MY SADDEST EVER DAY IN COURT!
By Kenneth Ikonne
The scene in the court room of the Family Division of the Lagos State High Court, Ikeja, evoked deep pathos. The judge, a Lady, was sobbing. And so were the parties, the lawyers, and everyone else in that rattled courtroom, including me! It was at the hearing of a case instituted by me on behalf of my client, Dapo, against his former consort. Their relationship more, than thirteen years earlier, had produced a baby girl, but it did not eventually lead to marriage, even though Dapo had assumed full responsibility for the child’s upkeep and maintenance, and was at the time of the hearing bearing full responsibility for her schooling and upkeep at the very expensive Turkish – American secondary school at Victoria Island, Lagos! Dapo was well – heeled, a chartered accountant, and loved the child – his only child – dearly.
The love affair between Dapo and Jumoke, the child’s mother had been steamy and passionate. Jumoke’s mother fully supported the affair. Not only was Dapo a comely lad, he had also been a very promising young man, from a very good family in Osun State. Graduating at the top of his class, with a first class in Chemical Engineering from the University of Ife, he had ventured into Accounting, and quickly became a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria. Dapo was thus by every standard, a worthy suitor, and a welcome guest at his lover’s mother’s home in Abeokuta. It was in the course of one of those visits that the inevitable happened, and the lady took in, and eventually gave birth to the baby girl!
Dapo did not eventually marry his lover, but he continued maintaining both she and the baby, even after the lady found love elsewhere and married! And fortune was immensely kind to him. He rose quickly professionally, becoming the Managing Director of a major revenue collection firm in the city of Lagos – and super wealthy to the bargain. He himself had married, but the marriage had not produced any issue, even after several years. And he had begun to doubt whether he was ever going to be able to sire another child. But the thoughts of his very beautiful Angel from his earlier relationship always comforted and reassured him. The girl was almost his carbon copy, and he adored her.
When the little girl was thirteen years, Dapo honoured an invitation to attend a wedding in Lagos. His attendance at that wedding was to change his world forever. Dapo was invited to the high table to chair the occasion. From where he sat at the high table, he could see a daintily dressed couple swaying gaily to the beats and praises of the Fuji singer, as they waltzed their way to their seats at the high table. The master of ceremony had earlier, in calling them to the high table, introduced them as Mr and Mrs Abimbola. They, along with Dapo, were among the distinguished guests at the wedding reception. They took their seats right beside Dapo, with the husband sitting right next to Dapo.
Dapo instantly recognised his ex girlfriend, his baby’s mother, and waved at her in greeting. But when he took just one look at her husband, his heart sank. Sitting right there next to him was Ade. He had put on some weight, but there was no mistaking who he was. “Ade”, blotted out Dapo. “Na you be this? Wonders shall never cease!” Dapo, chairman of a wedding, lost control of his emotions, and began to sob, his dropped head in his palms. He regained composure, and took charge of the wedding proceedings!
Fifteen years previously, while he dated Jumoke, now Mrs Abimbola, Ade had also been a regular visitor at Jumoke’s house at Abeokuta. Ade was good looking and courteous toward Dapo whenever Dapo visited, and sometimes even ran errands for Jumoke’s mother. Both Jumoke and her mother introduced him to Dapo as Jumoke’s cousin, and in Dapo’s presence, Ade played the part perfectly. But there was one particular day that Dapo came to her house unannounced, opened Jumoke’s room without knocking, and caught Jumoke and Ade untangling from what he thought was an embrace and a kiss. Dapo reported what he thought he saw to Mama, but Mama and daughter quickly doused his suspicions, with Mama explaining that the duo had always been so close, right from infancy.
It was shortly after this time that Jumoke took in for Dapo, and birthed his adorable little baby girl!
But now, Ade and Jumoke were sitting right next to Dapo, introduced by the MC to the whole world as husband and wife! They were even dressed in the same uniformed attire, leaving no one in any doubt that this was a couple. When Dapo left the wedding party that evening, he wept like a baby, from the moment he entered his car, and up to the point he arrived home.
He was still weeping when he picked up his phone and called me, asking me to hop into the next available flight in Abuja to see him in his house in Lagos. When I inquired to know the reason for the urgency, he only retorted gravely: “Ken, my world has come crashing down. I am finished. And my life might even be in danger!”
