I Cried The Day A Lawyer Called Me A Fool –Ayotunde Phillips, Former Lagos CJ

Former Chief Judge of Lagos State, Ayotunde Phillips

The immediate past Chief Judge of Lagos State, Ayotunde Phillips, tells Ademola Olonilua and Tunde Ajaja, about her experience on the job and sundry issues

What have you been doing since you retired over a year ago?

I’ve been travelling a lot. I said it before I retired that I would travel a lot and visit Australia, but I’ve not been there yet. And then, I’ve been busier than I thought I would be because I’ve been attending a lot of conferences, seminars and workshops. I’ve been invited to give keynote addresses or just to speak as a member of a panel. In fact, for the rest of this year, I’ll be in and out of the country doing just that. So, I’ve been quite busy and I’ve not had the time to relax on the beach like I promised myself, (laughs) but maybe I’ll be able to do that next year.

When you were young, was it your dream to become a lawyer?

It wasn’t my dream actually. I wanted to be a bilingual secretary, be a teacher, and then read History, but it was my father, who was a lawyer then, that asked me to try reading Law. I wasn’t that interested then but he explained that it’s always the best to have a profession. He said if I had just a degree, I might end up teaching, which might not be as fulfilling as having a profession that I could practise for the rest of my life. I saw reason with that argument and that was why I read Law.

At that initial stage, did you find it interesting?

No. It was very boring and very difficult. In fact, my first year, I crammed most of what I was taught. It was when I got to my second year that I began to show some interest, with courses like Law of Contract, Law of Tort, Assault and Battery. That was when it began to get interesting. But I prefer the practice of Law to the academic side of Law because you see it happening and you see the facts of the case and it becomes more real. Then when I left Law School and I began to practice, I really began to love it, even from when I was in Law School. From there, I began to develop real interest in it, and I knew I would like to practice.

What were the exciting moments you had at the law court as a lawyer?

My most exciting moment was the first day I moved a motion before the late Justice Aguro. My father was a judge then and that was my first day working with Kehinde Sofola and Co. Kehinde Sofola, my mentor, is dead too. He really taught me and made me love the profession. From the very first day, I went to court with him, and we were in his car with my new wig and gown. In the car, he told me I would move the day’s motion and I was shocked. I told him I had never done it before, but he took me through it, step by step, and I was writing down everything he was telling me verbatim. So, when we got to court, he introduced me as his junior and said I would move the application. Funny enough, I wasn’t even nervous, I just took the paper and read everything the way I wrote them. And he commended me. So that was how I started. It was really nice.

What of your saddest moment?

It was a day one lawyer abused me thoroughly. He did that so much that I was reduced to tears. I was working with Lagos State Development and Property Corporation then. We were handling a case, and we won the case. He was on the other side, so he was annoyed. He called me a fool, a goat and all kinds of names. I was not used to that, and my father was a serving judge, so if I answered him, nobody would blame him, they would blame me that I should know better. So the fact that I could not even answer him made it so painful. I wept when I got back to my office, not in his presence though.

Your father was a judge, you were one and your junior sister is one now. What makes it run in the family?

I don’t know. We just have to thank God. It’s God’s work. It wasn’t planned that way. In fact, nobody knew 10 years ago that it would be that way, but God works in mysterious ways and we cannot question Him. For me, I started with private practice and moved to work with Lagos State Government. I worked with LSDPC for 14 years and got transferred to the Ministry of Justice. I was there for almost four years before I was made a judge. My sister worked with the Federal Government. She was with the Ports Authority and then Federal Ministry of Justice. She moved to Magistracy in Lagos State judiciary, and that was the route. So, we came from two different routes. I came from the executive and she came from the judiciary. She was called to bar two years after I was called, so really, it’s just the fluke of nature. When she was appointed the judge, there were about eight people between us, so she was that far behind me, but they were either retired or something else happened, and the last person between us, Justice Rhodes-Vivour was elevated to the Court of Appeal and now in the Supreme Court, so that was what brought her right behind me.

Did you aspire to become a judge?

When I finally developed the love for the profession, I realised that the highest I could go was to become a judge, so I aspired to be the highest. I knew it wasn’t a very good paying job because the salary was rubbish when I was appointed, but it’s much better now. When I was appointed in 1994, it was still under the military and nobody really cared about the judiciary. And then there was so much noise about the judiciary and other things like corruption, so I thought I could make a difference. It was something I liked to do, and differently too, in that I would be friendly, accommodating but I would be fair and incorruptible. We are doing God’s job on earth, so it’s a job. So, that was what really inspired me to do a job and to do it to the best of my ability. That was what I tried to do. And I know history will judge whether I did it rightly or wrongly.

