T.A.A. Awosanya Vs Board Of Customs & Excise (1975) LLJR-SC

T.A.A. Awosanya Vs Board Of Customs & Excise (1975)

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In Charge No. FRC/L/20/74, Belgore J., found Mr T.A.A. Awosanya, Senior Magistrate, Lagos State, guilty of criminal contempt of his court in that the accused person had disobeyed his order to stay further proceedings in a case before the accused’s court in which two persons were charged with offences of evading payment of customs duties on certain imported goods. .

The material facts may be stated briefly as follows. A criminal charge B/161/73, Board of Customs & Excise v. Alhaji Wasiu Dosunmu & anor. was filed at the Magistrate’s Court Igbosere, Lagos before Senior Magistrate Awosanya on July 3, 1973 while the defendants were remanded in custody and the matter was adjourned to July 26, 1973. The case later came up again on July 19, 1973 when it was adjourned first to September 12, 1973 and later to October 23, 1973.

On the latter date, a Senior State Counsel applied for the case to be transferred to the Federal Revenue Court on the ground that the Magistrate’s Court no longer had jurisdiction in view of the Federal Revenue Court (Amendment) Decree 1973 or, alternatively, to withdraw the charge. On November 2, 1973, Senior Magistrate Awosanya, in a considered ruling, refused the application, and then adjourned the case first to November 8, 1973 and finally to January 17, 1974 for hearing. On that date, the Senior Magistrate adjourned the hearing of the case to February 5, 1974. Meanwhile, on January 21, 1974, however, a fresh charge No. FRC/L/2C/74 which was substantially the same as the one before Senior Magistrate Awosanya was filed in the Federal Revenue Court and was then adjourned to January 23, 1974 for mention so that the accused persons could be served and a date fixed for trial.

When the two accused persons failed to appear on January 23, 1974, Bench Warrants were issued by Belgore, J., but, as the warrants could still not be executed until January 28, 1974, a State Counsel, Grade I filed a motion ex parte for leave to bring a motion for an order of prohibition and certiorari against the respondents, and also for a stay of the proceedings before the Senior Magistrate until the determination of the orders of certiorari and prohibition. The ex parte motion was granted and all parties were to be served with notice of the motion fixing the argument for February 6, 1974. On that day, when neither the two accused nor Senior Magistrate Awosanya turned up, the State Counsel informed the court that the Senior Magistrate had struck out the case on the previous day, February 5, 1974, and the bailiff tendered an affidavit of service on the Senior Magistrate on January 31, 1974. The State Counsel later, on February 13, 1974, filed an affidavit as to what happened in the Magistrate’s Court on February 5, 1974, when “the Magistrate struck the case out because according to his statement in the open court he had been served with an order and a motion of certiorari” .

Thereupon, the learned trial judge ordered that a criminal summons be issued against Senior Magistrate Awosanya to appear before the Federal Revenue Court of February 18, 1974 “to show cause why he should not be committed for contempt”.

He also instructed “a summary of the facts of the complaint should be attached to the criminal summons to be served”. On February 18, 1974, Awosanya appeared in court being represented by the Solicitor General, and a Senior State Counsel, Lagos State. The Solicitor-General asked for an adjournment to study the case, as he had just then been served with the summons.

The matter was then adjourned to February 28, 1974 but, before this date, Awosanya had filed an affidavit to which he annexed a certified true copy of the record of proceedings in the Igbosere Court up to January 17, 1974 and an uncertified true copy of the proceedings at Ikeja Court on February 5, 1974. As it was considered necessary for Mr Awosanya to file an additional affidavit in order to answer certain points, the matter was further adjourned from February 28, 1974 to March 5, 1974.

When on March 5, 1974, the Lagos State Solicitor-General decided to withdraw on the ground that the State could not represent any individual on a criminal charge, Chief Rotimi Williams appeared for Senior Magistrate Awosanya before the Federal Revenue Court. He submitted that as his client would not have a fair trial, the learned judge should not try the case; that a criminal summons should not have been issued against Awosanya in the circumstances of this case; that, if Awosanya was guilty of any contempt at all, it was a civil, and not a criminal, contempt; that, if it were held to be a criminal contempt, the Federal Revenue Court could not try it as it did not come within section 7 of the Federal Revenue Court Decree 1973; and that there must be evidence of bad faith on the Magistrate’s part for disobeying the order of the Federal Revenue Court, and his submission was that that was not established in the instant case.