The atmosphere in the courtroom that early morning was calm, almost sombre.
I had arrived with Dapo in the same car. Just after alighting from the car, and as Dapo and I began to walk the short distance from the car park to the court room, a pretty little young girl, fair complexioned and slight in build, much like Dapo, raced from the shade of the big mahogany tree not too far from the courtroom and flung herself at Dapo. Father and daughter locked themselves in passionate embrace that lasted almost five minutes.
“Daddy I love you”, said the young girl. “I love you too”, Dapo responded, almost choking on his emotions. From under the shade of the big tree, a fortyish looking woman, fair complexioned too and pretty, fixed her gaze at Dapo and daughter. She did not utter even a word to Dapo. Her face was expressionless. She only looked away when Dapo looked in her direction and began to walk into the courtroom with his daughter.
“Ken”, that’s Jumoke”, Dapo said almost in a whisper. I said I already knew. She was in court at the last court sitting which Dapo himself did not attend.
At that sitting the court had ordered that the only way to resolve one of the most contested issues in the suit was for a DNA test to be conducted on the young girl. The parties were to take the girl to St. Nicholas Hospital Lagos, accompanied by the Registrar of the Court, for samples to be obtained from the child and Dapo. The court further ruled that the result of the test be brought directly to the court in a sealed envelope by a qualified scientist from the Hospital’s laboratory who will open the result for the first time in court, tender same, interpret it, and be cross – examined by both parties! Dapo was to bear the logistical implications of the test in full.
A few months earlier, and on Dapo’s instructions, I had brought an action in deceit and paternity fraud against Jumoke and Ade, claiming humongous damages, alongside an awkward declaration that even if a result of a paternity test showed that the child was not Dapo’s, he was entitled to custody which Jumoke had disallowed him since the girl’s birth, since he loved the child dearly, had maintained her all along, and knew no other child all his life. The declaration sought was a clumsy one – and I felt uneasy drafting it. Infact, upon my arrival from Abuja after Dapo had summoned me, I had advised him, upon him telling his story amid sobs, to forget about going to court, and let sleeping dogs lie.
But Dapo was adamant. For some strange reason, he felt his life was in imminent danger, and that if he suddenly died, Jumoke and her husband would exploit his relationship with his daughter, descend upon his estate, and inherit all that he had laboured for in life. He calmly explained that this was possible since under Yoruba customary law, a girl – child was entitled to a share in her father’s estate. Jumoke’s daughter – his daughter – therefore stood to inherit everything, which will then pass on to Jumoke and her husband. And Dapo believed his death was imminent – unless the truth was quickly unmasked.
He was in no mood to entertain further arguments. I therefore proceeded to work, settled the originating processes and filed them at the Court Registry. The suit was then assigned to the Family Division of the High Court of Lagos State. It was on the very first day of the hearing that the Honourable Court ordered the DNA testing and gave a fairly long adjournment to enable the test to be conducted, and a result produced. It was therefore on the day of the production of the test result that Dapo and daughter met, and walked together into the court room, followed at a distance by Jumoke and two other women about her age, along with two men, none of whom was Ade, her husband.
The first case to be called on the day was the divorce petition. It was quickly adjourned, and Dapo’s case was called. Counsel to both parties announced their respective appearances, with me then informing the court that the business of the day was for the scientist from the Hospital to produce and tender the result of the paternity test. The scientist was the court’s witness, and the parties had therefore refrained from seeking to know or mingle with him.
Fortuitously, the Court Registrar informed the Judge that the witness was in court, and signalled to him from where he sat among the throng in the packed courtroom to proceed to the witness box where the oath to speak the truth was immediately administered on him.
It was the Judge herself who led the witness in evidence. But just as she was about to begin, she looked toward where Dapo sat with his daughter immediately behind the lawyers row, and noticed the young girl. Her maternal instincts immediately kicked in. “Stand up, sweetheart”, the Judge told the girl in a sweet tone. “Why are you here again today?”, her Lordship inquired. “I think I told you last time not to come to court again until this case is over. Courtrooms are not good for small children. You will go to my office and stay. They will even give you ice cream and minerals there.” The young girl tried to explain that her school was on its long vacation, and that her ambition in life was to be a lawyer, and that she was therefore in court to see how the lawyers did their thing.
