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Justice Oluwatoyin Taiwo is a name in the Lagos State Judiciary that rings a bell. However, beyond the province of law and justice, Taiwo is leading a cause for compassion, empathy and mercy. She is leading, through practical action and personal example, a crusade for the uplift of the poor and vulnerable among Nigerian women. She spoke to Onozure Dania about her time on the Bench and her NGO where she uplifts women
You are no doubt one of the most prominent names in the Lagos State judiciary, what do you think makes you stand out among your peers?
Well, first of all, I won’t say I am the most prominent, it’s just because I handle some very high-profile cases and I’m in the criminal division before I retired. I think that was the major attraction that occurred concerning myself. I handled some very high-profile cases; cases that people are interested in, they want to know what happened, what’s the outcome of the case. I think that’s what brought me to the limelight sort of. I have been in other divisions but criminal law can be the most prominent of the divisions, particularly when you handle some very, very high-prominent cases like Evans (the kidnapper) and some others. So, I think that’s why, not that I’m most prominent, no. It’s the cases that project me into the limelight.
Talking about Evans, last week Monday you delivered a judgment where you sentenced him to 21 years imprisonment, that ruling has been criticised in some quarters as too lenient since Justice Hakeem Oshodi had earlier sentenced him to life imprisonment. Why was your own judgment different from that of Justice Oshodi’s?
In the case before Justice Oshodi, the defendant Evans was charged under the Kidnapping Act, the new law of 2017; in the case before me, Evans was charged under the criminal law of Lagos State 2015 and the maximum under the criminal law is 21 years and I gave him the maximum. In the case before Justice Oshodi, the maximum is life imprisonment and he got life imprisonment. So there are two different laws that operated in both cases. Because the offence concerning the one in my court happened either in 2014 or 2012, I can’t remember so it was much earlier than the one that happened in Oshodi’s court so that’s why the sentences were different.
What was your motivation for going to the Bench?
I have always wanted to be on the Bench. I practised for a little while and then just felt that I will feel more comfortable on the Bench and I’m very comfortable on the Bench. I feel at ease; I am able to balance both sides and I think by and large I have enjoyed my profession on the Bench rather than at the Bar. As you well know my husband is more of the Bar man than I am, so I think I found my niche on the Bench.
In your early days when you started practising how were you able to manage the home front?
Well, we just have to learn how to manage our time. It’s a matter of multi-tasking If you are a woman, you are a career woman, you need to know how to manage your time; how to organise your day so that everything is taken care of when you go to work; make sure that you have already prepared for the day your children, your husband the food and everything so is like balancing as I said. You balance yourself such that no area of your life suffers and I think I was able to do that too.
What was the most challenging period of your career on the Bench?
Well, before (the time it took) I was appointed as a Judge. I think that was one of the most challenging; it takes time as a magistrate it can take up to 10 to 15 years before you are appointed a judge and it’s by the grace of God that you are eventually appointed because there are so many issues involved on the appointment of judges. And even on the Bench, the work is very challenging, it’s time-consuming; it affects every area of your life and I think what I have done was to take one day at a time until I retired. I think a major challenge is how to handle yourself on the Bench without people writing petitions, people accusing you of being lazy, you just have to learn how to manage yourself and put everything you have into it and I think I have been able to do it.
Your husband recently retired from the Bench and you have two daughters who are also lawyers, why the love for the law profession?
For me, I wanted to be a teacher. I wasn’t even interested in law at all. It was my father, may his soul rest in peace, that encouraged me to go into law. He said well it’s more versatile more dynamic and there are so many things that you could do with law. And then I agreed with him, I went into law and I thank God for his direction because I won’t be where I am today if I hadn’t heeded his advice. My husband has always been a Bar man, he is very passionate about law, and his two daughters are equally as passionate so I think it runs in the blood so to say.
Will you encourage your daughters to the Bench?
Yes, as a matter of fact, my younger daughter is interested in going to the Bench but right now she is still practising I think eventually she would decide what to do whether to remain in practice or go to the Bench.
You are the founder of A Little Sleep A Little Slumber Empowerment Outreach, a non-governmental and non-profit organisation, why did you set it up?