The learned judge, after reviewing the evidence and the law, came to the conclusion that the Magistrate’s disobedience was willful and that it proceeded from improper motive, and so found him guilty of contempt. The present appeal has been brought against this judgment.

Various grounds of appeal were filed but, Chief Williams, learned counsel for the appellant, asked and was granted leave to argue all the grounds together. His arguments may be considered as falling under three broad submissions. The first is that the action of the appellant did not constitute a contempt of court. Secondly, if it constitutes an offence at all it is one involving only a civil contempt by the Magistrate for disobeying the order of the superior court for a stay of proceedings. The third submission is that, assuming that it is a case of criminal contempt, the appellant has not had a fair trial on the ground of procedural irregularity. Let us examine each separately.

At the time that the appellant struck out the matter of February 5, 1974, there was an order for stay of proceedings pending the hearing of the application for an order of prohibition in the Federal Revenue Court. He nevertheless made a determination striking out the case in these words:

“I have repeatedly observed that I am not particularly interested in hearing any of the Federal Revenue Cases and that my duty here is to dispense justice without any fear or favour. I am still avowedly dedicated to this course of justice.

In the circumstances I felt bound to declare closed the proceedings herein and dismiss this charge with liberty to the Board to proceed with the matter in a court of the Board’s own choice.

The charge as it is before me is hereby dismissed 1st defendant is hereby discharged thereon but not on the merits.

2nd defendant is also hereby discharged thereon but not on the merits. ”

His Worship’s reason for making this particular order were stated in his affidavit as follows:

“14. That having been informed that the accused persons had been charged before the Federal Revenue Court in January 1974 and in view of the motion to prohibit me from hearing the matter, I honestly consider it proper to close the matter before me hence I struck it out on 5.2.74 so that the accused persons might not be put into the jeopardy of facing identical criminal charges in two separate courts.

  1. That at the time I struck out the case I have not received His Lordship’s order back from my head of department.”

We may now consider the nature and extent of the protection which section 74 (1) of the Magistrates’ Court (Lagos) Act (Cap. 113) gives. The section reads:

“No magistrate or Justice of Peace shall be liable for any act done by him or ordered by him to be done in the discharge of his judicial duty, whether or not within the limits of his jurisdiction, provided that he at the time, in good faith, believes himself to have jurisdiction to do or order to be done the act in question.”

Chief Williams submitted that the appellant should be given the protection afforded by the section and that it is for anyone alleging bad faith to prove it; Onitiri v. Ojomo 21 N.L.R. 19. We think that disobedience of an order of a superior court by an inferior court to which it is issued is not to be lightly regarded and may, in certain circumstances, amount to contempt of the court that issued the order. In the present case, however, in addition to the reasons given above by the Magistrate, there is the following portion of his ruling of November 11, 1974:

“Mr I. Sofola has addressed me on the question as what is a part heard matter-presumably in anticipation of the Amendment Decree No. 38 of 1973 on the question of pending matters before the regular courts.

He has argued very ingeniously well that these cases now before this court are part-heard cases and that this court will therefore, be seised of jurisdiction to try them.

Unfortunately, Mr Harris Eze did not reply to this submission.

Indeed it is a very novel point of law for which I am unable to provide an immediate answer. Perhaps the Board may want to consider the same point of law too.”

Again the appellant’s Further Affidavit made the following important assertion in paragraph 4 :

“That the normal practice in the Lagos State Magisterial service is that whenever a Magistrate is transferred from one Magisterial District to another Magisterial District, all his part-heard cases are transferred to his new post for him to complete. This practice became necessary to prevent part-heard matters being started DE NOVO by another Magistrate in view of the heavy congestion in the Lagos State Magistrate Courts.”

To this may be added these three paragraphs:

“14. That because I had submitted all the papers in this case to my Head of Department on 29th January, 1974 I was not aware on 6th February 1974 that this matter was to come up in this Honourable Court on that day.

