By C. Winnie Saywah Jimmy
The Supreme Court has blamed the lawyers as well as the trial court judge in the Milad Hage Interstate Estate for inadequately representing their clients and failing to follow the rudimentary steps in seeking and dispensing justice in a matter before the court. In its judgment mandating the Monthly and Probate Court to resume jurisdiction over the matter, the high court observed that there were several irregularities on the part of the lawyers and judge presiding in handling the matter.
The court said records of the case revealed that Judge Vinton Holder on April 13, 2010, six days prior to the death of Mr. Hage and 25 days prior to the filing of the petition for admission of the purported last will and testament to probate, broke and initialed the seal on the purported last will and testament of the deceased.
The high court, in declaring the act by the Monthly and Probate Court judge as illegal which it said was never denied, described the conduct of Judge Holder as novel and unprecedented in that jurisdiction and in any similar jurisdiction known to the court.
The court wondered what evidence was available to Judge Holder which convinced him that Mr. Hage had in fact, died, which led him to break and initial the seal on the purported last will and testament of the deceased or was it a deliberate act to circumvent the dictates of the Decedents Estates Law?
The court has come to understand that the late Milad Hage died leaving behind 10 stores with apartments and 172 stores without apartments and 17 days after his burial, Bassam H. Jawhary/ appellant prayed the trial court presided over by Judge James Vinton Holder to have the seal to Mr. Hage’s will broken in the absence of his wife Oumu Sirleaf Hage/appellee and her children who had gone to bury their loved one.
The court further said the judge’s failure to address critical requirements of the Decent Estate Law in response to appellees’ allegation because the time the will was presented for admission to probate, they were in Lebanon raises the presumption that those necessary steps were not taken prior to the admission to probate the last will and testament of Mr. Hage which again raises a question as to the legality of the entire probation process.
The court further said there were serious allegations raised by the appellees for the removal of an executor according to the Decedents Estate Law but saw no action on the part of the judge to investigate further.
The Supreme Court in its opinion said it believes that in addition to Judge Holder’s own irregularities, his failure to take notice of those obviously statutory non-compliant conduct on the part of the appellant and to initiate corrective measures also compels a remand of the case to the trial court.
Reading the bench’s opinion, Chief Justice Korkpor said the Supreme Court finds it difficult to deny the fundamental rights of the parties despite the lawyers were careless in dealing with the case. He also urged the trial court to give the matter first priority judging from its prolonged stay in the corridors of the Temple of Justice.
The court said in as much as Mr. Hage purchased the properties in the name of the appellees and titled deeds were issued in their names, is evidence of ownership of the properties by the appellees because in the Liberian jurisdiction, a title deed is evidence of ownership of real property.
The high court among other things, said in Liberia’s adversary system of jurisprudence, a party litigant who is not represented by a lawyer or who is represented by a lawyer who is either incompetent or is competent but negligent in his/her representation of such party litigant cannot be assured of fair trial.
The bench urged lawyers to do their best in representation of their clients noting, “But we can say with sincerity that did the lawyers who represented the appellees before the Monthly and Probate Court exert their very best professional effort in their representation? We answer this question in the negative.”
“Clearly as indicated, the lawyers representing the appellees failed to take rudimentary steps necessary to protect the interest of the appellees. We have decided that the interest of justice superseded the technical application of the procedural rules,” the high court reiterated.
The Supreme Court then directed that the trial court resume jurisdiction over the case with instructions amongst which were an order that the appellant to report a comprehensive infantry of Milad Hage’s assets as required by the Decendents Estate Law as well as its liability.
In connection with the above, the appellant furnishes the court with the detail of the audit report for both the period of the executor administered the Hage property and the period Ecobank collected proceeds of the Estate to cover loans given by the bank to the late Hage to ensure that no illegal or irregular acts were perpetrated on the estate.
The court also ordered that the appellant furnish a detailed statement of the status of the loan facility that Hage estate has with Ecobank as well as ensure that there was an account established (if not established yet) into which monies belonging to the Hage estate are deposited.