Was there any time you passed a judgement and you felt bad about it?

Oh! Several times. Sometimes, you feel very sorry for the party who lost but either the lawyer didn’t do the job properly or the case was just bad or the person was just misled. But you were not there when the transaction went bad and since you are not a party to the transaction, you have to divorce your emotion from it. Being personal, you would feel it, but most times, you judge on the facts before you and if the facts go against who you would like to have won, so be it. It’s not for you to give judgement to whom it should not be given, sentiments apart. The court is a court of law and not a court of sentiment.

Did you ever lose sleep over any of your judgements?

No. I slept very well. If you do that, you would kill yourself prematurely because your blood pressure would rise through the roof. Once I’ve delivered judgement, it’s like you’ve carried the burden on your shoulder and you place it down, and then you move on, because you still have 500 to 1,000 more that you need to write.

Was there any time people tried to induce or bribe you to pass judgement in their favour?

This is Nigeria, it happens all the time. In such cases, I used to tell such people to let me finish the judgement, and then if you are happy at the end of the day, then we’d talk. Invariably, you will not be happy at the end of the day, so you won’t come back. It was a very senior judge who told me when I was first appointed that I should never go into the court and mention if anybody offered me anything. He said that is being childish. This is Nigeria, where people do all sorts of things. People will go and find your distant relative to help them talk to you, but then, just tell them you have heard but that they should let you finish. The person wants to give you money because the person knows he or she has a bad case. Once the person loses, you won’t hear from him again and that’s the end of the story.

Did you receive threats over some cases you handled?

Never. I never received a single text message, letter or any form of message from anybody threatening me all through my 20 years and five months as a judge. Some do get such but I didn’t. I must have done something right. A senior judge told me many years ago that this profession is based on your reputation. Once you have a reputation of being fair, invariably you would be alright, but if your reputation is such that it’s a bit shaky, then, maybe you might be subjected to such. Personally, I never received any single threat in any form, shape or manner throughout my career.

Sometimes, lawyers get angry with judges and they show it. Were you ever embarrassed by it?

It happens all the time and I experienced it many times, but I do defuse the situation. I could ask the lawyer if he would like to come up and slap me or ask if the person would feel better by slapping me? And everybody in the court would say ‘As the court pleases’ and they will start laughing, including the lawyer. No doubt, some lawyers get very tense, but then I tell the person to calm down. I remove my glasses and tell the person to cool down. I could even ask him if his wife offended him that morning or was last night not a good night. I make a joke out of it and invariably, it defuses the situation. So, I was known as a jolly good fellow. You can’t really please all the lawyers, and after some time, you would get to know when such a situation is coming. So you’re ready for it. If you fall into the lawyer’s trap, that’s when you would allow him to get annoyed and say all kinds of things.

How does a judge fall into the trap of a lawyer?

Very easy. You could have adjourned a matter or definite argument, and the day before the matter comes up, the lawyer on the opposing side might file a counter affidavit, and with that, he has truncated the argument or trial for that day. Normally you should get quite annoyed, because you have already had about three adjournments. You can say one or two sharp words but you must be controlled in what you say. Don’t get too emotional and don’t get too personal, and of course, award heavy cost, then he won’t do it again. Lawyers will always try to annoy you but you have to be mature, because even if he says rubbish from the bar, it’s not pleasant for you as a judge to respond. The two of you cannot be exchanging words. So, I’ll rather not let that situation arise.

When you were a lawyer and your dad was a judge, was there any time you had a case before him?

Just once or twice, because it’s not proper for such to happen. It leaves room for allegations of bias. So, all I did that day was that I went to take a date, and that was because there was no other person around. And my father announced clearly that the counsel for the plaintiff was his daughter. There was no hiding and everybody knew I was his daughter, so I was just there to take a date. I was in LSDPC then. And that’s about the only thing you really should do, if you must appear before your father.

When lawyers came up with affidavits and the motions, did you get tired of such?

It was very tiring and upsetting, especially towards the end of my tenure when I wanted to finish certain cases that were before me and had gone quite a long way, and I wanted to finish them before I retired. And then, lawyers started dragging their feet, so, as the Chief Judge, I reassigned the cases to other judges.

How did you socialise as a judge, considering the walls built around judges?