  1. That since the appearance before this Honourable Court on 6th February, 1974 was meant to hear argument on why the Order Nisi should not be confirmed, and since I had been directed not to oppose the application for an order of Prohibition, I truly and sincerely believed that my Head of Department had made all necessary arrangement with the Lagos State Ministry of Justice for Counsel to appear and inform this Honourable Court that we are not opposing the Order Nisi being confirmed.
  2. That throughout the hearing of Charge No. B/161/73 before me, and throughout the time I was served with this Honourable Court’s Order Nisi in this matter, I acted in good faith without any intention to disobey this Honourable Court and in the honest belief that I was acting within the limits of my judicial functions. ”

This crucial averment was never contradicted by a counter-affidavit nor by other convincing evidence on the part of the prosecution, if we may so describe the other side. Moreover, the Magistrate’s complaint that the controversy as to when a case is part-heard was never answered by the prosecution although alleged by counsel for the accused. It is not enough to show by means of Legal Notices that there are Magisterial Districts within the Lagos State. It is necessary to give evidence of the mode of administering the magisterial districts, a matter which can only be established by calling upon the Chief Justice or the Chief Registrar to provide the appropriate evidence of what is done in practice. We may observe that, in a number of recent cases, of which Shobogun v. Sanni & Ors S.C. 314/1973 is one, we have had to pronounce on the subject of interzonal or inter-district transfers of magistrates from their courts to act as Acting Registrar of Titles for Temporary periods and to be sent back to their normal court duties thereafter. The learned judge is no doubt unaware of this practice within the Lagos High Court jurisdiction, and we will concede that anyone not familiar with this arrangement might think it odd, as no doubt the learned judge believed and also counsel for the respondent before us did, that the magistrate kept his record book with him throughout his postings from the Land Registry to the Igbosere Court and again to the Ikeja Court where he eventually disposed of the case as he did. In the light of this background, we do not consider it a case where the Magistrate could be fairly regarded as having clung to the case from any improper motive. It must be remembered that the appellant did produce a circular letter from the Chief Registrar showing evidence of such postings (See Ex. C referred to in para. 10 of the Affidavit of March 2, 1974). As for his striking out the case on February 5, 1974, while we do not think it right for him to have acted at all on that day, we are of the view that what he did do prematurely was what he would have been entitled to do at the proper time. We must note that the Magistrate merely struck out the case; he did not dismiss it by discharging and acquitting the accused persons, which would have been a very different matter altogether. We agree with Mr Nwazojie, learned counsel from the Federal Attorney General’s Office, that the Senior Magistrate should have kept adjourning the case until it could otherwise be disposed of, as by being taken over by the Federal Revenue Court. We think that the appellant was in error in acting somewhat hastily. But let us see the gravamen of the learned judge’s complaint on this score. He said:

“Despite this, the Senior Magistrate T.A.A. Awosanya on the 5th February, 1974 disobeyed this order, took action on the case by striking it out and thereby frustrating the effort of this court in hearing the Motion and making it difficult if not impossible to commence the criminal trial.”

This observation of the learned judge, which played no insignificant part in his judgment of the Magistrate’s action, would appear to have been based on misinformation or lack of information as to the true position of the two accused persons. It seems clear to us that, in the light of the evidence, they were available because they were released on bail on the orders of Belgore, J., himself who made the following ruling, inter alia, on March 5, 1974:

“I have heard enough of this case and I will send the criminal case to the President to re-assign it to another judge. The two defendants will be released on bail and they are to appear in Court before the President on Monday 11th. 1st defendant on N1, 000 with two sureties on the same amount.”

Accordingly, it was neither difficult nor impossible to commence the criminal trial of the two accused persons, as the learned judge had feared, in consequence of the Magistrate’s striking out the case on February 5, 1974.

Before we turn to a consideration of the complaint of procedural irregularity made by learned counsel for the appellant, we may say something about the possible distinction between civil and criminal contempt. To begin with, we find ourselves in agreement with the following observation of the learned judge:

“A clear-cut distinction may be hard to be drawn between a civil and a criminal contempt and it might not be useful to lay down any broad characteristics of either but each case must be considered on its facts. It is not only contempt committed in the face of the court that neither is criminal nor is every disobedience of court’s order a civil contempt. Civil contempt is usually though not necessarily employed to enforce a court’s order.”

And we also endorse the following subsequent comment of the learned judge.

