Francis V. Frn (2020)
LAWGLOBAL HUB Lead Judgment Report
EJEMBI EKO, J.S.C.
The charge the Appellant, at page 6 of the Record, pleaded guilty to, reads thus-
That you, NWEKE CHIBUEZE FRANCIS male, adult on or about the 14th day of May, 2009 during the outward clearance of a Royal Dutch Airline flight to Holland at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Ikeja, Lagos exported 1.416 kilograms of cocaine without lawful authority and you thereby committed an offence contrary to and punishable under Section 11(b) of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency Act Cap. N30 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.
The charge was part of the Proofs of Evidence served on the Appellant before his arraignment before the Federal High Court, Lagos, on 5th November, 2009. The Appellant was represented by a Counsel of his choice. On the said date, upon the charge read and explained to him, the Appellant pleaded Not Guilty and both the prosecuting and defending Counsel requested that hearing be adjourned to 7th December, 2009, to commence. The trial Court (O.C. Abang, J) obliged.
At the resumed sitting, on 7th December, 2009, the Appellant, in the presence of his
Counsel, Mrs. Ngozi Ekwensi, changed his Not Guilty plea to the plea of Guilty after the charge was again read and explained to him. Thereafter the defence acquiesced in the Prosecution’s tendering from the Bar of 11 documents, frontloaded in the Proofs of Evidence. They include the following incriminating documents-
– The confessional statement he made on 14th May, 2009,
– Four separate statements he made in the course of excretion of the substances
– His duly signed Packing of Substance Form
– The receipt of seizure he signed on the 4 separate occasions
– Drug analysis Report showing that the substance recovered from him was infact cocaine
– The excreted substance contained in four separate transparent pouches
– A large envelope containing the analysed specimen from the laboratory
– Evidence Pouch containing 3,050.00 Euros, 413,000.00 CFars recovered from the Appellant
– Appellant’s International Passport No. A3820735A, KLM Flight ticket
Upon the documents/items admitted in evidence without objection, the prosecuting Counsel prayed the trial Court to summarily convict the Appellant as charged. He was
accordingly, “convicted as charged”. At this juncture, Mrs. Ngozi Ekwensi, defence Counsel, sought adjournment to enable her “tender some materials in Court in support of my plea for leniency”. She stated that “This application is based on compassionate ground since there is no provision in the Criminal Procedure Act in support”. The Prosecuting Counsel, conceding the adjournment, announced that he had “no objection”. The trial Court, without hesitation, refused the application and then invited the Appellant to “present his allocutus and thereafter sentence will be passed.”
I pause awhile. Adjournment remains within the judicial discretion of the trial Court. Like all discretions it is exercised judicially and judiciously. Exercise of discretion, as it is stated in the Lexicon Webster Dictionary, Encyclopedic Edition, Vol. 1 at page 286, discretion includes a judgment that is sound, prudent and tactful.
A judgment or decision is said to be judicious if it was rendered wisely or prudently. When a trial Court or judge is called upon to act judicially, it must have some facts on which to predicate a prudent or wise decision. Mrs. Ngozi Ekwensi, learned
defence Counsel, in the application for adjournment, did not consider it prudent to specify the documents the defence intended to avail the trial Court as the basis for the adjournment sought. The learned trial Court was left to speculate, and that should not be.
Mrs. Ngozi Ekwensi, in the application for adjournment appeared to suggest that her application had no backing of law, particularly the Criminal Procedure Act. An application that has no backing of law would ordinarily seem or appear to be an abuse of Court’s process: R-BENKAY (NIG.) LTD. v. CADBURY (NIG.) LTD. (2012) 3 SC. (pt. 3) 169; (2012) 9 NWLR (pt. 1306) 596.
From the Bar, Mrs. Ngozi Ekwensi defence Counsel, testified as it were (contrary to Rule 20 of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners, 2007 that prohibits a lawyer as a witness for the client) thus-
The convict is the first offender who has not wasted the time of this Court in going through the whole trial of the charge. He is the bread winner of the family, with an aged mother in the village to take of. He has been in detention since 14/5/2009 without any financial assistance from anybody. He is a young
man of 25 years old. If given a further opportunity (he) would be useful to the society at large and to himself. The essence of sentencing has been decided in plethora of authorities is not to punish an offender but to rehabilitate and reform the offender especially when the offender has pleaded guilty. The convict has no previous record known to me. Based on this, I humbly urge the Court to be lenient while pronouncing sentence. I urge the Court to temper justice with mercy.
“Allocutus”, as defined in Earl Jowitt: The Dictionary of English Law, is what the convict has to say why the Court should not proceed to sentence him. That is, what the convict shows “why the sentence should not be passed”. The convict, not the defence Counsel pleads his allocutus. In other words, it is for the convict himself to show cause why the prescribed sentence for the offence he was convicted of be not passed or imposed on him.
The learned trial Judge after the purported allocutus proceeded, at page 16 of the Record, to sentence the Appellant “to imprisonment for life”. The Appellant’s appeal, at the lower Court, against the sentence, majorly on the
- Whether the trial Judge properly exercised the Court’s discretion in overruling Appellant’s Counsel’s application for adjournment to enable the Appellant present some materials in allocutus, in mitigation of sentence.
- Whether in the circumstances of this case the sentence of life imprisonment passed on the Appellant was excessive, was dismissed on 21st June, 2013. He has further appealed to this Court.
