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Setting New Guidelines For SANship Award

Posted: Jun 18, 2015 at 12:06 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

As the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee, (LPPC), headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, is set to announce the names of successful candidates for the award of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) 2015, the Nigerian Bar Association NBA says it wants to be involved in the process. But can NBA’s involvement sanitize the process? Will it also stop agitations for abolition of the award? ADAM ADEDIMEJI in this write up attempts answer to these questions 

“NBA has taken steps to ensure its full involvement in the appointment of Senior Advocates of Nigeria this year. The process is now more transparent. The 45 applicants this year would be those who received NBA’s endorsement, based on merit and service to the association.” 

The above statement was made by the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Austin Alegeh SAN, during the May edition of the NBA President’s Monthly Media Chat in Lagos. Alegeh said the association made this resolution at its National Executive Committee meeting in Sokoto last month.

This step by the NBA is unprecedented, as it is the first time the association tries to be involved in the examination, interview and recommendation of would-be applicants for the award. NBA’s General Practice Committee, saddled with this assignment is headed by Joseph Daudu, former president of the association. Other members of the committee are Niyi Akintola SAN, Joseph Kyari-Kadzama SAN, Mrs. Nella Andem-Rabana SAN and Charles Edosonwan SAN.

The Daudu-led committee, while giving its report said it received 45 names which had earlier been shortlisted by the Privileges Committee chaired by the Chief Justice of Nigeria. Although, only 18 lawyers would be awarded the rank, according to the CJN-headed committee, Daudu said his committee gave recommendations in three categories, with 23 receiving strong recommendation, 18 with recommendation and four with average score. He also said that one applicant died at the Supreme Court, shortly after being interviewed in the course of the exercise.

But how far can the NBA go in this onerous task of helping to sanitise the process of SAN awards in Nigeria? This is because over the years, critics of the award have alleged that it has been politicised and that recipients have turned the privilege into a cult thereby sidelining other lawyers. They argued that it did not give the lawyers a level playing ground, hence their vehement call for its abolition.

In a recent comment, one of Nigeria’s leading legal icon, Chief Afe Babalola (SAN), stressed the need for reforms in the process of elevating lawyers to the rank of SAN to follow the model in the United Kingdom.

Babalola said in England, irrespective of the number of lawyers that qualify for the award of QC, an equivalent of the SAN title, in a year, all of them would be appointed, leaving no room for backlog, wondering why Nigeria could not take a cue from the practice in England.

According to Babalola, “In the last few years, many lawyers have been asking for the abrogation of the SAN title. Their grievance is that they apply year after year and those who are qualified could be as many as 70, but at the end of the day, the law limits the number of those that should be appointed to only 15, leaving a backlog of those who are qualified.”

The promoter of Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti, noted that this practice has encouraged the “man-know-man,” syndrome, where those who grant the SAN title to lawyers tend to favour those they know ahead of others.

But a leading critic of the award, Pa Tunji Gomez, reacting to Babalola’s clamour, said “calling for modification of the award of Senior Advocates will be very dangerous. There is no reform that can help, it has to be abolished. With due respect to Chief Afe Babalola, he is out of touch with the suffering of junior lawyers. He is no longer in active practice and so not able to appreciate the suffering of young lawyers.”

Opponents like Gomez insist the award itself is oppressive unlike in England. If you have a case that is eight years old and a SAN has a case that is six months old, the court will hear his six months old case before your own case one of them lamented.

“What that means is that ordinary litigants are put in disadvantage. But because the clients wants his case to be heard quickly. So, he may take his case from a junior lawyer and give it to a Senior Advocate. So, what we want is its abolition and not reform. So, what Chief Babalola is advocating is not a reform but an extension to a privilege class to oppress the majority of the people,” says Gomez.

Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and one of Nigeria’s foremost activist shared Gomez’s sentiment and supported the septuagenarian in advocating for the abolition of the rank. Falana wanted the rank scrapped or at least do a review of the criteria by which it is awarded.

In an article, Falana, who himself was denied the benefit of the rank for many years because of his activism said that SAN rank would be irrelevant unless it is awarded in the same way that the Queens Counsel in the United Kingdom is awarded.

“A situation where activists and radical lawyers are deliberately excluded from the inner bar on the excuse that they do not satisfy the requirements is illegal,” Falana said.

He said further, “The colonial legacy was abolished in 1964 in line with the republican status of the country. The rank was however restored in 1973 under a military dictatorship. With the restoration of democracy, the rank (SAN) ought to be abolished without any further delay. If it is going to be retained the LPPC should no longer be allowed to make it business as usual. Its attention ought to be drawn to the current practice in the United Kingdom where all lawyers who satisfy the laid down criteria are automatically conferred with the rank of Queen’s Counsel. Since we copied the practice of honouring distinguished lawyers from the United Kingdom we cannot afford to be more catholic than the people.

In strict compliance with Section 42 of the Constitution which has abolished discriminatory practice, the conferment of the rank of SAN should be democratized. This submission accords with the Guidelines for the Rank of SAN which has not pegged the annual award to any number of lawyers. In other words, there is no justification for picking 17 out of the multitude of lawyers that meet the prerequisites every year.”

Corroborating Falana’s position, Barrister Nwokorie Innocent has this to say; “It is a universal belief among lawyers that the conferment of the rank of SAN every year must reflect the highest level of legal practice and nothing less. The selection ought and should be based on merit. But because the rank being a status symbol in the legal profession, many lawyers are desperate to be conferred with it to the extent that some applicants engaged in some unprofessional and unwholesome practices. The emphasis on meeting members of the privileges committee in private before one is assured a slot should be de-emphasised.

