A lawyer, Peter Nwabunike Eze, has written a petition to the chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC), a body that disciplines errant judges, accusing the Judge Chief of Enugu State, I.A. , of various acts of misconduct and abuse of office.
In the petition, the Abuja-based lawyer detailed several instances where Justice Umezulike demonstrated abuse of office by assigning to himself cases where he had a manifest conflict of interest.
Dated February 19, 2016, Mr. Eze’s petition drew attention to two previous complaints, dated October and December 2014, which he had addressed to the NJC on Justice Umezulike’s misconduct. He remarked that he was taken aback when the disciplinary body wrote him back to the effect that the Chief Judge had offered a satisfactory explanation on the allegations against him.
The petitioner accused Justice Umezulike and some senior staff of the Enugu State judiciary of acting vindictively towards him and his clients after he questioned the judge’s acceptance of a donation of N10 million from a man who was a party in a case before the judge. Mr. Eze disclosed that the donation was accepted at a public launch of a book written by the judge.
Mr. Eze told the NJC that Justice Umezulike had flouted the council’s directive to transfer several cases in which the petitioner or lawyers from his practice are representing clients.
Referring to his previous petitions, Mr. Eze stated that he “made very grave allegations of judicial misconduct against Hon. Justice Umezulike, particularly accepting a gift of N10,000,000 from a litigant who was a Plaintiff in a highly contentious matter before him, and also [altering] a court order, for the purposes of assisting a judgment creditor to gain possession of a parcel of land in dispute.”
Mr. Eze stated that Justice Umezulike had refused or failed to comply with the NJC’s directive to transfer to other judges any cases in which the petitioner or his law firm appears for one of the parties. The petition cited one case, Federal Republic of Nigeria versus Professor Martin Aghaji, which was only transferred to Justice R.O. Odugu in December 2015. However, after the petitioner advised his client, Mr. Aghaji, to retain a new lawyer, Chuma Oguejiofor, Justice Uwazulike re-assigned the case to himself. In the latest petition, Mr. Eze disclosed that Mr. Oguejiofor had appeared as counsel for Justice Umezulike in a suit the petitioner had instituted against the judge. “I understand that once I was out of the picture, in defiance of the NJC’s order, Hon. Justice Umezulike transferred the matter back to his court and called it up on 16/2/2016,” Mr. Eze stated.
The petition also buttressed Justice Umezulike’s misconduct by citing the judge’s handling of a lawsuit between one George Ajogwu, who alleged that he had been seriously sickened after drinking a bottle of Sprite that contained a slimy substance. Mr. Eze, who represented the defendants, the Nigerian Bottling Company Plc., told the NJC that his fears about Justice Umezulike’s bias “came to light” in the suit between Ajogwu and Nigerian Bottling Co. Plc. He stated that the plaintiff’s claim that the Sprite “turned him into a vegetable and also caused him to lose three years in the University” was not validated by any laboratory tests of the “on the contents of the bottle of Sprite nor did the Plaintiff tender any laboratory test results of his blood, stool or stomach contents.” Even so, he stated that Justice Uwazulike awarded questionable costs against his clients and, in a final judgment delivered on March 9, 2015, “awarded the Plaintiff N50 million general damages stating that there was no need for a laboratory test of the contents of the Bottle of Sprite to be carried out.” He added that the Chief Judge contrived to enable the plaintiff to commence “garnishee proceedings” even though the Nigerian Bottling Company Plc. had filed both a motion for stay of execution and an appeal against Justice Uwazulike’s verdict at the Court of Appeal. The petitioner stated that the garnishee proceedings were eventually struck out, but again with costs of N50,000 against his client. “No explanation was given for this judicial anomaly where a court struck out a plaintiff’s application, and still awarded punitive costs against the defendant,” Mr. Eze stated.
The petition against Justice Uwazulike also accused the judge of ordering Mr. Eze’s arrest in a dispute that arose over the will he had had prepared for a deceased client, Anosike Paul Chidebe Iloabachie. According to Mr. Eze, a lawsuit filed by a member of his client’s family before one Justice Okereke was curiously transferred to Justice Umezulike’s court. He said that the counsel representing the widow of the deceased filed an ex parte application for an order that he appear in court “to be examined as a person said to be in possession of the last will of the deceased.” Even though the plaintiff counsel subsequently filed a notice to discontinue the case on March 4, 2015, Justice Umezulike ruled that “there had been no valid discontinuance of the suit and stated that the Plaintiff must proceed with the suit.” The plaintiff appealed against the order and filed a motion to stay proceedings pending the appeal. On his part, Mr. Eze retained a lawyer to “apply to set aside the order summoning me to court.” Not only did Justice Umezulike deny the motion, he “ordered the Commissioner of Police, Enugu State, to arrest me and produce me in court on the next adjourned date.”
