Non-service of notice stalls alleged contempt suit against Finance Minister, others

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*Photo: Ahmed

Non-service of court papers on Monday stalled the alleged contempt suit against the Minister of Finance, Mrs Zainab Ahmed in the National Industrial Court, Abuja.

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 The presiding judge, Justice Osatohanmwen Obaseki-Osaghae, told counsel to the applicants, Martin Agba, that a copy of the motion dated Jan. 18, which he claimed to have been filed on Jan. 26, was not in court file.

 Besides, counsel to the 1st defendant, Chigozie Iwuoha, and lawyer to the 3rd defendant, Paul Omata, also corroborated that they were yet to sight the application.

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 The development occurred shortly after the matter was called for the day’s proceeding. The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that Dr Christopher Sakpa, Dr Momoh Mcsionel, Dr Ahmed Rabiu and Dr Darlington Akukwu had, for themselves and on behalf of the affected members of Association of Specialist Medical Doctors in Academics (ASMEDA) filed the motion.

 While the National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission (NSIWC) is the 1st defendant, the Account-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Finance are 2nd and 3rd defendants respectively.

 The claimants, in the motion on notice marked: NICN/ABJ/145/2021, had prayed the court for a committal proceeding against the principal officers of the 1st and 2nd defendants, including the 3rd defendant, over alleged disregard to court order.

NAN reports that the court had, on July 23, 2021, in an ex-parte motion moved by counsel to the claimants, Agba, ordered the defendants to pay the doctors based on the Consolidated Medical Salary Structure (CONMESS) and the Associated Allowances.

The salary was approved by the Federal Government on Sept. 29, 2009, which was the status quo, pending the determination of the suit.

But the claimants averred in the motion that from August 2021 till date, the defendants are yet to fully comply with the said order.

When the matter was called, Agba informed that the case came up on Oct. 14, 2021 and it was adjourned until Dec. 15, 2021 for pending applications to be taken but on that date, the court was on vacation and the matter was fixed for Monday.

The lawyer said he had an application that had been served on the defendants already.“It is an application of motion on notice for committal  for contempt of court against the principal officers of the defendants“The defendants have all been served and subject to my Lord’s convenience, we are ready to move the application,” he said.

But counsel to the NSIWC (1st defendant), Iwuoha, said he had not seen the motion.“I am just hearing the motion for the first time,” he said.

He said he came to the court with the intention to move his motion dated Nov. 12, 2021, and filed Nov. 19. 2021, seeking leave of the court to amend their processes, following the claimants’ counter, further and better affidavits served on them which raised new issues.

Justice Obaseki-Osaghae then asked if they had complied with the ex-parte order of the court made on July 23, 2021.

Iwuoha replied that his client complied with the order based on the letter dated Aug. 13, 2021 from the AGF to the Minister of Labour on a stay of action on the earlier letter which gave them the go-ahead to reduce the salary of the doctors already re-enrolled.

The lawyer then read part of the contents of the letter in the open court.

But Agba, who insisted that the defendants had not comply with the court order, said besides, they were yet to respond to the motion on notice for committal proceeding after being served.

The judge, who went through the court file, said there was no copy of the motion also before the court.

“If you filed it on Jan. 26, the rules are there. If you filed a process on Friday and you want them (defendants) to be committed on Monday? Don’t you want them to respond?” she asked.

Agba explained that based on what the court bailiff told him after the payment of the fees, the defendants had been served.

He said their application was simple and clear that the defendants had flouted the court order.

Obaseki-Osaghae, who told the lawyer that there was procedure for effecting a service of such application on the defendants, said it has to be personal; that an institution cannot be served.

“You have to study the procedure for service of committal application. That is, it is personal service,” she said.

Counsel to the Minister of Finance (3rd defendant), Omata, however, told the court that he had a preliminary objection, asking the court to strike out the suit on the ground that the claimants did not have a course of action to institute the case.

Agba said the claimants decided not to oppose the application because it was filed out of time based on the rules of the court.

The judge told Omata that his preliminary objection too would not be taken but would be pending until next adjourned date.

The judge, who held that the application filed by the claimants for committal proceedings against the defendants were not before the court, adjourned the matter until March 9 for hearing of the application filed by Omata.

NAN reports that counsel to the AGF (2nd defendant) was not in court.

While Mr Ekpo Nta is the acting Chairman of NSIWC, Alhaji Ahmed Idris is the AGF.

NAN reports that the claimants had sought an order for leave of the court to proceed with committal proceedings for disobedience to its order “made on July 23, 2021 against the Executive Chairman of the 1st defendant, Chief Executive Officer of the 2nd defendant and the person of the 3rd defendant.

The claimants prayed the court to proceed on the committal proceedings on the grounds that the court granted all their reliefs directing the defendants to restore them to the status quo as at April 2021 on the CONMESS and associated allowances pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice.

They said the enrollment order of the court was duly served on the defendants on or about July 28, 2021, followed up by an official letter dated Aug. 9, 2021, by their lawyer, urging the principal officers of the defendants to comply but failed to do so.

According to them, the 1st defendant has unilaterally threatened to direct the complete stoppage of payment of monthly salary of the claimants based on the CONMESS salary structure from the month of December 2021.

“The defendants jointly and severally have shown gross impunity by their willful disobedience to the order or directive of this honourable court made on July 23, 2021,” they averred.

NAN reports that the court had restrained the defendants from reviewing downward the salaries and allowances of members of ASMEDA.

Justice Obaseki-Osaghae stopped all the defendants from acting on the contents of the April 22, 2021 letter issued by the Salaries Commission to the AGF (Accountant-General of the Federation).

The court held that the order of interim injunction would subsist pending the hearing and determination of the suit.

The Federal Government had, on Sept. 29, 2009 in a circular with reference number: SWC/S/04/S.410/220, approved the new salary structure for medical and dental officers in the federal public service known as CONMESS.

However, in a letter with reference number: SWC/S/04/S.410/T/86 dated April 22, 2021 addressed to the AGF and signed by the acting Director, Compensation, Adighiogu Chiadi, on behalf of the chairman of NSIWC, it directed that medical doctors in academics and research institutions should be re-enrolled  on the Consolidated University Academic Salary Structure.

The claimants averred that since the latest directive took effect, their take-home pay had reduced drastically by about 60 per cent.(NAN)

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