I kept my core friends. I have about four friends that we remained very close, right from the beginning of my tenure till now, so I kept those contacts. I was very busy during my last two years as the chief judge. So I could only function in official capacity. But when I wanted to relax, my friends would come over, we’d drink wine and we’d talk. I could gist them on the things that have been happening to me. Also, I watch television and a lot of DVDs. I really unwind watching television and movies. And I love music.

Didn’t you get tired of a regimented way of socialising; having to meet with friends all the time at the same place and venue?

If I went out, people won’t let me rest. If I went to the cinema, there would be people waiting outside to see me. It spoils the fun. I still get it apparently. It also happens in church. When I’m saying my last prayer after the close of the service, I would already be surrounded by people who want to see me. What do you do in such situations? So, I get some relaxation in the midst of my friends.

While growing up, were you the social type?

Very social. I attended parties, and drank sometimes. I really enjoyed my youth. So I don’t miss anything now. I still go to parties just that I will not go there and stay there for five hours. There is a stage for everything. That’s why I believe that when you are young, do what young people do, so that when you get to middle age and old age, you will not miss anything. I’ve lived my life and now I do what people of my age do; travelling, going to the club and relax. I have a motto – work hard and play hard. It makes a good balance. As a judge, you cannot lock yourself away from the world. The world is changing and it is evolving. If you are not part of that change and that evolution, you will not be able to adjudicate properly in a modern sense. You have to be aware of what is going on around you, so you cannot lock yourself away. You have to read the newspapers, watch the television and interact with people so you can know how people think. So, it’s part of social engineering and jurisprudence.

What kind of music do you listen to now?

I like Nigerian pop. I like Wande Coal, Don Jazzy, D Banj, Tiwa Savage, Terry G, among others. In fact, I see Terry G as quite a rascal and I love his music because it lifts up my spirit. I also like Olamide, like his Shakiti bobo. I also like Lionel Richie, rhythm and blues.

Your field is male-dominated. How were you able to cope, especially with some men who try to ride women?

I have a lot of respect for my male colleagues. Nobody ever said that to me. It didn’t happen to me. Judges are quite disciplined and respectful in the way we treat one another, so it didn’t happen. When I was a lawyer, well, some lawyers could get rude at the very beginning but when they watch you to see your demeanour and attitude, and when they see that you are not the type, they respect you. A woman has to first respect herself, and when you do that, they will too. In fact, I was known to be quite respectful, so before you said anything, I had already said yes sir. When your father is a judge, you have to be a bit careful because they are looking to see how you would disgrace yourself so they can abuse your father. So, I never gave them the opportunity.

Your father being a judge could have opened doors for you. What was your experience on that?

It didn’t open many doors, to be honest. My father was strict and he believed that when he had trained you, you were on your own. He wanted us to do things on our own. But I do know that being a judge with a reputation, he helped us because he too was quite respected. In fact, some of the senior judges that are alive still refer to us as Justice William’s daughters. I do say that at my age, I think I’ve accomplished enough to be known as Justice Philips, and not to be known as his daughter. But when people say such things, I’m really grateful.

How did you meet your husband?

I met him in secondary school and there was nothing between us then. We were like family friends and I was like his sister. I used to assess his girlfriend. Much later, he had gone to America and got married to someone there and I got married to someone here, but then both our marriages failed, and then we met again. It was very awkward when we started talking about love. Our parents were the ones that found it really awkward, we didn’t because we were in love. We had to convince them that we were serious about it. He’s not been around now because he went to United States in 1996 and he’s been there since then. I was already a judge then, so it was something we agreed on. So, I see him when I go to the US.

Do you feel lonely since he’s not here with you?

It could be lonely, but then, I’ve got too much going for me here. That’s the only part of my life that is a bit lacking. But I’ve realised that I’m still needed here and my children are here with me. It’s too late to relocate.

When you were a judge, did you ever go to the market?

Definitely I did. I went to the market as a judge because I love cooking a lot. They even know me in the market. When I was at the court in Igbosere, I had a meat seller, Alaba, whom I always patronised. I would sit in my car and the sellers would bring anything I wanted to me. I did everything myself. It was only when I became a Chief Judge that I did not really have the time.

How were you able to balance the role of a mother and judge?

