Nnamdi Uzuegbu
Nnamdi Uzuegbu

Gidado Shuaib, Sarah Alade and the dangers of abusing court process, by Nnamdi Uzuegbu

NEWS DIGEST – My attention was drawn to reports in the news on Monday, January 13, 2020 that Gidado Shuaib, the editor of Youths Digest & News digest, an online news platform had been sued by Hillcrest Agro-allied a company owned by President Buhari’s adviser on Finance and Economy, Sarah Alade to the tune of 500 million naira over alleged libellous material published by the online news platform. I found this development very distasteful especially as it constitutes an abuse of court process; the Plaintiffs in the suit had caused the institution of a criminal case against two of the Defendants in this matter over the same issue on charges which bordered on criminal defamation which interestingly is still ongoing.

If there is one positive fallout from the Machiavellian murder of Dele Giwa during the dark days of the IBB regime, it was its contribution to our legal jurisprudence. The Late Gani Fawehinmi whose greatness has been acknowledged even by his harshest critics pursued justice for the late Dele Giwa against the then Deputy Director of the DSS, Col A.K Togun and the head of the Directorate of Millitary intelligence, Col. Halilu Akilu whom he felt were responsible for the murder of his friend and client. Gani was so persistent in his pursuit of what he felt to be justice in the matter, that he filed charges against the two Army officers and caused the charges he prepared to be published on several newspapers and magazines. This did not sit well with the army colonels; they filed a case of libel against Gani, demanding the sum of N5million along with other ancillary reliefs. Gani objected to the hearing of the matter on the ground that a criminal charge was brewing against the Plaintiffs in this matter and that the criminal matter must be allowed to be determined before the civil suit could be heard.

The trial court disagreed and ruled against him. He appealed:  The Court of Appeal agreed strongly with Gani and stated the position of the law that it is unethical to allow a civil action to proceed while a criminal action is pending”. On the final appeal, the Supreme Court justices ruled against Gani but only on the ground that there was technically in the eyes of the law, no criminal matter pending at the material time. The Supreme court however affirmed and have continued to breathe life into that principle of law; it remains not only binding but also an ethical issue on the part of the lawyers who approach the hallowed temple of justice.

What is an abuse of court process?

“In the case of: Arubo vs. Aiyeleri (1993) 3 NWLR ( Part 280) 126, the abuse of Court process was defined thus:- “Abuse of Court process simply means that the process of the Court has not been used bonafide and properly. It also connotes the employment of judicial process by a party in improper use to the irritation and annoyance of his opponent and efficient and effective administration of justice”.

Also in the case of Ogoejeofo v. Ogoejeofo (2006) 3 NWLR (pt. 966) 205 it was held that the circumstances that will give rise to abuse of Court process include:

 “(a) Instituting multiplicity of actions on the same subject matter against the same opponent on the same issue(s) or multiplicity of actions on the same matter.

These are well-known principles of law and I need not repeat the several times, same have been applied by our courts. In Gani’s case which was discussed earlier, it was well outlined that where a civil and criminal matter have the same facts, they should not run concurrently and ordinarily the civil action should be stayed pending the determination of the criminal matter. The facts in the two matters instituted against Gidado and his colleague, Alfred Olufemi are the same, so why resort to this oppressive tactic of instituting a civil matter when the criminal matter instituted is still pending?

Cases of abuse of court process are not taken lightly by the disciplinary bodies of the legal profession. People like Kunle Ogunba and Belolisa Nwofor lost their cherished rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria for this issue which is why I wonder why lawyers still institute multiple actions over a single issue. This is bad for our jurisprudence as it is mischievously aimed at clashing the heads of our learned judges against each other. One can imagine the confusion that would arise if this is allowed to go on and different courts give conflicting decisions over the same matter.

Ordinarily, the civil suit should be stayed pending the determination of the criminal matter but in this case the criminal matter is before an inferior court, a magistrate court sitting in Ilorin while the civil matter is before the Kwara State High Court. Should a superior court be asked to stay its proceedings pending the determination of a matter before an inferior court considering the fact that the High court sits on appeal over the decision of the magistrate court? This is a decision which the High Court of Kwara State can make and it should be brought before the learned judge.  Attempting to do so by the inferior court can in the words of Niki Tobi, JSC (As he then was) mainly amount to judicial rascality. In my opinion, the matter before the magistrate court must be discontinued until the Superior court makes a decision on this matter as it is already seized with the same facts. Any attempt by the magistrate court to subvert the authority and jurisdiction of a superior court must be discouraged. Our courts must be respected by all and our judicial institutions must not be made mockery of by people who are supposed to be ministers in the temple of justice. The courts are not the places to pursue vexatious and oppressive matters.

Nnamdi Uzuegbu is an Abuja based legal practitioner.