Lawyers and the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) have reacted to the conviction and sentencing to a month in prison by an Ikeja High Court of Joseph Nwobike, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), for perverting the course of justice.
Nwobike is the first SAN to be convicted of “judicial corruption”.
While some lawyers said the punishment was mild just a “slap on the wrist”, others described it as a sad development.
Justice Raliatu Adebiyi, in her judgment on Monday, convicted Nwobike of 12 counts of the 18-count charge bordering on attempting to pervert the course of justice slammed on him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
The SAN was convicted for the charges relating to the exchange of text messages with court registrars, instructing them to assign cases to judges in order to receive favourable rulings and judgments in court.
Lawyers in various interviews with NAN described the sentence as a “slap on the wrist” considering that the law under which Nwobike was sentenced, prescribes a mandatory two-year sentence.
Adeshina Ogunlana, the Chairman of the Ikeja Branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA)said: “I just heard the news 20 minutes ago though a one month sentence is light, conviction is conviction.
“Certainly, he is liable now to be disbarred apart from being stripped of his rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. The stain is there even if he is given a VIP treatment during his stay in prison.
“I would not know if the prosecution proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt but since they have proved their case against him, then too bad for him.
“On the surface, the sentence seems lenient but the implications is quite devastating, he is now a convict.”
Also reacting, Adetokunbo Mumuni, the Executive Director, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), expressed displeasure over the sentence.
Mumuni, who said he had yet to read the full details of the judgment, noted that given the weight of the offence, the punishment was mild.
“For the enormity of the offence, I do not think one-month imprisonment will be sufficient punishment.
“That one month sentence to me is on the lighter side; in fact, it is very, very light,” he said.
Ademola Adewale, a senior lawyer with over 30 years experience at the Bar, criticised the one-month prison sentence, describing it as ridiculous.
“The sentencing of Nwobike by the learned trial judge is ridiculous, it is a simply a pat on the back.
“It undermines the fight against corruption and a heavier penalty would have served the purpose of punishing the level of judicial impunity Nwobike has displayed in this case.
“In the circumstances of this case, the best way EFCC on behalf of Nigerians to show displeasure against this judgment, is to appeal against the sentence, the action is an endorsement of judicial impunity,” Adewale said.
Another senior member of the Bar, Wahab Shittu, said that the sentence was a sad development and sad day for the legal profession.
Shittu, who is also a prosecutor for the EFCC said: “He was my classmate at Master’s degree level, it is not easy to become a lawyer and it is much more herculean to be a SAN.
“The fact that a SAN has found himself in this kind of light is quite unfortunate and it is a sad day for the legal profession and for those who hold the inner bar in manifest respect.
“I’m saddened by this development but again it is a demonstration of the fact that the law is no respecter of persons.
“I salute the courage of the Judge, Justice Raliatu Adebiyi, who was able to apply the law forcefully not minding whose ox is gored.”
Shittu also noted that the case had not ended with the sentence given by the High Court and that Nwobike’s legal battle is far from over.
“My further reaction is that this is not the end of the matter, I foresee this matter getting up to the level of the Supreme Court.
“There will continue to be a debate on whether the punishment meted out to the Senior Advocate is commensurate to the offence.
“There are those who will argue that the judge ought to have imposed the maximum punishment of two years imprisonment but whatever the case, it is on record that the court has imposed some level of punishment.
“Let us see if this judgment is upheld by the higher court, I see Nwobike appealing this judgment up to the Supreme Court,” he said.
“If this judgment is upheld at the level of the Supreme Court, it means he can no longer practice law as a legal practitioner and will lose his privileges as a SAN.
“I know it has a wider implication for his career and that is why I know he will fight it up to the Supreme Court. But for now, let us be content that justice is done,” Shittu said.
Adebiyi sentenced Nwobike under Section 97(3) of the Criminal Law of Lagos State 2011.
The section says “Any person who attempts in any way not specified in this law, to obstruct, prevent, pervert or defeat the course of justice, is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment for two years.”