HomeLegal LuminaryTribute to Justice Ayoola at 90

Tribute to Justice Ayoola at 90

Date:

By Dr Babalakin

t took me a whole while to conclude that I had to write a tribute to Justice Olayinka Ayoola as he turns 90 years old today, October 27, 2023.  I had known Justice Ayoola as a colleague and friend of my late father, Justice Bola Babalakin, probably as early as about seven years old. I know he is not a man given to publicity. He actually shies away from it. I recall that while I was growing up, Olayinka Ayoola and Bola Babalakin used to feel very disdainful towards lawyers who sought publicity to attract clientele. They felt it was an antithesis to the legal profession and hoped it would not become the order of the day. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was an aberration to seek publicity in that manner. I cannot say what it is now. In their view, a brilliant legal practitioner was known for the quality of their arguments, their submissions in court, efficacy, diligence and comportment.

I apologise upfront to my Lord for writing this tribute and publishing it. You never asked for it and you will not be too happy that one of your boys did this to you.

My motivation for writing this piece is twofold. The first is historical. It is important to let the world know how great it was in the legal profession when I was growing up; and to celebrate those who are deserving of celebration and not those who, through a cacophony of sponsored media publicity, have acquired a reputation that is not premised on the quality of their character.

I recall writing about the legal practitioners who influenced me a great deal in my decision to practise law and the trajectory I have sought to follow. They are Justice Teslim Elias, Justice Olufemi Ayoola, Chief Fredrick Williams, Justice Yinka Ayoola, and Justice Bola Babalakin.

I grew up in the world of very successful and active lawyers. My influence to read law as a student was already established by the time I was 16 years old. We were neighbours to the Ayoolas. Olufemi Ayoola, arguably the most successful legal practitioner of his time, had a plaque in front of his house which I read every day. It was an inspiration.  It stated as follows: “Olu Ayoola. BA, BCL, BSC, Econs, Dip ed.”

Olu Ayoola was born in 1928 and he was called to the bar of England and Wales in 1952, having bagged all the degrees stated above. As a young man, I wanted to acquire that sort of qualification at a very early age. Influenced by him and my very academic surroundings, I submitted my doctoral thesis in Cambridge University before I was 26 years old.

The Ayoola brothers, Olu and Yinka were a phenomenon in 1967. Olu Ayoola at 39 years old, was appointed a High Court Judge of Western State of Nigeria. His brother Yinka was appointed in 1976 at the age of 43 years old. Both were very great legal practitioners. They were part of the dominant group of outstanding legal practitioners who were appointed to the Bench in old Western Nigeria. Some of the other names are: Justice S. Ade Ogunkeye, Justice Abdul Agbaje and Justice Bola Babalakin.

In those days, following the English tradition properly, the brightest of lawyers were appointed as judges. They were all very successful and affluent. As a young man, I was taken to court by my father regularly to avoid leaving me at home, where I was going to organise parties in his absence. The legal profession was enthralling. The legal battles between Yinka Ayoola, Richard Akinjide and Bola Babalakin were consistent and enlightening. The law courts were centres for the display of brilliance without rancour. As a young man, I assumed wrongly that their very strong submissions against one another were a sign of a rift. I later discovered that there were no animosities. It was just in the natural course of practising the profession.

I was very impressed with the quality of life of these legal practitioners and particularly impressed with the sort of cars they drove. My father’s boss between 1959 and 1960 was Justice Ade Ogunkeye. He drove a Cadillac. Yinka Ayoola drove a Mercury Cougar, while Bola Babalakin drove a Mercedes 250.

This very substantial life of comfort did not prevent them from giving up their lucrative practices to take up appointments as judges. They all followed the tradition of the United Kingdom where judges are appointed from the most exceptional King’s Counsel. The motivating factor for taking up these appointments was “honour.” A judge was revered by all in Old Western Nigeria. He was an epitome of brilliance, comfort, composure, and grace, and the judges never mixed frivolously.

Even though remuneration was not the incentive, it was not miserable as it is now. A judge of the Old Western State earned more money than the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. This was before the serial distortions began in our legal system. I do not believe that any judge today earns the salary and allowances of the members of the National Assembly. This is an unpardonable anomaly. It is interesting to note that in the English system, which we claim to follow, the Lord Chief Justice of England today earns more money than the Prime Minister of England. This is the natural order of things. The idea of judges not being very comfortable is very alien to my upbringing. The notion of a judge not being able to effortlessly fund a comfortable lifestyle offends my senses. We have to assess how we came to this level and ensure that we can draw a line from the past and begin to place judges in their right economic place of comfort and honour as an immediate pressing issue.

I continue to ponder about the role of senior lawyers. I do not understand how these lawyers make a fortune practising law and do not enhance the forum in which they practise the law. How can we have courts in Nigeria that do not have all-round electricity? How can judges earn less than members of the National Assembly? How can we continue to expect to submit disputes to a poorly funded and inadequately motivated forum? Why are senior lawyers not in the front line of insisting on repositioning the judiciary?

My worst fear is that most lawyers today never saw a vibrant, well positioned, well-funded judiciary. I believe the judiciary began its gradual decline in 1976 when outstanding judges were removed from the various courts without a proper process. They let go a lot of outstanding judges and since then other brilliant and successful practitioners refused to aspire to the Bench. A system where the best lawyers do not aspire to the Bench is not a legal system founded on the value and ethics of the English legal system.

