By Aare Afe Babalola
THE legal profession in Nigeria derives its origin from the English legal system and legal profession. It dates back only to the latter half of the 19th century. This is as a result of our historical links with Great Britain. In 1861, Lagos became a British colony and came under British administration. Eventually, the rest of what is now Nigeria also came under British rule and became known as the Protectorates of Southern and Northern Nigeria.
In the year 1914, these two protectorates were amalgamated and together with the colony of Lagos became the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. With the establishment of the British Administration in Lagos, it began to introduce some systems of law and legal institutions. In 1862, a Police Court was set up in Lagos to deal with cases which had arisen as a result of the growing commercial transactions in the colony.
In 1863, the Supreme Court Ordinance of 1863 was promulgated. It constituted of the Supreme Court of Her Majesty’s Settlement of Lagos with effect from April 9, 1863. Nine other courts were constituted Between 1863 and 1874, including:
- The Petty Debt Court,
- The Court of Civil and Criminal Justice and •The Court of Request.
There was, however, a shortage of suitable personnel to run the courts and to perform the duties of advocates and solicitors. This is clear because there were seven men to serve as Chief Magistrates in Lagos between 1861 and 1905, only three were qualified barristers.
Of the remaining four: • two were writing clerks, •one was a merchant and •the other, a Commander of West Indian Garrison at Lagos.
And of the 14 who served as Police Magistrates, •four were merchants, •six were military officers and •one a Deputy Collector of Customs.
Until August 1880 when Christopher Alexander Sapara Williams first appeared at the Supreme Court, there was no qualified practising lawyer in Lagos. To solve this problem, provisions were made in the Supreme Court Ordinance of 1876 for the admission of persons to practise as legal practitioners in Nigeria.
The period between 1876 and 1914: During this period, the Supreme Court Ordinance of 1876 earlier mentioned provided for three classes of persons to practice law in Nigeria, namely:
- a) Professionally Qualified Legal Practitioners. Section 71 of the Supreme Court Ordinance empowered the Chief Justice to approve, admit and enrol to practise as barristers and solicitors, persons who have been called to the bar or admitted as solicitors in England, Scotland and Ireland.
- b) Those who had served articles, that is, those who had worked in the chambers under lawyer’s supervision. Section 73 of the Supreme Court Ordinance empowered the Chief Justice to admit as a solicitor of the Supreme Court any person: • who had served five years continuously in the Office of practising barrister or solicitor residing within jurisdiction of the court and; • who had passed such examinations of the Principles and Practice of Law before such persons as the Chief Justice, CJ, may from time to time appoint. This provision was intended to create the first opportunity for legal training for the legal profession. However, there is no record that advantage was ever taken of it.
The local attorneys: Section 74 of the Supreme Court Ordinance empowered the Chief Justice to admit temporarily, as was necessary, other fit and proper persons to act as barristers, solicitors and proctors. (Proctors are actually attorneys in spiritual courts) subject to conditions and regulations as may be prescribed by rules of court. Order 8, Rule 1 of the Supreme Court Civil Procedure Rules made under the Supreme Court Ordinance, 1876 provided that their admission shall be by licence and shall entitle a person to enrol them for six months.
The licence was renewable before or on the expiration of six months. By virtue of this provision, a few not professionally qualified were admitted to practice and were called “local attorneys”. The Chief Justice could require appointees to sit for an examination to test their general education and knowledge as well as principles and practice of law. They were to be of good character attested by a judge or two district commissioners. The last of these local attorneys was enrolled in 1908.
Period between 1914 to 1960: In 1914, the Supreme Court Ordinance 1914 repealed the Supreme Court Ordinance of 1876. This marked the second phase of legal training in Nigeria. During the second phase, the professionally qualified lawyers monopolised legal practice in Nigeria. This was so because enrolment was restricted to qualified lawyers only.
During this period, legal practice was restricted to formally trained lawyers. However, there were no institutions in Nigeria to train aspirants to the Bar and, therefore, persons desirous of becoming lawyers travelled to England for formal training.
Barristers: In England, aspirants to the Bar were required to join one of the four Inns of the Court, namely: •Inner Temple. •Middle Temple. •Grays Inn and •Lincolns Inn. The educational qualification was West African School Certificate, WASC. The four Inns constituted the English Council of Legal Education.
They arranged lectures for students on the subjects constituting the Bar Examination, that is, Bar Part 1 and the Bar Final. The lectures were, however, not compulsory and many students did not attend them opting instead for private tuition or the correspondence course. The prescribed dining terms were compulsory and the candidates had to mandatorily keep 12 dining terms of which there were four in one year.
A student who passed the examinations and kept the dining terms was entitled to be called to the Bar by the Benchers of his Inn. Thereafter, he is formally enrolled at the Supreme Court in England. A three-month post-call practical course and one year pupilage in a Law Chamber was also required for a Barrister who intended to practice in England. Previously, he paid a fee of 100 Guineas to the head of the Chamber but this is no longer the case. He, however, cannot earn any fee during the first six months of his pupilage.
Graduate barristers: Although a law degree was not required to be a Barrister, most English aspirants had a university law degree. A law degree with second-class honours exempted a student from Bar Part 1 examination. Also graduate Barristers in the Nigerian Civil Service had an advantage over non-graduate ones because they earned higher salaries.
Solicitors: To qualify as a Solicitor, a person was required to be articled to a firm of Solicitors in England for at least four years. The educational qualification was WASC. The Law Society which is the Governing Body for Solicitors organised Solicitors’ Part 1 and Final Examinations which a candidate must pass. A law degree was not required.
Establishment of Nigerian Law School: In 1922, a school was established to organise a course for Solicitors and attendance was mandatory. In Nigeria, however, the Legal profession is fused and aspirants to the Bar are trained as Barristers and Solicitors.
The Unsworth Committee: Some deficiencies became apparent due to some differences existing between the practice in England and the practice in Nigeria. Therefore, in order to correct the anomalies, the government appointed the Unsworth Committee in April 1959: To consider and make recommendations for the future of Legal Education and admission to practise, the right of audience before a Court and the making of reciprocal arrangement in this connection with other countries.
Recommendations of the committee: The Committee published its report in October 1959 with the following recommendations:
- Nigeria should establish its own system of Legal Education.
- A Faculty of Law should be established first at the University College, Ibadan and subsequently at any other university to be established in the future.
- A Law School to be known as “The Nigerian Law School” should be established in Lagos to provide vocational course.
- Qualification for admission for Legal practice in Nigeria should be:
a.A law degree of a university whose course for the degree is organised or prescribed by the Council of Legal Education.
- The vocational course prescribed by the Council at the Law School established by it.
- Any person graduating in Law from a university which has not accepted the syllabus recommended by the Council should be required to take further take its examination as the Council may prescribe.
- The Council of Legal Education should be established.