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Judge sets record, delivers judgment in 12 hour sitting

Justice Lateefat Okunnu of Lagos State Judiciary seems to have set a record today Wednesday, as she delivers a judgement sitting for 12 straight hours with only a twenty minutes break.

Justice Okunnu who sat at Ikeja High Court started sitting at 9.15 am to deliver judgement in the N25.7 billion fraud suit against former Managing Director of the defunct Bank PHB Plc Francis Atuche, and his wife Elizabeth, and the Chief Financial Officer of the bank, Mr. Ugo Anyanwu. As at the time of going to press at 9.30pm, the court is still sitting. 15 minutes before going to press, the court convicted  Atuche and former Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Ugo Anyanwu, convicted of stealing and conspiracy to steal, while Elizabeth was discharged and acquitted.

It is indeed a Nigerian record. Gavel International investigations revealed that the only other time that a court sat for such a long period was the treasonable trial of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. On Sept 11, 1963, the trial judge, late Justice George Sodeinde Sowemimo started delivering his 400 page judgment by 9am and ended by 5pm. Justice Okunnu today, has broken that record by an additional four hours and counting, as the judgment is still being delivered.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had in 2011 arraigned Atuche, his wife and the then financial officer of the moribund bank PHB Plc (now Keystone Bank), Mr. Ugo Anyanwu, before Justice Lateefa Okunnu of Ikeja High Court over the alleged fraud.

After about three years into the trial, Atuche and co-defendants approached the Lagos division of the Court of Appeal to challenge their trial by the lower court for lack of jurisdiction.

In a judgement delivered in September 2016, the Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal, stopped the lower court from going ahead with the trial.

The appellate court also failed to quash the charges against Atuche, his wife and others but ordered Justice Okunnu to hands off the trial.

The appellate court further directed the Chief Judge of Lagos State to re-assign the case to another judge.

Following the decision of the court of appeal, the EFCC approached the Supreme Court to set aside the decision of the lower court and order trial in the matter.

When the case came up at the apex court for hearing, EFCC’s lawyer Kemi Pinheiro (SAN) told the court that the matter had gone too far at the lower court and that the decision of the appellate court hampered the expeditious conclusion of the trial.

After listening to the EFCC’s counsel, a panel of the apex court, in a unanimous decision, overturned the decision of the appellate court

The panel agreed that the lower court’s decision on the matter was “perverse” and therefore, ought to be set aside.

Justice Ejembi Eko, who prepared and read the lead judgment of the apex court, said the order which the Court of Appeal made on September 23, 2016, for the remittance of case to the Lagos State Chief Judge for the purpose of re-assigning the case to another judge, was not aimed at serving the interest of justice.

The Supreme Court panel noted that the appellate court did not adduce any reason for disqualifying the trial judge that took the plea of the defendants in the first instance.

Justice Eko also stressed that such order, being “a contentious one”, required the lower court to give reasons why Justice Okunnu should not be allowed to continue with the trial.

The apex court panel equally noted that neither Justice Okunnu nor Justice Lawal-Akapo were accused of any wrongdoing by any of the parties to the case to warrant the transfer of the matter to a new judge.

The apex court consequently directed that the case be returned to Justice Okunnu for continuation of trial of the defendants.

Other Justices of the apex court that concurred with the lead verdict were Justices   Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, Paul Galinje and Iyang Okoro.

Francis Atuche, Elizabeth Atuche and Ugo Anyanwu are standing trial on a 47-count charge for allegedly stealing N27.5 billion from Bank PHB while Mr. Atuche was the Managing Director of the bank.

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