By Mumuni Damilola Rotimi
Nigerian Bar Association,
Plot 1101 Mohammadu Buhari Way,
Central Business District, Abuja,
ATTENTION: MR. OLUMIDE AKPATA
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE PRESIDENT OF THE BAR TO TAKE THE WELFARE OF LAWYERS, PARTICULARLY THE MOST VULNERABLE SERIOUS.
My name is Mumuni Damilola Rotimi and I am a qualified legal practitioner in Nigeria. This foundation is to show that I am a member of the bar and highlight my genuine call for your attention to a number of things that need your touch. I am convinced that you can actively resolve these issues as your achievement as the Chair, NBA-SBL revealed your administrative and leadership capabilities to all stakeholders in the industry. In the same vein, I congratulate you on a deserved victory at the recently concluded NBA elections and a successful inauguration.
Over the years, we have had a bar that has overlooked a lot of issues which have led to the current ineffective state of the bar. For the records, there has been so much distrust, division and apathy amongst lawyers in the NBA; lawyers hardly turn up in their full numbers to participate in activities of the NBA. It seems that there is a silent agreement that the bar has failed. Particularly, there is a strong belief that making progress as a member of the bar, is now a survival of the fittest. However, the survival is not based solely on the capacity and ability of lawyers, but on some factors that may not necessarily be connected to a system built on merit. Issues of connection, long legs, favour in kind or cash to get to certain positions or access opportunities that should be accessible based on merit and competence are rife. Most shocking is the news of near slavery experiences at the work place, as well as sexual harassment.
There are a number of issues I would crave your indulgence to please attend to and do your utmost best to help us overcome. The legal industry is usually tough for its new wigs and this puts them in a grossly disadvantaged position, where they now have to struggle through their early years of practice to find a balance. For a lot of lawyers, the reaction can be different; from unethical and unprofessional behaviours to depression and a lot more. The reason is the same, the industry is largely unaccountable and the rot in the system is deep. We have lost the principles of accountability and good conscience. We seem to have forgotten that a vibrant bar is the product of proactive and consistent steps. We have lost our charisma as the conscience of the country on the basis of friendship, blind loyalties and corruption. Mrs. Ibukun Awosika at our just concluded 60th Annual General Conference emphasised the need to ensure that we are accountable and embrace discipline.
It is sad that even lawyers do not have a firm belief in the NBA anymore. We are now used to speaking in hushed tones and cannot be seen to call out the actions of some lawyers because they are big, rich, young, old, or we feel they will be crucial to a possible success in our career or life. It appears that the bar has killed her conscience for a pot of porridge. We are not like Esau, we are 21st Century men and women who can be more. While Esau’s limited view of life could be enough reason for his action, what would be our own excuse? With the level of advancement; the world becoming a global village and the realities of being a Nigerian, it is out of place for us to continue to live with the Esau mind-set.
There are a number of issues I appeal that you address immediately as you resume office;
- Welfare of lawyers; while I do not know your plans about this and I admit that it might be difficult for NBA to impose a minimum wage, I believe you can use your good offices to push for an improved welfare for lawyers;
(a) It would be great to ensure that employment contracts are made a standard procedure for lawyers. The agreed pay and notice period for termination (of employment) for lawyers in employment should be clearly stipulated, so that employers can be held accountable with respect to making exact payment, rather than undercutting them capriciously.
(b) I would appreciate it if law firms can actually have a standard closing time for their lawyers written in their contracts of employment, and also comply with the same. This would mean a lot for lawyers; especially those who work in places that are densely populated and with poor road networks. It is essential that lawyers are able to have a balanced life; enjoy family time, take enough rest each day and also have time for other interests. I am sure this would reduce the number of deaths we witness in our industry. The covid-19 development has shown us that we do not have to spend all day at work to be productive. We can ensure our lawyers close work on time and can finish up any other tasks at home.
(c) The availability of a fast and efficient complaint platform to report issues of abuse. A number of lawyers work in extremely difficult situations which affects their mental health. Sometimes it is difficult for them to leave and they may need the help of a dedicated channel to heal from such incidents and find closure. I suggest the provision of dedicated helplines for lawyers who may need therapy to rediscover themselves, reintegrate into the society, and have a productive life. It is widely believed that the cycle of unhealthy work environments we have is largely due to unaddressed mental health issues and transferred aggression that have been passed from one generation to another in our industry. The rampant thought that people have to suffer in our industry before they hit gold is a sign of this unhealthy cycle we have embraced. It is trite that diligence is key to success in life, but this does not translate to perpetuating very unhealthy and disturbing lifestyle or work practices that have made our profession known for being overly capitalistic with almost zero welfare for lawyers. The joke is all over the virtual space. We can be better.
