At the 2010 AGC in Kaduna, a group, known as the ‘abolitionist’ under the leadership of Pa Olatunji Gomez of blessed memory came to present a case for the abolition of the rank of Senior Advocates of Nigeria after citing imbalances, abuses and what operated in other jurisdictions especially of abolition of the rank and its equivalences.
The abolitionists were assuaged with promises of review especially to provide level playground. The President, Mr. J. B. Dawodu, SAN and Deacon Dele Adesina, SAN were eloquent and unequivocal in their presentations on behalf of the Bar. The promises include making alternatives of number of cases in the High Court and Court of Appeal such that emphasis is laid on the High Court as the bedrock of litigation practice. The abolitionists backed down. It was not on the agenda of the next AGC or even of NEC or ever. What followed were legislative amendments that did little or nothing about the fears of the abolitionists and far from the promises of the Bar as it were.
At a time when the litigating public wonder why it takes years for their cases handled by S. O. K. Shillings & Co. and their ilk to be called at the appellate courts while the cases of Afe Babalola & Co. and the likes are called week-in-week-out and announced on news media, you can be sure that the fate of those called on same day depend on where they start.
The abuses are legendary from awarding children of icons, domination of the Inner Bar even when seats are inadequate (and the builders are not instructed to consider an Inner Bar), calling of all matters out of turn and becoming seniors over those called before them. It has become a cutthroat competition and cronies of established personalities who could be called to join in cases that they need not open a page have benefited immensely from patronage.
The financial requirements coupled with the inordinate perquisites underscore the creation of an aristocratic class than the distinction of excellence.
People now spend money to secure early dates at the Supreme Court in a cult-like cartel. God help you if your matter in the appellate courts falls on an endsars day or worse still if there are too many SANs among who want to argue adjournments for an hour.
The following issues deserve consideration:
- Law practice has different branches of which litigation is prime. It is important to give space to all practitioners in an industry distinction award.
At a time that it is almost a given that past General Secretaries of NBA are awarded the silk, it is questionable if Mr. Olumide Akpata, who is distinguished enough to lead the Bar is not qualified to be named among the best in the profession only because he chooses not to go to court, yet is in very active practice in a firm that includes SANs.
- It is a miscegeny to pool teachers and courtroom litigation lawyers together; and, a malapropism to call them ‘advocates’. The lecturer
-qua-lecturer, with all respect, is not an advocate until he comes to the public to make pontifications on matters of public legal interest and advances specific reforms in legislative and procedural laws.
- A professor of law is, notwithstanding the quality of his professorship, a distinguished member of the profession. He does not need a further certification or a revalidation. SANship is not a notch above professorship and does not equate him with a SAN he taught in school.
- The practice has evolved that a SAN is a senior to other lawyers who are not. A conferment does not alter seniority. That is not contained in any law. Seniority is about age and not about distinction. It is a misnomer. It even becomes preposterous when a SAN young in call age has to lead the line in court on behalf of a team of his seniors old in age at the Bar.
Appropriately, the most senior has to announce the team and leave the address to the most senior SAN in the team.
It is hereby suggested as follows:
- The word ‘Senior’ should be removed from the appellation to erase the notion of the assumption of seniority over non-conferees. A conferment should not and cannot confer seniority.
- SANship should be awarded across practice branches. It may be given same appellation like Distinguished Lawyer (if uniformity is desired) or different names like Distinguished Advocate, Distinguished Lecturer, Distinguished Solicitor, Distinguished Legislator, Distinguished Administrator (if branch distinction is desired) all with different criteria and assessment committees.
- An important ingredient of the conferment should be contribution to the practice of law. This, in the case of advocates should include opening new heads of litigation practice in torts, labour law etc, espousing recondite principles, identifiable contribution to the justice sector reforms and Bar activities, pro bono activities etc. In same vane, a lecturer should be considered for volume of publications, special contributions, advancing new jurisprudence, international recognition and standard of teaching.
- For the advocates, the present formula of number of cases in the appellate courts gives undue advantage to the wards of Senior Advocates who are more present on appeals and are granted priority of audience when others appear and often go home unattended. There is need for substitution of more High Court cases in lieu of appeal court appearances. That was the agreement in Kaduna.
It is noteworthy that most of those who are conferred before their 20th practice anniversary practise in the offices of SANs.
- The abuses should be curbed. A SAN should be humane in dealing with colleagues. A situation that colleagues stand in court for one to dominate the Inner Bar is immoral.
- There should be some concession of age. It is hereby suggested that any advocate who could still maintain 10 High Court judgments after 25 years of practice is a Distinguished Advocate of Nigeria. Same for a lecturer who attains professorship and has been in the trade for 25 years or others who could meet the cosmetic requirements if they are sustained.
- The requirements of the conferment such as having office with canteen is becoming so cosmetic that it is clearly meant to produce an aristocratic class than for excellence. No wonder therefore some find it difficult to seat with the lesser beings in the name of colleagues and it is considered infradignitatem for the Bar to be led by a non-initiate or that a SAN should contest to be the Vice President or Secretary of the NBA. It should be one for distinction and not for dissension.
- The Body of Benchers is a regulatory body with a duty to maintain high moral standard in the profession. Whatever qualifies a lawyer to attain that feat of trust should make him/her a SAN or whatever the conferment becomes.
- When criteria are set, justice demands that whoever meets it should get it. The restriction in number is quite aristocratic.
- It is becoming a practice that when a lawyer acts contrary to the Rules of Professional Conduct, if it should lead to expulsion from the profession, the SAN class is often given a cushion of landing by merely losing the silken garb. Noblesse oblige. The member of the higher class should know better and should lose more. What is sauce for gander is sauce for goose.
- Because of the honour, some aspirants are dishonourable in their quest. An agreement should be reached with the courts to ensure that the names of lawyers who participate effectively in a case are recorded and not those who appear on judgment day.
Overall, a distinction class is an impetus for hardwork which will ultimately improve the profession. Congratulations to the newly elevated colleagues.
S. O. K. Shillings Esq.