The Supreme Court, on Monday, upturned the conviction of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Joseph Nwobike, of charges bordering on perversion of justice.
Mr Nwobike was prosecuted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for attempt to pervert the course of justice.
The Lagos State High Court, in April 2018, found him guilty of the charge, while the Court of Appeal in Lagos also upheld his conviction and 30-day imprisonment.
But, in a unanimous judgement, on Monday, Olukayode Ariwoola leading a five-man panel of the Supreme Court, set aside the earlier verdicts by both the Lagos High Court and the Court of Appeal.
The panel held that the trial court was wrong in convicting Mr Nwobike of the offence.
Similarly, it faulted the Court of Appeal for upholding the senior lawyer’s conviction and sentencing on attempt to pervert the course of justice.
In arriving at its decision, the Supreme Court held that Section 97(c) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Law (ACJL) of Lagos State, under which Mr Nwobike was tried, did not clearly codify what constitutes perversion of justice.
The court further held that the EFCC lacked the power to investigate and prosecute the offence of perversion of the course of justice.
The EFCC, through its prosecuting lawyer, Rotimi Oyedepo, had accused Mr Nwobike of exchanging SMS with a court registrar on the assignment of his cases to a judge and when proceedings in such cases ought to come up.
The trial judge, Raliat Adebiyi of the Ikeja Division of the Lagos State High Court, had in April 2018, sentenced Mr 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 applied 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 to serve as a deterrent to others.
The judge said the prosecution, the 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, added that the defendant was never absent throughout trial.
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 had pleaded not guilty to the charges.
While prosecuting the case, the EFCC told the court that Mr Nwobike made payments into the bank accounts of Mohammed Yunusa, a federal judge, and to 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 anti-graft 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, who was conferred with the SAN rank in 2010 after almost 20 years of legal practice, 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.
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