NBA v Ofomata: On the Use of Title ‘Barrister’ – Sylvester Udemezue


Read Mr. Sylvester Udemezue’s opinion on the recent controversial case of  NBA v. Ofomata (2017) 5 NWLR (Pt. 1557) 128 at 133 which purportedly held that it is improper for lawyers to use the title ‘Barrister’ as a prefix for their names.

Udemezue’s Submission

While section 22 (1) (b) permits only lawyers to “take or use the title of legal practitioner,” it does not say the later should use the expression “legal practitioner” or “barrister” as a title before his names. The proper interpretation of that paragraph is that only a person duly qualified as a lawyer can hold himself out as a legal practitioner by using that title. Example:
“Sylvester Udemezue,
Legal Practitioner”
“Sylvester Udemezue,
“Sylvester Udemezue,
Barrister & Solicitor.”
“Sylvester Udemezue,
Solicitor & Advocate”

The Above is what the LPA contemplates when it entitles a lawyer to use or take that title. The LPA does not contemplate that the word “barrister” should be used a honorific or title before one’s names. The word “Mr” is a title used before a surname or full name to address or refer to a man.”
E.g.: “Mr Robert Smith.” It is awkward to say “Barrister Robert Smith.”

However, with due respect to the court, I do not think there should be an outright ban in the sense that the same is now classified as a misconduct. I think it should be left as it has been from time immemorial — a matter of choice. Let those who like touting and showing off, unfortunately and unnecessarily so, go on and continue indulging in that socially and professionally childish and inappropriate behavior of answer “Barrister this or that.”

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One final thing, we must quickly bring it to mind that the word “barrister” is not exactly the same with the expression “legal practitioner,” as universally recognized. A person can be a legal practitioner without being a “barrister.” In England, for example, some persons qualify as solicitors, and not as barristers. Besides, even in Nigeria, the RPC states that a person who has once held a “judicial office,” is barred, after having left the office, from practicing or being addressed as a “barrister.” Such a person is not disqualified from practice as only a solicitor— a clear indication that the two are not the same. And, note he can practice as a legal practitioner (Solicitor) and not as a barrister. Put differently, he remains a legal practitioner, even though he has ceased to be a barrister.

In England, the word “barrister” is used to refer to “a lawyer who is authorized to appear and present cases at any court in a jurisdiction..” But in Nigeria, because our legal system is fused, when one says “barrister,” “solicitor,” “lawyer,” or “legal practitioner,” one is referring to one and the same person. The words are used interchangeably. Finally, if one argues that use of the word “barrister” as a title by some lawyers is proper, one has also to support that the following are correct:
(1) Accountant Sylvester Udemezue;
(2). Economist Sylvester Udemezue;
(3). Mass Communicator Sylvester Udemezue;
(4). Journalist Sylvester Udemezue;
(5). Nurse Sylvester Udemezue;
(6). Sociologist Sylvester Udemezue.
(7). Mechanic Sylvester Udemezue
(8). Hairdresser Sylvester Udemezue
(9). Trader Sylvester Udemezue
(10) Policeman Sylvester Udemezue
(11). Soldier Sylvester Udemezue
(12) Bus Driver Sylvester Udemezue
(13). Conductor Sylvester Udemezue

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Do these not look outright awkward and downright childish. If others are wise enough to avoid such awkward behavior , why should members of the noble and classy profession of law indulge in it? Gentlemen and ladies, “barrister” is a profession, an occupation; it is not a title nor a honorific. Stop using it as a title, because it makes a lawyer look like a “charge and bail.” Indeed, a lawyer that insists on using the word as a title is engaging in brazen “advertising,” “soliciting,” and even “touting,” all of which are substantially unprofessional. It’s even demeaning.

Hence the court’s decision. When it comes to law practice, the taste of the pudding should be in the eating. What makes a good lawyer is not the title he or she bears; it is not even his qualification. It is rather what comes out of him or her— his or her contribution to finding a helpful solution to problems bedeviling his client in particular and his society in general. The bottomline is, they are known by their fruits, not by their roots.

Sylvester Udemezue is a Legal Practitioner, Lecturer, Nigerian Law School, Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria.


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