We are indeed living in very interesting times, within the legal profession and the general body politic. Last week, social media was awash with simmering controversy over the alleged pact struck by one of the many interest groups within the NBA, Egbe Amofin Oodua, to boycott or not the Olumide-led NBA Exco. Akpata. I do not attend meetings of Egbe Amofin or any other chapter group within the NBA, but I am aware that this group and others exist within the bar solely to promote tribal interests during elections in the within the NBA National Exco and nothing more. They are similar to Afenifere, Ohaneze, Arewa Group, PANDEF and other ethnic groups who claim to speak for the interests of their people. I am not aware of the alleged boycott decision, so to that extent I could not have supported it when I did not even know the justification for such a drastic decision.
However, given the principle of federality and the need to be included in an organization, it is difficult for me to rationalize how an organization of lawyers could conduct elections and marginalize an entire region of the country to the point that No position was held by any Southwestern lawyer in the Akpata-led NBA Exco. What could be the offense of those who are regarded as ‘proprietors’ of the legal profession, who have contributed in large measure to the development and progress of the bar, the judiciary and Nigeria in general? Perhaps this could also be the underlying factor for the passive involvement of the cream of Southwestern lawyers in NBA activities under Akpata and it is gratifying that this was corrected under the Maikyau regime. . We have come to unify the Bar for the advancement of our profession and our dear nation. This is a task for all of us, whether at the Eastern Bar Forum, Egbe Amofin or Arewa Bar Forum. Let’s continue with the agenda of the new Exco.
Judicial state of emergency
Except we are wrong, legal practice in Nigeria is facing its greatest trials ever. Even before COVID 19, the administration of justice was steadily heading towards the grave, perhaps only remaining to be buried. The NBA is expected to declare a state of emergency in the justice sector, with a focus on emergency rescue efforts. So far, we have only paid lip service to judicial reforms, only touching the surface without delving into the substance. The lack of essential infrastructure in this very important sector is a major impediment to effective judicial administration. Such a slow and unproductive system can only breed corruption, given the desperation faced by lawyers and litigants to have their cases heard and decided. In this respect, the unfinished new complex of the Federal High Court along Bourdillon Road in Ikoyi, Lagos, is a calamitous eyesore, it is a worldwide embarrassment to all lawyers and judges, an unforgivable disservice to litigants and a disgrace monumental for Nigeria as a nation. I mean, how can Nigeria as a mature state struggle to complete a single building for one of the most important judicial organs in the country? A proper analysis of Section 251 (1) of the 1999 Constitution clearly shows that the Federal High Court is now the foundation of litigation in Nigeria, given the critical matters it has been empowered to deal with. It is the Court that adjudicates matters relating to the revenues of the federation, oil, oil and gas, electricity, admiralty, mines and minerals, immigration, aviation , telecommunications, citizenship, broadcasting, customs and fiscal, security, taxation, banking, operations. business, shipping, copyrights and patents, weapons, ammunition, diplomatic and consular matters, drugs, bankruptcy and insolvency and indeed everything related to the federal government and one of its agencies. And this Court is not functioning as it should, as lawyers and litigants stand in rain and sun to conduct their business. When I learned recently that even the judges’ rooms do not have functioning toilets, I was moved to tears. A judge sometimes sits from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., but he cannot afford to eat while he is in office, because there is no way to cope with the pressure that can come with such a luxury, for so say. The NBA should make it a priority and work with relevant government agencies and the head of the court to ensure its completion.
It is not only the Federal High Court, but also the Court of Appeal and even the High Courts. It is totally unacceptable that lawyers and litigants go to court and cannot even find a place to sit to conduct their business. My suggestion in this regard is that the National Executive Board of the NBA should, at its next meeting, mandate all branches of the NBA nationwide to urgently undertake an audit of all courts within their jurisdiction and submit a full report, as a working document for discussion and action. On the basis of these reports, the NBA Exco should, on behalf of all the lawyers, meet with the heads of the various courts, the attorneys general of the States concerned or of the Federation as the case may be and the governors of these States. If we are constantly clamoring for funds for the court system, if litigants and lawyers are paying through their noses to have their cases filed and processed (both in the probate division and in the main courts), then we must have a corresponding improvement of facilities in all courts.