“In other cases of disobedience of court’s order, there is nothing more to look for before conviction for the offence of contempt. But as laid down in the case of Burton cited by the counsel for Mr Awosanya, a judge of an inferior court will not be convicted for contempt for disregarding an order of a superior court unless the disobedience is willful and proceeds from improper motives. This principle enunciated in Burton’s case was considered in Burgh v. Blunt 88 E.R. 753; Ellish v. Johnson 79 E.R. 828 and Mungean v. Wheatley 1851 6 Ex. Ch. 88. The consensus of these decisions is that if a superior court’s order has been disobeyed by an inferior court one has to look whether the disobedience is willful and proceeds from improper motives.”

Where we disagree with the learned judge is as to the illustrations he gave and particularly as to the conclusion he reached that the contempt is criminal. It seems to us that the judge drew an inference of criminality of the magistrate’s action in striking out the case from the criminality of the charge against the two accused persons. An error of judgment on the Magistrate’s part whether as to jurisdiction or as to the precise order to make in the circumstances with which he was confronted can hardly be characterised as criminal, and no amount of argument as to a suspected improper motive would make it a criminal offence in itself. For as Lord Esher, M.R. , observed in Anderson v. Gorrie & Drs. [1895] 1 Q.B. 668, at pp. 670-671;

“No one can doubt that if any judge exercise his jurisdiction from malicious motives he has been guilty of a gross dereliction of duty; but the question that arises is what is to be done in such a case. By the common law of England it is the law that no such action will lie. The ground alleged from the earliest times as that on which this rule rests is that if such an action would lie the judges would lose their independence, and that the absolute freedom and independence of the judges is necessary for the administration of justice to my mind there is no doubt that the proposition is true to its fullest extent, that no action lies for acts done or words spoken by a judge in the exercise of his judicial office, although his motive is malicious and the acts or words are not done or spoken in the honest exercise of his office. ”

The Master of Rolls has also observed, inter alia, as follows:

“Crompton, J., in Fray v. Blackburn 122 E.R. 217 said: ‘It is a principle of our law that no action will lie against a judge of one of the superior courts for a judicial act, though it be alleged to have been done maliciously and corruptly

The public are deeply interested in this rule, which indeed exists for their benefit, and was established in order to secure the independence of the judges, and prevent their being harassed by vexatious actions’.”

If a judge is thus immune from legal action by a private citizen who had been committed for contempt of court in the case just cite, he should be similarly immune from any punitive action by a judge of a superior court. After all, the same protection is afforded to judges as to magistrates (see S. 83 ofthe High Court of Lagos Act).

Now, assuming that the appellant has committed a contempt of the Federal Revenue Court, what is the proper procedure of dealing with such a case It is settled law that the contemptnor is to be brought to trial by an order of attachment by way of a warrant for committal: 0.5, r. 18 (2) (b) of the High Court of Lagos Civil Procedure Rules which, by reference to 0.52, r. 1 (2) (2) of the English Supreme Court Rules (see White Book, 1972, Vol. 1, also O. 52, r. 5), governs cases of contempt consisting of any disobedience of a court order. In the present case, however, the judge ordered a Criminal Summons to be issued against the Magistrate, using Criminal Form 4, but otherwise failing to comply with the Criminal Procedure Act, which prescribes certain formalities to be observed. He, no doubt, caused to be attached to the Criminal Summons a so-called summary of facts leading to the decision to arrest the Magistrate, although there is no warrant for such a procedure in law. The Criminal Summons is, however, defective in that it nowhere requires the accused “to show cause why he should not be punished for contempt”. That is left to be gathered only from the order, which learned counsel for the appellant strenuously denied having been served upon the appellant. The judge, when this double irregularity was pointed out to him at the trial as also Mr Nwazojie, learned counsel appearing on behalf of the Federal Attorney-General, replied that the presence of the accused in court in answer to the criminal summons must be deemed to have cured any procedural irregularity. The learned judge said:

“If issuing criminal summons to secure attendance of Mr Awosanya was a procedural irregularity, which I do not hold it was, that irregularity was cured by his attendance and it did not go to the merit of the actual case of contempt. He was given ample opportunity to know the complaint against him by having a summary of the case attached to the summons.”

