Law News
Award of SAN rank still generates controversies

The modalities for selecting lawyers for the award of Senior Advocate of Nigeria continue to spark controversies, RAMON OLADIMEJI reports

On a yearly basis, the conferment of the Senior Advocate of Nigeria rank on some select Nigerian lawyers usually brings alive the perennial controversies that have dogged the process of selecting legal practitioners for the rank in the country.

At the root of the controversies trailing the selection process is the agitation, especially by public members, that the criteria are not clear. This is especially so because many who the public adjudges are deserving of the rank are sometimes turned down by the awarding body, the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee.

One can hardly fault the public on its criticism of the process, especially considering how long it took the LPPC to confer the late legal luminary, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, who had contributed to the development of law like or more than any living or dead Nigerian lawyer that one can think of, with the rank.

In 1988, after exhausting their patience waiting for the “people’s lawyer” to be conferred with the SAN rank, students of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, awarded Fawehinmi with the “Senior Advocate of the Masses.

The history of the award of the SAN rank is replete with cases of personalities who are considered fit for the title by all but the LPPC.

The conferment of the rank on human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana, in 2012, was one that was considered to have been long overdue before it was eventually done.

The list of the 21 lawyers to be awarded with the rank in September this year has generated no less controversies than the previous years.

These new SANs will join the existing 408 lawyers, both living and dead, who had been conferred with the rank since its inception in 1975.

The SAN rank

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria enjoys the privilege of sitting in the “inner Bar” (which is usually the front row seat in the court) as distinguished from the “outer Bar” where “junior advocates” are seated. SANs also enjoy the privilege of having their cases called first in court.

Subject to specific guidelines, the SAN title, which is an equivalent of the Queen’s Counsel in the United Kingdom from which Nigeria became independent in 1960 (Republic 1963), is conferred on legal practitioners in Nigeria who have been called to the Bar for a period not less than 10 years.

The title was created by the Legal Practitioners Act. The LPPC, saddled with the responsibility of awarding it, was established by the same law.

A Lagos-based lawyer, Chief S.W. Baidi, confirmed the public outcry trailing the award of the SAN rank. He lamented the perceived politics involved in the process as well as the increasing cost of applying for the rank.

He said, “The whole thing appears to have become politicised and sometimes when you look at the trend, you’d see that it has become hereditary, where one SAN would subsequently work out his son to be an SAN; that is the pattern.

“But there are also others whose fathers are not SANs that apply and get it, but the fact remains that there is so much politics involved in the conferment of the rank now.

“Sometimes you hear of lawyers who we all know are very good in practice and they will apply and not get it, while we hear of people we don’t even know anything about being conferred with the rank and one cannot say whether it is based on academic excellence or excellence in practice.

“Another thing is the cost of obtaining the form. It used to be around N200, 000 but now, it must have been reviewed upwards.”

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Kunle Ogunba, who corroborated Baidi’s view, said it may take reviewing the selection process to put paid to the endless controversies because all deserving lawyers ought to be automatically awarded the rank.

Ogunba said, “There is a guideline that has been set out but I am also aware that there have been agitations that too many people are now qualified and not all those who are qualified are being conferred with the rank. I am of the view that once one is qualified, getting the rank should be automatic, so that it doesn’t give room for all these agitations or rumours that there is favouritism in the process.

“I am of the view that if there is a need to review the guideline to make the process more competitive, it should be done. And I said that because there are now too many lawyers who have already met the criteria yet they are not being elevated to the SAN rank.

“May be this can be addressed by reviewing the criteria; by increasing the stake in terms of the number of cases one must do to qualify, the number of years of practice, so as to fine-tune the filtering process, so that there will be no room for maneuvering because once you are qualified, everybody knows you are qualified and you should automatically get it.

“But as it is now, many people are qualified and yet they don’t get awarded, leaving room for agitations that someone is just as qualified as this other person who gets it and the other person doesn’t get it. And one begins to ask what else are they looking at?”

