The Task Before the ‘Bench’ and the ‘Bar’ in 2018 and Beyond

Raymond Nkannebe
By Raymond Nkannebe December 29, 2017 17:31

The Task Before the ‘Bench’ and the ‘Bar’ in 2018 and Beyond

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As the year 2017 winds up, it leaves behind an ugly picture for the legal profession in Nigeria. Since the midnight raid by the State Security Services early October 2016, in the living quarters of serving superior court judges and the subsequent arraignment of some of them in open court, the legal profession has suffered a huge image deficit from the members of the public who have always received and perceived the trade as one reserved for the finest and noblest of gentlemen. However, it did not end with that. Between then and 2017, the media was replete with stories of very senior members of the Bar, alleged to have gratified serving judicial officers in exchange for ‘justice’. In between that, the Chief Judge of a State High Court was summarily dismissed from office and is currently dragged from one court to the other standing trial for different counts of offences bordering on corruption. More than three senior Advocates of Nigeria are in like manner standing disparate trials for offences bordering on gratification of judicial officers and so on and so forth.

The net consequence(s) of all of the above ugly stories is the dismissal by the general public of the profession as one where Justice is indeed for sale, and its practitioners, liars. This huge image gap and its attendant optical implications is no doubt, a sad commentary for the legal profession in Nigeria. Against this backdrop, there is the conscious need for the profession to reinvent itself and this cannot be done until its practitioners, (both from the elevated bench, to the lowered bar), turn a whole new leaf with their attitude towards the practice of this honorable trade. Anything shorn of the above, needless to say, would tantamount to a disintegration of the profession, as societies, in the words of the philosopher, Patrick Delvin, are wont to “disintegrate from within than they are, from without”. The choices faced therefore, by the profession and its professionals are two-fold: either to resort back to those values and principles that distinguished it in its golden era, or to continue in its current shoddy ways, and lose its mystique. And God forbid that the latter should ever happen.

This intervention therefore, is an effort to highlight some of the areas which this writer believes the leaders of the dovetailed profession should give due consideration going forward. Not necessarily as it relates to the allegations of corruption within the ‘temple of justice’, but also as it relates to advocacy, activism and other sundry questions that has bogged down the profession in recent past. And it is expected that going forward from 2018, this highly respected profession of the wig, the gown, and the gavel would have launched itself on a pedestal that would lead to a reinventing of itself with the full compliments of its eloquent quintessence.

A fortnight ago, the social media went up in ‘flames’ following the refusal of the Council of Legal Education to allow a certain aspirant to the Bar, by name Firdausi Amasa Abdussalam from entry into the hall with her fellow colleagues (during the just concluded Call to the Bar ceremony) for turning on with what necessarily wasn’t a ‘hijab’ by my reckoning, but a raiment of clothing that covered the full length of her head before she donned her customary wig. This young lady, apparently a devout Muslim rebuffed all entreaties made to her to remove the said covering, so as to enable her access the hall, as according to her, it was at variance with her religious beliefs so to do, the regulations of the Council as it relates to dress code for the ‘induction ritual’ notwithstanding.

Long story short, she was not called to the bar, and the polity has since then been met with a deluge of commentary for and against the decision of the council. Various Islamic groups have voiced their reprehension at the action of the Council, which according to them, was “discriminatory to the Islamic faith”. Some too have weaved in the narrative of Islamophobia into the mix and only few days ago, the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) rising from an emergency summit vowed to explore all means available to it, to fight for the young lady citing the provisions of section 38 of the 1999 Constitution and a host of recent judicial statements which recognized the rights of Muslim ladies to attend any function with their hijabs and other raiment of clothing sanctioned by the Islamic faith.

