Law News
Lawyers groan as judiciary workers’ strike persists
Ipaye and Adamu

The ongoing strike by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria is exactly two weeks old. The union’s national president, Marwan Adamu, has vowed that it will last for as long as the 36 states of the federation refused to comply with the Federal High Court judgment upholding the financial autonomy of the Judiciary.

The judgment was delivered by Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja on January 13, 2014.

Though the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Anyim Pius Anyim, has stepped in by convening a fresh meeting of the parties slated to hold today, after several previous meetings had failed to resolve the crisis, it still however appears that the impasse may still be a long way from passing.

This much could be inferred from the disclosure made by the Lagos State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr. Ade Ipaye, that Lagos State had since September last year filed an appeal against the said judgment, which JUSUN has been trying to enforce through an industrial action.

“I can tell you that we are on appeal. We have filed an appeal against the judgment. We filed the appeal in September. We are awaiting the court but now there are no courts and we know that the appeal cannot be heard. It is in abeyance. That is the dilemma that we have found ourselves in,” Ipaye had, on Friday, told journalists in Lagos.

Since the beginning of this year, the reality is that the nation’s justice sector has been under restraints as the magistrates and judges have been shut out of their courts and chambers, and legal practitioners and litigants could not approach them to seek any form of judicial redress.

Fourteen days after the strike began, the effects of this denial, not only to lawyers and litigants but to every other user of the court, are clearly biting harder and some who had hitherto kept mum over the development have now begun to speak up.

Lawyers particularly, whose trade is basically plied in the courtroom, but who have been forced to go on a holiday, are no longer finding the ongoing strike tolerable.

For example, the chairmen of the four branches of the Nigerian Bar Association in Lagos State met with the Lagos Attorney General on Friday to unanimously call for a quick and amicable resolution of the impasse.

The Chairman of the NBA, Badagry branch, Mr. Chris Okoye, said, “We are appealing to the parties. We are directly affected. For them, after this strike, they would get their salaries but for us, we are losing our clients, who are now resorting to one form of self-help or the other. They should please call off this strike.”

It was also not surprising that earlier on Thursday last week during the 11th edition of the Gani Fawehinmi Annual Lecture in Lagos, the issue of the striking workers did not escape mention.

Apart from its economic implications on the legal practitioners, observers have also noted that the ongoing strike has given vent to many incidents of constitutional and human rights breaches especially in cases of awaiting trial inmates and suspects seeking bail.

Some of the lawyers, who mounted the podium at the Fawehinmi Annual Lecture, apparently to lend their own voices to the praise of late Fawehinmi, a man who till his death battled social injustice, could not but spare some time to comment on the JUSUN strike.

Leading the pack was the Lagos State Attorney General himself, who lamented that the strike had been visiting untold hardships not only on legal practitioners but also on litigants and business owners.

He said, “We are today celebrating Gani Fawehinmi and we know that he was able to make the impact that he made in the defence of the generality of Nigerians by always resorting to the court of the land…our courts have never been perfect but we have always believed in them as the last hope of the common man. But today, all of our courts, from the magistrates’ to the Supreme Court, are shut down and it does not appear that the implication of this action is well absorbed by Nigerians.

“Of course, we are affected as legal practitioners, because that is where we work and our offices have been shut down, but it goes far beyond that. Right now, as we speak, there are people in detention, who though presumed innocent because they have not been tried in the court of law and have not been found guilty of any offence, but yet they are now locked up. That is a terrible state.”

Speaking earlier with our correspondent on Wednesday last week, a Lagos-based lawyer, Mr. Terry Badmus, had captured the nature of hardships, that the strike had been causing awaiting trial suspects.

Badmus said, “Some were waiting for the Directorate of Public Prosecution’s advice, not knowing where the pendulum would swing, their cases were hanging in the balance but they were caught in this strike. And right now, even if they report, the court is not on, so they have been left to languish in custody, already suffering, serving a jail term, whereas they have not been convicted.

“There are also some whose offences are misdemeanor and who should ordinarily not stay in detention for more than two days but unfortunately since they were caught in the strike, they are now spending weeks.”

But Ipaye had opened another vista to the development when he noted that the use of strike to enforce a judgment of a court of law, as it was being done by JUSUN, was an approach novel to the Nigerian justice sector and a trend which ought to worry Nigerians.

Tracing the history of industrial actions to factory workers, Ipaye said the JUSUN strike was not in the spirit of what an industrial action was designed to achieve because the masses and not their employer were bearing the brunt of the strike.