- The relationship of the bench with the bar; it is necessarily important that we put in place a standard relationship that should exist between the bench and the bar. Some of the matters that should be addressed are as follows;
(a) Lack of respect for lawyers and illegal demands by court officials; there is a gross lack of respect for lawyers by staff of the judiciary. From the way lawyers are addressed without courtesy, to the delay experienced in having enquiries and lawful requests attended to, there is a lot that should change. Worse is the demand of money by judicial staff before performing their lawful duties; clerks collecting bribes before moving files and prosecutors who collect money for verification which sometimes run into hundreds of thousands of Naira. Such requests are made without fear or apologies. These issues have slowed down the wheel of justice and worked hardship on litigants.
(b) Communication of cancelled court sittings; a number of times, lawyers have to go through a lot of stress to get to court, only to be confronted with the news that the court would not be sitting. Such developments are commonplace and lead to a waste of financial resources, time and manpower. The reality is that it disrupts the day as lawyers are exposed to a number of dangers. Some have to leave their homes very early to make it to court, others have to travel through roads that qualify as death traps. The value of lawyers’ lives should be announced to the staff of the judiciary for a proper understanding in case they are unconscious of it.
- Professional Qualifying exams for lawyers; I believe there is a need to liaise with professional bodies to make safer arrangements for lawyers to write their papers without having to travel interstate, which poses a greater risk for them. Covid-19 has seen a number of activities go virtual, this means that even such exams can be conducted virtually. At worst, each state should have a centre for such exams. Our members do not deserve to die for striving to get a chance at a brighter future. There is a need to demand that the best and safest practices be adhered to when our lawyers are involved.
- While I know that NBA may not be able to completely ensure the road is safe for her members, it would be helpful if law firms are mandated to ensure that their lawyers get the needed funds to make use of basic transport alternatives that are safe and ensure they are well catered for when on work related trips or travels. We have lost some lawyers to avoidable road accidents. My desire is that our lawyers will be safe while going about their lawful duties.
- Protection from violence from Law Enforcement Agents and seeking redress; in recent times, law enforcement agencies have exhibited a strange confidence in harassing and inflicting dehumanizing treatments on lawyers. This evil trend has continued for too long and should be firmly addressed. Hence, I humbly call on you to use your good offices to put a stop to this, and ensure that lawyers are safe and can confidently go about their lawful duties without any fear of oppression from law enforcement officers. I must add that in order to stem this tide, it is necessary that we write petitions against errant police officers, and also ensure that we are able to seek redress in court accordingly.
- Sexual abuse and harassment. This issue is beginning to emerge amongst our ranks and there is a need for us to nip it in the bud. The NBA should create avenues for victims of such abuse and harassment to seek redress. Also, we should drive the message of mutual respect amongst lawyers. Our female colleagues should not be referred to as ‘conference materials’ any more. Such objectifying terms are degrading and do not project the image of the bar in good light. The NBA should normalise the right to seek redress against any form of abuse meted against any lawyer and also punish false accusations where it is clearly so.
The reason why we have witnessed these tragedies is because most lawyers are vulnerable. We do not have a ready support that we should offer ourselves as a group. The NBA seems to have lost the fire that aided her involvement in ending military oppression in our national life. We have become too comfortable with making speeches than taking action. The NBA must be able to mobilise lawyers into a potent force once again. There is so much we can achieve together. As a TEAM, Together, Everyone (of us), Achieves More.
We need to give ourselves the best of self-care and welfare. If we do not take care of ourselves by ourselves, no other person will do it for us. The NBA needs to rebuild our public image and confidence. We have to ensure that our young lawyers grow to become better and are fully motivated to work and give their best. Our senior lawyers must also be able to relax about their retirement as they advance at the bar. As Pa Tunji Gomez would always say, “it is a matter of conscience”, that we make active progress for the sake of the bar and the country as a whole.
I look forward to hearing from you and the speedy resolution of these concerns I have raised in my letter. Please do have a fruitful tenure as the President of the Nigerian Bar Association.