As a Christian when you are in church you listen to sermons; you hear the word of God, and you need to put that word into practice. And God wants, above all things, that we take care of those around us. Your life has to touch the lives of others as a Christian. So one day I just decided that I need do something, I cannot continue to listen to sermons and not put what I hear into practice. Secondly, there was a lady in my church, very poor; she had three children, sometimes I will give her N1,000 or N2,000, so one day she approached me and said: mummy do you know what I do with this money, I buy groundnut, I fry them and I sell and that has helped me a little to feed my family. I said really then she said I would like you to come to my area and talk to the women there because we are very layback and that was how it started.
I went to her area in Ijora, I spoke to the women and that was how A little Sleep A Little Slumber began to come up and over the years we found a place where we could train the women on skills acquisition.
How many people have you been able to train?
Quite a number over the years; we graduated about 100 at the end of last year and this year we have about 90. What we do is that we just give them the foundational training—in catering, in household items, ICT, in craft, that’s gele, makeup, in event planning. We give them the foundational training for three months. So every three months we have a new set of students, right now the school is running. After three months, you leave another set comes in. So in a year, we are expected to handle three sets; we don’t take more than 30 at a time so that we can give them proper attention so by the end of the year it comes to about 100 that we graduate.
Can you remember the first case you handled as a judge?
I can’t remember any specific case that I handled because I became a judge in 2004. I started in the Lands Division before I went to the Criminal Division before I moved to the Special Offences Division, which is also criminal. If I had an issue I could always ask a senior what can I do in this case. There are some cases that are so interesting in the sense that sometimes you feel that perhaps I should have gone this way. I remember one about a man who filed a suit against his company for damages; apparently, he was working as one of these workers on escafolding one of these high buildings and he fell and injured himself. I don’t think the company paid him enough compensation so he applied and I remembered that while I was reading the judgment all of a sudden my registrar indicated to me that there were some issues going on at the back. Apparently, the man was stripping in court; he kept taking off his clothes, he took off his shirt and people were moving away from him and he kept saying: “Justice doesn’t like me because the case wasn’t going in his favour.” Apparently, the company asked him to wear a helmet but he didn’t so the case did not favour him.
What’s next after Life on the Bench?
I believe that there are so many things one can do. As I said I love to teach and I think that I will just go back to teaching. I like to write so I will start looking into that deeply and work on it and as things go on, I will see how it unfolds. Right now I need rest from all the work because sitting as a judge tells on your health; your back, your neck and knees, so I need to take care of myself first and then I will have more time for my NGO. Because we realised that the skills that we give the women helped them tremendously many of them have come forward to give testimonies of how their lives have changed and what the NGO has done for them, so I need to really focus and increase our dedication and commitement to the NGO so that more women will benefit from it, even men. We have one or two men who come forward for training and it has benefitted them.
You have talked about helping women in your NGO, how about the youths?
We have women who are youths there. We have quite a number of women who are in their teens and 20s, they are not married. They want to start their businesses quickly; we have quite a number right now and we have some elderly women who are retired, they don’t even know what to do with themselves, only coming to the NGO to join other women uplifts their spirits. There is a saying that when you retire if you don’t do something, you will get tired and you will die off. Elderly women come in, some have testified that when they came in and saw other women, their spirits were lifted and they felt alive. Even if they are not going to use the skills to sell, they felt alive that’s why our NGO is very important and I am going to dedicate most of my time to it.
You delivered rulings on many cases of rape; there was a recent one where a father raped his daughter and impregnated her. People said the punishment was too lenient, that he ought to have been castrated as the judge who gave that sentence, do you think that was enough punishment for the man?
In that case in particular, after the prosecution had more or less concluded their case, the defence counsel applied to the Lagos State Ministry of Justice for a plea bargain and the committee sat on it and they came up with 21 years, if you had been in court that day, I just shook my head. I said this 21 years is low but because I was rounding up, I just accepted it. The committee had sat on it and decided to give him 21 years and I entered it as the judgment of the court that was why he got 21 years, he knew that if he had gone through the whole episode of trial, he would have gotten life imprisonment.