2013 Legal year started with a church service at St Cyprian’s Anglican Church, Hospital Road, Port Harcourt at 10.00 am. At the conclusion of the service, the Hon Chief Judge of Rivers State, Justice Iche Ndu inspected a Guard of Honour mounted by the Nigeria Police at the court premises and presided over a special court session that flagged off legal activities in the state.
The 2013 Legal Year was full of activities, especially with cases arising from Rivers State House of Assembly crisis. Within the legal year, a lot of things happened in the state. But most of the judges remained firm in spite of the jostling of politicians to win their cases. Justice Iche Ndu captured this in his valedictory speech when he noted, “it was not easy. Take the events of the last three months in the country and particularly, Rivers State, where some political disputes as is usually the result have been before the High Court of Rivers State.”
“To assign and manage as many as twenty-two politically colourated suits in the High Court, was indeed very trying for the judges and me. Some politicians expect to win their cases in court, no matter what. But I thank God for our judges, who are blessed by the grace of God, continued to discharge their functions of judging without blemish,’ Iche Ndu said.
The 2013 legal year witnessed the retirement of the Chief Judge, Hon Justice Iche N. Ndu.
Justice Ndu retired on the 19th of August, 2013. He was appointed a Judge of the High Court in 1989 by the Late Hon Justice (Chief) Donald Graham-Douglas.
He had commended the Rivers State Governor, Rt Hon Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi for funding structural developments in the state judiciary which he said was one of the best in the world.
However, Justice Ndu retired at the age of 65 leaving the judiciary for which he had worked as a judge since 1989.
The retirement of the state Chief Judge provoked crisis as per who would replace him. The National Judicial Council had recommended Justice Daisy Okocha to take over from Justice Ndu but the state Chief Executive was not comfortable with the recommendation.
Consequently, he appointed Justice Peter Agumagu, President of the Customary Court of Appeal on acting capacity.
This singular act of the Rivers State Governor provoked sentiments among members of the Nigeria Bar Association as it was regarded as an affront to the rule of law.
Despite the division in the NBA, the acting Chief Judge continued to perform the functions without much ado. Some members paid Agumagu a visit and raked up issues in its wake.
Text messages were sent to members of the Port Harcourt branch of the NBA to outrightly condemn the visit of the officials of the NBA to the Acting Chief Judge.
However, wrong the circumstances were, Hon Justice Peter Agumagu continued until he rounded off after three months in acting capacity and headed back to his former office as the President of the Customary Court of Appeal.
The choice of Hon Justice Daisy Okocha by the NJC according to them, was predicated on her impeccable record and sterling qualities.
But the disagreement between the state Chief Executive and the NJC has produced unsavoury result as nobody is currently occupying the position of a Chief Judge in the state.
This unhealthy development followed the expiration of Justice Agumagu’s three months acting capacity.
Pathetically, His Excellency, Rt Hon Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi couldn’t confirm Justice Agumagu because a substantive Chief Judge can only be appointed on recommendation by the NJC. Agumagu was not recommended hence he went back to the Customary Court of Appeals.
Unfortunately, there is a vacuum at the position of Chief Judge raising questions of who assigns matter to the courts.
A Port Harcourt-based legal practitioner, Barr. Chijoke Agi, who spoke to The Tide on the development noted that there would be glut of cases at the office of the Chief Judge with nobody to assign them.
According to him, “lawyers are cautious of filing cases in Port Harcourt as there is nobody to assign them to courts.
Barrister Agi described the situation as unhealthy as it would lead to delay in justice delay. He said lawyers preferred filing cases in divisions outside the state capital to ensure quick attention to their matters.
He, however, prayed the state government and NJC to resolve the speedily so that justice delivery would be faster.
According to him, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Also speaking, Barr. Jackson Assor lamented the problem at the state judiciary.
He expressed surprise that a judiciary could function without a Chief Judge.
Barr. Assor implored all stakeholders in our judicial system to resolve the issue for quick dispensation of justice.
He also prayed the state to ensure that a new Chief Judge is appointed before the commencement of 2014 legal year.
All in all, the 2013 legal year was challenging as many events took place. More so because the ordinary folks looked up to the judiciary as the last bastion of hope in the wake of crisis that rocked the state House of Assembly.
Again, the state judiciary was adjudged to have fared well despite the daunting challenges it faced following the crisis in the state.
Rivers people have expressed belief in the independence of the judiciary as exemplified in the judgements delivered within the state in 2013 Legal Year.
Mrs Kelechi Akpelu, who spoke with The Tide on the state of the judiciary in Port Harcourt at the weekend, noted that the judiciary under Justice Iche Ndu had lived up to its billing, Mrs Akpelu said she was optimistic that the judiciary would fare better this year.
She urged government to appoint a new Chief Judge to facilitate justice delivery.