Ecobank Nigeria has lost appeals in three different courts seeking to stop Dr. Charles Mekwunye (SAN) from representing the estate of former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Taslim Elias, in a sublease dispute between the bank and late jurist’s family.
Three children of the late Jurist, Mrs. Ganiyat Elias, Olusoji Elias, and Dr. Gbolahan Elias, SAN, including the estate company representing the family interest, Olawale Momolesho have been engaged in a protracted legal battle with the bank over a sublease dispute on their late father’s estate.
One of the cases instituted by the family estate company in 2014 is before Justice I.O Harrison of the Lagos High Court, while another counter-suit filed by Ecobank against the late jurist’s children is before Justice R.O. Olukolu also of the Lagos High Court. One of the matters which was initially decided by the Federal High Court is now before the Court of Appeal, Lagos.
In all three matters, the bank lost its preliminary objections seeking to stop Dr. Mekwunye from representing the family on the ground that he was a former Executive Director of Oceanic Bank now Ecobank.
In the matter before the Court of Appeal, Lagos, the bank in its preliminary objection to substantive appeal, argued that having worked as Executive Director in Oceanic Bank and as such being privy to confidential information, the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners, 2007, prohibits Mekwunye, his law firm and any lawyer working for him from representing the late Elias estate.
However, in their counterargument, the children of the late CJN stated that Mekwunye in his capacity as an Executive Director in Oceanic Bank presided over corporate banking and was never privy to confidential information regarding the subject matter before the appellate court.
In a lead judgment delivered in April by Justice Abubakar Umar, the court however upheld the argument of the respondent insisting that Ecobank has not shown any fact to convince the court that Mekwunye while working for Oceanic Bank was privy to vital information relating to the property sublease in dispute.
He held: “The Appellant has by its counter-affidavit shown that as one of the Directors of Oceanic Bank, Dr. Mekwunye was not directly involved with the activities of the legal department which was in fact headed by someone else entirely; and by extension, Dr. Mekwunye did not participate in the transaction which has culminated into this appeal.
“I hold the view that the Applicant had the onus of controverting these facts as deposed to by the Appellant and supplying the court with relevant Information directly linking the participation of Dr. Mekwunye in the lease agreement between the Appellants and Oceanic Bank (now acquired by the Applicant). The Applicant failed to do this.
“It will indeed be stretching the law beyond its intended Interpretation if Dr. Mekwunye is restrained from representing the Appellant simply because he was an employee of Oceanic Bank/the Applicant at the time the lease agreement subject matter of this appeal was executed. This is so because it is wrong to suggest that counsel may not appear against someone whom he appeared for in a matter having no semblance to the present case.”
“The Appellant has not shown that Dr. Mekwunye was in breach of Rule 17(4) of the RFC to Invoke the order of the court prohibiting Dr. Charles Mekwunye and any counsel in his Law firm from further legal representation on behalf of the Appellants/Respondents in this Appeal.”
Two other judges on the panel, Justice Onyekachi Otisi and Justice Abdulahi Bayero also agreed with the lead judgment. Justice Otisi held: “Indeed to my mind, the contentions of the Respondent/Applicant appear speculative and totally without substance. Aside from the delay in the hearing and determination of this appeal, nothing has been achieved by this objection.”
In the matter before Justice Olukolu of the Lagos High Court, the court in a bench ruling on June 17, 2021, struck out a similar application seeking the stop Mekwunye from representing the children of late Elias. The decision of the court followed Ecobank’s counsel’s refusal to proceed with the hearing despite being given the opportunity to do so by the court.
On July 14, 2021, ruling on a similar application in the suit filed by Olawale Momolesho, the High Court also held that Ecobank’s objection to Mekwunye appearing for the family lacks merit.
“The application has failed to prove the close connection of Dr. Mekwunye’s employment as Executive Director of Oceanic Bank and services he is rendering to the claimant,” Justice Harrison held.
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