By DAYO BENSON
Ahead Nigeria Bar Association NBA, elective conference in July in which new national executive officers are expected to emerge, few aspirants are already warming up to succeed incumbent president Mr. Joseph Daudu SAN. One of them is fellow silk Mr. Okey Wali SAN.
A former Rivers State Attorney General and Justice Commissioner, and estwhile representataive of NBA at the Council of Legal Education, Mr. Wali in this interview spoke on his vision for NBA, judiciary, standard of legal profession and sundry issues affecting the nations criminal justice system. Excerpts:
There have been calls for constitution amendment. As a senior advocate, what parts of the document would you want amended?
Well, there are quite number of issues in that constitution that we think should be looked at. One, the NBA has always called for constitutional court to look at the elections and the constitutional matter, because we believe so much dislocation is taking place with the tribunals.
This is because we found out that when judges are withdrawn from regular courts to go and attend to election cases, their cases suffer. I do not believe that these election cases are more important than other cases.
If you are in the profession, you would know that there are many cases that are a lot more serious than election petition matters. So that is one issue that I can readily point out that needs to be readily addressed.
Furthermore, I personally do not bother too much about the imperfections in the constitution; I believe that the problem is not in the document, it is in the operators of the document. Even a perfect document would not operate itself, it requires human agency to operate it.
I also believe that we are a bit in a hurry, even judicial pronouncement could settle some of the things we perceive as imperfection in the constitution, take for instance, when the issue of tenure elongation of some governors came up, the National Assembly rushed in an amendment to say once you are sworn-in for the first time and become reelected after the nullification of your election, your tenure would have started running from the first time you are sworn-in. but that was because the Supreme Court came up with the decision on the matter, and that judicial pronouncement would have taken care of what we thought was a defect in the constitution.
But for me I don’t worry too much about what people perceive as imperfections in that document, I worry much with the operators of the document.
Some have been clamouring for the abolition of the rank of SAN. What is your take on this?
No I don’t! I don’t subscribe to it not just because I am one, I believe in the recognition of hard work and distinction in the profession. It is something that gets you to work harder if you strive for it. It is not discriminatory.
Nobody is disqualified from becoming a Senior Advocates of Nigeria; it is open to all lawyers when you get to a minimum age that is required. If you are desirous of becoming a senior advocate, you would see that it makes you pay more attention to your practice; it makes you work harder to satisfy the requisite conditions like the number of cases you have to handle at the High Court, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.
These things are not too easy to achieve and if you set yourself up for that task and start working towards it, you would find out that you have to be well-focused.
The rank also helps in another way, if you realise that you have to handle and complete a number of cases at the various court to be qualified, you would not be the one to be delaying your cases; you would want to make sure that your cases are facilitated, move faster and completed on time.
Now, even as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, certain standards are expected of you, you cannot be a member of that rank and go to court exhibiting ignorance , so you need to sit up because a lot is expected of you, and that is in the interest of the profession.
There is no profession that does not have some marks of distinction, the accountants have theirs, the engineers have theirs, in medicine they also have. So, why not in the legal profession? People should stop talking of abolishing it.
What is your position on the agitations to make law a second degree?
No I don’t believe in that, experience has shown that law is a vocation, it is not an academic course, so you don’t simply become a lawyer strictly speaking, simply because you went to the university and got a law degree. You get the training on the job. So if you agree that it is not academic, why do you want to spend numerous years in the university acquiring degrees before you can become a lawyer?
It is on the job you get the training as a lawyer. I tell younger colleagues when they join us from the law school that, look!, this is when the training starts as a lawyer in practice. It is therefore not necessary to be spending years in the university getting first degree before you can read law. I don’t agree with it.
But do you agree that there is decline in the standard of legal education in the country?
Yes I agree but that is not restricted to law, it is true of education in Nigeria generally. It is the rot in the educational system in the country; I believe it is applicable to all other professions. Can you compare the standards of your secondary school days with what you are seeing today?
The problem has nothing to do with whether you are a lawyer, doctor, accountant or engineer, the rot is from educational system; It is from the primary school system that does not exist anymore; it is from the secondary school system that does not exist anymore. If you go to the university they don’t just exist, they just answer the university in name. There is nothing happenining there and they are facing all sorts of problems.
I have a privilege of being on the Council of Legal Education for some years representing the NBA. That gave me opportunity to visit some universities and to visit some law faculties. You would not believe what we saw in some of those places they called universities. What magic did you expect the products of those insti-tutions to bring to the profession?
