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NIGERIA: Aribisala Pushes Hard for Justice

Chief Ajibola Anthony AribisalaEmbattled legal practitioner, Chief Ajibola Anthony Aribisala, may have been challenged by the Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar leadership of the judiciary as he has sustained his push for justice in the allegation that necessitated the suspension of his Senior Advocate of Nigeria title.

Since he was called to the Nigerian bar in the 80s, Chief Ajibola Anthony Aribisala has always handled cases for his clients in representative capacity. Never for once did he ever think that one day he would be a claimant or plaintiff. But this is the reverse situation he has found himself in recent months since he was suspended from using the prestigious title of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) conferred on him in 2004 by the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee (LPPC).

Aribisala is currently at the Lagos High Court to challenge the decision of the LPPC to suspend him from using the coveted title which he was believed to have secured through hard work.

When the case came up last week before Justice Oludotun Adefope-Okojie, the proceedings took a dramatic twist when the judge ruled that she would hear an application for a mandatory injunction filed by the lawyer together with the preliminary objection by Fidelity Bank challenging the jurisdiction of the court. In his application dated March 7, 2013, the embattled lawyer asked the court for a mandatory injunction restraining the LPPC from suspending him from the use of the SAN title.

At the proceedings, his counsel, Chief Tunji Ayanlaja (SAN), urged the court to take the application for a mandatory injunction against the LPPC and the preliminary objection challenging the jurisdiction of the court together. He submitted that taking the two applications would save time and speed-up the hearing and determination of the suit.

Ayanlaja further submitted that in line with a judgment of the Supreme Court, delivered in 2009, the court was expected to take the two contending applications together and deliver a combined ruling, adding that any of the parties not satisfied with the decision of the court, could then appeal it.

But, counsel to Fidelity Bank, Chief Seyi Sowemimo (SAN) urged the court to hear the application challenging the jurisdiction of the court first before considering any other application. According to him, when the jurisdiction of the court is challenged, such application ought to be taken first to know whether the matter could go on or not.

Sowemimo argued that the preliminary objection challenging the jurisdiction of the court is the only application that was ripe for hearing and not the one seeking for mandatory injunction.

But the trial judge, Justice Adefope-Okojie, agreed with the submissions of the Ayanlaja. In a bench ruling, she held that the two applications would be heard together and a joint ruling delivered on them. She, thereafter, proceeded to fix May 7 for the hearing of the two applications.

After the proceedings, THISDAY spoke to the embattled lawyer and asked if he had confidence in the process (judiciary) to regain his title, he simply responded: “If I don’t have confidence in this process, why do you think I am here. Of course I do absolutely.”

Sometime in February, the LPPC suspended Aribisala from further using his SAN title in the country. The suspension followed a petition by his client, Fidelity Bank, to the LPPC complaining that he had breached ethical standards in their solicitor-client relationship. The bank’s management alleged that it was miffed by what it perceived as the over-reaching attitude of the lawyer and decided to take their grievances to the doorsteps of the LPPC, which in turn, came down hard on Aribisala.

In his suit against the bank and the LPPC, Aribisala is praying the court to reverse the verdict of the committee. While the LPPC did not file any response to the suit, the bank in its preliminary objection, challenged the jurisdiction of the court to hear the suit. The bank specifically noted that going by the nature of the case, only the Federal High Court was mandated to hear it.

But Aribisala in his motion on notice dated April 9, 2013, asked the court to dismiss the preliminary objection by the bank. He contended that the mere mention of the federal legislation or of matter in the Exclusive Legislative list does not make the case proper for the Federal High Court to have exclusive jurisdiction to entertain.

In his statement of claim, Aribisala is asking the court to overturn the decision by the LPPC, saying the LPPC acted in error, beyond its juridical competence. He also urged the court to declare as null and void, the suspension with all the privileges pertaining thereto.
Aside, the lawyer is also asking the court for a mandatory interlocutory “injunction restraining the LPPC from giving any effect to, implementing, continuing to implement, or carrying out any act or making any form of publicity relating to the alleged suspension” of the use of SAN title by him pending the determination of his suit.

He recalled that the LPPC took the decision on February 26, 2013 in favour of the second defendant, despite a pending application seeking a restraining order of interlocutory injunction against the second defendant in that regard, dated October 19, 2012.
Aribisala is further seeking from the court, an order of mandatory injunction directing the defendants to maintain the status quo ante as at October 22, 2012 when the defendants were served with the originating processes that sought a restraining order against the second defendant pending the determination of the substantive suit.