Luckily for me, my children had all grown up by the time I became a chief judge, so I did not have to worry about them. While I was a judge however, some of them were still in primary school while the rest were in secondary school. I had to attend their Parent Teacher Association meetings. I had to oversee their homework. My daughter who is now a magistrate often times reminds me of the times I sat on the dining table with my files while they had breakfast and prepared for school. I would oversee them eat their breakfast while I attended to my work. It was hard but I managed to pull it off.

When you were handing over to your sister, did people raise an eyebrow?

No, I nipped that in the bud. I had several interviews where I made it known that my sister’s tenure would not be an extension of mine. I said I have done mine while she is doing hers. If she asks me for advice, I would give her but if she does not ask me, then I would mind my business and I have kept my word. In fact, I have distanced myself from the judiciary. If anybody says there is a foul play because my sister is the chief judge of the state, they are just speculating.

As you were handing over to your sister, what was going through your mind?

I was praying for her. It is a monumental job with lots of responsibilities. I was praying that she remains focused. She has to know what to do with the time allotted to her because she would be retired at 65. She has to be focused and prayerful and I was really praying for her.

Did your husband give you law related pet names like ‘my lord?’

He never did. Sometimes when we had an argument, he would tell me that he was not in my court. It always got to me whenever he said that because it was his way of winning the argument. He knows that I would stop arguing at that point. He would remind me that we are in his house and not a court room. He made fun of me sometimes.

Do you miss wearing the wig and gown?

No, I do not because it is very hot. It is very hot and I cannot get used to it. I get very uncomfortable when I wear it.

What do you miss the most about your job?

I miss waking up in the morning, getting dressed and heading to court. I thought I would not because I had been doing it for so many years but I still miss it very much. Somebody told me that after some time, I would not miss it anymore. Whenever I wake up in the morning now after I freshen up, I would go to my study. I hardly stay in the sitting room. My friends say that I should not worry too much about it and I should remember that I had been going to work for over forty years. I can’t just change overnight. I cannot get up in the morning and sit in my sitting room. It is not just part of me right now, maybe later. When I am done at the study at about 6pm, I go to the sitting room to watch television.

Does the routine not bore you?

This time last week, I was in Zambia. This week, I would be in Dubai; after that, my next point of call is Finland. I am not home all the time because I travel a lot.

How would you feel if your daughter becomes a judge in your life time?

I would be ecstatic and I would be over the moon. I pray to see such a day because I would be a very proud mother. My second child, Akin, is a legal adviser to a company.

My other children are into entertainment. One is in London studying sound engineering and disc jockey. I never knew that there was a course like that and it is quite expensive. My other daughter is into film making.

Were you a quiet young girl while growing up?

I was a bit mischievous and my mother and I clashed a lot because of that. I was the first child and I got beaten a lot because I was a bit rebellious. Whenever I did something, my punishment was always more because they believed I was the one teaching my younger ones. I was given a lot of responsibility and I thank my mother for that because that prepared me for her death. When she died in 1980, I was about 32 years old. I was really sad and I realised that I had a lot of responsibility. We were left on our own and my father settled with another woman. It was only our last born that was not married and he left for England after our mother died and has never returned to Nigeria till date.

During your tenure as the Chief Judge of Lagos State, you visited some prisons and set some inmates free. How did you feel when you visited the prisons?

That was a very emotional period for me. Before I became the CJ, I knew the extent of my power. I knew my statutory duties and it included freeing some prisoners to decongest the prisons. I was shocked at the figures I found on ground when I became CJ. I thought it was something that was done regularly. It was when I went there that I realised not so many people had been released.

When I did my first prison exercise, I told my people to be ready because people would abuse us for our actions. I thought people would condemn me for releasing criminals into an already insecure society but to my surprise, I was praised. If you see where they keep these people, it is really sad. They need to build more prisons.

I don’t know when they built a prison last in this country. When you go abroad and see the way inmates are treated, you would be sorry for Nigerian prisoners. They can cramp 100 people in a small room. Those awaiting trials are the ones that suffer the most. The inmates are a bit comfortable because they have a room to themselves, they look nice and fresh. They have a bed and locker but the awaiting trial inmates are stuffed like sardines.

You are 66 years old, how come you look younger than your age?

I am a ‘happening babe.’ I think I look this young because I am young at heart. It helps a lot. I am always laughing. I am no longer in office, so nothing is stressing me. If I stress myself, I want to kill myself. Life is so short, so you have to make the best of it. There are good times and bad times but I want the good times in my life to supersede the bad times.

What would you do after going round the world?

I would set up a consultancy firm and I would employ some young lawyers to work with me.

PUNCH