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Inibehe Effiong: A lawyer can be sent to prison by a judge for contempt

Yesterday, a popular and outspoken Nigerian lawyer and human rights activist, Mr Inibiehi Effiong was sent to jail for a month by the Chief Justice of Akwa Ibom State, Her Lordship, Justice Ekaette Obot for contempt of court.

Some people have expressed concern and genuine shock at the incident and questioned whether a judge has the authority to send a lawyer who appears in court to defend his client in jail for doing the job of representing his client. .

Due to the circumstances surrounding this particular matter and the status of those involved, in particular the status of the person of Her Lordship, Madam Obot, Chief Justice of Akwa Ibom State; the purpose of this article is not to determine whether his lordship was right or wrong to have sent a lawyer to jail for contempt (which can only be determined on appeal or by other judges) rather this article purports to answer to the question and educate readers “if a judge has the power to send a lawyer appearing before him to jail for contempt and the things a lawyer can do in court while appearing in court for the lawyer to be found guilty of contempt of court”.

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Contempt of court is a serious offense and a lawyer will be deemed to be in contempt of court if he does anything that undermines the powers of the Court to administer justice or does anything that may, in any manner, obstruct the course of justice or attempt to impair the authority or power of the court to administer justice and the court has the right to invoke its innate powers to punish the person, whether he be it a lawyer or a bystander, sending her to jail until she purges herself of her outrage and apologizes to the court.

The legal profession is an honorable profession, so there are laws and rules governing the business of lawyers in court and even out of court. A lawyer must be disciplined and demonstrate a high level of integrity and professionalism at all times.

In court, a lawyer is expected to conduct his case with the utmost respect and discipline; respect and esteem for the co-lawyers on the other side of the dividing line, and respect for the bench (the judge(s)). A lawyer should never raise his voice at a judge or show any form of disrespect towards a judge or ever be seen using a rude tone or foul language against a judge or when he is addressing other lawyers or anyone else present in court. If a lawyer does this, he will be deemed to have committed contempt of court and a judge has the power to order the lawyer committed to jail until the lawyer clears himself of contempt.

Article 31(1) of the Rules of Professional Conduct provides; A lawyer should always treat the court with respect, dignity and honor. Subsequently, S.35 of the same CPR further provides; A lawyer appearing before a tribunal or court should give it due respect and treat the tribunal/court with courtesy and dignity.

When a lawyer shows even the slightest sign of disrespect for a judge or disregard for the judicial process, he will be held in contempt and ordered to be disbarred and “undress.”

Whether a judge can send a lawyer to jail for contempt without giving the lawyer an opportunity to defend themselves and exercise their right to a fair trial will be up for debate later, but it is all completely legal that a judge can send a lawyer to jail for contempt of court until the lawyer clears himself of contempt.

Apply these established rules to what happened between Barr. Inibehi Effiong and the Honorable CJ of Akwa Ibom yesterday, according to the eyewitness report, it was said that Barr. Effiong raised his voice towards the judge and addressed the judge in a rude and disrespectful manner, hence why the judge ordered him out of the bar and undressed and sentenced him to a one month’s imprisonment.

We all hope that caution will prevail and that this issue between his honorable Lordship and the fierce Barr Effiong will be settled amicably in the near future.