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Justice Emeka Nwite of the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja has found the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court guilty of Freedom of Information (FOI) request violation.

However, the court failed to award the fine of N500,000 against the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court as stipulated by the law, hence, the petitioner, Sesugh Akume, a public policy analyst, vowed to appeal a part of the judgment.

Justice Nwite in a judgment delivered on Monday in a suit Sesugh Akume v Chief Registrar, Supreme Court of Nigeria, marked FHC/ABJ/CS/1491/2020, held that the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court erred when a Freedom of Information (FOI) application made to the Supreme Court was not answered within seven days as stipulated by the Freedom of Information Act.

Sometime in 2020, Akume made an FOI application at the Supreme Court to find out the status of Osakue v EDOCASA (the second FOI case filed at the Supreme Court since 2018 which sought to establish that the FOI Act is applicable at the state level), but was denied.

Reacting to the judgment of the Federal High Court on Monday, Akume said that after a week, he wrote to the Supreme Court again reminding it of its obligation to respond to the FOI application within seven days, and of the optics and implications of the apex court in the land being a lawbreaker but he got no response.

Akume said he thereafter approached the Federal High Court, Abuja a second time over the same subject of FOI, against the same Supreme Court.

“The first was the matter of Sesugh Akume v Supreme Court of Nigeria & Another(FHC/ABJ/CS/1161/2020 seeking the status update of Martins Alo v Speaker, Ondo House of Assembly — the first FOI case filed at the Supreme Court since 2018 which seeks to establish that the FOI Act is applicable at the state level. Upon doing so, I was furnished with the information requested.

“The questions before the court were whether the Supreme Court was right in not providing the information within 7 days as stipulated by law.

“And where the answer was in the negative, a declaration that the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court erred in not doing so.

“Also an order compelling them to immediately furnish us with the information; and an award of five hundred thousand naira (N500 000.00) only, being the statutory amount for denying an FOI application; and two million (N2 000 000.00) naira as the cost of the litigation.”

After several hearing notices were served on the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, a defence was entered one year after on September 27, 2021, wherein a counter-affidavit in opposition to the suit along with an exhibit and a written address in support of the counter affidavit were filed.

The respondent contended that due to COVID-19, the information could not be provided as there were few staff working at the time on a rotational basis, and the record rooms were fumigated and, therefore, out of bounds within that period and long afterwards.

The respondent said that Akume ought to have known and was indeed aware and that the information applied for had been provided and the case was thus overtaken by events.

Meanwhile, the FOI Act provides that where information requested cannot be provided within seven days, the public institution is to inform the party applying for the information.

In reply, petitioner’s lawyers wanted the court to determine whether there was any evidence that the Supreme Court notified me that the applicant might take longer than seven days even if by a text message.

They contended that the issue before the court was no longer about providing the information but whether it was provided timeously within the stipulated seven days, and whether on the balance of probability the information would have been provided had the respondent not been dragged to court.

Justice Nwite on Monday held that indeed there was no evidence before the court that respondent contacted me of the inability to provide the information within seven days, not even after my reminder letter.

The court, however, declined awarding damages and costs on the ground that the FOI Act provides that upon conviction the erring party is to pay the sum of N500 000.00 but there was no conviction in this matter, as the term ‘conviction’ usually applies to criminal matters, but this is not a criminal matter.

Akume said that “On this we respectfully disagree with his lordship, and upon conferring with our lawyers, we reached a unanimous decision that this part of the judgment of necessity needs further interpretation at the appellate courts.

“Whether or not there can be conviction in a civil matter? And whether or not declaring a party to have erred but without consequences for wrongdoing,and without compensation to the injured party is miscarriage of justice?

“It is our firm belief that there is indeed conviction in civil matters and such a convicted party is made to pay a fine, even if the nature of this conviction is different from that in criminal matters.

“Second, that there must be consequences for wrong doing, and whenever there is an injury there must be a remedy/compensation.

“The fearlessness of his lordship in being blind to the parties involved in this matter and not minding whose ox is gored in delivering the judgment to the best of his ability is worthy of note and commendation.

“The rule of law means no matter how tall a person is (individual or institution), the law is taller than them, whoever they are.“It is our firm conviction that public institutions and officials must be accountable and responsive to the people in order to create an orderly, progressive, and decent society.”

About Dons Eze

DONS EZE, PhD, Political Philosopher and Journalist of over four decades standing, worked in several newspaper houses across the country, and rose to the positions of Editor and General Manager. A UNESCO Fellow in Journalism, Dr. Dons Eze, a prolific writer and author of many books, attended several courses on Journalism and Communication in both Nigeria and overseas, including a Postgraduate Course on Journalism at Warsaw, Poland; Strategic Communication and Practical Communication Approach at RIPA International, London, the United Kingdom, among others.

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