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Okonofua Vincent Omoijahe v. Uwesu Umoru & Ors. (1999)

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⦿ CASE SUMMARY OF:

Okonofua Vincent Omoijahe v. Uwesu Umoru & Ors. (1999) – SC

by PaulPipar

⦿ THEME(S)

Contempt of Court;

Available:  A.B.C (TRANSPORT COMPANY) LIMITED v. MISS BUNMI OMOTOYE (2019)

⦿ PARTIES

APPELLANTS

1. Uwesu Umoru
2. D.E. Emujeze
3. C.E. Onohwakpor

v.

RESPONDENTS

1. Uwesu Umoru
2. D.E. Emujeze
3. C.E. Onohw Akpor

⦿ CITATION

(1999) LPELR-SC.196/92;
(1999) 8 NWLR (Pt. 614) 178 2;
(1999) 5 S.C (Pt III) 14

⦿ COURT

Supreme Court

⦿ LEAD JUDGEMENT DELIVERED BY:

Aloysius Iyorgyer Katsina-Alu, JSC.

⦿ LAWYERS WHO ADVOCATED

FOR THE APPELLANT

– Tolue Esekody, Esq.

FOR THE RESPONDENT

– Peter C. Adigwe, Esq.

⦿ FACT

The appellant herein, a legal practitioner, had sued Uwesu Umoru (1st respondent) claiming aggravated damages for assault. When the writ, taken out in November, 1989, was to be served on the 1st respondent at his workshop on 14 December, 1989, it was alleged that he assaulted and beat up the bailiff and the appellant who accompanied the bailiff to act as a pointer. In consequence of the alleged incident, the appellant brought an application before the High Court, Benin, to have the 1st respondent committed to prison for contempt of court.

The application was still pending before the court when the appellant yet again made another allegation against the 1st respondent, D.E. Emujieze and G.E. Onohwakpor, Chief bailiff and Assistant Chief Registrar respectively.

The appellant alleged that the respondents interfered with the bailiff potential witness in the committal proceedings. He brought another application to have the three respondents committed to prison for this contempt of court.

On being served with the committal papers each of the respondents moved the trial court to dismiss the appellant’s motion for committal against them.

The 1st and 2nd respondents’ application was struck out for procedural error while that of the 3rd respondent proceeded to determination. After a hearing, the learned trial judge dismissed the application and held that she had jurisdiction to hear the application for committal under Order 42 of the High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules 1988 of Bendel State.

On appeal to the Court of Appeal, that court allowed the appeal of the present respondents.

Dissatisfied, the Appellant herein, has appealed.

⦿ ISSUE

1. Did the Learned trial judge exercise her discretion judicially and judiciously in holding that the appellant’s application of 19th March, 1990 for an order of committal for contempt of court against the respondents was properly before her and, if
so was the Court of Appeal right in substituting its own discretion for that of the trial judge?

2. Was the Court of Appeal right in holding that because the contempt of Court allegedly committed was committed ex facie curiae and amounts to criminal contempt, the High Court lacked jurisdiction to entertain same pursuant to Order

42(1) of the High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules 1988 of the former Bendel State notwithstanding that the specific offence allegedly committed was distinctly stated in the committal application and an opportunity afforded to the respondents to

answer them?

3. Was the cost awarded excessive in the circumstance having regard to the principle governing the award of cost?

⦿ HOLDING & RATIO DECIDENDI

1. For issue 1 & 2, the Supreme Court stated that the learned trial Judge does not have jurisdiction to hear the case.

RATIO:

i. Where the judge would have to rely on evidence or testimony of witnesses to events occurring outside his view and outside of his presence in court, he should not try the case himself. The matter must be placed before another judge where the usual procedure for the arrest, charge and prosecution of the offender must be followed.

3. On issue 3, the Supreme Court held, “It was submitted on behalf of the appellant that the costs of N850.00 awarded by the Court of Appeal were excessive and arbitrary. I find no merit in this contention. The three respondents engaged the services of counsel to fight this case in the Court of Appeal. I am satisfied that the court below judicially exercised its discretion in the award of costs. I have not been shown any good reason to interfere with it. This issue also fails.”

⦿ REFERENCED

⦿ SOME PROVISIONS

Order 42 Rule 1 of the Bendel State High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules 1988. Rule 1 provides:
1. The power of the Court to punish for contempt of Court may be exercised by an order of committal.
2. An order of committal may be made by the Court where contempt of Court –
(a) is committed in connection with –
(i) any proceedings before the court;
(ii) criminal proceedings;
(iii) proceedings in an inferior court;
(b) is committed in the face of the court, or consists of disobedience to an order of the court, or a breach of an undertaking to the court; or
(c) is committed otherwise than in connection with any proceedings.

