Diary of a Lagos Rookie Lawyer (15): Practice Has Taught Me (I)

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–There is No Oral Advocacy in Court

The desire to become a lawyer was born with me. I really cannot point to the day I decided to become a lawyer. It was there with me from the very beginning that I can only study law. There was no second choice and there was no alternative consideration. My JAMB form had other courses based on the rules but deep down, I knew I was never going to consider anything outside law, so I am not even able to remember what other courses I filled as second and third choices.  Those days, I always imagined myself standing before a judge arguing a legal point with an opponent. Growing up I became addicted to a few foreign legal series. I could not get enough of them. I could watch an episode forever as long as it has a lawyer or two lawyers arguing their points before a judge or jury.

Back then in school, there were also oral advocacies. With excitement, we practiced for the various competitions. You would stand before the mirror arguing and watching your gestures. Sometimes you had to record your voice to listen to it while making argument. We celebrated winning competitions and generally were anticipating doing it real life before real judges and real audience.

Out here in practice, few months down as a lawyer, I have come to realize that there really may be no room for display of oratory prowess. I recall during my court attachment how I was not sure of what the lawyers were really doing. I recall how throughout my court attachment I did not see any argument howsoever. I recall one incident where a counsel insisted on using his 25 minutes as allowed by the court to “adumbrate” on his point. The Judge insisted that she is pressed for time and asked if what he wants to say was not contained in his written address. The lawyer also insisted on using his time as allowed by the rules. At the end when he was allowed to speak, I recall at some point hearing the lawyer say to the Judge “My Lord I wish to be put on record” and the Judge responding “Counsel you are on record.” If you were there, you would notice that the moment the lawyer insisted on his right, the judge switched off. She was flipping through her file and checking her time. In the end, I was over taken by the drama and wasn’t able to pick anything from the “adumbration.”

During our discussion session with the judge, I recall I asked her the question about oral advocacy and why lawyers are not allowed to argue their case. The Judge talked about “front loading.” She talked about having over 700 cases in her docket and how lawyers waste their time and the time of everybody. She talked about time management and speedy dispensation of justice. I did not fully appreciate her points but I let it pass because really, there was nothing I could do.

Today I also appear in court as a lawyer. I have seen enough to convince me that there is no room for oral advocacy in courts. I may never have the kind of thing I watched in the series. Never see it and never do it. Everything you need to say, every point you have to make, write them in your written address and file them. The judge will read them and deliver her judgment or ruling as the case may be.

I recall an incident in court few weeks ago. The Judge came in and announced: “gentlemen, I will be rising at 12noon. The Chief Judge sent me on an errand. We need to manage time. Please let’s be quick with our point and avoid unnecessary argument so we can make progress before I leave.”

Two cases down, the third had a lawyer that needed to give oral clarification. The Judge insisted that there was no time and asked the question: “is this not contained in your address?” The lawyer said it was but he needed to expatiate. He was on his feet for about 20 minutes. I recall the judge’s attention drawn back by a point he made. I saw her carry her biro and began to write. I heard her say, ‘take that again’ a couple of time. When he was done, the Judge was nodding. Apparently he struck a chord. He may just have used the few minutes to say what he would not have said well in the written address.

I must say that having the privilege of following a SAN to court reveals that it would appear that only SANs have the right to argue orally. I have only had the privilege of listening to SANs argue. The rest are always reminded to say only what they did not include in their addresses. I have also realized that many lawyers even prefer to just move a motion and use the last line “we urge the court to grant our prayers” and return to their sits. They do not even make attempts to argue. May be because they knew the judge would not listen or they also do not see the need for oral argument on an already written point or just love the succor that frontloading has brought and are very happy to appear before those judges that will not allow you adumbrate.

One of the lessons practice has taught me so far is that, oral advocacy only exist in Legal TV series.

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