Some are proposing that there should be private Law School. Do you share this view?
No, I don’t think we are there yet, I agree that some of the private universities have done very well, better than even the government universities. But professionally speaking, we cannot allow that in the case of law school now because the law school is the final stage in the formal education of lawyers.
I don’t think we should leave that for private enterprise for now because we need to ensure quality. We have been talking about decadence, we have bent talking about decline, we are not going to allow private individuals to regulate the legal professions, for that is what it amounts to if we allow privately-owned law school (s) to come on board. I won’t subscribe to that.
How do you think the NBA can be re-positioned and be made more effective?
While it is true that we should devote much attention to what is happening in our society, nonetheless our first attention should be on our profession; how to accomplish the professionalisation of our profession. We need to make sure that we look inward to solving the problems that exist in our profession.
A lot of people would today complain about the decadence in the profession, for me, what should be bothering the NBA most is the fact that people are walking away from the best tradition of the profession. Most of the younger ones do not really know this best practice.
I do not really blame them. Most of them do not know when they are going right way or when they are going the wrong way, the elders should come back to the profession; one of my biggest worries is that the elders are walking away from the profession. When you go to the branch meetings of the NBA you would always see young members of the bar, the elders seem to be walking away, that is not good for the profession.
Take the NEC meeting as another example, you would find out that most of the senior members do not attend the NEC meetings. This is not good because they are the ones to show the best tradition of the profession. Times are moving and we should move with the times too, we should look at what are now the best global practices in the legal profession.
There are many as-sociations all over the world like the NBA, we should look at what they are doing and we should grow with them. In a nutshell, a lot is going on within our profession that we need to pay much attention to.
How do you react to the recent face-off between Chairman House Committee on Capital Market, Hon Herman Hembe and SEC DG, Mrs. Aruman Oteh, over bribe demand allegation and its implications on the polity?
That is a big pity; that is a big shame. But as we all know, it is being investigated by the law enforcement agency; the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has come into the matter, so we have to wait for the outcome of that investigation before we can appreciate the issue and say where the blame lies on the accusations and counter-accusations.
There have been arguments for and against plea bargain do you think it should be part of our criminal justice system?
Plea bargaining as a concept is not a bad idea. I said this because we are complaining about prison congestion, plea bargaining is one of the ways of solving that problem. In other developed societies you have things like suspended sentences and all that.
What is important is this, if you have been convicted you have been convicted, it is immaterial whether it is by plea bargaining or full trial, you an ex-convict, you are an ex-convict. You already have a stain on you. Yes I agree that you should not give somebody a slap on the wrist judgment like somebody is accused of stealing one billion and you recover one million naira from him and say “alright go and behave yourself well, be a good citi-zen and misbehave no more.” That is the kind of situation that I believe that people are disgusted with.
But if in the plea bargaining you retrieve as much as you can from the person, we would not need to worry, because for me, whether it is one day sentence or two month sentence, you are still an ex-convict. That is bad enough, because in many profession and vocations that is the end of your career.
For instance if you are a lawyer today and you get prosecuted and you enter into plea bargaining agreement, you get convicted, you pay one naira and you go home, you have lost your certificate to practice as a lawyer because you are an ex-convict. Nobody will let you practice law again.
What of death sentence, should it be abolished in our criminal justice system?
That is a very contentious issue. The problem we have in this country is that we run our federal system as a unitary system where states are being controlled as if they are owned by the federal government. If we run a proper federalism, some states will endorse capital punishment while some will jettison it.
It should be like in what obtains in the United States of America where some states are still keeping capital punishment while others have abolished it. It is a personal judgment of any stakeholders about what he/she thinks of capital punishment.
Some believe that people who have taken the lives of other people should pay with their own lives while others believe that the world has moved on from a stage when every evil has to be recompensed with evil. But it is noteworthy that some people, due to a combination of factors, may be convicted when they are not guilty.
In the developed lands where medical science has grown, you can found out that the use of forensic method like the Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) test has come on and there have been occasions when those who had been convicted a long time ago have been found out to have been innocent of the crime.
That is why have reluctance being in support of capital punishment because it is a final sentence. Agreed that the first instinct should be that he that killed should be killed, but if you appreciate the fact that sometimes some people get wrongly convicted, then you would be more reluctant in advo-cating for capital punishment. There is no reversal of death penalty once carried out, it is final!