to read their address. I swallowed hard. When the man stopped talking I asked if he was done and he confirmed to me that he was done. I then said “Gentlemen I have heard all you said. I will give you my response on another day”. The meeting ended they left. Later I got a call from the Governor of Anambra State that the NBA President had reported to him that the Chief Judge walked out the lawyers who came to see him from his chambers. That the Chief Judge should apologise to the lawyers or the lawyers in Anambra State would boycott all the events of the Chief Judge. The Governor was worried and asked me to go and apologise to the lawyers. I narrated what transpired to the Governor and that I did not walk them out. The Governor saw that my version was different from what the NBA President told him and called back the NBA President prevailing instead on him to take the lawyers back to the Chief Judge and make the lawyers apologise to the Chief Judge for their rudeness. The President of NBA told the Governor that if that delegation was to happen it need not be led by him. The matter was again escalated when the Anambra NBA went to their NBA NEC meeting at Uyo and reported that the Chief Judge walked them out of his chambers. At this point 8 (eight) Senior Advocates of Nigeria came to see me on the matter I told them what transpired and gave them the list of 12 demands. They made it clear it was unacceptable to bring the Governor into a matter between the Chief Judge and the Bar. It came to fore that all the persons who were in my chambers on that day affirmed that the word I put above were the only words I spoke when the man finished speaking. None heard me walking them away. The NBA President and some Anambra lawyers were now rationalizing the matter that what I said amounts to walking them out of my chambers. The truth is that they came to provoke me but were frustrated and disappointed because I contained myself and dodged their belligerence. The SANs blamed the Branch Chairmen for not coming to them before reporting the matter again at Uyo. The SANs assured the Chief Judge that Friday next they would come and find out a convenient day when they would bring the Chairmen of the Branches and their Executive to apologise and the meeting ended with group photographs. I have laid out instances of two ‘brushes’ which from the outcome look like they were contrived. In the end senior members of the Bar investigated, found the bad faith in their action, brought them to apologise which I accepted and continued with my aim to reposition the Bar and the Bench when I had the opportunity to do so. The dire position in which legal practice was in Anambra State before I became Chief Judge is captured in my legal year ceremonies for 2012/2013 speech on 24/9/2012 inter alia “By a comparative chart drawn, the maximum number of shut down of courts in other jurisdiction all over the country would be 8 as against 18 for Anambra State. I think that we have a collective duty to the Judiciary and our conscience to accept that in the closure of court is archaic, an invitation to anarchy and bereft of christian charity. Apart from throwing the stakeholders into material want, the liberty of individuals, that priceless commodity is compromised”. When I became Chief Judge in 2011 I brokered peace between JUSUN and the Executive arm of Government which lasted until I left office in 2019. The Bar were able to do their business without hindrance. All High Courts in Anambra State were air conditioned, allowing court users to work for long hours in conducive environments. I am yet to be told another jurisdiction of the High Court in Nigeria which say the same thing. Magistrate Courts were completely refurbished. At my 60th birthday on 4/7/2015 I received an award of Committed Learned Friend and Patron of the Bar from Committee of Chairmen and Secretaries of NBA Anambra State. The beautiful plague was signed by all the officers at that time. In 2017 when I increased the Judicial Divisions from 7 to 10, the Chairman of Chairmen of the Bar branches, broke protocol and called the entire Bar to be upstanding and bow to the Chief Judge at the legal year ceremonies of 2017/2018 legal year. Thereat they collectively gave me the cognomen of The Shepherd of the Judiciary. History would contain a fuller chronicle of all that transpired in my time on Bench as Chief Judge and my efforts to lift the Bar.