By Alex Enumah
The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, last Monday swore in 62 lawyers into the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN. The lawyers were recently elevated to the rank by the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee (LPPC). The successful candidates comprised 53 in the advocacy category while the other nine are of the academic category.
The rank SAN is awarded as a mark of excellence to members of the legal profession who have distinguished themselves as advocates and academics. Members of the Inner Bar, as SANs are fondly called, enjoy some privileges including having seats reserved for them in the front rows of all courts with priority accorded their cases in court. They are also distinguishable from other lawyers by their attire which is styled differently from the gown other lawyers wear. Theirs is called “silk”.
The LPPC had in June shortlisted 129 lawyers for the conferment of SAN rank this year. Among the list were 73 practising lawyers and 56 academic applicants.
Since the committee released the list of shortlisted lawyers, not a few lawyers have raised concerns over the new conditions for lawyers wishing to attain the rank.
This is because, for three consecutive years, the number of lawyers being churned out by the LPPC for the award keeps bloating.
The LPPC in an advertorial published on January 5, 2022, announced that the application for this year’s SAN rank would be made through its website which opened on January 1 and closed on April 1. It also stated that applicants should pay a non-refundable processing fee of N600,000 into the account numbers of the committee and upload the evidence of such payment to the portal.
This immediately sparked worry among lawyers who have decried “commercialisation” and “politicisation” of the bar’s highest honour and privilege, which is similar to the UK’s rank at the inner bar known as the Queen’s Counsel (QC). They are concerned that the award is becoming too expensive and beyond the reach of most lawyers without connection and financial muscle.
While people have different views about the rank depending on which side of the divide they stand; some want it abolished completely, reasoning that it is unfair trade practice to confer special privileges on certain persons by way of ranking. Others believe that it is good to encourage healthy competition but that a lot of reform is required to make it more merit-based.
Many lawyers who spoke with THISDAY said the award of the SAN rank was supposed to be based on proven integrity by those who had developed the hard work and legal skills required. They lamented that the way and manner the award is being conferred now leave much to be desired.
Some of the lawyers who did not want their names in print called for a review of the guidelines for the award of the prestigious rank. They bemoaned the huge sums involved in applying for the rank of SAN.
“N600,000 is just the amount made public, when the committee comes to inspect the offices of applicants and their libraries, they do get much more than that,” said a lawyer.
As of 2019, Nigeria had just 526 senior advocates with the first two being late Chief Rotimi Williams and Dr. Nabo Graham-Douglas who were conferred with the title on April 3, 1975. Today there are over 700.
“The number of those being given the SAN rank is becoming alarming. The prestigious award has been bastardised and compromised. It is losing its value because it is now given to all Tom, Dick and Harry. Like every other thing, it is now given to the highest bidders. It has also been tribalised and based on quota, and this has reduced the prestige attached to the rank. I remember during our time, we were challenged to work very hard. We were grilled by icons like Chief Afe Babalola. Today the situation is different, and when one sees the calibre of those being conferred, it makes a mockery of the entire elevation process,” a SAN told THISDAY.
The sharp increase in the number of senior advocates has not gone down well with the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN). After the release of the list of lawyers shortlisted for SAN rank in 2020, BOSAN wrote a letter to the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, praying him not to elevate any lawyer to the premium rank until 2024 to enable them to revamp the elevation process.
BOSAN criticised the LPPC for making a mockery of the elevation process with the conferment of the rank on an unprecedented number of 72 senior lawyers in the 2020 exercise. It warned that unless a holistic review of the process is undertaken by the LPPC, the rank stands the risk of losing its prestige and standing among stakeholders.
Noting the urgency of its Save-Our-Soul letter, BOSAN pledged their commitment to providing its expertise and support at every stage of the review process.
Last year, the Supreme Court placed what were supposed to be fresh hurdles ahead of lawyers seeking to be conferred with the SAN title for the year 2021 and beyond. Among others, the SAN rank seekers were to face a panel of selected serving and retired Supreme Court justices and senior lawyers for an oral interview as part of the last leg of the screening process. The applicants were to during the oral interview, be subjected to rigorous interrogation to verify and confirm the authenticity of claims made in their individual application forms.
But THISDAY gathered that despite this, the process is still a sham as it is subjected to influence such as favouritism, bigotry, and bribery, among others.
Recently, the retiring justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Addu Aboki, called on the Chief Justice of Nigeria and the LPPC to review the requirements for the conferment of SAN rank to the extent that it will reduce unnecessary pressure on the court.
To confirm the undue pressure mounted on justices of the Supreme Court by lawyers seeking SAN title, their parents and others, Justice Aboki said there was a need for the justices of the apex court to note that the Supreme Court of Nigeria is a policy court, which should only deal with matters of complex legal nature.
Last week, Mr. Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa (SAN), proposed some far-reaching reforms to both the Supreme Court and LPPC.
According to him, for those who are to be conferred with the rank as advocates, the court cases to be relied upon should cut across many areas of legal practice, including, civil cases such as land law, chieftaincy, commercial law cases, election petitions, matrimonial causes, constitutional law, etc; criminal trials and other areas of law.
Adegboruwa advocated that “We should not have a Senior Advocate who only conducted election petitions or one who only attended to NDLEA or EFCC cases with only one witness who pleaded guilty and was summarily convicted or those who handled only political cases. How do we have a SAN who cannot conduct a criminal trial? In the same vein, the cases should cover all the superior courts of records, such as the High Court, Federal High Court and the National Industrial Court and indeed the appellate courts.”
He further said: “In the last exercise for the rank of SAN, over 50 applicants were reported to have applied for elevation from the academic community. It is my own personal view that the award of SAN to law teachers should be abolished outrightly. The silk cannot be an inheritance, whereby the SAN does not appear in court 10 years post conferment, as the job of advocacy is not in the classroom but the courtroom. But if the award to law teachers must continue, then they are either given another designation or they must frontload at least five trials in contested cases in the High Court, three contested cases in the Court of Appeal and two contested cases in the Supreme Court.
“Why should a law teacher apply for the rank of SAN if he has never practised and has no intention to ever practice law? This does not derogate from the value of law teachers but that career path is totally different from courtroom advocacy. Law teachers who also practice law as advocates should only apply for the rank as advocates.
“In my set, we were about 40 applicants and it has subsequently ballooned to 70 and above. The question that I have been asking myself ever since is this: where are the Senior Advocates? I go to court virtually every day and I see the same sets of people in court. Does it not then mean that there are young, active and dynamic Senior Advocates who are no longer in active legal practice? That has defeated the purpose of the award. The LPPC should fix a five-year mandate upon Senior Advocates such that if after five years of the award, no single trial is conducted then the Rank should be withdrawn until there is compliance, except in exceptional cases of health challenges or old age.
“For all categories of awardees, none should be considered for the Rank if he/she is not an active member of any of the sections of the Nigerian Bar Association, has not attended at least five consecutive meetings of his local NBA and provided concrete evidence of active participation in NBA affairs.”
With a new Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, on the saddle, it is hoped that he would bring sanity to the process.