Mr Nwazojie invited us to exercise our discretion under section 26 (1) of our Supreme Court Act, 1960 which reads:

“The Supreme Court on any appeal against conviction under this Part shall allow the appeal if it thinks that the verdict should be set aside on the ground that it is unreasonable or cannot be supported having regard to the evidence, or that the judgment of the court before which the appellant was convicted should be set aside on the ground of a wrong decision on any question of law or that on any ground there was a miscarriage of justice in any other case, subject to the provisions of subsection (3) of this section and section 27 dismiss the appeal:

Provided that the Court may, notwithstanding that it is of opinion that the point raised in the appeal might be decided in favour of the appellant, dismiss the appeal if it considers that no substantial miscarriage of justice has actually occurred.”

We are of the opinion, however, that, although section 22 (10) proviso of the Constitution of the Federation 1963, makes it unnecessary to frame a charge stipulating a penalty in cases of contempt, the irregularity so as to make it doubtful whether he had had a fair trial before the learned judge. While we do not necessarily subscribe to the view, as urged by the learned counsel for the appellant, that the judge himself should not have dealt with the case, we think the appellant had not been made fully aware of the actual case he had to meet through the employment of the Criminal Summons, the attachment notwithstanding.

There are two types of contempt-that committed ex facie curiae and that not so committed. In the case of the first type of contempt, the trial is summary and no plea need be taken; in the case of the second type, like the present one, a charge and a plea are necessary and the contemptnor is entitled to a fair hearing of the case against him. We recall the following observation in Boyo v. Attorney-General of MidWest (1971) 1 All N.L.R. 342 at page 352:

“Whether the contempt is in the face of the court or not in the face of the court, it is important that it should be borne in mind by judges that the court should use its summary powers to punish for contempt sparingly. It is important to emphasize the fact that judges should not display undue degree of sensitiveness about this matter of contempt and they must act with restraint on these occasions.”

We think that there is force in the contention of Mr Nwazojie that whatever explanation the appellant might have given was prevented by the instruction of his counsel that he should refuse to answer any questions put to him in court. We are also of the view that summoned, as he was to answer to an irregular charge, the appellant took the lesser risk by refusing to answer any questions. The judge should, we think, have adjourned the matter at that stage to enable him to ensure that a proper procedure was adopted.

Nwazojie, learned counsel from the Federal Attorney-General’s Chambers, also urged it upon us that the irregularity might be cured if we exercised the discretion granted to us in section 101 of the Criminal Procedure Act. The section provides:

“When any accused person is before a magistrate whether voluntarily, or upon summons, or after being apprehended with or without warrant, or while in custody for the same or any other offence, the preliminary inquiry or trial may be held notwithstanding any irregularity, illegality, defect, or error in the summons or warrant, or the issuing, service, or execution of the same, and notwithstanding the want of any complaint upon oath, and notwithstanding any defect in the complaint, or any irregularity or illegality in the arrest or custody of the accused person. ”

He further submitted that a distinction must be drawn between section 6 of the Criminal Code Act and section 133 of the Criminal Code. Section 6 of the Criminal Code Act provides:

“Nothing in this Ordinance or in the code shall affect the authority of courts of record to punish a person summarily for the offence commonly known as contempt of court; but so that a person cannot be so punished and also punished under the provisions of the code for the same act or omission.”

Section 133 of the Criminal Code reads: “Any person who

(1) Within the premises in which any judicial proceeding is being had or taken, or within the precincts of the same, shows disrespect, in speech or manner, to or with reference to such proceeding, or any person before whom such proceeding is being had or taken: or

(2) Having been called upon to give evidence in a judicial proceeding, fails to attend or, having attended, refuses to be sworn or affirmed, refuses without lawful excuse to answer a question, or to produce a document, or prevaricates, or remains in the room in which such proceeding is being had or taken, after the witnesses have been ordered to leave such room; or

(3) Causes an obstruction or disturbance in the course of a judicial proceeding; or

(4) While a judicial proceeding is pending, makes use of any speech or writing, misrepresenting such proceeding, or capable of prejudicing any person in favour of or against any party to such proceeding, or calculated to lower the authority of any person before whom such proceeding is being had or taken; or

(5) Publishes a report of the evidence taken in any judicial proceeding which has been directed to be held in private; or

(6) Attempts wrongfully to interfere with or influence a witness in a judicial proceeding, either before or after he has given evidence, in connection with such evidence; or

(7) Dismisses a servant because he has given evidence on behalf of a certain party to a judicial proceeding; or

