The Court of Appeal, Lagos Judicial Division, has condemned the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’s seizure of Chief Mike Ozekhome’s professional fees.
The EFCC had obtained an interim ex parte order of forfeiture to freeze the money for 120 days, arguing that the N75 million transferred to Ozekhome’s account was a proceed of unlawful activity.
The anti-corruption agency argued that this was because the money was paid to Ozekhome by the then sitting Governor of Ekiti State, Ayodele Fayose, who was under the agency’s investigation.
The court, however, held that: “a legal practitioner is entitled to his fees for professional services and such fees cannot be rightly labelled as proceeds of crime”.
It also held, “further, it is not a requirement of the law that a legal practitioner would go into inquiry before receiving his fees from his client, to find out the source of the fund from which he would be paid.”
The EFCC had earlier filed an appeal against the judgement of Justice Abdulazuz Anka of the Federal High Court, Lagos, delivered in 2017 and held in favour of the respondent.
Justice Anka had unfrozen Ozekhome’s blocked account in Guaranty Trust Bank and vacated the interim ex parte order he earlier placed on the funds of Mike Ozekhome’s Chambers, at the instance of the EFCC.
The Court of Appeal in dismissing the appeal brought by the EFCC (FRN), held that the EFCC had wrongfully obtained the ex parte order to freeze the account as the lower court lacked the jurisdiction to grant same and as the defendant could not have committed any infraction to warrant his account being blocked and frozen.
The court after hearing arguments from U. U. Buhari for the Appellant (FRN) and Ejieke Onuoha (for Ozekhome), held that there was uncontradicted evidence shown in invoices and receipts issued by Ozekhome to Fayose that the said sum represented part payment of his professional fees in the handling of various cases for Fayose across Nigeria.
In 2016, the EFCC had, through Justice I.B.M Idris, then of the Federal High Court, Lagos, frozen Governor Fayose’s accounts, accusing him of allegedly keeping proceed of unlawful activity.
Fayose immediately engaged Ozekhome’s legal services and he approached the Federal High Court, Ado-Ekiti, presided over by Justice Taiwo Taiwo, and challenged the ex parte freezing order granted by Justice Idris.
A judgement delivered by Justice Taiwo Taiwo had found that the freezing order had been improperly granted and without jurisdiction in the first place, and upon suppression of material facts.
Fayose after the judgement went to his bank and withdrew N5 million from his unfrozen account for himself, while transferring N75 million to Ozekhome, as part payment of his professional fees.
The EFCC, though appealed this judgement, still went ahead and froze Ozekhome’s account, contending that the N75 million paid to his chambers by Fayose as professional fees for legal services, was a proceed of unlawful activity.
Ozekhome filed a motion before the Federal High Court, Lagos, urging it to set aside its earlier order freezing his chambers’ account.
He alleged misrepresentation, non-disclosure, suppression of material facts and non-compliance with the rules of the lower court and Judicial authorities regulating the grant of ex parte applications by the Appellant.
Justice Anka after hearing arguments from Ozekhome and Rotimi Oyedepo for the EFCC vacated the ex parte order and unfroze his account with GTBank. It was this judgement that the EFCC appealed to the Court of Appeal.
In a unanimous judgement delivered by the presiding Judge, Justice Chidi Nwaoma Uwa, with Justices Tunde O. Awotoye and James Gambo Abundaga, JJCA, (the other two members of the Panel), concurring, the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal and found that the bank account from which Fayose paid the fees was unencumbered as at the time he did having been unfrozen by Justice Taiwo of the Federal High Court, Ado-Ekiti.
The court found and held that the said order of Justice Taiwo which had vacated the order of Justice Idris (a court of equal and coordinate jurisdiction (as permitted by the Supreme Court under certain conditions), remained the extant law as it was still valid, subsisting and binding, having not been set aside by an appellate court or by the trial court itself.
The Court of Appeal also agreed with the lower court and held that from available evidence on record, the disputed amount having already been dissipated by the Respondent as at the time it was frozen by the lower court at the instance of the EFCC, the lower court did not have the requisite jurisdiction to have granted such freezing order in the first case.
The court also held that the said sum of N75 million was lawful to proceed for legal services duly rendered to Fayose by Ozekhome, and not proceeds of unlawful activity.