The Friday proceedings of the Lagos Judicial Panel of Inquiry took a rowdy turn with several exchanges of words, screaming and shouting between the counsels to the police and petitioners.
The proceedings, which started on a calm note with a witness testifying before the panel in a case, became rowdy when it was time for cross-examination of a witness in the next case.
“Mr Ogungbeje, take your seat. Mr Ejiafor, take your seat. Counsel conduct yourselves before the panel,” Dorris Okuwobi, the chairperson of the panel, cautioned the lawyers at different occasions.
Despite the cautions, Olukoya Ogungbeje and Cyril Ejiafor, the counsels to the petitioner and police respectively, kept exchanging words and interrupting each other, leaving the audience reeling with laughter.
The retired judge expressed displeasure at the conduct of the counsels and their public “show” at the hearing, saying it is a misrepresentation of what the Nigerian legal system stands for.
Around 12 noon, the panel continued the hearing of Basil Chetal’s case, a 54-year-old man allegedly tortured by the police, after which he developed a brain tumour and passed away two weeks ago.
Mr Ejiafor, who represented the police in the matter, said the counsel that started the cross-examination was absent. He later sought an adjournment, and concluded that the “petition is pregnant” and needs to deliver the baby to help the investigation.
He sought an adjournment to enable the petition ‘deliver the baby’ and the police further investigate.
Responding to the application, Mr Ogungbeje, the counsel to the respondent said the panel should discountenance the application for adjournment.
“Your lordship graciously adjourned for further cross examination by the respondent. It appears the respondent has no valid response to the petition of the petitioner,” he said.
“My Lord, we shall be filing objection to that statement, we will urge my learned friend to withdraw that, we have stated a reason,” Mr Ejiafor said, raising his voice.
“My Lord, my Lord…..” Mr Ogungbeje cuts him.
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“You don’t use that language in the Bar” Mr Ejiafor continued.
At this time, both counsels were shouting at the same time, giving no room for the audience nor listening to the chairperson.
“Mr Ejiafor, would you please let him (Mr Ogungbeje) speak?” Mrs Okuwobi finally said to the counsel.
“My learned friend first of all said the counsel that ought to take the question is not here, then asked for an adjournment, and thirdly said the petition is pregnant, I submit to the respect that the baby has been born.
“This is medicine after death, I urge to them close their case. My Lord had already said, which I concur, that the panel has no time, I urge your lordship to uphold that principle across board. I will apply that their case be closed, the witness discharged,” Mr Ogungbeje said.
The judge ruled that the police counsel either proceed with cross-examination or have the case closed.
Further drama arose after the counsel to the panel, Jonathan Ogunsanya, intervened that the matter already had a judgement of the Federal High Court and saying the petition was pregnant was without basis.
Mr Ejiafor however advised the counsel to petitioner to approach the sheriff and begin a garnishee process.
“I will be objecting,” Mr Ogungbeju interrupted.
“I am addressing the panel, Ogungbeje”
“Don’t mislead the panel,” he responded.
“I am addressing the panel, you are a junior counsel to me, when a senior person is talking, you sit down,” the police counsel screamed.
“Who are you calling junior counsel? My lord, this is a cross-examination,” Mr Ogungbeje also responded at the top of his voice.
“Will the counsels conduct themselves before the panel?” the judge intervened.
“My Lord, as the court pleases. As a senior colleague, he should sit down, I am addressing the panel not him,” both continued shouting at each other.
“This is not a marketplace, counsels. Conduct yourselves before the panel. Mr Ogungbeje, would you please sit down,” Mrs Okuwobi.
“There is a ruling, my learned friend wants to tie the hands of this panel. My learned friend should know better that my lord has given a ruling, go ahead with cross examination or your case will be closed.
“My Lord, I don’t want to belittle my learned friend here, but I want him to withdraw that statement, who is your junior counsel here? Which matter have you done? “ Mr Ogungbeje continued, creating another scene.
Muhammed Sanni, a representative of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), who apologised for the conduct of his colleagues, said the NBA admires the way the panel has been carrying out its duties in the midst of temptations to derail.
He also admonished his colleagues that proceedings at the panel are different from that of a normal court.
“They are beamed sometimes live all over the world and whatever impression is got in terms of the way we conduct ourselves here will be taken as the way lawyers do things.
“First is the fact that at all times, whatever our views are, are subject to that of the panel. You can only put your views across and can only pray it will be taken as what the panel will rule in your favour.”
“These cases are not our cases, we are mere counsel in these cases. They are the petitioners’ cases, we should not cry more than the bereaved. Once a counsel puts emotions in what he does, he would have failed and lost focus and will not be good for the conduct of the case,” Mr Sanni.
Speaking on the conduct of the counsel, Mrs Okuwobi said the quality of legal practice in Nigeria is being jeopardised.
“These things we are taking for granted are not matters to laugh about, they are not laughable matters.
“The seriousness and the conduct here, quality of legal practice in Nigeria is being jeopardised by these shows that have been put up before the panel today. And I am not enjoying any bit of it.
“We have sat in this panel for more than six weeks and it has not been this bad. Please, let us project the image of the Nigerian bar well and not make it a customary court or place of entertainment. Let us mind the ethics of our profession and defend it at the greatest helm we can.
“Please, I do not expect this to happen at further proceedings,” she cautioned.