interviewBy Wahab Abdulah
Our Law Personality this week is the Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Afolabi Fatai Adeyinka. He is the 11th Chief Judge of the state and the second Chief Judge from the private legal practice to be so appointed after the renowned first Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice J.I.C. Taylor. Born on July 2 1939, Justice Adeyinka got his LL.B Degree in Law from Holborn College of Law London and was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1969.
He immediately went into private legal practice before he was elevated to the Lagos High Court Bench and was sworn-in on February 11 1986 . Following the retirement of his predecessor Justice I.A. Sotuminu, Justice Adeyinka was sworn-in as the Chief Judge on March 9 this year. He will bow out of the bench on the second of next month. In this interview he spoke on the decadence in the polity, where Government Institutions and some powerful individuals disobey Court orders, saying it may lead to anarchy if it is not checked. He believes that the best thing to happen to the Lagos State Judiciary is the recently launched new Civil Procedure Rules 2004, as it would eradicate all the delay in the hearing of cases and generally enhance the administration of justice in the state. Excerpts:
When you were appointed as the chief judge of Lagos state, how did you receive the appointment and what was on your mind then?
I know before my appointment that statutorily, I would be serving for a short period, not even up to four months considering the age of my predecessor in office and myself. But as it is usual with me, I don't do things because of any human being, but because of the Almighty God. He is the one who can repay you in a miraculously way. Human begins only believe in what they eat. So as soon as the appointment came, I said Bismillahi and I started. I must say this, one must not hide what God has done for him. What I have achieved within the short period of my appointment was miraculous.
What are those things you can refer to as having been achieved under your tenure as chief judge?
You can remember and see now there is unity, among the judges, the atmosphere in the state judiciary now is calm. The judges are happy. When you measure success, it is what happened during your time, even if you don't work for it. If the welfare of those under you is improved, that is to your credit, since it happened under you. I think the judges are happier now and the magistrates too. Within this short period, we have created a revenue division of the high court of Lagos state, in addition to the existing five divisions. And we launched on 23rd of June the Badagry judicial division. We have at the moment, the Lagos judicial division, Ikeja and Ikorodu judicial divisions. We have created Badagry judicial division now. In addition to the above, we recently launched the commencement of the Lagos state civil procedure rules, 2004, which was launched, by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais, on June 16, 2004. It is revolutionary in nature, the first of it in the whole of Nigeria.
We observed that the revenue courts as you promised at your assumption of office is yet to take off?
No, they have started operation, Justice Oshodi is the revenue judge of Ikeja division, while Justice Adebiyi is of the revenue court, Lagos division. They sent their returns regularly. Before I forget, we renovated some court rooms, especially the magistrate courts in Isolo and courts 9 and 10, Ogba. One cannot do everything, my successor would definitely continue where I stopped.
How do you assess the performance and activities of the judiciary since the beginning of this democratic dispensation in Nigeria and especially in Lagos state?
To my mind, the judiciary has changed completely from what obtained in the past. Gone were the days when a judge believed he is an institution on his own. With the aggressive way the National Judicial Council (NJC) is assessing judges through out the country now, no judge could afford to be idle. A judge must send his quarterly returns to NJC in Abuja now. There is a committee responsible for assessing the performance of the judges either as excellent, good or low. If a judge is assessed continuously low, it may result to something else. Things have changed completely. In Lagos state, the judges are performing excellently. The court is being computerised now. By September this year, the whole state judicial divisions must have been computerised, including the new divisions. So, I can sit down here in Ikeja and monitor what is going on in Lagos, Badagry, or Ikorodu divisions.
What is the level of work in the collaboration efforts going on among the state government, the judiciary and the British development council?
They (British Council) are the one doing the computerisation project. It is a cooperation between the British council and the state government. The state government has a great financial commitment on the project and also the British council.
What exactly is the level of the project now?
We are not through with it, but by August/September, everything would be completed.
How do you react to the executive lawlessness on the part of the executive arm of government and their agencies in obeying court orders under this democratic dispensation?
Definitely, it is not good for any government or institution, even individuals to disobey court order. It is not good for our democracy at all. It could lead into chaos and anarchy, if things like this continue to happen. For instance, what happened in Anambra state could have gone out of hand. If it spread in that way and people started copying it, definitely, it would lead to anarchy. But I believe all the same, that since the beginning of the democratic dispensation, disobedience of court order was not as rampant as before.
In furtherance to this, opinions are that, because the executive arm of government, both at the state and federal levels are now funding the judiciary well and relate very well with them, cases involving the executives and other parties are not always well disposed off. What is your view on this?
That is not correct, absolutely not correct. Under the 1999 constitution, there is clear separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial arms of government. Also, there are provisions that allow cooperations between them. For instance, how come the Governor appoints and swear- in the chief judge of the state and the chief judge on the other hand swear-in the governor? How would the situation be if the chief judge said "I have stomach problem, when to swear- in the governor? That is the thing we should look at. If the C.J. does not swear-in the Governor, that is the end of the whole thing. So, there must be cooperation among the three arms of government. However, that does not mean that when a case comes before the court, it will affect the independence of the judiciary.
To put my question straight, most time, political opponents or individuals and institutions believe that, whenever they are having cases against the government, either at the state or federal levels they don't always have favourable decisions from the court?
I am not aware of that. In Lagos state, we decide cases upon the evidence before us. And if anybody is dissatisfied, the appeal court is there for remedy. It is established to overthrow decisions that are not sustainable.
