The Justice Reform Project (JRP) has asked Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN to heed the call of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and step down as the Chairman of the Body of Benchers pending the determination of the petition against a Partner in his law firm Ms. Adekunbi Ogunde by the Legal Practitioners’ Disciplinary Committee (LPDC).
In a statement titled “A Stand For The Integrity Of The Nigerian Legal Profession” the JRP noted that in the face of public allegations of egregious professional misconduct affecting his practice, Chief Olanipekun ‘s responsibility as a leader of the bar imposes an obligation on him to place the integrity of the profession first.
The Statement reads in part:
In the past week, we observed the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) take courageous steps to uphold ethical standards in the Nigerian legal profession. These steps have been met with commendation by a majority of the bar and, although disappointing, a minority dissent in a matter of significant public interest is to be expected, even in the most clear-cut circumstances. These dissents are, however, indicative of the rot in our profession which prompted the founding of the Justice Reform Project (JRP) and which necessitates this public statement.
The facts underlying the conduct of the primary actor, Ms Adekunbi Ogunde are undisputed. The content of her offending email is deeply damaging, insinuating that Chief ‘Wole Olanipekun SAN is capable of unduly procuring a judgment in favour of his client. Ms Kunbi herself has admitted that this may be unprofessional conduct but feigns ignorance of the Rules. No doubt, it is for the LPDC to reach a final verdict on culpability and the extent of any mitigating circumstances. The circumstances underlying this breach, however, have far-reaching ethical implications for the leadership of the bar and, in particular, the Chairman of the Body of Benchers, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN.
That the learned silk is a leader of the bar is undisputed, his position as Chairman of the Body of Benchers merely confirms it. Leadership commands respect but is also a burden, a responsibility. It requires exemplary conduct, and every action/inaction by a leader of the bar sets an example for years to come. That a person of his standing is embroiled in circumstances, which indicate less than optimal standards of conduct, is far from ideal. These are not frivolous allegations; they are comments which warrant investigation. In the face of public allegations of egregious professional misconduct affecting his practice, his responsibility as a leader of the bar imposes an obligation on him to place the integrity of the profession first.
JRP takes the position that the learned silk ought to step down from his position as Chairman of the Body of Benchers to enable investigations to be concluded with the requisite confidence. This should have predated the steps taken by the NBA and subsequent public commentary. Such an action on his part would not be a mark of culpability, it would be a matter of responsibility and honour. In his exalted position, he should ordinarily be instigating such a complaint.
JRP notes that the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC) is a committee of the Body of Benchers, and even though it is a separate and independent arm of the Body of Benchers, members of the LPDC are nominated and appointed by the Body of Benchers, usually by the Chairman. The learned silk’s continued stay in office is, consequently, an indiscretion which will come at a cost to the integrity of our profession. The tribal sentiments being stoked by senior members of the bar are not helpful. Neither are allegations of witch-hunting or ulterior motives.
On a related note, the innuendos in the learned silk’s speech at the Call to Bar ceremony, suggesting that opposing views were indicative of a ‘pulling down syndrome’, can only reinforce the call for his resignation, even though a formal complaint against him has not been lodged.
The NBA, and its leadership, must be commended for taking a bold step in upholding the standards of our profession, even in circumstances involving a man who commands an enormous amount of respect from the entire profession. This is the true test of our will to revive our dying profession and, all of us, including the learned silk, have a responsibility to put the profession first in circumstances like this.
Finally, we recognise commentary which suggests that the NBA faltered by not contacting the learned silk informally beforehand. While comments on whether this show of courtesy was necessary will remain divisive given their cultural rather than legal underpinnings, it is important not to lose sight of the issues on ground. The factual inconsistencies regarding the delivery of the letter are also a relatively small matter. The NBA leadership has done its job. Their actions have marked a new era in the enforcement of ethical standards in the legal profession and we must all stand behind the NBA to ensure the integrity of our profession.