Within 20 minutes, Justice Frank Aboadwe Rockson delivered two rulings against Lighthouse Chapel International (LCI). He also awarded GH₵6,000 as cost against the church.
The church was incurring a cost of GH₵300 per minute during the 20-minute hearing of the two motions. That’s just some GH₵100 shy of the average taxi driver’s sales for the whole day.
The lawyer for LCI, Rodney Heward-Mills, rose up. He was concerned about the increasing demand for cost.
“My Lord, this is a church!” he said, suggesting that the word “church” is God’s own anointed synonym for poverty.
And several moments after Heward-Mills’ protestation, the judge pointed to a window of opportunity, a window called out-of-court settlement.
It was Day Five of the hearing and defence counsel Rodney Heward-Mills was before the judge with a request.
The court had, on June 5, 2021, ruled that his defence statement against Larry Odonkor’s suit was too bulky and breached the rules of civil procedure. Heward-Mills was to cut out some 41 pages from the 64-page statement. That left him with only 23 pages.
But with a legal knife, the lawyer was struggling to butcher his own handiwork.
“Your ruling was such that we were not sure… We want to be sure we are complying with your ruling,” Heward-Mills asked for “variation” and “clarification” of the judge’s previous orders.
“I believe my ruling was clear,” Justice Frank Aboadwe Rockson replied and invited Rodney Heward-Mills to his small lecture on how to file defence statements.
“What was struck out were the attachments,” the judge held out The Fourth Estate publication that had padded the defence statement, indicating where the knife should start.
“If you look at the ruling, it is clear,” the judge repeated himself, hoping his law lecture was working on Rodney.
It was not.
Rodney Heward-Mills brought back arguments he had made on the day of that June 5 ruling, explaining that those attached pages were very important to his case.
“Yes!” the judge may have caught himself in a yell of an exasperated lecturer. He then toned down to explain that at this preliminary stage of the trial, those pages were not necessary.
“Yes, so you can mention those particulars, but you don’t need to attach it,” he advised.
“It is when you file the witness statements that you add those attachments to it. …you don’t need to attach photographs and pictures,” the judge went into over-elaboration mode.
It didn’t work.
The lead counsel for the aggrieved LCI pastors, Kofi Bentil, had already indicated the judge’s ruling was “very clear” but if his opposing counsel was battling some comprehension challenges, then the court should help him.
Rodney Heward-Mills persisted that in defamation cases, the legal procedure for filing defence statements was different and that he did not need to stick to a “general” court procedure of brevity.
The judge explained that in defamation cases, like all other cases, he needed to stick to the facts. Later, when the trial in this Lighthouse case started, he bring out the evidence.
It still didn’t work.
“I am advising that you look at what has been struck out. If possible, you withdraw this motion so we proceed because I do not see the confusion here,” he said.
Still not working. The judge gave up. The judge’s many-layered exhortations got exhausted.
Frank Aboadwe Rockson suddenly grew disinterested in teaching, retreating to the corner of his actual job of judging.
“Okay, in order for us to make progress, move your motion,” the judge dangerously invited Rodney Heward-Mills to ask him to essentially change his mind.
Rodney had dangerous courage too, and proceeded, talking while the judge scribbled his ruling.
Kofi Bentil watched.
Rodney Heward-Mills still spoke.
The judge still wrote.
Finally, he ruled.
“The ruling was unambiguous,” the judge appearing to have exhausted the day’s limit for using the word “clear” shifted to its synonym.
“This court is of the opinion that its ruling should stand and let the matter proceed. The ruling will not be varied,” Justice Frank Rockson concluded.
The court moved later to hear two more requests from the counsel for two of the plaintiffs, Rev. Edward Laryea and pastor Faith Fiakojo. The counsel asked that the church’s defence statement against them also needed severe trimming because, once again, the statements were too bulky
The court agreed.
It was time to ask for cost. The counsel for the two plaintiffs, Yasmin Wuruche Alhassan, went for the jugular.
“GH₵10,000, my Lord,” she said.
At the mention of the amount, one Lighthouse member in court gasped, “Arghh!” as if he felt a bullet wound.
Rodney Heward-Mills was in predictable opposition. The judge asked for his counter-offer and when defence counsel looked unsure of what to say, the judge set it at GH₵3,000 for each successful motion filed by counsel for the two plaintiffs, making it GH₵6,000.
After Day Five of hearings in this preliminary stages of the Lighthouse case, the church’s bill was now GH₵19,000.
At this point, the judge had something to say. He drew the minds of both counsel to a previous exhortation he gave on the first day of sitting on May 25, 2021. Justice Rockson had urged the parties to explore an out-of-court settlement, warning that a trial of this nature could have a negative impact on the parties.
The judge said he was hoping the lawyers would get back to him in this gentle direction. But he had heard nothing. “Today, I want to hear you on that.”
Kofi Bentil was the first to speak.
“Even before my clients brought this case, they had made attempts to speak to the hierarchy of the church in resolving their grievances and all of those attempts failed,” he said.
“When I was brought into the matter as counsel, I told my clients, and I want this to be on the record, that I would approach defendants and I would try to get them to resolve the matters with their ex-pastors. These are men of God. So, I did. And if the court is minded, I can mention those who…”
“No, no, no,” the judge rushed to avoid the spilling of some beans.
Bentil declined to mention names of the senior pastors of the Lighthouse Chapel he had contacted to smoke the peace pipe with the aggrieved former pastors.
He continued, “After those approaches, nobody responded to us. So, we were minded to proceed to court.”
“Even after we filed our case, we were approached by some eminent bishops….and out of respect for the bishops we submitted ourselves to almost a month of settlement talks. We explained everything and confirmed to them that we were amendable to out-of-court settlements if the church was so minded,” he said.
“On the last day when we were coming to court, we were told that the Lighthouse church was no longer interested in continuing to speak with my clients and that we should go ahead and take it to everywhere we wanted to take it.”
The judge’s curiosity was piqued. “So, all of this was before the matter came to court?” he wanted to know. Bentil explained that most were before filing and further attempts were made after filing.
“My Lord, we are still open to settlement if the other party would come with respect,” he said.
It was now the turn of Rodney Heward-Mills. “My Lord, what I can say is that,” he began, stating that the plaintiffs made a “totally outrageous and ridiculous request.”
“We are a church! Where did that come from? And we just couldn’t pay that money. We couldn’t take that seriously!” he explained the church’s decision to pull out of talks especially as the church felt it had done nothing wrong in its treatment of the former pastors.
The judge asked if the church made a counter-offer. There was not. Justice Rockson tried to explain to Rodney Heward-Mills that “if one side states something, it doesn’t mean that that is the end. You sit down and counteroffer,” he advised, taking pains to say his advice was non-binding.
A settlement, the judge said, “takes away the emotional stress and everything.” He was wary of the acrimony and jaw-dropping revelations that could come out when the trial actually starts.
He said the decision of an out-of-court settlement was out of his court. It was in their court.
You can reach the writer of this story, Edwin Appiah, via email at [email protected] You can follow him on @edwinologyLB
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