Can Dr Joseph Nwobike, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria practice law after serving a jail term as an ex-convict? If yes, will he still be admitted into the Inner Bar as a senior member of the Bar with the toga of an ex-convict? AKEEM NAFIU of the New Telegraph NewsPaper sought lawyers’ views.
For the members of the wig and gown profession, Monday last week was indeed a sad one especially for the Body of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (BOSAN) as the news filtered in.
BOSAN’s foremost member, Dr. Joseph Nwobike was sentenced to 30days in prison for perverting the course of justice by a Lagos High Court in Ikeja. Nwobike’s conviction was the first in the nation’s legal system where a top lawyer and Senior Advocate will be jailed for a criminal offence of bribing a judicial officer. “Senior member of the Bar, Nwobike acted contrary to the rules of professional engagement by engaging in ‘private’ conversations with the public officials.”
“I hereby find the defendant guilty of trying to pervert the course of justice. The text messages the EFCC retrieved from the defendant’s Samsung Mobile phone did show that there was communication between the defendant, the Judge and the court officials,” Justice Raliat Adebiyi ruled.
This is a sad development and sad day for the legal profession, one of his colleagues said. “If this judgment is upheld at the level of the Supreme Court, it means he can no longer practice law as a legal practitioner and will lose his privileges as a SAN, another said.
Nwobike was arraigned before Justice Raliat Adebiyi on an amended 18-count charge bordering on bribing a judge and attempting to pervert the course of justice.
The judge, however, convicted Nwobike on 12 of the 18 counts and sentenced him to one month’s imprisonment on each of the counts. The sentences were, however, to run concurrently, an indication that the lawyer will only spend a month in prison. Nwobike was discharged and acquitted on six counts.
In her judgement, Justice Adebiyi said the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had proved beyond reasonable doubts that the silk wig was in constant communication with court officials to influence the assignment of his cases to his preferred judges. She further noted that the level of culpability of the defendant over a period of time was high.
“The prosecution was able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that by paying N750, 000 into Justice Mohammed Yinusa’s account, the defendant perverted the course of justice.”
“The EFCC was able to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt that Nwobike did intend to pervert the course of justice by having illicit conversations with the judge and the court registrars.”
However, as a senior member of the Bar, Nwobike acted contrary to the rules of professional engagement by engaging in ‘private’ conversations with the public officials. “I hereby find the defendant guilty of trying to pervert the course of justice”, the judge held.
However, following the conviction of Nwobike, what now becomes of his SAN title? Some senior lawyers while responding to the question disclosed that owing to the fact that the award of SAN was a privilege, only the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) was empowered to determine Nwobike’s fate.
For instance, a teacher of jurisprudence and international law at the University of Lagos, Mr. Wahab Kunle Shittu said “let us see if this judgment is upheld by the higher court, I see Nwobike appealing this judgment up to the Supreme Court.
“If this judgment is upheld at the level of the Supreme Court, it means he can no longer practice law as a legal practitioner and will lose his privileges as a SAN. “I know it has a wider implication for his career and that is why I know he will fight it up to the Supreme Court. But for now, let us be content that justice is done.”
Shittu was echoed by a titled chief and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mike Ahamba, who said Nwobike’s SAN title would not be affected until he had explored avenues the right of appeal had bestowed on him. According to him, Nwobike’s conviction was not enough to take his SAN title away because he had a right to appeal the lower court’s judgement.
He said: “Nothing will become of his title until the matter has been considered by the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC). The mere conviction will not take the title away because the man can go on appeal and have the sentence reversed.”
“Another Senior Advocate, Mr. Seyi Sowemimo, while also noting that the convict still enjoyed the right to appeal his conviction, said only the LPPC had powers to decide on whether Nwobike’s SAN title would remain after he was found guilty of the offence of perversion of justice by the court.”
He said: “This is the first time this kind of a thing is happening. But I am sure the lawyer will appeal his conviction. Besides, the title of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) is a privilege and it is for the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee (LPPC) to decide what will happen to his SAN title after conviction.” 2nd Vice-President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Monday Ubani said withdrawing the SAN title from the silk and his conviction by the court were two different issues.”
He said: “The issue regarding whether or not the convicted lawyer can retain his SAN title can only be decided by the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC). There has to be a decision on that because conviction is different from taking the title away from him.”
So, the LPPC will have to take a decision on whether or not he can still retain his SAN title after he has been convicted for a criminal offence. However, the man has a right of appeal up to the Supreme Court and the LPPC may wait for him to exhaust all his appellate options before taking action.”
To the National President of the Campaign for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), Mr. Malachy Ugwummadu noted that the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) can intervene after the convicted silk wig had exhausted all his rights of appeal.
He said: “It’s quite unfortunate that a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) in the person of Dr. Joseph Nwobike has gotten a verdict of conviction against him. It is a sad commentary, particularly regarding the charge against him over which he was prosecuted in the court of law.”
“Having said that, the Constitution under Section 241, vests on any convict or indeed any litigant, the rights to appeal which I believe the man will definitely appeal the judgement in order to further test the law.”
“It is only after the decision of the appellate courts that we can start to consider what the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) will do.” “I think since the title of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) is a privilege vested on members of the Bar, it stands to reason that such members of the Inner Bar must not just live above board but must also be seen to be above board.”
Therefore, if there is any taint in the character, reputation and integrity of any member of the Inner Bar, the NBA will be doing itself a great service by putting mechanism in place through which erring members of the inner Bar are relieved of their title.
“Through that, there will be a re-enforcement of people’s confidence in the legal profession.” Wale Ogunade simply said “the status of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) is very honourable. The silk involved was jailed for manipulating the course of justice and it is now left for the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) to look into the issue.”