In his petition, Mr. Eze stated that the judge’s order was “in bad faith and was a gross abuse of judicial power and my fundamental rights,” adding that it was “meant to intimidate me and cower me for complaining about the earlier misconduct of Justice Umezulike.” He noted that, even if Justice Umezulike’s dismissal of his motion was right, the recourse should have been to give him a new date on which to appear in court instead of ordering his arrest. According to him, he had to flee abroad as police began “invading my house and office to arrest me.”
He stated that, even after his lawyer filed an appeal on his behalf and sought a motion for stay of the order, Justice Umezulike “ignored the processes and reiterated his order that the police should arrest me.” The petitioner disclosed that he had to file a suit at the Federal High Court, Enugu against Justice Umezulike and the Commissioner of Police, Enugu State, in order to enforce his fundamental rights. He said that, even after he had obtained an interim injunction from the Federal High Court, “Justice Umezulike insisted that I must be arrested, and it was only the intervention of well meaning persons that have kept Hon. Justice Umezulike from arresting me.” He disclosed that the case was still pending before Justice Umezulike, adjourned to March 13, 2016.
Mr. Eze’s petition also cited a case in which he represented Diamond Bank, the defendant. After Justice R.N. Onuorah of the Enugu High Court had entered a judgment against the Bank and another defendant for over N500 million, Mr. Eze applied on behalf of the bank have the judgment set aside for being procedurally defective. When Justice Onuorah denied the application, Mr. Eze appealed the refusal and demanded that the case be assigned to a new judge. Justice Onuorah granted the application and sent the matter to Justice Umezulike for assignment to a new court.
Instead, Justice Uwazulike not only assigned the case to himself, he rejected the bank’s application that the matter be “transferred to another court on the grounds of a likelihood of bias on his part.” In dismissing the bank’s motion asking him to recuse himself, Justice Umezulike on January 21, 2016 imposed costs of N50,000 on Diamond Bank and adjourned the case to January 27, 2016 for hearing. .
Mr. Eze accused the Chief Judge of using a series of judicial maneuvers to frustrate his client’s ability to appeal Justice Uwazulike’s verdict within requisite deadlines.
According to Mr. Eze, Justice Uwazulike did not only disregard his client’s application for more time, he also “went ahead to read his ruling and refused the application for leave to appeal and awarded costs of N100,000 against the Bank and once against adjourned to 16thFebruary 2016 for hearing.”
The petitioner wrote: “On 16th February 2016, when the matter was called up, counsel from my office representing Diamond Bank Plc., informed Hon. Justice Umezulike about the motion pending in the Court of Appeal. The court insisted on going on with the suit and permitted the Plaintiff to call a witness, tender documents and thereafter adjourned the matter for address to 26th February 2016. Counsel from my office of course refused to participate in the matter.”
Mr. Eze reminded the NJC that the counsel for the plaintiff in the case, Mr. Chuma Oguejiofor, “is the same counsel who appeared and represented Hon. Justice Umezulike in the suit I filed against Hon. Justice Umezulike in the Federal High Court, Enugu.”
Mr. Eze insisted that Justice Uwazulike should recuse himself from the three cases involving Diamond Bank Plc. pending before his court, adding that the costs the judge awarded against the bank “were punitive and were not a proper exercise of judicial discretion.” He added: “It is wrong for Hon. Justice Umezulike to insist on hearing a suit in which counsel who has represented him as his lawyer in a suit I filed against him personally, is also counsel for the Plaintiff.” He also stated that, given “the previous and existing issues I have had with Hon. Justice Umezulike, it ought to be clear that it will be difficult for Diamond Bank to obtain a fair hearing before his court.”
The petition also informed the NJC that staff of the Enugu State High Court Registry have been discriminating against him and other lawyers who practice with him. He stated that, “I have had problems filing processes in the registry of the High Court Enugu. While the processes clerks can assess and deal with processes filed by other lawyers, processes from my office must be dealt with and assessed only by the Director of Civil Litigation, Mr. Vin Aneke.
“Once Mr. Aneke is not in the office we cannot file processes and most times we have to wait for hours before he comes.” He said he had been informed “by the former Chief Registrar of the court, Mr. Ekoh, and the Process Registrars, Mr. Benson and Mrs. Ebere, that this instruction was given by Hon. Justice Umezulike. We have written several letters to the Chief Registrar and Hon. Justice Umezulike complaining about this discriminatory practice but till date it has continued.”