By Dipo Olowookere
A Court of Appeal sitting in Lagos has maintained that former Keystone Bank (former Bank PHB) Managing Director, Mr Francis Atuche, must face trial for alleged N25.7 billion theft.
At the sitting yesterday, the court upheld the appeal filed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) against a Lagos High Court verdict which dismissed the charge.
The appellate court, in its judgement delivered by Justice Gana Mshelia, set aside the lower court’s judgment, directing the Chief Judge of Lagos State to reassign the case to another judge for retrial.
Justice Msheila in her lead judgement held that the trial judge erred in law by holding that it was bound on the principle of stare decisis by the decision in Okey Nwosu Vs Federal Republic of Nigeria and Akingbola Vs Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The appellate court further held that the lower court erred when it struck out counts 1 to 24 and 26 in the amended information against the third defendant.
It would be recalled that last June 22, Justice Lateef Lawal-Akapo ruled that he lacked jurisdiction to entertain the suit and that the prosecution’s case lacked merit.
He discharged Mr Atuche of the theft charge along with his wife, Mrs Elizabeth, and a former Chief Financial Officer of the bank, Ugo Anyanwu.
“I find no merit in the prosecution’s application, it is hereby dismissed. The defendants application dated November 27, 2013 succeeds and I hereby make the following orders:
“The criminal charge in this suit is hereby struck out and the accused persons namely; Francis Atuche, Elizabeth Atuche and Ugo Anyawu are discharged. The complainant’s notice of plenary objection dated December 3, 2013 is hereby dismissed”, Justice Lawal-Akapo had declared.
But the EFCC in its appeal filed by its counsel, Kemi Pinheiro (SAN), is now seeking an order of the Court of Appeal setting aside the order of Justice Lawal-Akapo striking out the counts contained in the amended information dated June 1, 2011.
Other reliefs sought by the EFCC include an order allowing its appeal and an order directing a continuation of trial and defence before Justice Lateefa Okunnu of the High Court of Lagos State sitting in Ikeja.
The EFCC, which based its appeal on five grounds, told the court that the learned trial judge erred in law by proceeding to strike out the entirety of the amended information when by the unambiguous and plain provisions of Section 252(3) of the Constitution, no exclusive criminal jurisdiction is conferred on the Federal High Court (at least to the exclusion of the Lagos High Court) on the matters provided for under Section 251(1).
The commission contended that it was wrong for the court to strike out counts 1 to 24 and 26 in the amended information against the third defendant when the order of the Court of Appeal against which he claimed the lower court assumed jurisdiction over the charge was in respect of the appeals initiated by the first and second appellants only stressing that the third defendant was not a party to it.