In recent times, every chief judge in the state made efforts to decongest the prison by encouraging trial at the magistrate courts established at the prisons. One noticed that these courts are no longer functioning as expected and are not achieving the objectives of creating them. What do you have to say on this?
Yes, the magistrate courts at the prisons were functioning until when the in-mates rioted recently. The place was not safe. The magistrates were afraid. In addition, the Lagos state judiciary as part of efforts to see things in prisons, have a roster, whereby a judge visits the prison, every month. One judge will visit Ikoyi while another one will visit Kirikiri prisons. But when we heard that it was not safe for us, the visit was suspended. Even, I was agitating to suggest that high courts, should be established at the prisons too. The magistrates are now sitting. There is relative calm now in the prisons. That was why I went there recently.
Nigerians believed that magistracy in Nigeria has not measured up to expectation, especially in the area of experience and that they were corrupt. What is your reaction to this?
That may be some years back in Lagos state. Since the last appointments of magistrates, the calibre of the people appointed is so high. I think they went through examinations. Right now, promotion in Lagos judiciary is not automatic, we conduct examinations for this. We are conducting one today(last Monday) for the magistrates. Magistrates in Lagos state today are different. Even in their dressing, they appear like judges, when they speak, they do well. If you also read their judgement, they have improved.
What of the corruption syndrome?
No, no, not much, though petitions are written, because the courts are congested. But I have not got any petition on bribery since I got here.
Our magistrates are the highly paid in the whole of the federation today. At a time they were earning more than judges in other states. So there was no cause for them to be corrupt. But the courts are so congested. May be after the computerization of the high courts, the programme would be extended to the magistrate courts. This I hope will assist them in their jobs and as well de-congest the system. Even the Governor said it last week that at the state executive meeting, they have decided a new package for the magistrates in Lagos state.
There is this arguments that the new civil procedure rules would not be favourable to fair hearing, since it would not encourage advocacy. Can you shed more lights on that?
How does it affect fair hearing. To some extent, it may affect advocacy. Some lawyers want to come to court and continue talking endlessly.
That is why the courts are congested. Can't they do their arguments in writing as prescribed by the new rules? Is that not what happened in the supreme court and the appeal court? If that is fair in the appeal and supreme courts, it would be fair in the high courts. If they are talking about advocacy, well, all over the world, today preference is given to written addresses since some of the cases should not have gone to trial. So, under the new rules, before a matter goes to trial, there must be pre-trial conference, where the trial judge apply the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) principles, to settle cases.
If the matter could not be settled, then it goes to trial, which will be handled by another judge.
What the lawyers need now is to tell their client, under new rules, a matter could be finished under a year. So, they should pay their fee on time. Gone were the days, when lawyers live on adjournments. For every adjournment they charged the client. As many adjournments, the richer they are. That is why the courts are congested. It is in the interest of everybody; the litigants, the counsel and the judiciary.
There was misunderstanding before now on the N240 million allocation meant for maintenance of courts and the judges. You said you were able to contain it. What is the guarantee that the subsequent allocation will be used for what it is meant for?
What the money were used for were there. It was just a lack of understanding and particularly, the mis-interpretation of the circular from NJC on the allocation in respect of the overhead cost. The circular is full of a lot of interpretations, and that was why some judges felt the money should be given to them personally.
But the Chief Justice of Nigeria has cleared the issue.
Since you resumed how did you manage to go along with the other judges on the issue of the allocation.
Oh! That is not for public consumption (laughter) but they are happy. Soon, some judges and magistrates and other staff would be given some equipments to work with.
What inspired you to read law at the first instance?
I was the premier of Idumota boys and girls law in 1960 and the General Secretary of the federation of boys and girls law in Nigeria. When I was going abroad for further studies, I decided to read law and journalism, in 1961. Eventually, I read law when I settled abroad.
How long did you practice as a lawyer before joining the bench?
I practiced as a private counsel from 1968-69, until 1986 when I was appointed as a member of the bench. According to history, I am the second chief judge to be appointed, from private practice, apart from late Justice J.I.C. Taylor.
With the herculean task before the Lagos state judiciary, what were your experiences as a member of the bench?
With God guidance, dedication, I faced the challenges. There is no doubt that the job is very challenging, especially with the congestion of the Lagos state courts. Sometimes, it is considered impossible for a judge of the state high court to deliver a number of judgement, within a month. But I put aside all other matters and I believed that the only way to thank almighty God for appointing me as a judge is to go there and perform.
Did this job affect your domestic life?
Yes, it did. When I was appointed, I made a resolution, and I have been telling the newly appointed judges to tell their family to give them at least one to two years to perform on the bench.
They need to inform members of their family, that within these two years, you should allow me to perform. This was what I did.
However, experience has shown that, a judge's family may not enjoy him, until after his retirement.
Now with what you said, how are you preparing for your retirement sir?
I am preparing for it, I cannot say exactly what I will be doing for now, until I retire.
During your service at the bench, could you recall any of the landmark judgement you delivered?
I delivered so many judgements, which I cannot say one is a landmark. If it was the one that gave me publicity, I don't usually like publicity. I always prayed to God to give me publicity, He does it in His own miraculous ways. But for now, I can remember, when the Nigerian Bar Association was going on strike. The case was the Nigerian Bar Association versus the Attorney General of the federation. Indeed, to me it was a landmark decision.
What was the decision of the court then?
In the case, I held that the NBA, according to the constitution, had the right to go on strike.
Lastly, you are retiring soon, what do you want to be remembered for?
Well, I leave that for the people to judge. I can't judge for myself.