The Federal High Court, Abuja, on Wednesday, ordered a stay of further proceeding in the ongoing trial of the former Head of Service (HoS), Mrs Winifred Oyo-Its, and others.
Justice Taiwo Taiwo, in his ruling, described the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) act in obtaining an exparte order for the freezing of bank accounts of the 4th, 5th and 6th defendants in the matter before another court as “an abuse of court process.”
Justice Taiwo, who also described the EFCC’s conduct as “judge shopping” aimed at getting a favourable court decision, said the anti-corruption agency’s action was reprehensible and condemnable.
The EFCC had filed an exparte motion with suit number: FHC/ABJ/CS/1202/2020 in October 2020 before Justice Folashade Giwa-Ogunbanjo of the same court for freezing of the bank accounts of 4th, 5th and 6th defendants in the alleged N570 million money laundering charge preferred against the ex-HoS and others, pending the hearing and determination of the trial before Justice Taiwo.
The agency had exhibited the charge numbers of Oyo-Ita’s case and ex-Minister Tanimu Turaki’s matter before Justice Inyang Ekwo in the exparte motion file before Giwa-Ogunbanjo.
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that the EFCC had, on March 23, 2020, arraigned Oyo-Ita and others before Justice Taiwo.
While the former HoS is the 1st defendant in the suit marked: FHC/ABJ/CR/60/2020 before Taiwo, Garba Umar, and his two companies; Slopes International Ltd and Gooddeal Investment Ltd are 4th, 5th and 6th defendants respectively.
Others in the case include Frontline Ace Global Services Ltd and Asanaya Projects as 2nd and 3rd defendants, while Ubong Okon Effiok and his two companies; U & U Global Services Ltd and Prince Mega Logistics Ltd are 7th, 8th and 9th defendants respectively.
The defence lawyers had urged the court to discontinue the trial until the EFCC’s counsel, Mohammed Abubakar, withdraws the application before Justice Giwa-Ogunbanjo, describing the act as an abuse of court process.
Justice Taiwo then ordered the EFCC to produce the exparte processes filed before Giwa-Ogunbanjo for his perusal.
The judge, at the Feb. 11 sitting, threatened to return the case file of Oyo-Ita’s trial to the Chiefs Judge, Justice John Tsoho, for reassignment if the EFCC failed to do the needful and fixed March 3 for his ruling.
In his ruling on Wednesday, the judge noted that the anti-corruption commission’s exparte motion came months after the defendants had been arraigned before him.
“It is on record that the defendants in this case were formally arraigned on the 23rd of March, 2020 and they all pleaded not guilty,” he said.
He added that the matter had commenced, charges read, the defendants granted bail and proceedings had just commenced before the prosecution (EFCC) approached another court to secure the order.
“Is this not an abuse of court process? Does this not translate to forum shopping?” he asked, citing previous case to back his decision.
According to him, act of forum shopping is choosing the most favourable court to entertain a matter.
“The act of forum shopping is the practice of choosing the most favourable court in which a case may be heard; choosing the most favourable territorial jurisdiction in which a matter or course may be entertained and for the sole purpose of getting a favourable hearing and consequently result,” he held.
He said that where without reasonable grounds, parties instituted frivolous, vexatious and offensive action or by instituting multiplicity of actions, such could be termed as abuse of court process.
Justice Taiwo said this act could also be referred to as “judge shopping.”
According to him, judge shopping is the practice of filing several suits and applications in a court with multiple judges hoping that one or more of the suits or applications may be assigned to a particular judge that may be favourable to the plaintiff.
He said it was lawful that when a court was already handling a matter, any application relating to that matter must be filed before the court.
He said that the EFCC’s application months after his court was already presiding on Oyo-Ita’s case, was made in bad faith.
The judge said though he acknowledged that counsel do not assigned cases and the court has a mechanism for assigning cases, the prosecution counsel should have filed all applications relating to the case before his court.
“All he has to do is to state the charge number of this suit on the process he filed. That way, the application would have found its way in this court,” he said.
He said without speculating, the EFCC lawyer knew that he had to put the defendants on notice if the application was filed before his court.
Justice Taiwo described the act of the prosecution lawyer to refer to the action of his court in his originating summon and the exparte as “a slap in the face of the court.”
He said he was aware of the powers of the agency to apply for a freezing order before, during investigation and even when a defendant had appeared before a court, but that such application ought to be brought before his court.
He held that there was no legal reason for the prosecution to approach another court over the defendants that were already standing trial before his court.
He said such act could be said to be contemptuous of the court.
“I cannot sit on appeal or set aside the orders made by my learner brother.
“However, I will fail in my duty if I do not condemn what the prosecutor has done,” he said, describing the action as “reprehensible.”
Justice Taiwo, who ordered a stay of further proceeding in the matter until the EFCC does the needful, said: “I do not see how I can continue in the trial in this matter in the circumstance.”
NAN reports that the judge did not fixe any date for court to reconvene sitting in the matter.