Things turned against him when he received a letter from Chief Justice Justice Walter Onnoghen, informing him of the withdrawal of his rank of SAN.
Godwin Tsa, Abuja
Until June 23, 2017, Mr. Beluolisa Nwafor, a lawyer, was a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). Having been called to the Nigerian Bar on August 22, 1985, he became a SAN on September 13, 2004.
However, things turned against him when he received a letter from the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) and chairman of the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC), Justice Walter Onnoghen, informing him of the withdrawal of his rank of SAN.
The letter, with the title “Notification of Withdrawal of the Rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN),” read: “The Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee, at its 126th general meeting held on the 22nd day of June, 2017, considered extensively the petition written against you by the Court of Appeal of Nigeria, your response as well as all material facts and have decided to withdraw the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) from you.
“Accordingly, you are, therefore, advised by this notice to henceforth desist from parading yourself as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria forthwith.”
Indeed, a petition had been written against Nwafor by the chief registrar of the Court of Appeal to the LPPC in which he was accused of conducting himself in a manner incompatible with the dignity and honour of a holder of the rank of SAN. The incident allegedly occurred when Nwafor appeared before the Court of Appeal Justices I.M.M. Saulawa (PCA), I.I. Agube and I.G. Mboba on November 16, 2016, in Appeal No. CA/A/551c/M/2016 between Mr. Eyitayo Jegede (SAN) versus Prince Ebiyi Poroye and 10 others in connection with the 2016 governorship election of Ondo State.
The petition stated that Nwafor conducted himself in a rude and unruly manner before the court, and also made the Justices of the appellate court parties in their personal capacities in Nwafor’s applications to the Supreme Court filed on November 17, 2016, thereby altering the course of litigation.
“We make bold to say that Mr. Nwafor’s behaviour is unethical and contrary to the provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct, 2007,” the petition stated.
Besides the petition, the chief registrar of the Court of Appeal also wrote a complaint against Nwafor to the chairman of the LPPC. A three-man disciplinary panel was thereafter set up, comprising Justice Aloy Nwankwo, Chief Judge of Ebonyi State, as chairman, Justice G.M. Nabaruma, Chief Judge of Yobe State, as member, and Prof. Awa Kalu (SAN) as member.
At the end of its sitting, the committee submitted its report to the chairman of the LPPC and, following the acceptance of the report, the rank of SAN was withdrawn from Nwafor.
But Nwafor was not satisfied with the decision of the LPPC. He, therefore, commenced legal moves to recover his lost rank.
In a suit marked FCT/HC/ CV/2840/2017, N wafor dragged the LPPC before the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Bwari, Abuja, praying for the setting aside of the decision.
He also sought an order restoring his rank of SAN, claiming, among other things, that he was not accorded fair hearing before the withdrawal of the rank.
But in its judgement of October 9, 2017, Justice Othman Musa dismissed the suit for lacking in merit.
However, Nwafor is not satisfied with the decision of the court. He noted: “Since the petition against me accused me of contempt of court and the trial court found that I was not guilty of contempt of court, the inevitable conclusion the learned Judge should have arrived at is that there was no basis whatsoever for the withdrawal of my rank as a SAN.
“The LPPC did not also find me guilty of professional misconduct. Unfortunately and amazingly, the learned trial judge rather dismissed my claims, thereby occasioning a grave miscarriage of justice.
“I am dissatisfied with the said judgement and have prepared 22 grounds of appeal against the judgement in expression of my constitutional rights under section 240 and 241(1) (a) (d) of the 1999 Constitution.
“The constitutional crisis situation now is that the same Court of Appeal to which my appeal lies is my accuser, which wrote the petition against me to the LPPC, and cannot, therefore, be the judge to determine the appeal. This will be an infringement of the principle nemo judex in causa sua for a
person to become the accuser and the judge at the same time.
“Under the 1999 Constitution, there is no right of appeal from a decision of the High Court of the FCT, Abuja, straight to the Supreme Court, as the Court of Appeal cannot be by-passed.”
Appeal for justice
In a letter to former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Idris Kutigi, dated December 13, 2017, Nwafor chronicled what transpired at the panel, stating that, throughout the proceedings at the Court of Appeal, he acted professionally and was never cited for any contempt of court.
“The Court of Appeal rather commended me and other counsel for ‘eloquent oral submissions’ in the same case.
“It is common knowledge that any person who commits contempt of court is usually tried by a court. If the contempt is in the face of the court, then the court will immediately deal with it by conducting trial for such offence.
