- March 24, 2021
- Posted by: Stephen Azubuike
- Categories: Case Law Blog, NBA, Trending
The short story
A lawyer based in Abuja, Eburu Ekwe Barth Esq., was sent to Suleja Prison for two months by a Magistrate, His Worship, Magistrate Ibrahim Mohammed of Magistrate Court 2, Wuse Zone 6, Abuja, where he was expected to purge himself for contempt. The allegation against him was that he had misconducted himself while proceedings were ongoing, in that he tried to “arrest” the ruling by interjecting and making unsubstantiated allegations against the Court. Infuriated, the Magistrate ordered him to go into the dock where questions were put to him. Given his unsatisfactory answers, he was ordered to be seized and sent to prison.
Contempt – meaning
A person is said to be in contempt of court where the person conducts himself or herself in a manner that purports to disrupt the orderly administration of justice in any way. Several conducts may amount to contempt. Top on the list is failure to obey an order of court. The act for which lawyers are often cited for contempt is addressing the court rudely.
The court will not allow any act that attempts to ridicule the authority of the court or reduces the magisterial powers of the court to a piece of garbage. There will be consequences.
The law and procedure
It is indeed settled that the court has inherent powers to protect the sanctity and integrity of its authority over persons and to punish those who go in contempt by flouting subsisting court orders.
The law itself provides for the procedure to be adopted in treating cases of contempt, depending on whether the contempt was committed in facie curia (in the face of the court) or ex facie curia (outside the court).
In a well-researched article by Tajudeen Ganikale of Lexavier Partners, the learned writer cited the Supreme Court decision in the case of INEC v. Oguebego (2018) 8 NWLR (Pt. 1620) 88 where it was held thus:
For words or actions used in the face of the Court, or in the course of proceedings, to be contempt, they must be such as would interfere with the course of justice. A superior Court of record has the inherent jurisdiction to deal with contempt in facie curiae and punish for the offence summarily. It must once again be emphasised that the summary power of punishing for contempt should however, be used sparingly and only in serious cases…
From the above, it is clear that not every word spoken to the irritation of the Judge or Magistrate that will be regarded as contemptuous. The words must be targeted towards disrupting the course of justice. Interestingly, even a High Court Judge who abused his powers to punish for contempt was recently cautioned by the Court of Appeal. This was in the case of P.J.N. Azubuike Esq. v. The State, (2017) LPELR-42485(CA).
The alleged conduct of the lawyer, Mr. Eburu, qualifies as one targeted at interfering with the course of justice. However, it is doubtful whether the Magistrate has the inherent powers to punish Mr. Eburu summarily in the circumstance, not being a superior court of record as stated by the Supreme Court in INEC’s case above and also by the Court of Appeal in Candid-Johnson v. Mrs Esther Edigi (2018) LPELR-45148(CA). The inherent power of a court is like a mobile phone with in-built battery. The power is in-built in the court for being a court and not necessarily by reference to any statute.
Summary trial involves an instant or speedy trial of a defendant without much protocols but with due adherence to the principles of fair hearing. According to Ganikale,
…There is no need to call for evidence of what transpired, because it happened in the immediate view of the Court. The Judge saw and heard the contemnor commit what the Court considers contemptuous, and so punishment is meted out summarily, after the contemnor is asked to show cause why he should not be sent to prison for his contempt.
This was what played out when the Magistrate asked Mr. Eburu to enter the dock and questions were put to him to enable him defend himself before a decision is made.
A Magistrate Court is not a Superior Court of Record. A Superior Court of Record are courts such as the High Court (or other courts of equivalent jurisdiction like the National Industrial Court) and higher courts of appellate jurisdiction (that is court with powers to hear and determine appeals) mostly higher than the High Court. These are the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. A Magistrate Court is a court of record but with an “inferior” status. This does not mean that it lacks the authority of a court properly so called.
Thus, not being a superior court of record, the Magistrate ought to take steps to ensure that another Magistrate tries Mr. Eburu. Generally, this will help to also ensure that one is not a judge in his own cause, thereby flouting one of the twin pillars of natural justice. The power to discipline a person in contempt in the face of the court reserved for a superior court of record is mainly to guard the authority of the court.
In the case of Dikibo v. Ibuluya  16 NWLR (Pt. 1006) 563, the Court observed that committal proceedings touch on deprivation of freedom and liberty of a person. Thus, it is important to strictly adhere to procedures. That case touches on contempt outside the face of the court which requires the filing and service of the relevant forms (Forms 48 and 49) on the alleged contemnor.
Commendably, the Nigerian Bar Association, Abuja branch (Unity Bar) swung into action to save the situation and rescue their erring member smitten by the venom of the Magistrate. The Magistrate has now set aside his remand order. In a statement, the NBA acknowledged the unruly behaviour of Mr. Eburu and condemned it in strict terms.
One interesting lesson to learn is that notwithstanding the issue pertaining to the legality or otherwise of the remand Order of the Magistrate, it has to be obeyed and was indeed executed by the law enforcement agents. Mr. Eburu found his way to prison. This could have been avoided by both parties.