The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, on Wednesday warned lawyers and other members of the public against making “unguarded comments” on live cases before various courts.
Justice Onnoghen, in a statement by his Senior Special Assistant (Media), Mr. Awassam Bassey, specifically expressed concern about comments in the media concerning the ongoing legal dispute over the Anambra Central Senatorial District seat.
The CJN said such comments were tantamount to contempt of court which could earn the commentators a jail term.
He also charged judges not to take lightly cases of such infractions, urging them not to hesitate to wield their punitive powers against culpable persons violating the principle of subjudice.
He said more worrying was the fact that languages being used to describe judgments of court were not only ungentlemanly, degrading and contemptuous, but amounted to uncharitable insults.
The statement partly read, “The attention of the Honourable, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), His Lordship Hon. Mr. Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, GCON, has been drawn to the emerging and continued practice of discussions of matters that are subjudice in the print and electronic media, such as the issues concerning the Anambra State Central Senatorial District dispute.
“The Hon. CJN wishes to remind the general public that it is contempt of court for anyone to discuss any matter pending in any court of law in the country.
“The punishment for contempt may include a term of imprisonment.
“To make matters worse, in such discourse, the language being used in describing the judgments of the courts is not only ungentlemanly, degrading and contemptuous, but amounts to uncharitable insults which should not be encouraged in any decent democracy.
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“It is in the light of the above that the Hon. CJN continues to encourage parties and the general public to use only lawful means in the pursuit of remedies for their real and imagined grievances.”
He also appealed to litigants, lawyers and other members of the public, to refrain from making unsubstantiated and malicious claims against judges.
But he reminded the judges to invoke their inherent powers of contempt in the event of a clear violation with respect to matters that were subjudice.
The statement read in part, “The Hon. CJN reiterates his appeal to litigants, advocates and the public to refrain from making unsubstantiated and malicious allegations and complaints against judicial officers, and reminds judges to consider invoking their inherent power of contempt where there are clear violations or infractions in respect of matters that are subjudice.
“The Hon. CJN, once again, assures Nigerians that the judiciary of this great nation remains committed to the discharge of its responsibilities in line with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria without fear or favour; affection or ill-will.”
While assuring Nigerians that the rule of law remained the solution to the country’s numerous problems, the CJN went on to cite foreign and Nigerian judicial decisions warning both the “mass media” and lawyers against expressing opinions or making a pre-judgment of live cases.
The statement read in part, “Back home, added, In Mobil Oil Nigeria Ltd. vs ASSCAN (1995) 8 NWLR (Part 412) 129 at 143, Uwais, JSC (as he then was) held that: In respect of criminal proceedings, it is forbidden for parties, their counsel or newspaper commentators to freely offer opinions in respect of matters pending in court, including any situation where a conviction has been entered but the convict’s appeal is pending at the appellate court.’
“His Lordship, the Honourable, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, reminds the general public that the Rule of Law remains the solution to the country’s numerous problems.”