It was a sunny evening in 2016 and I was strolling around the High Court premises at Ikeja as it was the close of the day’s work. I had been at the court since 9:00am in order to witness court proceedings as I was preparing for resumption as a third year law undergraduate. While strolling, I saw a man who called me and asked if I was a law school extern because I had witnessed a proceeding in his court earlier as the law school externs attached to his court concluded their training the week before. It was then I realized he was a Judge; I was in awe because I had grown to admire judges who I saw as a special breed from every homo sapien in terms of their lifestyle. This man encouraged me to stay focused in my academic journey because the legal profession was becoming a competitive discipline, these words stuck differently. Weeks later I visited the court and later realized that the man who had given me priceless words of advice from a fatherly dimension was Justice Owolabi Afis Dabiri.
Justice Dabiri was born on the 30th of September 1956. He attended Tinubu Methodist School, Lagos between 1961 and 1969. After which he proceeded to Christ High School, Ibadan. He studied at Ealing college of Higher Education, London after which he proceeded to the Nigerian Law School. He started his career as a judicial officer in the Lagos State Judiciary after which he became a Chief Magistrate Grade I between 1995 and1997. He later served as an officer in the Rent Tribunal between 1995 and 1997. He was appointed as a Deputy Registrar of Titles in 1997 and later became the Registrar of Titles in 1998 where he served till 2008 after which he was appointed as a judge of the High Court of Lagos State. His dedication and service towards responsibilities committed to him gently etched his name in the hearts of those around him. Justice Dabiri served in several key divisions of the Lagos State Judiciary namely Land, General Civil, Fast Track, and Family & Probate. He was known for his prompt sittings by 9:00am having to comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct. Justice Dabiri conformed strictly and objectively with Rule 36(b) of the Rules of Professional Conduct 2007 which states that a lawyer shall conduct himself with decency and decorum, and observe the customs, conduct, code of behaviour of the Court and custom of practice at the bar with respect to appearances, dress, manners and courtesy. This was displayed during a proceeding before him when a female lawyer’s appearance was flamboyant and not in tenets of the Rules of Professional Conduct 2007 guiding the conduct of lawyers in Nigeria. Justice Dabiri simply asked the lawyer to leave the courtroom in order to dress accordingly.
Being a fast talker, appearing before Justice Dabiri or being a witness always kept one alert as his proceedings were never boring. It was always engaging at every moment with every lawyer praying the court for an order of injunction or order striking out the suit. Justice Dabiri knew the Law as he dissected it in his laboratory with several judgments being affirmed by the higher courts upon appeal. Being a court of first instance, some cases were reported in Law reports while some went on appeal by the aggrieved party. Recently, in the case of Israel Orji v Florence OrjiCA/L/561/2014 a case involving a dispute over title to land. The court at first instance granted claim of ownership or title to the property to the defendant. The points of law raised by Justice Dabiri in his obiter were instructive as they were microscopically evaluated as follows‘…it is apt to say that there is no court process known to law as ‘Reply to Reply on Points of law…disobedience of court orders amounts to contempt of court and it needs to be addressed… this court in its bid to do justice will not allow the claimant/applicant to reap the fruit of the judgment delivered by this Honourable court while the order for conditional stay of execution of the judgment still subsists as an order of court remains valid and binding on the parties concerned until it has been set aside by a court of competent jurisdiction’. The decision of the court was affirmed on appeal. The irrefutable fact that the courts anywhere in the world remains the last hope of the common is without any iota of doubt as this was the position Justice Dabiri held in his rulings and judgments particularly during motion ex parte or motion on notice praying the court for an interim or interlocutory injunctions while he was serving at the land division. While the realist school of thought propounded by Oliver Wendell Holmes and other Scandinavian jurists argued that the succinct definition of what the law is, is simply the prophecies of what the courts will do and In fact nothing more pretentious came with it a different flavor before Justice Dabiri as he was a pragmatist who combined a mixture of the realist, sociological, historical, positivist and utilitarian jurisprudence in dispensing justice.
Justice Dabiri for me is someone who I never want to let down in any way because he has impacted and contributed immensely to my academic success. His momentum and energy towards young people’s success is second to none. He is unassuming and an epitome of benevolence in all ramifications as his blue avensis car speaks volume in this regard. In preparation for his retirement, I visited him weeks before to enquire about his valedictory programme and he simply said he did not want any valedictory leaflet or programme as all he desired was for his cleric to organize prayers at his residence and guests entertained. I was marveled. Preparing for my Bar Finals examination in a pandemic was one of the most difficult tasks I had ever undertaken because our set was denied the learning opportunities available in terms of classes and externships. I could not relate as much as I wanted because we were not afforded the opportunity to attend courts and chamber attachments. Justice Dabiri was a point of call as he explained technical areas in come courses particularly civil litigation which made it easier for me. I was happy I had bagged a first class at undergraduate level and I had made him proud. While still maintaining the same energy in Law School, Justice Dabiri constantly reminded me to bag a first class but I bagged a Second Class-Upper, making top 7.5% in a class of 5, 770 students. I remember crying the night the results were out because I felt I had disappointed a lot of people, especially Justice Dabiri. The next morning as early as 7:30am, I called him just about the time he was about to call me to inquire about my performance. I told him about my grade and he was excited and encouraged me to be grateful although deep down my heart I felt I let him down. As a progressive and forward-looking person that he is, Justice Dabiri reminded me to make plans towards furthering my education and that changed my gaze from my missing a first class in law school to the activated excitement about what lies ahead of me.
Realizing Justice Dabiri is retiring for me is an emotional rollercoaster because I wanted him to rise through the ranks into bigger feats but at the same time, having worked all his life to attain his present position, rest is the only reward for hard work. Initially, when he informed me about his retirement, it dawned on me that no amount of money I give him can quantify the investments he has deposited in me. To pen this piece down is the only legacy that will last in this age of technological advancement to express how grateful I am. I have learnt from Justice Dabiri that being nice particularly through showing concern and words of advice is a vital weapon for making impacts in the lives of people. I am happy that He has been a good father to me these past years for witnessing my growth from an undergraduate and now as a lawyer. As he bows out of the judiciary honourably and impeccably, I am overwhelmed with gratitude to God for good health and sound mind. I wish My Lord a great start to this new phase with much more relevance and impacts all along. Cheers!
Similoluwa Daramola esq.