Now, the debate this development has elicited has raised serious questions which the leadership of the profession must answer one way or the other in order to avoid religious frictions and polarization within the Bar going forward. Some of the issues to be decided one way or the other include: Should the Council of Legal Education relax its rules and make it more accommodating so as to meet the peculiar religious beliefs of a section of the bar? And would it be ready to contend with the possible ‘abuse’ that such an ‘accommodating regulation’ might expose the regalia of the profession, when one factors in the possibility of some persons within the bar who are adherents of other religions or sects seeking the accommodation of their own peculiar sartorial ‘etiquette’ by the General Council of the Bar? And in any event, should religious considerations be of any relevance when adopting the dress code for the practitioners of a profession? And if it is not, what is the ‘opportunity cost’ for members of the profession for whom such a restrictive dress code, conflicts with their fundamental right to religion and the practice of same as guaranteed by the constitution? These are critical questions for the leadership of the bar as the year 2018 unfurls.

Writing on corruption in the judiciary and its consequences and/or implication for a society, the late Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, once remarked, “Money they say, is the root of all evil. The bench is definitely not the place to make money. A corrupt judge is thus, a great vermin, the greatest curse ever to afflict a nation. The passing away of a great advocate does not pose such public danger as the appearance of a corrupt and/or weak judge on the bench for, in the latter instance, the public interest is bound to suffer, and justice is thus depreciated and mocked and debased. It is far better to have an intellectually average, but honest judge, than a legal genius who is a rogue. Nothing is as hateful as venal justice, justice that is auctioned, justice that goes to the highest bidder”. In like manner, incumbent governor of Ondo State and former NBA president, Rotimi Akerodulu, SAN, in an address entitled, “The Bar and the Quest for Relevance” delivered at the Annual General Conference of the NBA held in 2010, at Kaduna, observed that “nothing can be more frustrating for a diligent lawyer than a situation where he is forced to speak to an “empty court”.

Now, these two salient submissions raise serious questions for the judiciary, the justice process and the quality of Justice that proceed from our law courts. It is to put it mildly embarrassing to the legal profession for a serving judicial officer to be levied with the charge of hawking justice as though a commodity to the highest bidder. In the last two years, no fewer than 10 judges of the superior courts were charged to court for offences bordering on gratification by litigants through their lawyers in a barter system of sorts where cash sums exchange for favourable judicial pronouncements. While it may be argued that those are mere allegations as we have not been confronted with any convictions, it does not extenuate the fact that the damage in terms of perception from members of the public has been done. Going forward in 2018, the judiciary must therefore be seen to stamp its foot on the ground and make a strong case of weeding out corrupt elements within its ranks whose further stay within, forebodes great danger for society and the highly elevated bench.

One would be playing willful ignorance to say that corruption in the judiciary does not proceed from members of the bar. To suggest so, is to say that a woman could be impregnated without having met and mated with a man as ordained by nature. Corruption therefore in the judiciary, is the product of an “illicit handshake” from the bar across the bench. The point being made is this: litigants do not interface with judicial officers. Lawyers do. A dubious litigant who wants to put a price to justice does so using his/her solicitor as a funnel for such act. And this brings us to the role of lawyers (especially senior lawyers), in desecrating the temple of justice.

As at the time of writing this piece, at least three senior advocates have a case or two to answer before different courts bordering on unlawful gratification of serving judicial officers. One such Senior Advocate who has thrown his heart into the ring for the forthcoming NBA election, had the aplomb of confessing to doing so, and has taken defence in the fact that the judicial officer in question sought his assistance in that regard. And while all of this is happening, the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee has kept a disturbing silence. There is therefore the need going forward, for members of the bar to see themselves as performing a very sacred duty in their much vaunted Temple of Justice and accordingly eschew all acts and machinations that make nonsense of Rule 1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, which ought to be every diligent lawyer’s watchword. Beyond that, the members of the Disciplinary Committee of the Bar, should extend their punitive and disciplinary jurisdiction beyond lawyers who shortchange their clients, to lawyers who compromise the justice process by gratification of judges. And in doing this, the same standards must be applied to all and sundry immaterial of whether they are Senior Advocates or Divine Advocates. Anything short of this, would pave the way for the disintegration of the bar, and the bench alike.

