The judge, Justice Frank Aboagye Rockson, nearly walked out a defendant. He called for ceasefire too. And his court was shelled by some “spurious” allegations against Lighthouse Chapel International.
He had quite a lot of work to do within a 20-minute hearing, except the actual work of giving rulings and deciding matters of the case. And that’s because processes from Lighthouse Chapel International (LCI) were “filed late”.
With no real legal work to do, he worked on the lawyers—managing the case, counselling the counsels on Day 2 of a case brought by six bishops and pastors LCI against their former church.
The court clerk, like a ring announcer, called out the case with impersonal attachment.
“Case No IL OO792021. Bishop Larry Odonkor versus Lighthouse Chapel international,” he announced. His voice floated inside the courtroom, inspecting the room for the attention of those present.
Like all ring announcers, his job was done after this. Let the games begin.
Mr. Kofi Bentil, who is counsel for Larry Odonkor would strike first: “My Lord, we have before you a motion on notice for an order to strike out portions of defendant’s case.”
Lighthouse Chapel International had filed their defence after ex-employee Larry Odonkor sued it for non-payment of SSNIT and also for damages after 19 years of service in a church which he now accuses of systematically exploiting and abusing him.
After more than a month’s delay, the church responded in court to Larry Odonkor’s allegations, including a counterclaim, accusing its former bishop of defamation. And when that response came, it was voluminous
Kofi Bentil was not happy with the response. According to him, “portions of the defence and counterclaim filed by Defendant are non-compliant with the rules of Court and ought to be struck out for being an abuse of the court process and an attempt to delay the fair trial of this action.”
This was a paragraph of legal niceties to simply say, LCI defence statement was messy, lacking focus, containing too many extraneous materials and irrelevant additions.
And so Bentil was in court to do the subtractions, to trim the defence into a focus fight. And that was why he filed his motion on June 2, alerting the court that he planned to ask the judge to order the removal of portions of the defence.
Court rules require that counsel for the plaintiff serve the defendants with this motion so they are aware of Bentil’s line of arguments and therefore prepare for him. On the part of the defence, they would also file their arguments in opposition to Bentil’s plans and they are required to serve him with this statement of their arguments.
In court, there are no surprises. It is only in heaven, the pastors would say.
“Erm, Mr. Bentil, have you been served with an affidavit (LCI arguments)? I don’t have a copy,” the judge appeared bemused.
Lighthouse Chapel International’s arguments to be made in opposition to what Bentil was to say was not before him. It was now the turn of Rodney Heward-Mills, counsel of Lighthouse, to explain in court why the judge did not have a copy of his arguments.
“My Lord, we did file an affidavit yesterday,” he said.
“Yesterday?” the judge expressed some surprise at yesterday and the lawyer.
Rodney Heward-Mills continued that the reason the judge didn’t have it was the weaknesses of the judicial system.
Ghana’s court system is a manual labour type of justice system. A document, once filed in court, is given to a bailiff who has to look for the case, trace the court where the case is being heard, find the judge handling it and then put it on his her file.
Laborious. Ghana’s justice system still has not leveraged e-governance and lawyers say this sometimes causes some nuisance.
Lawyers, judges, bailiffs and clerks, know this, and so parties in a dispute are encouraged to file in good time for bailiffs not to have a bad day.
Kofi Bentil filed his on June 2, some 20 days before court day 2. Rodney filed his response 20 hours to court action.
And this was why although the court was ready, the judge was seated, there is no paper to work with.
“This was filed yesterday after 1pm, and my colleagues were served in court. It cannot be reasonable to expect that in even the best systems this will be all done this morning,” Bentil rubbed salt into injury.
It hurt Rodney and he shot back, interjecting quite inaudibly.
The judge restrained him, allowing Bentil to dribble with the proverbial ball in his court. “He is on his feet. When he is done, I will allow you,” the judge assured Rodney that he would get his chance to make Bentil bleed.
Rodney would reiterate that the defence could not be faulted once it had served the court including the plaintiffs.
The judge was keen to move on with the case that had a motion that wasn’t moving.
But Bentil would throw in a bombshell. “My Lord, we are reliably informed that counsel on the other side is refusing service of processes on him. We are reliably informed.”
Rodney cringed in crimson anger. “Spurious allegation! Spurious allegation!” he fumed.
Bentil would later explain that bailiffs struggled to find someone in the church to serve them with documents. The last time a bailiff had to do this, he had to throw the documents at church officials, something which is accepted when a person does not want to cooperate with court.
“I won’t let it in. If that is the case, you know what will happen,” the judge hurriedly moved in to quell fresh controversy. But that not before he fired his own warning to the defendants.
“You sitting back there…if I see you talking again, I will walk you out,” he told a defendant for Lighthouse, Erica Aryee.
Quietly assertive, the judge’s caution revived everyone’s commitment to peacemaking overtures. Blessed are the peacemakers, the pastors would say.
Rodney asked the judge to get Bentil to withdraw his “spurious allegations.” The judge wanted both lawyers to withdraw the emotions in display in court.
“What I see here is, for the want of a better word, acrimony,” he said “I will not say this court is blowing its horns but you know that no matter what, the law will be applied. Those who have been appearing before me, they know.”
“So, the judge went on, “I do not see why you must be so emotional about things. Whatever it is, when you come, I will hear you. So don’t exchange words,” the judge ended his fatherly appeal against bickering brothers-in-the-profession who were representing brothers-in-Christ.
It worked, at least, for the rest of the session, and the court fixed a new date, July 6, 2021, for Bentil to move the motion to strike.
The judge sat back, quite satisfied in his black gown, same as court day one. Afterall, the colour of justice does not change. Why should judges’ robes?
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You can reach the writer of this story, Edwin Appiah, via email at [email protected]. You can follow him on @edwinologyLB