The National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN) has been asked to commence committal proceedings against the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Unity Bank Plc, Mrs. Oluwatomi Somefun, and commit her to prison for allegedly flouting orders made by the court.
The request formed the relief in a motion filed by 25 ex-staff of the bank in whose favour the Lagos division of the NICN had given a monetary judgment on July 3, 2019.
The ex-staff, led by John Adeola Taiwo, stated, in the motion filed on December 2, 2019, that Unity Bank was in open disobedience to the orders made by the court on November 12, 2019, and therefore deserved to be committed to prison for allegedly being in disobedience of valid and extant court orders.
The ex-staff had individually sued the bank in 2016 alleging non- payment of some of their outstanding entitlements and gratuity.
The court later consolidated the suits with the consent of parties and on the grounds that the issues were related.
In a judgment on July 3, 2019, in the suit marked: NICN/LA/84/2019, Justice R. H. Gwandu held in favour of the ex-staff and ordered the bank to pay them various sums of money.
But rather than comply with the judgment, the bank appealed and applied to the court for a stay of execution pending the determination of its appeal.
In a ruling on November 12, 2019, Justice Gwandu granted a stay as prayed by the bank but upon certain conditions.
The judge, in the ruling, said: “By the powers vested in this Court under Order 64 Rule 8(3) and in the discretion of this court, I hereby grant the stay of execution of this judgment pending the outcome of the appeal.
“This goes with the condition that the judgment debtor pays the judgment sum into the account of the Chief Registrar, National Industrial Court (an interest yielding account), such judgment sum shall be released to the party that is victorious in the outcome of the appeal.
“The payment of the judgment sum is ordered to be made within five working days, failure of which shall be treated as contempt of orders of this court.”
The pronouncements of the judge are what Taiwo and others are now accusing the Unity Bank of flouting and in respect of which they seek the committal of the bank’s CEO in the fresh motion filed on December 2, 2019.
They argued, in court documents, that “the order of the court has been respected by the judgment debtor in the breach rather than observance, in spite of the stern warning by the court that failure to comply shall be treated as contempt.
“It is trite law that the order of a court of competent jurisdiction remains inviolate until set aside and so, anyone who an order is made against must obey it until the order is set aside or discharged. Once an order exists, it must be obeyed.
“It is a clear fact that, in spite of the clear and explicit order of this honourable court, directing the defendant/judgment debtor to pay the judgment sum into the court’s account with the name of the Chief Registrar, the defendant/judgment debtor has continued, with impunity, to do the exact opposite of the order of the court”.
They added that the alleged failure of the bank to pay the judgment sum into an interest yielding account within five days, as directed by the court, “is an outright disregard of the order of this honourable court, making the defendant/judgment debtor liable for contempt of court”.
They added that since the defendant/judgment debtor is not a natural person, the law allows that its principal officer is penalized.
“It is trite law that where the contemnor is not a natural person, it cannot be committed to prison, but the principal officer can.
“In this case, the defendant (a financial institution) is not a natural person, who can be committed for contempt thereby making any of its high ranking officers in the person of Mrs. Oluwatomi Somefun, being the Managing Director, liable to be committed to prison for contempt of court.
“We urge this honourable court to grant them leave to proceed against Mrs. Oluwatomi Somefun, the Managing Director of the defendant and to find her liable accordingly and commit her to prison for contempt of the order made on 12th November 2019”.
The bank is yet to respond to the fresh motion.