Justice Raliat Adebiyi of the Ikeja Division of the Lagos State High Court on Monday sentenced a senior lawyer, Joseph Nwobike, to one month in prison for attempting to pervert the course of justice.
The defendant was convicted on 12 counts of attempting to pervert the course of justice. The maximum penalty on each count of perverting justice is two years jail term. But the judge used her discretion and refused to punish the lawyer with the maximum penalty allowed.
“The defendant is hereby sentenced to one month of 30 days on each count for attempting to pervert the course of justice,” Mrs Adebiyi said after reading out a judgment which lasted over two hours.
The judge said she handed down the sentence to Mr Nwobike, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, to serve as a deterrent to others.
The judge said the prosecution, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), proved beyond reasonable doubt that Mr Nwobike attempted to pervert the course of justice by transferring money into the bank account of a serving federal judge.
She said the lawyer was “motivated to win at all cost” as a senior member of the bar but, however, noted that the defendant never absented himself throughout trial.
Mr Nwobike was conferred the title of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 2010, after almost 20 years of legal practice.
His conviction came amidst ongoing trials of fellow senior lawyers – Godwin Obla and Rickey Tarfa – over similar offences before federal and state courts.
The judges, who also allegedly received the gratification from the lawyers, are also facing criminal prosecution by the EFCC.
Mr Nwobike was first arraigned in March 2016 on a five count charge; but the charges were amended twice to 18 counts of offering gratification to a judicial officer, attempting to pervert the course of justice, and making false declaration to an EFCC officer.
The lawyer pleaded not guilty to the charges.
According to the EFCC, Mr Nwobike paid N750,000 into the United Bank for Africa account of Mohammed Yunusa, a federal judge, and N250,000 to one Ronke Ogunleye, a registrar to another federal judge, Musa Kurya.
The commission said the payments were intended to pervert the course of justice.
For instance, after the payment to Ms Ogunleye, the convict followed up with a text message from Mr Nwobike which read: “Tell Oga to discharge that order.”
The EFCC also said Mr Nwobike sent about a dozen other text messages to one Mr Jide of the Federal High Court directing that cases be assigned to specific judges, including Justices Yunusa, Kurya, and others.
The commission further accused the lawyer of making false declaration to an officer of the EFCC by naming Mr Yunusa as the only judge he had “assisted.”
The agency said he had made similar payments to James Agbadu-Fishim and Hyeladzira Nganjiwa, both judges of the Federal High Court.
The prosecution called seven witnesses before closing its case while the defence opened with only one witness – Mr Nwobike.
In his defence, Mr Nwobike said the money given to Mr Yunusa was for the dialysis treatment of the judge’s mother. He added that he had known the judge since his days as a counsel at the Federal Ministry of Justice.
He also said he had known Mr Nganjiwa since 1995 when he was a legal officer at the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, and that he had no case pending before the judge at the time he paid N300,000 to a company belonging to him.
The lawyer further admitted to giving N250,000 to Ms Ogunleye for his brother’s education abroad and that the text message ‘Tell Oga to discharge that order’ was sent to her in error.
He denied having any intention to influence cases or assign cases to judges.
In her judgment, Mrs Adebiyi said the prosecution failed to prove that the monies paid to the judges and to Ms Ogunleye were intended to influence justice.
She, however, said the ‘father and daughter’ relationship between the lawyer and Mr Nwobike is “unbecoming” of a senior member of the bar.
On the text messages the lawyer sent to Mr Jide naming particular judges he wanted to handle cases, the judge said the prosecution was able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that they were intended to pervert the course of justice.
Out of the 11 text messages sent to Mr Jide, six of the cases were assigned to judges named by Mr Nwobike. The rest were not disclosed by the EFCC.
“Why did the defendant, a senior member of the bar with junior lawyers in his chamber be the one to send messages to a registrar?” the judge asked.
On the charge of false declaration to an EFCC officer, Mrs Adebiyi said the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Mr Nwobike’s claim of assisting only Mr. Yunusa was untrue.