By Ameh Ejekwonyilo
After nearly a decade of being unlawfully retired, the Supreme Court of Nigeria has restored Mr. Bode Thomas to his former rank as the Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal from where he was forcefully retired in 2009.
The apex court returned Thomas to the position on the account that he was denied fair hearing in the circumstances that led to his removal from office by the Federal Judicial Service Commission.
In a unanimous judgment, delivered by Justice Kumai Bayang Akaahs, the apex court held that the former President of the Court of Appeal, Hon. Justice Umar F. Abdullahi, who accused the appellant of gross misconduct, erred in law when he presided over the investigation and compulsorily retirement of the appellant.
In its decision, the apex court held that the proceedings of the Investigative Committee, together with the decision of the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) are a nullity, for failure to adhere strictly to the rule of natural justice.
Justice Akaahs, who read the lead judgment of the five-member panel of the apex court, voided and set aside the compulsory retirement of Thomas by the FJSC as the Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal on March 5, 2009.
The appellant was until March 5, the Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal but, was by a letter with reference number FJSC/5/7/04/3/101 issued by Hajia B. A. Bashir, the secretary of the FJSC placed him on compulsory retirement.
Thomas had on November 17, 2008 received a query from the President of the Court of Appeal on a series of allegations of serious misconduct.
The allegations among others were that the appellant unilaterally fixed his salary at the last step of the consolidated salary of Chief Registrars, contrary to law and that he recruited several junior staff without due clearance from the President of the court.
He was also accused of authorizing foreign trips for some staff of the court and having less than a cordial relationship with Deputy Chief Registrars of the court due to alleged ineffective leadership style.
The response of the appellant to the query dated November 18, 2008 was said to have been found unsatisfactory by the President of the Court, prompting his matter to be forwarded to the FJSC for consideration.
The FJSC at its meeting of December 2, 2008, upheld the report of the Court of Appeal against the appellant, interdicted him pending the completion of investigation into his matter.
He was subsequently found guilty of serious misconduct and was compulsorily retired from the Judicial Service Commission.
A Federal High Court in its judgment of May 12, 2011, granted all the reliefs sought by the plaintiff, prompting the FJSC which is the defendant to approach the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal on January 16, 2013, resolved all issues in favour of FJSC, set aside the judgment of the high court and also awarded a cost of N30, 000 against Thomas.
However, Thomas through his counsel, Joseph B. Daudu (SAN), on April 3, 2013, headed for the Supreme Court with eight grounds of appeal.
Justice Akaahs after reviewing the issues agreed with the appellant that the issue revolves around fair hearing and the participation of the President of the Court of Appeal in the disciplinary proceedings.
The Supreme Court agreed that the participation of the Appeal Court President in the disciplinary action and where he was the accuser was in a grave error and a breach of the principle of fair hearing.