When I read that the court in NBA v. OFOMATA (2017) 5 NWLR (Pt. 1557) 128 at 133 ruled that it was improper (and indeed a misconduct) for lawyers to use the title ‘Barrister’ as a prefix or pre-nominal title to their names, I laughed it off and paid less attention to it— majorly because I know that My Noble Lords must have either been quoted out of context or something must have gone wrong somewhere. What finally succeeded in drawing my attention to the Ofomata case is the article of Syvester Udemezue, Esq. (a notable lecturer in the Lagos Campus of the Nigerian Law School).
In his celebrated article titled “On the Ruling in NBA v. Ofomata Banning Lawyers from Using the Title ‘Barrister’, the notable Law School lecturer made a wide range of contentious opinions and name-calling that one can hardly live with without handing down a possible rejoinder, with a view to placing certain issues in proper perspective.
Udemezue’s submissions may be highlighted as follows:
- The word “Mr.” is a title used before a surname or full name to address or refer to a man. It is awkward to say “Barrister Robert Smith”.
- Using the word “Barrister” as a prefix before a lawyer’s name is unfortunate, unnecessary and amounts to touting and showing off, in that it is socially and professionally childish and it is an inappropriate behavior.
- The word “Barrister” is a profession or an occupation. It is not a title or a honorific.
- Using the word “Barrister” as a title makes a lawyer look like a “charge and bail” lawyer.
- A lawyer that insists on using the word as title is engaging in brazen “advertising”, “soliciting” and even ‘touting”, all which are substantially unprofessional and demeaning.
With the greatest respect to the learned lecturer, to say the above submissions are not bewildering and unduly exaggerated is an understatement. There are submissions that leave one wondering. To my mind, there is nothing professionally untoward, legally objectionable and grammatically imbalance in using the word “Barrister” (either fully written or abbreviated as Barr.) as a prefix to a lawyer’s name. An argument on the appropriateness or otherwise of the use of the word has a strong bearing on three areas of interest: (a.) professional practice; (b.) law; and (c.) grammar.
- Professional Practice—
In Nigeria today, the fons et origo of our professional practice is the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC) 2007 made pursuant to the Legal Practitioners Act (LPA) LFN 2004. There is presently nothing in the former and the latter prohibiting a lawyer, either expressly or impliedly, from taking or using the word “Barrister” as a prefix to a lawyer’s name. So, how and when does answering or using the word “Barrister” become unprofessional, demeaning, unfortunate, unnecessary, childish and inappropriate?
Section E of the RPC 2007 contains Rules 39 – 47 which border on improper attraction of business. Rule 39 specifically makes provisions on advertising and soliciting. A clinical examination of Rule 39 and an overall reading of other Rules in Section E has no scintilla of prohibition of the use the word “Barrister” as a prefix by a lawyer in Nigeria. What, therefore, troubles my mind is the negative and a rather sentimental qualification of lawyers that use the prefix as being childish, unprofessional and unfortunate. With respect, these negative qualifications and references run afoul of the provision of Rule 26 RPC that requires lawyers to “treat one another with respect, fairness, consideration and dignity.” On the contrary, what appears to be unprofessional in all of this is calling some lawyers ‘charge and bail” or saying (especially publicly) that colleagues in the same noble profession are childish because they have elected to use the prefix “Barrister” before their legal names. One would have expected more from a mid that grooms lawyers.
As earlier submitted, there is presently no provision in LPA prohibiting a lawyer, either expressly or impliedly, from taking or using the word “Barrister” as a prefix to his/her name. The LPA only provides that once a lawyer’s name is on the roll, he or she is entitled to practice as a barrister in Nigeria. As a matter of fact Rule 40 of the RPC allows lawyers who have been called to the bar to use titles that include “Barrister-at-Law” and “Barrister and Solicitors”. What Udemezue, Esq. (with respect) appears to be unmindful of is the use of the word “including” in Rule 40 of the RPC. The Supreme Court has always interpreted the word “including or include” to mean not only the things listed immediately after the use of the word. See generally Nafiu Rabiu v. The State (1980) 8-11 SC. 130; Mandara v. A-G, of the Federation of Nigeria (1984) 1 SC. NLR 311; Nwobosi v. A.C.B. Ltd. (1995) 6 NWLR (Pt. 404) 658.
Be that as it may, reliance may be placed, by stretch of argument, on Rule 40 as an authority for using the word “Barrister” as a prefix to a lawyer’s name to show his professional qualification on his notes, envelopes, cards and others. For example: writing Barr. Bolaji Ramos on my notes, office stationary, cards etc. Can this still be said, under Rule 40 to be socially childish, unprofessional, inappropriate, unfortunate, unnecessary and demeaning to the legal profession? I honestly think not. Holding such opinion does not appear to me to have any convincing legal backing under our law as it is presently.
Udemezue’s submission is that the word “Barrister”, not being a title like “Mr.” cannot be used as a prefix. He argued that it is wrong to say Barrister Robert Smith, as the correct one is Mr. Robert Smith. He rested his argument on the fact that “Mr.” is a title while “Barrister” is a profession or an occupation. Then to bring his point home, he alluded to the following which he said are awkward and downright childish just like using “Barrister” as a prefix:
- Accountant Sylvester Udemezue
- Economist Sylvester Udemezue
- Mass Communicator Sylvester Udemezue
- Journalist Sylvester Udemezue
- Nurse Sylvester Udemezue
- Soldier Sylvester Udemezue
With respect, this argument lacks grammatical support on two grounds. Firstly, contrary to Udemezue’s submission, the word “Barrister” is neither a profession nor an occupation. It is merely a name referring to someone in the legal profession who has been called to the bar. The record has to be set straight. Secondly, while is it beyond argument that titles such as “Mr.” in English Grammar normally come as prefixes before real names, there are also times when names given to members of certain professions or callings may also be used as prefixes before the real names of members of such professions or callings. And this does not apply to Nigeria alone— it is prevalent in jurisdictions such as Europe, the UK, the US and Asia. How about the following examples?:
- Bolaji Ramos
- Bolaji Ramos
- Bolaji Ramos
- Air Admiral Bolaji Ramos
- Bolaji Ramos
- Professor Bolaji Ramos
- Justice Bolaji Ramos
- Bolaji Ramos
- Bolaji Ramos
- Captain Bolaji Ramos
- Eur Ing. Bolaji Ramos (European Engineer) used in Europe
- CA Bolaji Ramos (Chartered Accountant) used in India.
The bottom line is that most of the prefixes or pre-nominal letters or words are substantially names of individuals in specific professions. They are titles per se, but they may be used as professional or academic titles, as distinct from “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, “Ms.” and “Chief” which are social titles. A doctor is a doctor, a barrister is a barrister, a justice is a justice, an engineer is an engineer and a lieutenant is a lieutenant. They are all persons stricto sensu, and not titles. If they can all use the names of their professions and callings as prefixes, one should seriously ask: what is legally, grammatically and professionally wrong in using “Barrister” as a prefix to a name of a lawyer qualified to practice law in Nigeria?
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