(8) Retakes possession of land from any person who has recently obtained possession by a writ of court; or

(9) Commits any other act of intentional disrespect to any judicial proceeding, or to any person before whom such proceeding is being had or taken, is guilty of a simple offence and, liable to imprisonment for three months. ”

Mr Nwazojie maintained that in relation to section 133 of the Criminal Code, the procedural processes must be followed as contended by learned counsel for the appellant, but that, in relation to section 6 of the Criminal Code Act, the procedure need not be followed. He saw a direct relation between section 6 of the Act and section 22 (10) of the Constitution proviso in that the latter clarifies the former, making it sufficient under section 6 of the Act to adopt a summary procedure and to call no witnesses. He cited Boyo v. Attorney General, Mid-West, (1971) 1 All N.L.R. 342, at p. 353-4, where the following passage occurs:

“These observations to which we have referred, to our mind, apply both in cases of contempt in the face of the court and also in cases not in the face of the court, although in the first case, generally, the contempt cannot be dealt with efficiently except immediately and by the very judicial officer in whose presence the offence was committed. In cases of contempt not in the face of the court, there may be cases where the offence should be dealt with summarily, but such hearing must be conducted in accordance with cardinal principles of fair process ; and the case must be one in which the facts surrounding the alleged contempt are so notorious as to be virtually incontestable.

We are constrained to point out that this passage, while reciting the summary nature of the procedure, does not preclude the necessity of a fair trial. A procedure may be summary, but it must not be unfair by omitting to observe all the necessary procedural requirements of a fair hearing. Learned counsel also referred to two cases, R. v. Jackson (1925) 6 N.L.R. 44 and R. v. Ojukoku (1926) 7 N.L.R. 60 in support of his submission that procedures should be summary. We note, however, that in both cases, a Solicitor-General in one and an Attorney-General in the other, intervened to initiate the proceedings but that that was not the case in the instant case where after the first few appearances of the Law Officers, their participation was of their own motion withdrawn. It is no argument to say, as Mr Nwazojie relied, that no such participation can have taken place in the present case because “the contempt was so obvious as to be virtually incontestable”.

We consider it a matter for regret that the learned judge did not allow the whole contempt proceedings to have been initiated at the instance of the Attorney General or by the Board of Customs & Excise. Although the Criminal Summons mentions that the Board had laid a complaint against the appellant, it is nevertheless the case that no such complaint had in fact been laid as required by law. If proper consideration had been given to the matter at that stage, the learned judge might have had present to his mind that he should not assume the task of himself drafting the charge as if he were exercising the power expressly granted to his counterparts under the Penal Procedure Code, 1959, of the Northern States of Nigeria. There is no similar power given under the Criminal Procedure Act.

Mr Ilori, Deputy Solicitor-General of Lagos State, rose to announce his appearance in this appeal and conceded that it was an error on the part of the Attorney-General of Lagos State to have withdrawn from the case as he did, since there was no justification for their regarding the matter as a criminal case against the Senior Magistrate. He submitted that the Lagos Attorney-General is not supporting the conviction because section 9 of the Federal Revenue Court Decree 1973 and 0.53, r. 18 of the High Court of Lagos Civil Procedure Rules had not been followed by the learned judge in dealing with the appellant in his court. He contended further that, even in exercise of its criminal jurisdiction, section 32 (1) of the Federal Revenue Court Decree requires the Court to follow the Criminal Procedure Act. Learned counsel finally referred to In re Boyo (1971) 1 All N.L.R. 342 in support of his submission that not every disobedience of a court order constitutes contempt of the court that issued the order. The relevant passage reads as follows:

“This appeal arose out of a case of contempt of court taken summarily suo moto by Atake, J. of the High Court of the Midwestern State. The contempt nor Mr Boyo is a legal practitioner residing in Benin City and was concerned in a case before the learned judge. It would appear that a considerable amount of money was involved in the case and on the 17th March, 1969 in Appeal No. SC. 21/69 the Supreme Court directed that a sum of 27,416Pounds.13.4 Pounds be paid out to Mr Boyo’s clients (the Ugborodo people) and that the balance of 13,708Pounds.6.8d do remain in the High Court, Warri, pending the determination of another appeal in the Supreme Court.

