By Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, OFR, FCIArb, LL.M, Ph.D, LL.D
Some years ago, some young Lawyers, led by a very elderly senior member of the Bar, Pa Tunji Gomez (now late; may God rest his kind soul), trenchantly called for the abolition of the title of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). Gomez, the fire-eating veteran of many struggles, who led the 1948 strike at King’s College, Lagos, and was in the team of Lawyers that defended late Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the celebrated treasonable trial of 1962, was at the forefront of the “Abolition Movement” that sought to scrap the SAN title. The major grouse of “Abolitionists” as the coalition later termed its members, was that acquiring the SAN rank had become deliberately too circumscribed and mostly restricted only to those they termed the “high and mighty” in the legal profession. Such revolt had also once taken place in England against the title of Queens Counsel
(QC) in 2003. It led to its suspension for some time, until great reforms were made before its resumption.
I was one of those who fought valiantly then for the retention of the SAN rank, through the Bar and public debates.
Majority of Lawyers, especially senior Lawyers, mobilised and were able to shoot down the obvious insurrection anchored especially by the younger ones, with Pa Gomez at the forefront. This, notwithstanding that I was not even a SAN at that time. I knew then and still know now, about the importance of this historic honour.
Mythical and Unfounded Fears
There exists this lingering fear (even if pretentiously not expressed openly and publicly), that there are, in existence, too many Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs). Predicated on this unproven and fallacious fear, there appears to be a deliberate and sustained pruning down, over the years, of the number of legal practitioners that are elevated to the Inner Bar, even after meeting all the statutory requirements and sundry laid down criteria for such elevation. It is this needless fixation and mindset, that has collectively kept the SANs’ docket brimming with unending applications by numerous disappointed applicants, who continue to apply year after year.
There is also this mythical fear that awarding the revered honour to too many Lawyers may water down its legendary importance, defang it, shred it of its fabled aura and myth; probably cheapen it; and ultimately subject it to charlatanism and quackery. Most respectfully, I do not agree with these views, as attractive as they appear to be on the surface of it. Nor do I entertain these unhealthy fears. Due to no fault of theirs, some legal practitioners find themselves applying, again and again, to acquire the exalted Silk, year after year; some for between five and twelve years. Taking Silk is a legitimate aspiration, as every Lawyer looks forward to wearing the much admired toga of distinction. Medical Doctors go for specialised courses to be made Consultants; whilst in the field of Engineering, practitioners within its rank, study very hard to acquire Fellowships.
My Journey to Taking Silk: Lessons in Humility
It took me eight solid years of perspiration, pains, pangs and persistent applications, before my eventual elevation to the Inner Bar in 2009. Of those eight years, I was well qualified for at least six years, having fulfilled all statutory and laid down criteria! At this critical stage, it is believed that one needed godfathers. Some others however, believe that one who has “God the Father” does not need a “godfather”. Significantly, I fell into the latter category of those who needed “God the Father”.
Yet, some young men and women whom I had lectured in my youth at the University of Ife (now O.A.U.) in the early 80s, acquired the Silk well before me. Some of them indeed, led me in some cases. I recall that one of them was late Mr Seni Okunloye, a very cerebral and brilliant young man, then of Aare Afe Babalola, SAN’s chambers (May his beautiful soul rest in perfect peace, Amen). He had led me in a murder trial of persons who had futilely attempted to assassinate late celebrated Professor Dora Akunyuli (the then Director-General of NAFDAC), on 26th December, 2003, over her sustained war against fake drug manufacturers and peddlers. The prosecution of the accused persons took place before the then trial Judge, the Hon Justice Ishaq Bello, who has now honourably retired as the Chief Judge of the FCT High Court, Abuja. The Judex had, after the announcement of appearance, used very glowing words for both Seni and I in the open court; – I, for my humility in readily agreeing to be led by, and take notes for my junior at the Bar, who was once-upon-a-time a student of mine at O.A.U; and Seni, for his great hesitation, tentativeness and reluctance to lead me. He did not “rub it in” in leading me, as some juniors who oxymoronically became seniors to their mentors, would readily and arrogantly have done with undisguised éclat and a sense of triumphalism.
As for me, on those occasions that Seni led me, with me taking notes, I had enjoyed every moment of it. This was because I verily believed then and now (like my Weppa- Wanno people would put it in our local adage), that both the hands and legs of a snake remain inside the snake; which is why they do not protrude out of the crawling reptile. The figurative interpretation of this is that a mentor should always be very proud of the success and great strides of his mentee who has surpassed him, since the prayer of every father is that his children should out-perform him.
My Thesis: My Opinion
My thesis in this humble intervention is my very Personal Opinion. And, in so doing, I am exercising my Freedom of Speech in putting forward my thoughts herein. I am aware that this thesis obviously calls for a hot debate amongst Lawyers and other stakeholders, for possible fundamental reforms in the mode of awarding and taking this revered title.
This my personal opinion is well protected by Section 38(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (1999 Constitution), which provides:
“Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”.
This right of mine to exercise my freedom of speech, is also recognised and protected by Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR); Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), 1948; and, Article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). See JOSEPH MANGTUP DIN v AFRICAN NEWSPAPERS NIGERIA LTD (1990) LPELR-947 (SC).
My thesis is neither a populist one; nor is it designed or intended to stir up needless controversy. It is based purely on present realities of our times which definitely call for introspection and self- evaluation.
My thesis is quite simple:
Upon all the various exerting and stringent filtration hurdles being surmounted by an Applicant, the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) should go ahead and award the rank to EVERY legal practitioner who is deserving of it, after he/she has been finally adjudged to have met all statutory requirements. This includes FULFILLING all laid down criteria; surviving all public petitions; being highly recommended by the Bench and Bar; and being adjudged to be a legal practitioner of nobility and distinction. There should be no further microscopic picking and choosing from this tested and trusted pool, based on any extraneous unwritten rules and unseen criteria!
The Present Criteria for the Award of SAN
The Legal Practitioners Act, LFN, 2004, establishes in its Section 5, “Conferment, etc, of the Rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria”. Section 5(2) of the Act provides:
“A person shall not be conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria unless he has been qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria for not less than ten years and has achieved distinction in the legal profession in such manner as the Committee may, from time to time, determine”.
Section 5(3) identifies this Committee as “The Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee” (LPPC). Its composition, as stipulated in section 5(3) is “the Chief Justice of Nigeria, who shall be the Chairman; one Justice of the Supreme Court; the Attorney-General of the Federation; the President of the Court of Appeal; five of the Chief Judges of States; the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court; and, five legal practitioners who are Senior Advocates of Nigeria”.
Apparently aware that the qualifications for the conferment in Section 5(2) appear too bare, and that the phrase, “and has achieved distinction in the legal profession”, may be too hazy to decipher, Section 5(7) empowers the LPPC (with the approval of the Body of Benchers), to “make rules as to the privileges to be accorded Senior Advocates of Nigeria, as to the functions of a legal practitioner, which are not to be performed by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, as to the mode of appearances before courts by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, and generally, but without prejudice to the foregoing, for ensuring the dignity of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria”.
It is by virtue of this subsection, that the LPPC has rightly made rules for the conferment of the SAN rank. These rules have always been tinkered with, serially updated, reformed and invariably usually made more stringent with each amendment, so as to prevent a floodgate of SANs. This means that, to become a SAN has figuratively become the case of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Need this be the case? I humbly, think not.
(To be Continued)…