For the second time in four months, a Lagos High Court has struck out a motion by the Lagos State Government to suspend proceedings in a Freedom of Information suit brought against it by Media Rights Agenda (MRA) pending the Government’s appeal against the court’s ruling that the FOI Act, 2011 is applicable to the Government of Lagos State and all other States.
Justice Beatrice Oke-Lawal, sitting in the Ikeja Judicial Division of the State High Court, struck out the re-listed motion for stay of proceedings on June 20, 2018 for lack of diligent prosecution by the Lagos State Government, which she ordered to pay MRA N30,000 as costs. She had previously struck out the motion for the same reason on February 19, 2018, following which the Government applied to have it re-listed.
The suit arose from an FOI request made by MRA in November 2016 to the Lagos State Ministry of Health asking, among other things, for details of plans by the Ministry to provide the Araromi Zion Estate located in Akiode Area of Ojodu Local Council Development Area (LCDA) with health care services taking into consideration the peculiar needs and circumstances of the community as well as details of the budgets and costs estimates for the implementation of the plans, if any.
When the Ministry failed to respond to MRA’s request despite a reminder issued to it, the organization filed a suit against the Ministry and the Attorney-General of Lagos State asking the Court to declare the Ministry’s refusal to provide it with the information wrongful and compel the institution to disclose the information to the organization in accordance with the FOI Act.
But the Ministry filed a notice of preliminary objection to the suit in which it contended that the court had no jurisdiction to determine the suit and asked that the suit be struck out on the ground, among others, that the FOI Act is not applicable to Lagos State and that the Ministry is not a juristic person that can sue or be sued.
In her ruling on the Ministry’s preliminary objection on November 28, 2017, Justice Oke-Lawal upheld the arguments of MRA’s lawyer, Mrs. Mosunmola Olanrewaju, that the FOI Act was validly enacted by the National Assembly and that it is applicable to the Government of the Federation as well as to State Governments. She also overruled the Government’s claim that the Ministry cannot be sued.
The Lagos State Government thereafter lodged an appeal at the Court of Appeal in Lagos on December 5, 2017, asking it to set aside Justice Oke-Lawal’s ruling which held, among other things, that the FOI Act requires no “domestication” for it to be applicable to States. The Government and the Ministry also filed a motion on notice asking the court to stay further proceedings in the suit pending the determination of its appeal by the Court of Appeal.
However, on several occasions thereafter, when the motion was slated for arguments, neither the Ministry nor the Attorney-General of the State was represented in court. On February 19, 2018, upon a motion by MRA’s lawyer asking the court to strike out the application for stay of proceedings, the Government’s motion was struck out for lack of diligent prosecution and a date fixed for the hearing of the substantive suit.
But rather than proceed with the substantive suit, the Ministry filed an application in March 2018 asking the court to relist its motion for stay of proceedings pending appeal. The court granted the application to relist the motion which the State Government then filed again on April 10, 2018.
On two consecutive occasions thereafter, when the matter came up for hearing, neither the Ministry nor its counsel was in court and no letter was written to the court to explain their absence.
On June 20, 2018, when the motion again came up for hearing, neither the Ministry nor the State’s Attorney-General was represented or present in court to move the motion for stay of proceedings.
MRA’s counsel, Ms. Morisola Alaba, reminded the judge that when the matter last came up on May 16, 2018, the Ministry and its lawyers were absent and the court adjourned proceedings till June 20 so that the Ministry would be given a fairopportunity to argue its case consistent with the principles of fair hearing.
She noted that the Ministry again had no representation in court and urged the court to strike out the motion for stay of proceeding for lack of diligent prosecution on the part of the Ministry. She also prayed the court to set down the substantive case for hearing.
Ms. Alaba accused the Ministry of “intentionally delaying the case while depriving Media Rights Agenda of its right guaranteed by the Freedom of Information Act.” She urged the court to award substantial costs of N50,000 against the State Government.
In her ruling, Justice Oke-Lawal struck out the State Government’s motion for stay of proceedings for lack of diligent prosecution and awarded costs of N30,000 to MRA against the Government.
The Court thereafter adjourned the case to October 2, 2018 for the hearing of the substantive suit.