The President of the African Bar Association, Mr. Hannibal Uwaifo, explained that there are many lawyers who, though are doing well, do not fancy the SAN rank.

Uwaifo, however, believes that the process of conferring the rank is transparent enough.

He said, “You can only become an SAN if you apply; there are a lot of people who are not interested and they don’t apply. Mr. Charles Idehen was a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association and former President of the African Bar Association, he didn’t apply for the SAN rank. The late Alao Aka-Bashorun was also a President of the NBA and he never applied and there are so many lawyers today who have never applied. I have never applied too.”

On whether he shares the view that the conferment of the SAN rank is political, Uwaifo said, “I think why people are saying that the conferment of the SAN rank is political is because the processes that leads to the conferment of the SAN rank are not too clear.

“However, now the present leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association has come up with an initiative, wherein the NBA has a role to play in the conferment of the rank. For instance, the NBA now has a committee that first conducts an interview for members who wish to apply for the SAN rank and then submits a report to the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee.

“Before now, you have Senior Advocates who do not participate in any NBA activities; they are not even known in their branches; some of them are even traders and they just apply and get the rank depending on who you know. But now, if you are not active in the NBA and are not known, it would be difficult for the NBA to vouch for you. This initiative, in my view, has brought more transparency into the process.”

On whether or not he believes that if one is an activist he would be denied the rank, Uwaifo submitted, “That is not correct and I don’t think there is anything like that. It all depends on the role you are playing. But if you are into politics, you are likely going to have problems because the LPPC does not want a SAN who will end up tarnishing the image of the profession.”

But another Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Yusuf Ali, dismissed the allegation that the process of selecting lawyers for the rank is characterised by favouritism.

Ali, who recalled that he became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria 15 years ago, insisted that it was wrong for the public to assess a lawyer based on the frequency of their names on the pages of newspapers.

He said, “I became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria about 15 years ago and I know that I never knew anybody. I only applied in line with the set out rules and that was it. So, I think people should not just be casting aspersions. If they are aware of one or two cases, they should come out and say it. It’s either you have facts to back up your allegations or you keep quiet.

“And as to whether if you are an activist you will be denied the rank, I don’t think that is true. People tend to forget that it is not how much of noise you make that makes you a good lawyer. There are set out criteria that you must meet.

“I think I am also an activist and I became a SAN 15 years ago. It is now also part of the criteria that you must be recommended by Justices of the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

“Those Justices assess you based on your candour, your comportment and your presentation when you are doing your cases in court. Noise making is not one of the criteria of being a good lawyer; it’s not about being celebrated on the pages of the newspapers. The fact that you handle one or two cases and you make a lot of noise about it doesn’t make you a good lawyer.

“The problem is that the public tends to rate a lawyer high because you read their names and comments in the newspapers, whereas where to get good lawyers is when you look at the law reports to see the kind of cases that they have done, the kind of contributions they have made to the jurisprudence of the country. It’s never about noise making or calling press conferences.”

But legal giants like Chief Afe Babalola (SAN) and Falana had called for a review of the process of selecting lawyers for the SAN rank such that as many qualified lawyers as possible each year would be conferred with the rank.

In Falana’s view, unless the LPPC is ready to review the process, the rank should be scrapped.

However, a Lagos-based legal practitioner, Mr. Seni Adio, toed the same line with Ali, arguing that there was nothing wrong with the criteria for conferring the title on lawyers.

He said, “I don’t subscribe to the view that lawyers who are activists are not conferred with the SAN rank. I believe that the criteria are established and they are objective. As a matter of fact, there are many activists who are SANs.

“I am not part of the process and I don’t know how it is conducted but I have no reason to believe that it is not transparent. I believe that if you work hard enough, you are consistent and you merit it, then there is no reason why you should not get it, if that is what you want. But at the end of the day, it is just a privilege, it is not a right,” he said.

Click here to read from source.