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The SAN’s Pulpit: The new silks and crisis nipped in the bud

By Awa Kalu

The crisis which nearly erupted in the bowels of the Supreme Court on Monday April 12, in the course of the inauguration of ‘brand new silks’ had been brewing for a while. The recipe had been cast into the cauldron several weeks ago even though the sequence of events is now difficult to reconstruct.

In order to make sense of what transpired at the swearing-in ceremony for the new set of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, some background appears necessary. Prior to the swearing-in ceremony, invitation cards from the Supreme Court had been distributed to appropriate stakeholders indicating that a special Court session would be held for that purpose.

The learned Attorney-General of the Federation, the President of the Nigerian Bar Association and the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria were in addition informed that they would deliver their speeches at the ceremony, as usual. On previous occasions, the Chief Justice of Nigeria kicked off the speech-making part of the ceremony while the most senior of the newly sworn-in Senior Advocates spoke last.

For the avoidance of doubt, each of the expected speakers was in the well of the Supreme Court, adorned in ceremonial robes and in high spirits. Alas, Their Lordships, the Justices of the Supreme Court, led by the Chief Justice of Nigeria,  Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu filed in, clad in their lounge suits and not robed.

While some members of the Bar wondered in hushed tones what was amiss, then came an announcement indicating that the only speeches that would be taken after the swearing-in proper were those of the Chief Justice and the representative of the new silks. Lawyers always like to know where they stand and so the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) prayed for clarification with regard to the prior invitation indicating that he was required to present a speech at the occasion.

This is the portion of the ceremony that was nearly mishandled but in the light of the fact that this matter has been settled to the satisfaction of all concerned, it is considered unnecessary to recall in detail what nearly led to a head-on collision between the high echelon of the Bar and the Bench.

It is necessary, however, to indicate that an emergency Bar meeting was convened by the President and this led to a delegation of the Bar comprising all past Presidents of the Nigerian Bar Association (who were present at the ceremony) been constituted to approach the Chief Justice and his brother Justices in an atmosphere that was soothing and convivial to discuss the rumpus .

At the end of the day, it turned out to be a storm in a tea cup. The bottom line is that the matter was amicably resolved and two other special sittings of the Supreme Court scheduled for the valedictory sessions in honour of  Justices G. Oguntade and J. Ogebe (who recently retired) were held without rancour.

The hint had earlier been dropped that the storm which erupted (but only in a tea cup) appeared to have started gathering strength from the last annual conference of the Nigerian Bar Association in 2009. It was at that conference that a very senior member of the outer Bar (Pa Tunji Gomez) moved a motion praying for the abolition of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. In order to douse the tension created by that motion, the motion was referred to the National Executive Committee, NEC, of the NBA for deliberation.

Thereafter, the President of the Association wrote the then Chief Justice of Nigeria (Justice Idris Kutigi) and requested for a meeting of all stakeholders in order to determine an appropriate way forward. The letter yielded no positive results but rather elicited separate reactions from the chambers of the retired Chief Justice and other members of the inner and outer Bar.

Other events conspired to delay the elevation of the new entrants to the inner Bar. Notably, a day before the interview of the applicants, a member of the Privileges Committee, Justice Michael Edokpayi slumped in his Hotel room in Abuja and died, prompting the indefinite postponement of the screening of shortlisted applicants. However, as is usual in good tidings, it can only be postponed but never forfeited.

Accordingly, nineteen new Senior Advocates of Nigeria were admitted to the Inner Bar on the 12th April, 2010. Perhaps, we need to note here that unlike in the past when majority of those elevated to that rank were mainly skilled Advocates in general practice, that tradition has now been broken.

A preponderance of the new silks was born after Nigeria’s Independence and were called to the Nigerian Bar in the late 1980s and early 90s. Similarly, a good number of them seem to represent a new generation of specialists in Oil and Gas, Aviation, Commercial Arbitration and Commercial Law practice in general.

