By Ise Oluwa-Ige
Last Tuesday, the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu, okayed 19 senior legal practitioners including two academics for admission into the prestigious rank of the Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN).
The number represents less than 20 percent of the total 106 senior lawyers that applied for the coveted title. In the history of the award of the title, the committee received the highest number of petitions, challenging the process for the emergence of successful applicants.
The deluge of complaints that trailed the 2009 exercise stalled the release of the list by the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi before he retired last year. Not only was the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) divided over the issue, the members of the LPPC awarding the title itself was also polarized.
However, long before the 2009 screening exercise of lawyers for the title, there had been murmurings which crystallized in August last year when a group of aggrieved lawyers with practice experience ranging from three to fifty years stormed the conference venue of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) which held in Lagos to demand for the abolition of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. The group came by way of motion.
The lawyers operating under the name and style of Movement for the Abolition of the Rank of Senior Advocates of Nigeria said they were pushing for the abolition of the rank because of the â€œcult or cartel nature of the status within the prestigious professionâ€.
They contended that many lawyers who were qualified for the rank by dint of their hard-work, moral rectitude and impressive advocacy were not accorded simply because they did not have god-fathers. An octogenarian lawyer and activist, Pa Tunji Gomez (82) was the brain behind the Movement
According to him, â€œthere is a lot of discrimination in place today between the Senior Advocates and the junior lawyers in the bar. In the eyes of the public, you are either a SAN or a â€˜charge and bail lawyer. Even in courts, SANsâ€™ cases are always called first before other members though some of these juniors are senior to the SANs,â€ he added.
He said the implication of all these was that no potential client with ability to pay in millions or billions would want to entrust his case into the hands of a junior lawyer who would not be treated with kid gloves and same level of respect by judges, as accorded the Senior Advocates.Â He claimed that there was no level playing ground for all lawyers to practice and benefit from available fat briefs.
The group said it would not have had any problem with the award if the committee statutorily charged with the conferment were to be objective in its selection process. It claimed that late Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN), for instance, was denied admission into the rank for many years even when he was better qualified than many of those that were conferred before him.
It said it is history today that when the watching non-lawyers particularly students were tired of waiting for the relevant authourities to confer him (Gani) with the title, they had to personally distinguish him with the Senior Advocate of the Masses (SAM) in the interim.
It said up till now, prominent members of the bar who have distinguished themselves in the practice via broadening of the scope of the nationâ€™s jurisprudence by the cases they handled were not given because they were not favoured by some SANs who wield much powers with regards to the award or because they have refused to go before Supreme Court justices to lick their boots.
They listed senior legal practitioners like Mr Rotimi Jacobs who has created a niche for himself in the area of criminal jurisprudence; indefatigable human rights activist and current President of the West African Bar Association (WABA), Mr Femi Falana and a renowned expert in commercial law, Mr Oluwemimo Ogunde, among others, as instances.
They said in those days when merit was the basis of the award, they said only few were given and no one complained. The Movement claimed that the decline in the standard for the elevation into the rank became noticeable few years back when the system of admission was based on merit.
The said the rules were changed making it possible for mediocre to have their way into the inner bar while the qualified were shut out for having no godfather. They said the title has been so bastardised now that if it is allowed to remain, it would amount to injustice to several lawyers who are better off than some of those that have already been conferred.
They argued in the alternative that all lawyers including those already conferred with the title should apply afresh for a repackaged rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria if the rank must stay.
The controversy though was maturely handled by the President of the NBA on the floor of the Annual General Meeting (AGM), it is still reverberating. Already, the agitation has thrown members of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria in disarray.
Some of them are of the view that the call for the abrogation of the rank following the alleged bastardisation of the appointment process is not totally out of place. Those in this group said they have sympathy for those calling for the cancellation of the rank. But they were quick to add that if the call was heeded, they said the legal profession would be in for it.
They argued that instead of abrogating the rank, the loopholes for the appointment of lawyers into the rank which is essentially their grouse should be blocked. They suggested overhauling of the appointment process. At the vanguard of this position is Chief Emeka Ngige, SAN, who said â€œthe call for abrogation of the rank is not totally misconceived.