Innocent criticised what he called a situation where stakeholders in the legal profession who are the persons eminently qualified to know legal practitioners who are into real legal practice are not allowed to make adequate input into the consideration of candidates does not speak well for the legal profession in Nigeria. This is because by virtue of their positions, justices of the appellate courts know legal practitioners that are into practice and those that are not.

Hear him, “Since the statute is quite clear on the criteria for the conferment on any private legal practitioner who desires same, can we get assurances from the members of the privileges committee that primordial sentiment, filial relationship, clannish considerations, connections both political and otherwise will not be used as criteria. Should emphasis be on quota bases or where you come from in Nigeria or whom you know? Some members of the committee with due respect do not know these practitioners like judges and justices of the appellate courts where these lawyers appear daily to argue their cases.”

Agitations for reforms or abolition of the rank of SAN reverberated few years ago when lawyers who called themselves abolition group caused a stare at the Annual General Conference of the NBA held in Lagos in 2009 and continued in Kaduna’s AGC 2010. The group complained that procedure for the award is not transparent and that the basis for the selection is not clear. They also point out that the privileges attached to the rank are being abused.

Gomez, a former secretary of the Lagos branch, a bencher and main proponent of the abolition, led others that include Foluso Fayokun, former chairman of Lagos branch and Seth Amaefule, a former secretary of the same branch in the agitation.

These concerned lawyers who think that the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria should be abolished for it is discriminatory and unfair to lawyers who are not Senior Advocates, were in court to press home their demand.

Another grouse of the group is that Senior Advocates are unduly priced, thereby depriving other lawyers of the jobs that could go round. They cited in their petitions cases on local government elections that are hijacked by Senior Advocates, thereby leaving little or nothing for none ‘Silk’ lawyers.

There was another suit by the then President of the Nigerian Bar Association asking the court to stop the award for the main reason that the appointing authority did not follow the guidelines to the letter.

Section 5 (1) of the Legal Practitioners Act, Cap 207 Laws of the Federation 1990 now cap L11 Volume 8 Laws of the Federation 2004 enumerated the criteria for applicants to the rank of SAN thus;

An applicant shall furnish the committee with the following;

1. (A) Particulars of at least six cases in which he had appeared within the last three years preceding the date of the application before the Supreme Court.

(B) Particulars of at least two contested cases in the Supreme Court and at least four contested cases in the Court of Appeal in which applicant has appeared within at least three years preceding the date of his application before the Supreme Court

(C) Particulars of at least one contested case in the Supreme Court or at least four contested cases in the Court of Appeal and at least six contested cases in the High Court in which the applicant has appeared within at least 3years preceding the date of his application before the Supreme Court or Court of Appeal or the High Court.

2. Unless the committee thinks that an incumbent Attorney General of the Federation is not fit and proper person to be conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria, the AG of the Federation would be honoured with the rank if he had not been conferred with the rank before his appointment.

3. The rank may in exceptional circumstances be conferred on academic members of the profession if the applicant has distinguish himself through teaching and published works by making substantial contribution in the field of Law and Jurisprudence. The particulars of such publication or works must be furnished to the committee.

4. Former Queens Counsel who applied will be conferred with the Title.

5. Partners in chambers who severally satisfied all the criteria are eligible to be conferred with the rank but not associates and salaried Junior Legal Practitioners working in the chambers.

6. In addition to forensic Excellency, an applicant should furnish the committee with the following:

(i) Good Law office with Library and evidence of at least two junior Legal Practitioners as staff in the chambers with other supporting staff.

7. Candidates must also have the following qualities; good character, good reputation, honesty, integrity, ability, and sound knowledge of the law as well as provide evidence of successful practice at the bar, satisfactory presentation of cases in court and generally high standard within the profession.

8. Respect for the code of conduct and etiquette at the bar and loyalty to the profession.

Among the guidelines for the conferment of the rank is that every candidate is required to provide particulars of contested cases which he considers to be of particular significance to the evaluation of his competence in legal practice and contributions to the development of the law. Each candidate is also expected to attach a certified true copy of all the judgment referred to in his application.

The new guidelines require that an applicant for the rank is expected to pay N300, 000 as application fee. This is as against N250, 000 paid last year. The new guidelines also empowers the committee to suspend a legal practitioner from the use of the rank of SAN pending the determination of any disciplinary action, complaint or prosecution against such a legal practitioner. This new power will allow the committee to punish an alleged erring legal practitioner even when his guilt is yet to be established.

According to the new guidelines, those applying as academics must now show that their works are published by reputable publishers “whose reputation shall be assessed and determined by the Academic Subcommittee.

The guidelines however retain the criteria for evaluating candidates’ competence which are: integrity, 25 per cent; judges’ opinion, 15 per cent; knowledge of law, 15 per cent; contribution to the development of the law, 10 per cent; leadership qualities 10 per cent; strength and quality of reference 15 per cent and quality of law office 10 per cent.

The institution of the award of SAN is a replica to the Queen’s Counsel (QC) being conferred on lawyers in United Kingdom. The conferment is made in accordance with the provisions of the Legal Practitioners Act, (LPA) by the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee, (LPPC) headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria. The LPPC is a body created and empowered by the LPA (Cap LII LFN 2004) to award the rank of SAN to deserving lawyers.

The rank is a privilege awarded as a mark of excellence to members of the legal profession who are in full time legal practice, have distinguished themselves as advocates and have made significant contribution to the development of the legal profession in Nigeria.

Specifically, the rank is a title that may be conferred on legal practitioners in Nigeria of not less than 10 years’ standing and who have distinguished themselves in the legal profession.

As lawyers await the outcome of the interview of 46 lawyers slated for this week in Abuja, it is yet to be seen how the intervention of the Nigerian Bar Association in SANship selection process will help calm the nerves of those who oppose the continue conferment of the award.