He averred that he did not overcharge the bank as claimed by the financial institution in a petition it sent to the LPPC, adding that his legal fees for services rendered to bank were in line with the provisions of the LPPC Remuneration for Legal Practitioner Documentation and other Land Matters Order.

Maintaining that he had a contractual relationship with the bank on the basis of which he acted ex-cathedra, Aribisala explained that having tried to no avail to get the bank to honour its financial obligations as per the terms of their agreement, he was left with no option than to deduct the said amount from the monies he helped the bank recover; arguing that the law allows him to take such a decision.
He expressed disappointment that the LPPC misinterpreted his action as a professional misconduct and rushed to judgment to sanction him without availing themselves of the facts of the substantive issue in contention.

He underscored the fact that the LPPC was a creation of the law, vested with certain powers but that such powers restrain it from acting ultra vires on matters that ought to be submitted to the court for adjudication and which have been so submitted. “Once a matter is subjudice, nobody is allowed to comment, investigate or do anything about it except the court before which the matter is pending,” he noted.

Apart from the ongoing proceedings at the Lagos High Court, last month, Aribisala sent a petition to the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mariam Aloma Mukhtar, in her capacity as the chairperson of the LPPC, where he not only argued that the LPPC does not have the powers to suspend him, but named Mr. Babajide Koku (SAN) as the mastermind of the plot to strip him of the title of SAN.

In the petition to the CJN, he alleged Koku, being a member of LPPC, was not supposed to sit on the panel that recommended his suspension because there was no way he would get justice, having had several altercations with him in the open court and outside in the course of prosecuting loan recovery matters for the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) as well other loan defaulters.
He listed some of the cases to include: ID/178/2010 Bank PHB Vs. Zenon Oil & Gas Ltd. & Ors before Justice Alogba; LD/2449/10 Access Bank Plc Vs Zenon Oil & Gas & Ors before Justice Lawal-Akapo; LD/2315/11 Nigdel United Oil Company Ltd Vs. Zenith Bank Plc before Justice Lawal-Akapo; and FHC/L/CS/299/11 Chief A. A. Aribisala, SAN Vs.Olufemi Otedola before Justice Okeke.

Other cases listed include FHC/L/CS/310/11 Zenon Petroleum & Gas Ltd Vs. Access Bank & Ors before Justice Okeke; LD/858/2011Rasheed Sarumi & Anr Vs. Femi Otedola & Ors before Justice Olateru-Olagbegi; FHC/L/CS/1404/11    Chief A. A. Aribisala, SAN Vs.Olivier Meyer & Ors before Justice Abang, and later Justice Buba; FHC/L/CS/22/2012 Silvand Ltd & Ors Vs. Zenith Bank Plc before Justice Olatoregun-Ishola and later Justice Saidu. J; and LD/768/2012 Zenith Bank Plc Vs Joseph Penawou& Ors before Hon. Justice Jose.

According to him, “At least, 95 per cent of the cases in my chambers relate to recovery of high profile bad debts on behalf of Nigerian Banks whereas Mr. Koku, SAN, is also known as a lawyer who specialises in defending customers who owe banks and most unwilling to discharge their obligations.

“… I will now deal with the relationship between my humble self and Mr. Babajide Koku, SAN in the past three years or thereabout, which purely arose from my courtroom activities as a lawyer in several cases I have been engaged in on behalf of my clients, which are financial institutions, and against Mr. Koku’s clients, who are high profile debtors to these financial institutions that I represent.

“The set of cases, mentioned above relate to issues that we had serious courtroom altercations because of the amount of money involved, running into billions of naira, and these altercations left both of us with so much disaffection and contempt for each other’s style of advocacy and that it led to a sour relationship between the two of us.

“However, because of the high profile of the parties which include Mr. Femi Otedola, and some of his companies, including Zenon Petroleum and Gas Limited, this matter was eventually settled after we had had a serious press war and obtained an injunctive order of mareva, receivership order pursuant to my appointment as receiver/manager, thereby putting the charged assets of the debtors into receivership over the amount being owed the banks.

“When AMCON was created by the Federal Government of Nigeria through the instrumentality of the Central Bank of Nigeria, all these cases were finally off-loaded by the banks to AMCON and notwithstanding the sale of the loans to AMCON, the hostility between Mr. Koku, SAN, and I raged on.

“All these courts can bear witness to the fact that I have had fierce battles in court with Mr. Koku, and these judges can be called upon to corroborate the fact that I have never been at peace with Mr. Koku, which purely relates to our relationship as counsels. It is not in dispute that my firm specialises in insolvency practice for which we only represent banks in respect of recovery of high profile loans given out to customers and have become difficult or virtually impossible to recover from the debtors,” he said.

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