There is thus, a significant shift from the general to the specific and this is good news for the nation. In addition, the indigenously trained candidates appear to outnumber their counterparts from foreign universities and what this translates to, in our humbly held view, is that despite the decadence in our tertiary education, there are obvious indications that the walls of Jericho are not about to fall.

Despite the obvious anachronism in our educational set-up, there are persons who are willing to pull themselves by their boot straps and hold their own amid the dangerous slide in academic endeavours. Perhaps, it is also fitting to note that the human rights community had one of its foremost members on this famous Register of revered Legal Practitioners.

Chief Mike Ozekhome, who is a public affairs analyst, vocal pro-democracy campaigner, knight and longstanding human rights activist was one of those honoured with the rank of Senior Advocate. This writer has known the colourful Advocate for decades and we are sure that the Bar and indeed the legal profession will be much better for the diversification of the profile of those recently elevated to the rank of Senior Advocate.

The other record-breaking aspect of this latest Honourees’ list is the recognition of the strides that Nigerian women are making in all spheres of endeavour. In the legal profession in particular, women had far long flexed their rapidly growing muscles on the Bench with several of them in the Magistracy. There is hardly any state these days that does not have several women on the High Court Bench. In addition, the number of female Justices of the Court of Appeal has risen significantly in recent years.

At the time of writing, it is heart-warming that the Lagos Division of that Court, has a female as the Presiding Justice and two other females in the Division. Kaduna, Ibadan, Jos, Abuja, Ilorin and Owerri Divisions have ranking female Justices. The Benin Division is also headed by a female and there are two other formidable female Justices in the Division.

The Supreme Court has two celebrated female Justices and there is the likelihood that it will not be too long before this country inaugurates her first female Chief Justice. It was therefore not a surprise to have three strikingly bright females at the last swearing-in ceremony representing the erroneously tagged ‘weaker sex’. The explosion in their numbers in the Board rooms of industry, the banking sector and now within the former strongholds of the male dominated profession show convincingly that they are probably making more progress than their male counterparts.

Having drawn attention to three significant indices noticeable in the last batch of 19 Senior Advocates, namely, the choice of specialists in ‘newer’ branches of the law, the rise of the female gender in the two branches of the legal profession, and the preponderance of indigenously trained practitioners, it is considered fitting to conclude this piece by congratulating both the Bar and the Bench for investing in continuing legal education for legal practitioners and Judges alike.

The Nigerian Bar Association, the National Judicial Institute, the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and the various judiciaries in this country are vigorously in the vanguard of this enterprise. Several senior Legal Practitioners are also acting as catalysts in the quest for broadening the horizon of many members of the profession.

To this end, we ought to be reminded about the nearness of the seemingly distant echoes of the words of that famous American Lawyer, F. Lee Bailey who said: “A lawyer’s education is far too important to be left entirely to law schools.

No school, regardless of how good it may be, is capable of teaching the potential lawyer all there is to know about the profession (and business) of law. Having said that, it is important to add that a lawyer’s education is also too important to be left entirely to practicing lawyers. An excellent legal education requires a balance of classroom, courtroom, and office expertise.”

In conclusion, in seeking to carefully select the persons who define the future of the law in this country, the words of late Dr. T.O. Elias (later President of the International Court of Justice at the Hague) appear compelling. He said: “Never before in the long history of human thought has law had to face a more challenging situation than that in contemporary Nigeria. The prevailing social and economic forces call for a type of lawyer who is at once a social engineer and an analyst, a pericles and a plumber, capable of appreciating the values of existing institutions and mores and yet ever ready to make a dynamic contribution to the maintenance of a proper balance between the claims of the state and those of the individual.

Law and society should engage in a continuous dialogue both at the choice of means, and as to the end in view. If Nigerian law can fulfil the role of stimulating economic growth and social well being, elevate the moral tone of the community, foster a spirit of unity among the diverse ethnic groups and become a common law for the country under which no man is oppressed, it will have made an important contribution in the world of ideas for the cause of human betterment.”

It appears that the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee was well guided by the voices of F. Lee Bailey and late Dr. T.O. Elias.


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