But the Judge was adamant, and at Dapo’s gentle prodding, the girl left the courtroom meekly and walked away, cutting a pitiable figure, and drawing sighs.
Her Lordship then turned her attention to the witness. She had suddenly transformed from the very gentle mother of a few minutes earlier to a stern faced arbiter, very much in control of the proceedings. She began by asking the witness his name, address, place of work, qualification and experience. As the witness spoke, she meticulously recorded all his answers.
“Your hospital was ordered by this court to obtain samples from the Plaintiff and his daughter and perform a DNA test to determine the paternity of the daughter”, her Lordship probed in sombre tones. “Yes, my Lord”, came the Reply. The witness confirmed that the samples were collected as ordered and sent to their correspondent laboratory in South Africa were the test was conducted, and the sealed result sent to his hospital, and that the result was still sealed. He fetched forth the envelope from a folder, and showed the Judge.
The judge then requested the witness to un – seal the envelope and bring out the result. As he did so, the tense courtroom became deathly quiet. I took a quick look in Dapo’s direction and saw him looking scared and lost. But Jumoke, who sat further back, was expressionless. Her face only came alive when she caught me looking at her. She met my gaze with a stern grimace, batting her eyelids rapidly at me in apparent rebuke at my effrontery. I quickly returned my attention to the proceedings.
The witness then tendered the DNA result, and counsel on all sides were shown the result by the Court official, and the Judge asked whether any of us had any objection to its tendering. In the absence of any objection, it was received in evidence and marked. I looked back at Dapo again and saw him muttering a silent prayer, eyes closed, lips quivering in quiet supplication to the great maker of all things to avert his worst fears.
The judge ordered that the witness be given the result once more. “From the result in your hands, whose paternity test result was this?” The witness answered that it was the little girl’s. “Now, witness, from the result in your hand, is the Plaintiff the father of the little girl?”
There was once more pindrop silence as the witness began to answer, squelching the little murmurs and whispers that had arisen moments earlier. Then came the bombshell: “My Lord”, the witness began slowly. He then paused for dramatic effect, a small smile playing by the corner of his thick lips, his dark face betraying the countenance of a man who had seen so much of the follies of this world. The judge rebuked him, and reminded him that he was there for serious business. He quickly bowed and apologised, and resumed his testimony. Looking at the result in his right hand, he read out some technical jargon, and began to interpret it, looking at the judge: “My Lord, what this means is that the Plaintiff here”, he paused and pointed at Dapo, “could not have by any chance in the world fathered this girl.” Instant howls could be heard across the courtroom.
The witness had hardly finished his last sentence when the little girl burst into the courtroom, shrieking and wailing. She rushed straight to where a now sobbing Dapo sat, held him tight in an embrace, and started wiping her father’s tears with her palm. As she did so, Dapo momentarily regained composure, stared keenly at his daughter’s face, kissed her on her forehead, shrieked in agony, and resumed crying, father and daughter still locked in harrowing embrace! “Daddy, it’s a lie”, she screamed, still crying. “Daddy, you are my father. Daddy I love you.” “I love you too, and always will”, Dapo moaned, the pain in his heart very much conveyed by eyes now reddened by anguish. As father and daughter grieved, tears running profusely on their faces, their noses also ran.
The police orderly had rushed to restrain the young girl when she first burst into the courtroom, but the Judge had ordered him to leave the girl alone. The poor girl had apparently not heeded the Judge’s instruction to go to her chambers for ice cream, but had lurked around the precincts of the court to espy the proceedings!
Now, as father and daughter sobbed and shrieked in pitiful embrace, the stern judge melted and brought out a handkerchief and sobbed along. The scene was so moving that everyone in the courtroom, with the exception of Jumoke, joined in sobbing, with some, especially the women, wailing! I reached for my white handkerchief, removed my glasses and began to wipe my own tears!.
“The court shall rise”, the Judge managed to announce, and immediately left the courtroom for her chambers, never to return for the day. It was the clerk of court who later returned to announce to a tumultuous courtroom that the matter had been adjourned for the day, and that counsel in the matter should approach the clerical desk for dates!