Whereas the NBA before now, was renowned for its unrelenting activism which earned it the status of the ‘Conscience of the State’, all of those appear to have waned and the Bar has practiced a silence that is now louder than a volcanic eruption, one may say. In 2016, in the wake of the raid on houses of serving judicial officers, it took weeks before the leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association, summoned the balls to make an official statement. And when it did, it was not potent enough. This is in contrast to what used to be in times past. This unbecoming silence from a Bar that seem to be comfortable with the crass descent that has been witnessed in the quality of governance in the recent past, is both disturbing and disconcerting.

At the risk of sounding hypothetical, some examples would suffice. Fellow countrymen, how is it that a body with “promoting the rule of law” as its motto, has remained silent since the prolonged incarceration without trial of the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, Sheikh Ibrahim Yaqoub El Zakzaky despite numerous court rulings admitting him to bail? What has the Bar said with respect to the unconstitutional detention of the former National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki despite court rulings both local and continental admitting him to bail? Why has the NBA lost its Human Rights Agenda which once distinguished it from other professional bodies? Time was when the NBA issued bi-annual reports on the state of the nation and the way forward, but all that appear to have gone into oblivion with time. I have waited for the leadership of the NBA to comment on the recent fuel scarcity and it appears they have little or no knowledge of that. Going forward, all these must stop and the NBA through its leadership must rejig its Human Rights apparatchik. A sure way to do this, is to set up a sub-committee on Human Rights who shall follow events in the polity and react to them as at when due. A step in this direction would endear the profession in the heart of those we like to call “laymen” when it pleases us, and also, help to keep governments here on their toes.

There has been a flurry of debates in recent times within the bar as to whether the wig and the gown are still relevant for the bar in Nigeria in the wake of the abandonment of those garments of antiquity by various jurisdictions who once adopted it. Some critics have called it a colonial baggage which must be discarded especially in 21st century civilization. To some others, our tropical environment does not support such overdose of clothing in court rooms that are scarcely with functional ceilings fans, on days one happens upon the court rooms to find power. This debate was recently exacerbated in the wake of the Firdausi frenzy and I read countless commentaries calling for a total overhauling of the dress code of practicing lawyers in superior courts of record, particularly as it relates to the wig and the gown. This is not a place for me to further make public my position on the issue as I have done so in many fora. Suffice it to say however that going forward in 2018, it expected of the General Council of the Bar, to meet and decide one way or the other on this vexed debate gathering momentum by the day.

Finally, the welfare of junior lawyers in the profession is to put it mildly highly overlooked by their senior counterparts. Junior lawyers have been told ad nauseam that they are not deserving of any good pay, since they bring little or nothing to the table. And the pupilage system has since become a disguised intellectual exploitation and servitude at the instance of senior members of the profession. How does one rationalize a situation whereby a junior lawyer of say, two years post-call is paid the sum of eighteen thousand naira, (18,000) at the end of every month, a figure just below the minimum wage and in an economy where the naira is no longer worth the paper on which it is printed? It must be this ugly situation that led top contender for the leadership of the NBA in the forthcoming election, Prof. Ernest Ojukwu, SAN, to say while registering his displeasure to the embarrassing show that “the payment of 15,000 Naira to a lawyer, no matter how incompetent as long as you keep him in your employment, is an abuse of the dignity of a human being on the highest scale”. I cannot agree more. He has since made it the pillar of his campaign to work out a minimum salary which senior lawyers must pay to their junior counterparts if they must be in their employ. The point being made however is that the leadership of the Bar must seriously look into the welfare of the junior lawyers who will take from them tomorrow. The consequences of a poorly remunerated lawyer are too many. And the echelon of the Bar cannot afford to fan its embers by a disturbing indifference.

Alas, it has been an eventful year no doubt with its highs and lows both for the Bar and the Bench. And the future is already upon us. As the New Year unfurls, it is my expectation that the leadership of these sister professions, would give due consideration to some of the issues herein before highlighted and those not adverted to. A step in this direction would tantamount to a win-win for both man, God and Country.

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Raymond Nkannebe
By Raymond Nkannebe December 29, 2017 17:31

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Raymond Nkannebe

Nkannebe Raymond is a Lawyer and an essayist with addictive interest in Nigerian and African politics. Believing in the power of the pen, he intends...