THE DANGER OF ABUSE OF POWER TO PUNISH FOR CONTEMPT: INIBEHE EFFIONG’S CASE IN PERSPECTIVE
No case exemplifies the whimsical abuse of power by a judicial officer better than the order made by the Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State on 27 July, 2022 committing Inibehe Effiong to jail for one month, for alleged contempt of court. The order made during the annual vacation period of most superior courts appears to have been made with the intention of ensuring that he will spend the entire period in detention.
The case equally highlights the dangers legal practitioners face in the practice of their profession in courts manned by judicial officers who sometimes see the lawyers as irritants or persons to be tolerated.
From all available facts it would appear that the court violated all known legal principles about punishing a person for contempt allegedly committed in the face of the court. It is settled that if the alleged contempt took place in the face of the court, the court or judicial officer may deal with it summarily, i.e., hear and conclude the matter as it comes up. The facts of the case do not show there was such a hearing. He was neither charged with any particular act of contempt before the court nor was he afforded any opportunity to defend himself.
Some commentators have tried to justify the committal by suggesting that Inibefe Effiong was rude and discourteous to the court by insisting that his application that the judge should recuse herself be heard. I doubt that such insistence can rightly be classified as “rudeness or discourtesy” to a court. If indeed he was discourteous to the court that surely will not amount to contempt of court. In Oku v State, (1970) LPELR-2525(SC), Coker JSC, quoting from a Privy Council case, distinguished between mere discourtesy to the court and contempt of court as follows:
“It is not every act of discourtesy to the Court by counsel that amounts to contempt not his conduct which involves a breach by counsel of his duty to his client necessarily in this category. In the present case the appellant’s conduct was clearly discourteous… and it may perhaps have been in dereliction of his duty to his client but in their Lordships’ opinion it cannot properly be placed over the line that divides mere discourtesy from contempt.’
If, indeed, his action in court on that day could rightly be described as amounting to contempt, some level of restraint ought to have been exercised by the judge in proceeding to commit him to prison for alleged contempt . A court should not be in anhurry to try and punish for contempt in the face of the court (I do not say there was such contempt in this case).
“Whether the contempt is in the face of the court or not in the face of the court, it is important that it should be borne in mind by judges that the court should use its summary powers to punish for contempt sparingly. It is important to emphasize the fact that judges should not display undue degree of sensitiveness about this matter of contempt and that they all must act with restraint on these occasions. We recall the observation of Lord Russell of Kilowen in R. v. Gray (1900) 2 Q. B. 36 at p.41 that “jurisdiction to deal with contempt summarily should be exercised with scrupulous care and only when the case is clear and beyond reasonable doubt.”
In arriving at its decision in the above matter, the Apex Couet cited with approval Lord Goddard C.J in the case Shandasami v. King Emperor (1945) A.C. 264 at page 268, where he stated “Their Lordships would once again emphasize what has often been said before, that this summary power of punishing for contempt should be used sparingly and only in serious cases. It is a power which a court must necessarily possess; its usefulness depends on the wisdom and restraint with which it is exercised, and to use it to suppress methods of advocacy which are merely offensive is to use it for a purpose for which it was never intended.”
If lawyers are to be so casually and summarily sent to prison as happened in Inibehe’s case, we will never be able to professionally do our duties to our clients. May this be the last time a judicial officer will utilize his/her judicial powers in an overly sensitive manner.
Sometimes the attitude should be as said by Evelyn Beatrice Hall “I Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It”.