This order of the Supreme Court was served on the High Court Registrar, Warri, who paid out the sum of 27,416Pounds.13.4d as directed. On 22nd October, 1969, in another suit pending before Atake, J., he ordered that the sum of 13,708Pounds.6.8d be paid out to the adversary of Ugborodo people, Mr Boyo’s clients. According to Mr Boyo, he sought an interview with Atake, J., and pointed out to him that his order would appear to be in breach of the Supreme Court Order; he stated that nevertheless Atake, J., said that his order must be carried out despite the order made by the Supreme Court. ”

It is obvious from this passage that, although the Supreme Court was aware that Atake, J., in the Warri High Court had disobeyed its own earlier order, it did not stop there to hold in contempt that judge who in the case in hand had purported to convict a lawyer of contempt of his own court. This is useful as a general guide that the courts should not over-react and should be slow in holding persons for contempt, especially if it is of the nature of a technical contempt. No hard and fast rule can be laid down for all purposes and every occasion. A technical disobedience of the order of a court, such as has taken place in the present case, should not be too seriously regarded by the courts.

In the recent case of Sirros v. Moore [1974] 3 W.L.R. 459, Lord Denning said this at p. 460:

“In the old days, as I have said, there was a sharp distinction between the inferior courts and the superior courts. Whatever may have been the reason for this distinction, it is no longer valid. There has been no case on the subject for the last one hundred years at least. And during this time our judicial system has changed out of all knowledge. So great is this change that it is now appropriate for us to reconsider the principles, which should be applied to judicial acts. In this new age I would take my stand on this: as a matter of principle the judges of superior courts have no greater claim to immunity than the judges of the lower courts. Every judge of the courts of this land-from the highest to the lowest- should be protected to the same degree, and liable to the same degree. If the reason underlying this immunity is to ensure ‘that they may be free in thought and independent in judgment’, it applies to every judge, what ever his rank. Each should be protected from liability to damages when he is acting judicially. Each should be able to do his work in complete independence and free from fear. He should not have to turn the pages of his books with trembling fingers, asking himself: ‘If I do this, shall I be liable in damages’ So long as he does his work in the honest belief that it is within his jurisdiction, then he is not liable to an action. He may be mistaken in fact. He may be ignorant in law. What he does may be outside his jurisdiction-in fact or in law-but so long as he honestly believes it to be within his jurisdiction, he should not be liable. Once he honestly entertains this belief, nothing else will make him liable. He is not to be plagued with allegation of malice or ill will or bias or anything of the kind. Actions based on such allegations have been struck out and will continue to be struck out.”

We have, therefore, come to the conclusion that there had been disrespect, not contempt in law, shown to the learned judge by the Senior Magistrate by striking out the case before him instead of adjourning it, as he should have done. What he did prematurely he would have had to do eventually when the prohibition order nisi would have been made absolute. We also consider that his dealing with the case at various stages had been consistent with the established practice of magistrates within the Lagos State under the general instructions of the Chief Justice of the State.

We think also that there was sufficient room for the exercise of his discretion during the twilight period of determining which matters are part-heard and which are pending before magistrate’s courts so as to know whether a particular case should be tried in the then newly established Federal Revenue Court. We are clearly of the opinion that this, as a case of unintentional disobedience of a court order by the appellant, is a civil matter and should have been dealt with as such, a view apparently shared by Mr Nwazojie, learned counsel from the Federal Attorney-General’s Chambers, who strongly relied, inter alia, on the Lagos State High Court Civil Procedure Order 53, r. 18 (2) (b) while contending that it is a criminal matter. It seems to us that, considered even as a case of criminal contempt, the proper procedure has not been followed in this case and that the appellant cannot be said to have had a fair trial.

For these and other reasons, which we have given above, we do not think that the action of the appellant Senior Magistrate, though blameworthy, constituted any contempt of the Federal Revenue Court. We are clearly of the view that even assuming that he had committed a criminal contempt; he had not had a fair trial. Indeed, in view of the irregularities, which we have pointed out above, the whole trial is a nullity and so also is the conviction based on it. The appeal is therefore allowed, and the conviction of the appellant by Belgore, J., in the Federal Revenue Court in Charge No. FRC/L/2C/74 delivered on April 8, 1974, is hereby set aside. The appellant is acquitted and discharged.

Other Citation: (1975) LCN/2089(SC)

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