“But when you bring this concept (industrial action) into public service, with judicial workers going on strike, who is going to suffer? It is the poor victims or the accused persons awaiting trial; it is the poor litigants trying to fight for their rights, who have been in court for so many years without result, now they have no hope,” Ipaye said on Thursday.

According to him, a situation where all the courts in the country were shut down was a signal that the nation was not well. Ipaye said such a situation could set the tone for a lawless society where there was no respect for the rule of law. He also noted that JUSUN might as well be setting a dangerous precedence in the nation by trying to enforce a judgment of court through an industrial action.

He said, “When you talk of a failed state and you want to look at the symptoms, the absence of a judiciary system must be at the top of the list. As we speak, you cannot even say there is an urgent matter and you want to approach the court to get an order. There is total absence of justice in the land.

“When judicial workers lock out our judges, I think that this is a dangerous precedence. Not only have they chosen not to go to work but they have also locked the gates to the courts, so that the judges themselves cannot function.”

The Chairman of the NBA, Ikeja branch, Mr. Yinka Farounbi, while calling on the parties to resolve the crisis quickly, had equally expressed the fear that the continued closure of the courts could lead to a breakdown of order in the society.

Farounbi said, “We are in a country where impunity is becoming the order of the day and that is why we can only urge them to go back to the drawing board and resolve the issues because the implication of this is that if I have a judgment, I might say I want to enforce it by hiring thugs and this would not augur well for us. A society without the rule of law, without orderliness is a society set for doom.”

Another angle to the debates on the ongoing strike is whether it was appropriate for the judicial workers to shut the courts gates while their strike to fight for the independence of the judiciary lasted.

Earlier on January 5, when the strike commenced, one of the lawyers, who came to the Lagos State High Court in Ikeja to ply his trade but was denied entrance by the striking judicial workers had, out of frustration, questioned the authority on which the court was shut when JUSUN did not have the exclusive right over the building, which is a property of Lagos State.

The lawyer, who declined to have his name in print, had said, “I know about labour and I subscribe to it, but I am saying that under no law can JUSUN lock up this premises. They are a union with members and they should be able to agree and say we don’t want to work. This premises belongs to the Lagos State Government. There are others who also have the right to this place too and to that extent, I am saying that this building does not belong to their union.”

However, when confronted with this view, the Chairman, Lagos State Branch of JUSUN, Emmanuel Abioye, had expressed dismay that a legal practitioner, who ought to be at the forefront of the fight for the judiciary autonomy, was questioning the closure of the court to enforce same.

Abioye said that there was nothing illegal in shutting down the gates.

“Well, that is their thinking and they are entitled to their thinking. But a lawyer who is called to Bar in Nigeria ought to be a part of the judiciary. This ought to be their workshop and this is not a struggle for the judicial workers alone because when we are talking about the independence of the judiciary, the lawyers are also beneficiaries. Of course if the judiciary is financially independent, you will have confidence as a lawyer that when you come to court, you will get justice,” Abioye pointed out.

But Ipaye expressed the fear that the consequences of the JUSUN strike would outlast the crisis itself as it would have gone into the nation’s record that workers in the justice sector could at will paralyse the system giving rise to a state of lawlessness.

According to him, this consequence has the potential of scaring off foreign investors seeking to do business in the country because every businessman would want a speedy resolution of any dispute, which cannot but crop up in the course of transacting business.

But one thing is clear: Legal practitioners are tired of the strike and are seeking immediate reopening of the courts.

Representing all the lawyers in Lagos State, under the umbrella of the NBA, Mr. Alex Muoka of the Lagos branch, Farounbi of Ikeja branch, Mr. Adedotun Adetunji of Ikorodu branch and Okoye of the Badagry branch had after meeting with Ipaye on Friday issued a communique.

The Lagos NBA observed that: “The strike action in this case has caused untold hardship to ordinary Nigerians, who are deprived of their freedom without trial and without any opportunity to apply for bail.

“It has also deprived the legal practitioners of their legitimate means of livelihood.

“In a very disturbing way, this situation signals the impotence of the Nigerian justice system and constitutes a clear inducement to impunity. We fear that the breakdown of law and order is the logical result, especially when we are within a few days to the general elections.

“It has also made other fundamental rights enforcement settlement of disputes (matrimonial, family, taxation e.t.c.) impossible, thereby shutting down all justice infrastructure provided by law in Nigeria.

“We support the autonomy of the judiciary and direct deduction or remittance of monies budgeted for the judiciary in the Consolidated Revenue Fund Account of the Federal and State Government.

“In view of the of the foregoing and in the interest of law and order in Nigeria, we call on all parties concerned to immediately find ways of resolving this dispute and allowing courts to reopen.”

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