The Appellant’s Notice of Appeal was filed on 10th September, 2014 – more than one year from 21st June, 2013. I have no evidence on Record that the Appellant obtained an order to bring this appeal out of time. Section 27(2)(b) of the Supreme Court Act, 2004 prescribes a period of “thirty days from the date of the decision appealed against” as the period within which an appeal in a criminal matter may be brought. This appeal is prima facie incompetent, having been brought out of time. Once a matter is not properly constituted the Court lacks jurisdiction to entertain it: MADUKOLU v. NKEMDILIM (1962) ALL NLR 587; ALAFIA & ORS. v. GBODE VENTURES NIG. LTD (2016) LPELR – 26066 (SC).
My Lords, this point is touching on the
competence of the appeal and the jurisdiction of the Court to entertain. It is a substantial point of law that can be raised and dealt with suo motu: ODIASE v. AGHO (1972) 3 SC 73; DICKSON OGUNSEINDE VIRYA FARMS LTD. v. SOCIETE GENERAL BANK LTD & ORS. (2018) LPELR – 43710 (SC); SODIPO v. LEMMINKAINEN OY. & ANOR. (1985) LPELR – 3088 (SC); BEIVAR FINANCE CO. LTD. v. HAROLD COLE (1909) 2 ALL E.R. 904 at 908; PHILIPS v. COPPING (1938) 1 KB 15.
The incompetence of the Notice of Appeal warrants an order striking out the appeal. I so order.
Ex gratia, I will consider other issues relating to this appeal. No leave was first sought and obtained for the Appellant to bring forth grounds 1, 3 and 4 in the Notice of Appeal. The grounds require leave by virtue of Section 233(2) & (3) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended. Ground 1, raising issue of wrong exercise of discretion, is predicated on mixed law and facts. So also Ground 3 of the grounds of appeal. Ground 4, complaining that the decision of the Court of Appeal was unwarranted, unreasonable and cannot be supported having regard to the evidence, is an omnibus ground raising issue of pure facts.
Grounds 1, 3 & 4 are therefore incompetent.
Ground 2 purportedly complains the Appellant was denied fair hearing contrary to Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution. The ground complains that the Court of Appeal denied the Appellant fair hearing when the learned Justices of the Court “failed to interfere with the exercise of the discretion of the trial Court, and affirmed its decision in refusing to grant an adjournment to the Appellant to tender materials in support of his plea of leniency which application was not objected to by the Respondent…”. No particulars of error alluded to any circumstance whereby the Court of Appeal denied the Appellant fair hearing in the manner his appeal was heard. Rather, it is averred that “the learned Justices of the Court of Appeal OUGHT to have interfered with the exercise of discretion of the trial Court in the balanced interest of justice” and that the decision of the trial Court was perverse. The said ground 2, ingeniously, seeks the Apex Court’s interference with the concurrent findings of fact or the exercise, by the two Courts below of their undoubted discretion. In substance, it is not a complaint
that the Court of Appeal denied the Appellant fair hearing, which apparently is a mislabel for complaint against concurrent exercise of discretion and/or concurrent findings of fact. This ingenious artifice, that ground 2 is, is no doubt incompetent. On the challenge to the exercise of discretion; it has to be borne in mind, my Lords, that judicial discretion must be exercised judicially and judiciously. It cannot be exercised in vacuo. A judicial discretion, as stated by Onnoghen, JSC (as he then was) in AMOSHIMA v. THE STATE (2011) 14 NWLR (pt. 1268) 530 at 534 D – E, ought to be founded upon the facts and circumstances presented before the Court, from which it must draw a conclusion which must be governed by law. See also TANKO v. THE STATE (2009) 4 NWLR (pt. 1131) 430. Sections 131 and 132 of the Evidence Act, 2011 become relevant here.
The burden of producing evidential materials entitling him to favourable decision of a Court of justice lies on the party who would fail if no evidence at all were given on either side. The Appellant’s Counsel applied for adjournment to enable her “tender some (unspecified) materials – in support of my plea for
leniency”. Since adjournment lies within the discretionary powers of the Court, the applicant for adjournment has the bounden duty to produce or adduce evidential materials in support of his application for adjournment. In ADIGWE v. FRN (2015) 18 NWLR (pt. 1490) 105 this Court reiterated the point that “the exercise of discretion is not based on mere judgment of the person doing so but upon facts on circumstances necessary for the proper exercise of that discretion”. See also OYEGUN v. NZERIBE (2010) 41 NSCQR 127 at 147.
By dint of Section 11(b) of the NDLEA Act, 2004 a term of life imprisonment is the maximum sentence the convict, of the offence the Appellant was charged with, should expect. The complaint of the Appellant that the trial Court did not properly exercise its discretion in the imposition on him of the sentence of “imprison for life” is not supported by any empirical fact. The opportunity for plea of allocutus offers the Appellant the occasion to show cause why the sentence prescribed by Section 11(b) of NDLEA Act should not be passed or imposed on him. He failed to testify to utilise the opportunity. Rather, it was his Counsel who made bare
statement from the Bar. That bare statement from the Bar has no force of legal evidence: ONU OBEKPA v. C.O.P. (1980) 1 NCR 113; NIGER CONST. LTD. v. OKUGBENI (1987) 4 NWLR (pt. 67) 787 at 792. on what facts, therefore, did the Appellant complain that the trial Court did not properly exercise its discretion in the sentence mandating that he served “imprisonment for life”? I find none.
If the appeal were competent my verdict would have been one dismissing it in its entirety. The appeal, not competent, shall be, and is hereby struck out.