One of Nigeria’s foremost human rights lawyer, Femi Falana, has questioned the decisions of some courts who award fines and punishments to litigants in public interest cases.
Mr Falana’s statement is coming shortly after a Federal Capital Territory High Court ordered the punishment of a man, Tochi Micheal, over allegations that the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Ibrahim Tanko, falsified his age.
According to Mr Falana, the decisions of courts to punish public interest litigants amounts to “an attack on public interest litigation in the country.”
The FCT High Court presided over by a judge, Danlami Senchi, had in a judgement on May 31 dismissed a motion by Mr Micheal, seeking the removal of the acting CJN over alleged falsification of age.
According to the applicant, Mr Mohammed lied on oath when he claimed to have been born on December 31, 1953, instead of December 31, 1950.
Mr Michael who alleged that Mr Tanko’s credentials indicated that he was born in 1950 accused the acting CJN of breaching the codes of the judicial profession and liable to being dismissed from office.
In a judgement, however, Mr Senchi struck out the suit and accused Mr Michael of acting “with a motive to scandalise Mr Tanko.”
According to the report published by the News Agency of Nigeria, the FCT High Court ruled that Mr Senchi provided “no evidence to support his claims against Mr Tanko which were regarded by the court as blatant falsehood.”
Mr Senchi said the applicant lacked the ‘locus standi’, or right, to institute the suit and requested the registrar of the Supreme Court to commence legal action against Mr Michael.
Mr Senchi also ordered the applicant to pay a fine of N10 million within three weeks, “as a deterrent to other such applicants.”
But in a statement by Mr Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, he described such punishments in public interest cases as illegal, unconstitutional and an outright violation of the applicant’s right to a fair hearing.
“In recent times, some High Court Judges have been reported to have imposed fines ranging from N5 million to N10 million on concerned citizens whose cases were struck out for want of locus standi.
“With respect, the renewed attack on public interest litigation by judges cannot be justified under the Constitution and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act. Specifically, the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules 2009 have enjoined judges to encourage public interest litigation in promoting the human rights of Nigerian people.”
Mr Falana questioned the constitutionality of dismissing a suit on the grounds of ‘locus standi’. He said that the doctrine has since been abolished with regards to human rights.
“Ex abundanti cautela, the doctrine of locus standi has been abolished in the area of human rights by Order III of the Fundamental Rights Enforcement Procedure Rules 2009.
“Since access to court has been guaranteed by sections 6 and 36 of the 1999 Constitution and article 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights Act it is illegal and unconstitutional to impose fines on aggrieved citizens who approach the courts to challenge the illegal official policies or unconstitutional legislations under the current democratic dispensation.
“As far as the law stands, no judge has the power to order a litigant to pay costs outside the ambit of the Rules of the respective High Courts. Even in the award of costs litigants and their counsel are given a fair hearing by judges. Why then are fines imposed on litigants or lawyers without allowing them to make any representation?
“I wish to state that no judge is empowered by the Constitution, High Court Law or Rules of Court to impose fines of N5 million or N10 million on a litigant who has not been tried and convicted for committing a criminal offence in Nigeria.”
Mr Falana said the Supreme Court had set aside the doctrine of ‘locus standi’ to pave the way for public interest litigation. He called on judges to, “desist from striking out or dismissing cases which are filed to challenge impunity of public officers in Nigeria.”
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