Justice Ayoola was a judge in Oyo State. He later became the Chief Justice of The Gambia. He was in the Court of Appeal for a while before he was elevated to the Supreme Court.

The house we moved to when my father became a Judge of the Western State was Quarters 609, New Reservation, Iyaganku. It was at that time a six-bedroom house with three living rooms, a substantial dining room that could sit about 20 persons effortlessly. It also had a well apportioned study. I do not recollect that we ever had a light out. There was always power from the source, or the court supplied generator and diesel. We had a two-bedroom visitor’s chalet which was so far from the main house that you had to walk down to call someone from the chalet. It was not within shouting range. The six-bedroom boys’ quarters was somewhere in a valley in the compound. I realised the property was on about two acres of land. This is how the judges that I grew up with lived.

Justice Ayoola’s house that was a stone’s throw away had similar facilities. You can imagine how depressed and downcast I am, when I learn that judges live in small buildings with little privacy and yet are grateful for the concession and feel they need to thank the government for the gesture. Judges in Western states had official Mercedes Benz cars before the government’s low-profile policy which benchmarked public servants Peugeot to 504. I believe the judges should have been excluded from this policy, but it was not obvious because almost all of them had very good personal cars which they drove outside official times. I believe a lot of states should not have the number of High Court judges they have today. They cannot provide for them adequately. They should expand the magistracy and its jurisdiction and appoint very few High Court judges that satisfy conditions similar to those we had in the old regions – Eastern, Northern and Western.

I can give direct evidence that the Western Nigerian judiciary was an epitome of intellect, discipline, composure, and character.

I have a lot of personal gratitude to Justice Yinka Ayoola. He was the man I ran to whenever I had serious arguments with my father. As a young man, I argued a lot with my father. It was a regular session on the dining table every afternoon. Sometimes it was very heated, and my loving mother was always very anxious about the outcome. On a particular day, I was so sure I had won the argument, and I stood my ground; the next thing was that I received a dirty slap from my dad. I had to be resuscitated by my mother. Later on, I discovered that my father enjoyed the arguments but found them totally unacceptable from a 13-year-old boy. He actually told my mother that if I developed the skill properly, it could be useful to me in the future. After this event, I cultivated the habit of discussing my issues with Justice Yinka Ayoola, who had a subtle way of mentioning it to his friend and getting the desired result for me.

Some of the incidents I remember included when I was going to secondary school. I had a choice of secondary schools. In those days, interviews to some top secondary schools spanned three days. I had been to some interviews in many secondary schools, and I had been admitted in all schools. My choice was Aiyetoro Comprehensive High School, which was then managed by an American Group. My fascination was the ambience of the school and the quality of the food. I wanted to attend very badly. Before discussing it with my father, I remember broaching the issue with his friend, Justice Ayoola. He advised me to go to Government College Ibadan which was this time consistent with my father’s view. Having listened to Justice Ayoola, my resistance crumbled. With Ayoola and my father standing on the same point, I had no choice but to comply with the situation. I remain grateful to the duo for making me attend arguably the most outstanding secondary school in Nigeria.

When I was going to commence my law degree, I wanted to join my friends from Government College Ibadan in the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). My mother was not keen on it. She wanted me to chart a course that will not be dominated by my father’s presence in the Western state. She wanted me to develop an independent personality. She opted for the University of Lagos and with Justice Yinka Ayoola’s support, this was a fait accompli. UNILAG was an eye-opener for me. In the course of my studies, through one of Chief Rotimi Williams cousins, I had access to his library. I was bowled over. I was overwhelmed by the richness of the library which was far better equipped than the University of Lagos Law Library. This began my affiliation with the Rotimi Williams family, and I remain very grateful for the exposure that I received from Papa Rotimi Williams, which culminated in a situation that his office was the only office I ever worked in my life apart from Babalakin & Co, where I work till date.

For my postgraduate education, I had options. I tried to persuade Justice Yinka Ayoola as a stepping stone towards convincing my parents to go to my preferred school. Justice Ayoola and Justice Bola Babalakin made it clear to me that the University of Cambridge was the best option for me. I agreed. I don’t believe I could have attended a better University. I thank them.

On arriving at Cambridge, I visited the university bookshop. I had never seen such a collection of very current books. They were all the latest editions. I was so enthralled by it all, that I bought more books than my allowance could afford. One of the books I bought was a present for Justice Yinka Ayoola. I recall inscribing in it a “thank you for all he had done for me.” On my return to Nigeria, I visited Justice Yinka Ayoola in his chambers. During the visit he brought out the book. I was overwhelmed with emotions. He did not discard a book gift given to him by an insignificant young man. He read it and kept it.

My father’s contemporaries and friends were selfless. There was no quid pro quo. Whatever they did for themselves had no financial consideration. It was a matter of honour. I needed a licence to publish some books. The licence belonged to Justice Yinka Ayoola. I approached him on the issue expecting some form of deliberation. He quickly granted it to me without conditions. I could not believe it. What a great gesture. I can only wish that the values upheld by that generation of lawyers and judges will once again become the order of the day in the Nigerian legal profession

As you turn 90 my Lord, may you continue to flourish and may the Almighty God enable us to recreate the legal profession in the mode which your generation represented. As my father fondly referred to you, “Yinkus” (please pardon my insubordination), I wish you very well.

My Lord, Justice Yinka Ayoola, I wish you a very fruitful 90th birthday.

I remain yours.

  • Dr Babalakin is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Senior Partner of Babalakin & Co Legal Practitioners
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