It is borne out of certain deficiency that has been observed in the process of appointment of some lawyers as senior advocates. And some of these deficiencies include those that the generality of lawyers perceived as qualified and competent practitioners do not make the list of SAN while those perceived as mediocre have their ways. â€œAnd when people now clamour for its abrogation arising from this deficiency, one can say that their call is not out of place altogether.
â€œBut I must say quickly that it is not right to throw away the baby with bath water. If you abrogate the title, there will not be anything like a spur for excellence amongst lawyers. If you want to become SAN, you must strive to excel in that profession.
And when you are applying, there are certain conditions you are expected to meet. Those conditions include the advocacy, the setting up of standard chambers, the employment of juniors and supporting staff and their comportment generally as legal practitioners.
â€œIf we donâ€™t have all these things, the standard of the profession instead of it being raised will decline because there will be no ambition among the practitioners. That is why the title must remain. I think what should be called for should be the overhauling of the appointment process. I must commend Justice Kutigi for the steps he had taken so far. â€œIn fact amongst all the CJNs that have lately served, he and Belgore stand out to be the only ones that have taken the bull by the horns with regard to the process of appointment of SANs,â€ he added.
But two Ibadan based members of the inner bar, Chief Adeniyi Akintola (SAN) and Prince Lateef Fagbemi (SAN) though agreed with Ngige (SAN) that the appointment process should be overhauled, they nonetheless saw no reason why any right thinking lawyer should ask for the abrogation of the rank.
According to Akintola (SAN), he said those calling for the abrogation of the rank of SAN are legal illiterates. â€œThose calling for the abolition of the rank did not do their homework properly.
In the first place, the award of the rank is governed by statute and regulation. The appropriate forum for the agitation was not the Annual General Meeting of the Bar (AGM). In fact they were lucky that the President of the Bar listened to them at all. What they have done is like filing a case before a court that has no jurisdiction to entertain it. And in the word of Mr Joseph Dawodu, SAN, said their complaints ought not to be entertained at all simply because they came to a wrong forum.
â€œSecondly, most of the people agitating for the abolition of the rank donâ€™t even have practice. They have refused to be trained by respected senior and they have not trained anybody. Most of them have never made any meaningful contribution to the development of the law. Most of them have not practiced beyond their immediate jurisdiction. That is if they are practising at all.
â€œMany of them have never employed a single junior in their lives. Many of them there run a one single room apartment chambers in Igbosere there. They have never been paid by a senior lawyer in their life and they have never paid any junior lawyer. They donâ€™t know what it takes and they donâ€™t have what it takes to be an SAN.
â€œMost of the young men, now conferred with the title of SAN, who they are complaining against stayed behind to learn in the chambers of respected senior lawyers. They learnt the art of practice, the ABC of it. They said the boys are benefitting from the senior lawyers. That is laughable. From who would they have benefitted from if they do not benefit from them?
â€œMany of these young men they are complaining against have practiced with the likes of GOK Ajayi, Kehinde Sofola, Richard Akinjide, Gani Fawehinmi, Chief Afe Babalola, Wole Olanipekun. â€˜They watched GOK, Philip Umeadi, Okpoko in court, handle cases. They served under these people.
These people are there for ten, fifteen years to attain the rank. They donâ€™t know what it takes to go to court and confront legal giants like Chief Olisa Chukwura, SAN, a man that may walk you out if you are not properly dressed or if you donâ€™t have the language. These agitators have never gone outside the town they are based to practice law.
â€œYou can never find their names in any law report. They have not done anything to change the face of the law. No meaningful contribution. Theirs is just mere agitation at a time when serious minded colleagues are moving round the country, and even taking part in the emergence of unwritten partnership at work in the legal practice in the country.
Instead of collaborating, you wont find them there. But these agitators will not take part. They are too full of themselves and arrogant. They are not evolving. They prefer to sit down in their one room chambers to start criticizing everybody.