“It is noteworthy that, although I was accused of ‘contemptuous behaviour before the Court of Appeal,’ there is nowhere in the letter it was shown what exactly I said that amounts to ‘unruly and contemptuous conduct’ or ‘speaking and acting rudely to the court.’”
He regretted that even after paying N3 million each to the three Justices of the Court of Appeal as directed by the Supreme Court, his rank of SAN was still withdrawn. He said he was denied fair hearing by the disciplinary panel, in breach of his constitutional rights under Section 36 (5) of the 1999 Constitution.
“By directing me to call my witness when no prima facie case was made out by the petitioners against me, my constitutional rights under Section 36 (11) were breached,” he said, adding that the petitioner was allowed to cross-examine him and his three witnesses.
“Hearing was conducted in secret without allowing the public access to the venue of the proceedings. The petitioner refused to give evidence, refused to adopt its petition by itself, refused to call any witness to prove its allegations and refused to make himself available to be cross-examined because
the counsel said it was undignified for the learned justices of the Court of Appeal to be subjected to cross-examination, and also because the chief registrar who signed the petition did not have personal knowledge of what transpired at the time I argued the case at the Court of Appeal.”
While denying the allegations against him, Nwafor said the certified true copy of the record of proceedings by the Court of Appeal was altered and riddled with inconsistencies. He also alleged bias against him, as the CJN who had earlier formed an adverse opinion against him also sat as chairman of the LPPC.
He appealed to the former CJN to “intervene in this constitutional crisis situation that has arisen in my case by urging the LPPC to withdraw or set aside its decision withdrawing my rank as SAN and to restore my rank wrongly withdrawn.”
But the LPPC has justified its action. The body, through its counsel, Chief Ogwu Onoja (SAN), dismissed Nwafor’s allegations.
In its brief of argument, dated November 15, 2018, the committee said, during the hearing of the petition by the panel, Nwafor was satisfied with the adoption of the petition by counsel to the chief registrar of the Court of Appeal, L.E. Nwosu (SAN) without insisting on the personal appearance of the chief registrar for cross-examination.
“After the petitioner’s case, Nwafor sought leave to make a no-case submission and he was granted. Thereafter, he testified for himself and called three witnesses to testify for him and also had the opportunity to submit final written address.
“At the end of the investigation exercise by the disciplinary panel of the LPPC, he was found guilty of professional misconduct and, accordingly, his rank of SAN was withdrawn.
“It is respectively submitted that appellant was grossly in error when he misconceived the subject matter of the petition to mean criminal contempt proceedings. He took a very narrow and technical view of the word ‘contemptuous’ to mean criminal offence. The word ‘contemptuous’ used in the petition in its ordinary connotation means reprehensible conduct, spiteful use of words, insolence, disrespectful, abuse of a privilege, menacing look and utterances, disorderly conduct as well as undignifying carriage.
“It is our humble contention that to address the honourable justices of the Court of Appeal with so much disdain, disrespect, rudeness and abusive utterances as the appellant did in this case when he appeared before the Court of Appeal, is undoubtedly unprofessional conduct contemplated by Section 24(1)(a) and (b) of the guidelines referred to above.
“It is also on record that the appellant joined the honourable justices in their personal capacities to the motions on notice he filed in the Supreme Court in which he sought to restrain the said justices from performing their constitutional/judicial duties. This is clearly a professional misconduct unexpected of a person holding the rank of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.
“In the instant case, the allegation against the appellant and pursuant to which his rank of Senior Advocate was withdrawn was the breach of professional code of conduct. The only body saddled with the power to exercise disciplinary control and award the appropriate sanction is the LPPC. It, therefore, smacks of mischief and bad faith for the appellant to argue that the allegations against him were criminal in nature and that he ought to be tried in a court of law for the offence of contempt before he can be disciplined by the LPPC.”
The LPPC also said the requirement of sitting in public under Section 36 (4) of the 1999 Constitution applies only to court or tribunal when trying an accused person for criminal offences: “In the instant case, the appellant was not tried for criminal offence. Moreover, the disciplinary sub-committee that investigated the complaint against the appellant is not a court or tribunal, but a fact-finding panel constituted by the LPPC.”
“The paramount consideration is whether the appellant and his witnesses were accorded access to the venue where the disciplinary subcommittee/panel of the LPPC held sitting to investigate the allegation against him.
“What is fundamentally required to satisfy the principle of fair hearing is to give equal opportunities to parties to be heard as enunciated in the Supreme Court decision in INEC v Musa (2003),” the LPPC submitted.