⦿ NOTABLE DICTA

The principles of construction/interpretation of statutory provisions are well established. The golden rule is that the words of a statute must prima facie be given their ordinary meaning. Judges are not called upon to apply their opinions of sound policy so as to modify or alter the plain meaning of statutory words, but where, in construing the general words the meaning of which is not entirely plain or clear, then there are adequate reasons for doubting whether the Lawmaker would have intended so wide an interpretation as would disregard fundamental principles. In such a situation the courts may be justified in adopting a narrower construction. – Katsina-Alu, JSC. Okonofua Vincent Omoijahe v. Uwesu Umoru & Ors. (1999)

It should be borne in mind that statutes are construed to promote the general purpose of the legislature/lawmaker. Judges ought not to go by the letter of the statute only but also by the spirit of the enactment. – Katsina-Alu, JSC. Okonofua Vincent Omoijahe v. Uwesu Umoru & Ors. (1999)

In cases of contempt ex facie curiae there may be cases where the offence should be dealt with summarily, but such hearing must be conducted in accordance with cardinal principles of fair process, and the case must be one the facts surrounding the alleged contempt are so notorious as to be virtually incontestible. – Katsina-Alu, JSC. Okonofua Vincent Omoijahe v. Uwesu Umoru & Ors. (1999)

Where the judge would have to rely on evidence or testimony of witnesses to events occurring outside his view and outside of his presence in court, he should not try the case himself. The matter must be placed before another judge where the usual procedure for the arrest, charge and prosecution of the offender must be followed. – Katsina-Alu, JSC. Okonofua Vincent Omoijahe v. Uwesu Umoru & Ors. (1999)

In cases of contempt ex facie curiae there may be cases where the offence should be dealt with summarily, but such hearing must be conducted in accordance with cardinal principles of fair process, and the case must be one the facts surrounding the alleged contempt are so notorious as to be virtually incontestible. Where the judge would have to rely on evidence or testimony of witnesses to events occurring outside his view and outside of his presence in court, he should not try the case himself. The matter must be placed before another judge where the usual procedure for the arrest, charge and prosecution of the offender must be followed. – Katsina-Alu, JSC. Okonofua Vincent Omoijahe v. Uwesu Umoru & Ors. (1999)

It is justice itself that is flouted by contempt of court, not the individual court or judge who is attempting to administer it. – U Mohammed, JSC. Okonofua Vincent Omoijahe v. Uwesu Umoru & Ors. (1999)

For contempt committed in facie curiae the trial Judge will exercise his summary jurisdiction to punish the contemnor. Punishment for contempt committed exfacie curiae is criminal in nature and involves punishment of a person for his criminal act in relation to judicial process perpetrated outside the face of the court. – Okay Achike, JSC. Okonofua Vincent Omoijahe v. Uwesu Umoru & Ors. (1999)

For an act of contempt committed in facie curiae, and where the dignity of the court seized of the proceedings is called to question, it is fair and proper that the court should deal with such disrespect timeously moreso as the Judge in whose court the disrespect has been committed is fully seized of the facts and circumstances surrounding the conduct of the contemnor, and the necessity of calling witnesses to testify to what transpired before the court will not arise. But the situation of contempt ex facie curiae is completely different. It demands that the Judge handling contempt committed outside the face of the court, even though it is in respect of a matter in which civil or criminal proceedings are taking place before that Judge, should refrain, in the interest of justice, from assuming jurisdiction in such a situation. The Judge should be very wary to act otherwise. moreso as in such circumstances, the Judge assuming jurisdiction would be acting in complete negation and in breach of the sacred principles of fair hearing now entrenched in section 33 of the 1979 Constitution. – Okay Achike, JSC. Okonofua Vincent Omoijahe v. Uwesu Umoru & Ors. (1999

It is also well-settled by legal authorities that a contempt of Court committed outside the court (ex facie curiae) being criminal in nature, cannot be punished summarily. In that case the contemnor must be arrested, charged before another Court, full trial conducted and if found guilty punished according to law. – Umaru Atu Kalgo , JSC. Okonofua Vincent Omoijahe v. Uwesu Umoru & Ors. (1999)

Another reason which in my view entitles a judge to deal instanter with contempt in the face of the Court, is because the judge ordinarily has personal knowledge of what transpired in Court without calling any witness to explain it, since in general, contempt in the face of the Court consists of unlawful interruption, disruption or obstruction of Court proceedings which may take various forms. But in case of contempt outside the Court, as in the instant case, the judge did not know what happened outside the Court and before the alleged contemnor could be found guilty and committed of such contempt, he must be given a hearing and full trial conducted. – Umaru Atu Kalgo , JSC. Okonofua Vincent Omoijahe v. Uwesu Umoru & Ors. (1999)

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