â€œIf the agitators have limited their agitation to reform, it would have been better. Reform yes. But cancellation, no. Personally, I feel there is need for the reformation of the award process. There are rooms for improvement to better the conferment. In the past, there used to be the merit list where if you are qualified under the general list and you are lucky to have more cases than your colleagues and you cross to the merit list, once you are of good character, conduct, you have integrity, you donâ€™t have to bother yourself.
â€œIn fact, you can go to sleep because you will get it. And there have been examples of people like that who came under the merit list and they got it. There are a lot of people who have it through that. I can remember that Chief Lateef Fagbemi SAN) was conferred with the title as he clocked ten years at the bar. In fact, he was on the merit list and he came first. Even during my own time, I was on the merit list and I came first too and we were given this title on merit. Then, we used to have a general list where seniority plays prominent role.
â€œThis is because if you come in under category C and you are 15 years at the bar, and you have somebody who is 30 years at the bar, they are likely to give it to somebody who is 30 years at the bar in the same category with you because he is your senior at the bar.
And I think that is fair enough and it is in accordance with common sense. If A and B for instance score 50, 50, if A has more experience than B, then A gets it. But once you cross to the merit list, the issue of seniority does not come in,â€ he added.
He also decried a situation where appointment of SANs is determined on quota system.
Prince Lateef Fagbemi (SAN) who also spoke on the matter agreed with Chief Akintola (SAN).
He said â€œI donâ€™t understand the basis of the argument for the abolition of the rank in the first instance. All over the world and in all areas of our national life, there is a way of distinguishing the good from the bad, and encourage those who are hard-working to get something to aspire to. Every member of a profession should have a dream to get to the echelon of his profession or vocation. In the universities, you have professors, in other areas like medicine, you have consultants and so on and so forth. For the legal profession, the rank is the in-thing.
â€œWhat is surprising me is that this agitation is coming at a time countries which do not have this type of rank for distinguished lawyers are trying to copy us. I mean countries like South Africa and Ireland are now inventing or copying that. They are according recognition to senior lawyers in the countries who have distinguished themselves.
The way I look at it is that if you have any grouse as to the loopholes in the appointment process, I donâ€™t think it is right to throw away the baby with bath water.
â€œWe should, rather, focus attention on how to remedy or adjust the procedure appropriately. The argument that we donâ€™t have jobs is flawed. I think the call for the abrogation of the rank of Senior Advocates of Nigeria is a funny proposition. But come to think of it. Those who are calling for the abrogation, what is their qualification? Please, find out,â€ he said.
From all indications, there is no gainsaying it that the process for the award of the prestigious rank is flawed. The deficiency in the appointment process is what is heating up the system.
And the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee, LPPC, headed by the CJN with statutory powers to appoint lawyers to the rank is not pretending about it.
According to the its Secretary and Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, Alhaji Musale, he said that the committee is trying its best to reform the appointment process. He said the 2009 selection exercise witnessed the highest number of petitions in the history of the award. He said that no petition received was not attended to, all in the spirit of ensuring that the best emerged as SANs.
He also disclosed last Tuesday that already, the incumbent Chief Justice of Nigeria had set up a committee of five persons under the leadership of the Chief Judge of Katsina State to streamline the guidelines for the award.
He said the Supreme Court is worried by the deluge of complaints and wanted to make sure that that an acceptable standard for elevation of lawyers into the rank is fashioned out and complied with
He said that the Chief Judge of Benue, Ogun, a highly respected member of the inner bar, Mr Damien Dodo (SAN) and Chief Nwosu (SAN) would serve as members on the committee.
He said he is hopeful that the next appointment exercise would be an improvement on previous exercises.
He said, even under the current regime, the Committee should be commended.
â€œIn the past when people were not shortlisted, nobody told them why they were denied the award. But now, if you are disqualified at any stage in the process we would inform you,â€ Musale added.
But while it is reasonable to retain the rank in the interest of the profession and the entire country, the appointing authourities should do something to overhaul the selection process to encourage strive for excellence in the profession. Besides, there is nothing wrong too in putting in place a mechanism that will ensure taking away the title from those that do not deserve it.