We must be courageous in tackling the problem of backlogs in the administration of justice, by encouraging the executive branch of government to build more courts and appoint more judges. When traveling outside of Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja to other states, trials are conducted in the courts of those other states in just one week, final written addresses are filed and judgment is rendered within one month, so that in Lagos State, for example, it takes an average of four years to close a case because a judge in Lagos has an average of 600 cases to deal with. The rigid case management conference process, which was supposed to last just three months, is now taking years to complete. There is an urgent need to revise the Rules of the various jurisdictions, so that non-contentious cases of service of substitution, authorization of summons, renewal of summons, extension of time, etc., can be taken by qualified lawyers among judicial staff, such as paralegals, lawyers, etc., who would then report daily to the judge-commissioner. These orders can be reviewed in the event of manifest abuse. In the Supreme Court, for example, these requests are taken on a special day in the chambers by the judges, in the absence of lawyers and their lawyers and you are only informed of the success or failure of your request afterwards.
The National Assembly is currently working on a constitutional amendment. Instead of only singling out cases involving politicians and political officials for a speedy trial, the NBA should set up a committee to work with the National Assembly to streamline the jurisdiction of appellate courts, particularly over matters relating to interlocutory appeals and matters where the principles of law are fairly established, such as land law, stay of execution, electoral petitions, criminal cases, the application of fundamental rights, etc., in order to decongest these courts.
The new NBA Exco must confront the problem of corruption in the justice system head on, as it already affects the fabric of our national life. The system of appointing judicial officers should be made more transparent, like that of the main lawyers, if it cannot be better. It is totally unacceptable that a collection of lawyers and litigants should be able to determine the courts to which their cases are assigned, because this in itself is the greatest injustice towards their adversaries. We simply cannot continue like this, exploiting a corrupt system of walking into the courtroom blindfolded while your opponent is in cahoots with the court. And this is especially the case with seasoned lawyers, who deploy their position and their influence to determine the fate of cases pending before the courts. It should be very easy for security agencies to know the earnings of bailiffs, with the advent of bank verification numbers, tax ID, payer ID, etc. While I can personally testify to the credibility, neutrality and nobility of many judges and senior officials. lawyers, but we cannot close our eyes to certain anomalies that could erode public confidence in justice.
But of course we cannot do much in this regard without first addressing the question of the poor social conditions of judicial officers. Hearing that some judges drive to court, stand in traffic for hours and are expected to sit in court, deal with cases and then render very solid rulings and judgments, is a big joke. In some states, judges’ salaries and benefits haven’t increased in over a decade! Even though judicial assignment is more of a vocation, judges are human beings who frequent the same market as everyone else, who send their children to school and also buy diesel to power their generators at home and sometimes even in their offices. In this regard, the NBA NEC should direct the NBA branches to meet with heads of courts from all states, collect salaries and allowances of court officers for confidential discussion and commitment, through a sub-committee of the NEC, made up of experts and proven advocates.
This then brings us to the question of ethics within the legal profession, as a means of improving the image of lawyers and judges. By now, it is clear that rules of professional conduct have become totally irrelevant and unnecessary, having been overtaken by technology and global trends in legal practice. But even at that, what we currently need is a separate Code of Conduct for senior counsel, as a model for legal practice. Once we fully understand the senior lawyers, it becomes very easy for their juniors to line up. The things we see some SANs doing in court are totally unpleasant to print. Lawyers say it to themselves in small gatherings, prominent names are very often mentioned, but it seems that there is not much anyone can or will do about it. I don’t want to say more in this regard, except that the NBA should work urgently with the Body of Senior Advocates and the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee, to develop a new set of rules to guide the conduct and etiquette of Senior Advocates. Since there aren’t that many of them, it should be easy to isolate the offenders, for compliance and reform purposes. So 24 hours will not be enough for the president and his team, but there is enough good will to succeed. I wish them good luck. (To be continued).
READ ALSO FROM NIGERIAN TRIBUNE