Henry was speechless. How could he have made such a grave mistake after all the time he spent with Steve getting ready for this session? He was staring at the instrument, and could read clearly the bold inscription on it. How in the world did he say “reported stolen” in his evidence?
The lawyer questioning him didn’t even afford him time to indulge in self pity. He repeated his question impatiently, “can you read what is written on that cheque”? Henry meekly acknowledged that he could and the lawyer urged him to go ahead and read the inscription. The moment Henry read; “reported lost”, the lawyer interjected, “My Lord, it is evident that this witness is here to mislead the court”. The old lawyer, who he was later to discover was a revered senior advocate, tendered the instrument as exhibit after instructing the court clerk to read out Henry’s contradictory account. He then proceeded in his attempt to convince the Judge why Henry’s testimony should be discountenanced. Henry looked on, trapped and at the mercy of this tough talking senior advocate who had succeeded in flustering him.
Henry never liked lawyers and dreaded stepping into a court. In fact, the only other time he had been to a court was way back in his secondary school days when they had been mobilised to attend the hearing on a case against the church. Though the church had won the case, in his young impressionable mind, he had been convinced that the daring man championing that cause was blinded by his legal training and perhaps his invincibility in court before then. Like they say, “those who the gods want to destroy, they first make mad”. Thereafter, he made up his mind not to ever consider studying law. He was vile enough as it were and in his bid to be at peace with God, he was not interested in being found in such a damning company.
Steve; the legal representative overseeing their branch, had met with the new branch manager; Stella requesting for a male staff to give evidence on behalf of the bank on a case that was coming up for hearing in court. Henry was unfortunate to be picked, as Olu and Chuma, who were his seniors and would have been selected ahead of him, had prior appointments to keep. Steve had allayed Henry’s fears, assured him that it would be easy and had gone ahead to drill him ahead of the court session. He had presented the facts to Henry and instructed him to stick to them and answer only questions directed at him, without volunteering any additional information. The facts were that a certain customer of the bank had deposited a N5 million bank draft of another bank, presented to them as payment by their client, into their account. Considering their need to have access to the funds, they had requested for a temporary overdraft to facilitate the utilisation of the funds pending the clearing of the bank draft. The bank draft was however inexplicably returned unpaid with reason; “reported lost” marked on it. Consequently, the customer could not meet their obligation to the bank, denting their reputation and leading them to sue their client and their client’s bank for damages.
Henry had observed the dramatic proceedings keenly and marveled at how the counsels were coping with the heat dressed in their gowns and wigs. The court room looked modern with air conditioning but there was no power and the generators could not power the air conditioners. The opened windows and the fans that provided some ventilation merely circulated hot air in the room. By the time Henry was called up to testify, he was perspiring; a combination of the humid conditions and his heightened stress level. The old lawyer that ruffled him was representing the bank, joined in the suit, whose bank draft was returned unpaid.
Henry had acquitted himself well and was actually beginning to enjoy the whole process, when the lawyer stepped up the pressure. Steve had not prepared him for the man’s tactics of intimidation and he helplessly tried to retain his composure. He had introduced himself, taken the oath and had confirmed that he was in a position to present a true account of what transpired in the case. The lawyer had then asked whether he was a staff of the bank as at 1994 when the events occurred. Henry confirmed that he was still a student then and went further to state that they have records in the bank that provided a clear account of what transpired. “We will ask for those records and you will provide them” the old lawyer had fired back, making Henry to wonder if indeed they really had the records.
It was in that state of mind that Henry found himself messing up the next question by saying “stolen” instead of “lost”. The lawyer then began to tighten the noose and at Henry’s attempt to explain that it was an error, queried, “then how do we know that everything you have said here wasn’t an error”? Henry made to reassure the court that his testimony was true when the old man, with a sadistic smile playing on his lips, barked at him; “face the judge… when you are addressing the court, you face the judge”
Henry was very upset but had no other option than to humbly face the judge and answer the questions. The judge, a dignified looking woman in her fifties was unabashedly deferring to the old lawyer, who comported himself with the gait of an old woman effortlessly repeating a dance step learnt from youth.
Henry counseled himself to maintain his cool, lest he ends up in a cell for contempt of court. It was not until the questions moved to the underlying banking principles of bank drafts and temporary overdrafts that he exploited the opportunity to redeem himself. He had used the term “temporary overdraft” while explaining why the bank had allowed the plaintiff to overdraw his account and was made to define the terms and explain the workings in layman’s language.
He was relieved to leave the court room at the end of the session and even received a hand shake from the senior advocate, who had congratulated him for a good performance under duress. “Is this your first experience”? he had asked. “You did well” he declared, in response to Henry’s confirmation in the affirmative. Henry could laugh now, yet he was still piqued by the rough treatment he received from this same man. He would mind his banking job henceforth and would dodge any future summons to testify in court in the course of his job.
As he left the court premises, Henry marveled at a judicial system where a suit that was filed almost a decade before, was still in court. He recalled the legal maxim; “justice delayed is justice denied” and mused, how true. No wonder, many have lost hope in such a slow and overburdened judicial system.