Is SAN Rank Losing Prestige?

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Senior Advocates of Nigeria (file photo)

The recent list of lawyers released by the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee for the award of the prestigious rank of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) has raised concerns among lawyers that the manner in which the award is being conferred lately is making a mockery of the elevation process, Alex Enumah writes

Since the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee (LPPC) released the list of shortlisted lawyers to be conferred the prestigious rank of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) for the 2022, lawyers have been rasing concerns over the new conditions for lawyers wishing to attain the rank.

This is because for three consecutive years, the headlines on the number of lawyers being churned out by the LPPC for the award have remained practically the same. While in 2020 it was “LPPC shortlists 137 lawyers for SAN rank”, it was “129 lawyers shortlisted for SAN rank” in 2021, and in 2022 it is “LPPC shortlists 130 lawyers for award of SAN rank”.

The committee 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 worries 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 also worry that the award is becoming too expensive and beyond the reach of most lawyers without connection and financial muscle.

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.

Most 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.

The 2016 federal government’s official gazette, updated in 2018, for the appointment of SANs listed the criteria on which candidates’ competence would be based and other qualifications. They include Section 16 (2) of the Act that stipulates integrity – 20 per cent; opinion of judges and the strength of references received by candidates -20 per cent; general knowledge of law – 25 per cent; contribution to the development of law – 10 per cent; leadership qualities in the profession – 10 per cent; and qualities of law office/library – 15 per cent.

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Sub-Section 2 further provides that: “Each member of the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee shall receive copies of application forms, copies of references and a list of particulars of reported cases (from Supreme Court) or copies of unreported judgments and reports of chambers inspection in respect of all candidates at least one week before the final selection interview date.

Section 17 of the Act provides diverse criteria, among which are that candidates must have been called to bar for at least 10 years, consultation may be held with the chief judge of the high court where the candidate practices and the local branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to determine this; the candidate must be of good character and must have successfully concluded several cases, and must present income tax for three years.

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. The number of awardees rose to 526 in 44 years.

Up till 2017 and 2018, very few lawyers were shortlisted for the prestigious award. But in the first two years of Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad as the Chairman of LPPC/Chief Justice of Nigeria, the number shot to 670, adding 144 new Inner Bar members, in just two exercises. Many believed that if the former CJN had not been forced to leave office last month, the list would have shot up by 250 under his watch alone from the 130 lawyers shortlisted for this year.

“You can see that if Justice Muhammad had not left office, from the 130 lawyers shortlisted for this year, the number of lawyers appointed SANs under his watch in three years would have risen to over 200. When you compare this figure with the 526 senior advocates since inception from 1975 to 2019, you will notice that 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 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 mockery of the entire elevation process,” a SAN told THISDAY.

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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 disgraced Justice 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.

The letter signed by Prof. Ben Nwabueze (SAN), Chief Folake Solanke (SAN), and Mr. Seyi Sowemimo (SAN), read: “Upon receipt of the letter from the Committee, we were hopeful that necessary changes as conveyed in our letter would be implemented to preserve the dignity of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

“However, following the recent announcement of the shortlisting of 130 candidates shortlisted in the process for conferment with the rank of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, we are of the considered opinion that the concerns raised in our earlier referenced letter have not been addressed.”

BOSAN noted, “It is not willy-nilly that all candidates that meet the set criteria should be appointed in any given year, as such an approach cannot but result in the degradation of the rank. It is those that prove to be outstanding within the shortlist that should be conferred with the rank. This is the time-honoured rule applied in relation to admissions to all reputable institutions in situations where competition is high and spaces are limited and where it would be inappropriate to accommodate all those persons who appear to have met the criteria”

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The members of the Inner bar are concerned that the current system and criteria for conferring the rank of SAN may result in a watered-down perception of the status of SAN

Noting the urgency of its Save-Our-Soul letter, BOSAN said: “We would like to point out that a comprehensive review of the screening process is an urgent and necessary step to retain the dignity, respect, and reverence of the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria and the legal profession in general. The Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria is still committed to providing its expertise and support at every stage of the review process and we are anticipating positive feedback and implementation of the recommendations in this letter.

Also, Samuel Adeyemi said the prestigious rank of SAN was supposed to be awarded to lawyers of proven integrity and those who had developed the hard work and legal skills required.

He said: “Are there such lawyers? Yes. But the way and manner of the award now leave much to be desired. It is not just ever expensive but is beyond the reach of most lawyers without connection and the financial muscle.

“To get an appeal or get a date in the superior courts is now like attempting to get a visa to the Western nations. While not advocating scrapping of the rank, more needs to be done to ensure the son or daughter of a nobody who has no connection but has all the requisite qualities earlier stated is not left out.”

Another lawyer, who pleaded anonymity, bemoaned the huge sums involved in applying for the rank of SAN.

But Eragbai Agbodion said the unnecessary preference given to SANs was killing the legal profession and causing delays in proceedings.

According to Agbodion, this happens when cases of junior lawyers get delayed or adjourned because those of SANs have to be called out of turn due to their seniority.

“The SAN rank has become highly commercialised and politicised. Sometimes many persons who are not supposed to be SANs are the persons who are there. There are so many quota system SANs who ought not to be so appointed,” he said.

While not advocating that the SAN rank be scrapped, another lawyer who spoke to THISDAY on account of anonymity there was need to check and review the processes. He contended that quota and tribal sentiments should be put aside when considering lawyers for the award.

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