Barristers & Solicitors
Lawyers now cut corners, not interested in proving cases — Balogun, First female Lagos AG

Hairat Balogun, who is the first female Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Lagos State, recently marked the 60th anniversary of her call to Lincoln’s Inn Bar, in February 1963. She talks about her journey into law and other issues related to the profession with ONOZURE DANIA

Can you recall any of the challenging cases you handled?

I don’t really think about them at the time if you are honest. There were few cases but what was important for me was that as young as I was, people were willing to trust me with their cases, they didn’t discriminate and say ‘this small girl with all this grammar that she is speaking I’m not sure she can do it.’ I did cases against insurance companies I won.  In those days, people found it difficult to claim their insurance. If they are involved in an accident, the company will not want to pay so I have to take them to court.  I did one or two of those. I think the most important case for me was with the National Bank. They bounced my cheque and I was shocked. I said how can they bounce the cheque of a lawyer? I went to them and said ‘look, this money is my client’s money, it’s in the client’s account I cannot overrun the account as I will be subjected to disciplinary action at the Bar if I were to do that.’ but they made a mistake so I sued them and that’s a classic case in the law report. Earlier on they referred to it, but these days, people have forgotten it, but they still use it, people will say I won this case because of you. Honestly, it was a dream come through.

What is your assessment of the nation’s legal profession after spending six decades in the Bar?

Well, I don’t want to say like all things because for me the Bar and the legal profession are unique. I don’t want to compare my profession with any other. I think we are above everybody because we deal with the law.  An accountant can make a mistake when he is adding up but we must not make a mistake because it is fatal.  It can be between a man’s life and his livelihood if you do your case badly. But I found that the standards have fallen and people are no longer dedicated to the subject matter. That is the rule of law and the integrity you need to serve faithfully with the law is missing. People cut corners, they are not interested in proving cases they say I am senior to you, you can’t do that and cut corners, that is a bit depressing, something you hold high and people are now cutting corners. Yes, we have a disciplinary committee if their case is reported, they may be tried by the disciplinary committee and they may be suspended. But the standard has fallen and generally in Nigeria, people are doing many funny things. As I said, the profession is valuable to me. I’m afraid and upset that we have been touched by what touches every other person. But we will keep trying, continuing our high standard hoping that some people will see that and say it’s better to do the right thing.

What was the standard during your time?

That is why I said the standard has fallen. In those days, if you have a matter that you think it’s a bit too much for you; you don’t hesitate to talk to a senior lawyer about it. They would put you on the right path. But these days, somebody may just take the case away from you completely. So maybe that’s why people don’t want to consult with other people to enlighten them and many people don’t work as hard as they used to on their cases. They don’t read old cases and precedents. Lawyers don’t go to courts, but they just go for adjournments and the judges do their best. But if the lawyers don’t come to do their cases, they can’t do it for them. Some lawyers charge according to how many times they go to court instead of making a basic charge and keeping to it. They think it’s more profitable. All those things have influenced the standard.

As the first female Lagos attorney-general and also the first chairman, Body of Benchers. How were you able to attain the feats?

Well, I think the first thing for me personally is to deemphasise sex. We all studied the same law. Also, it’s important to have independence, to know this is what I want from this profession and this is what I’m going to give. Many people just want to get rich. But for me, it was a question of serving my profession first. I had quarrels with quite a few male lawyers. I said to them, ‘why do you have to take so much money’ and they said they wanted to go and have human rights or something. I would say help these people.  Maybe somebody has a landlord and tenant case, help them get the facts to defend their cases. You must always try to establish the rule of law and justice.

 If you have all these in your mind that this is what you want to do, people will listen. After a while, that’s your brand. I didn’t have any doubt in my mind but I had to be independent. I have to be forthright and make sure that whatever I’m doing is honest and true. With that, you are strictly natural and you don’t keep the wrong company. The sky is your limit as there is room for good people at the top at any time. Even some people see that and bring you their cases to the extent that the government now feels this is somebody we can trust with a duty.

What’s your relationship with male lawyers who were your subordinates at the time?

What I know in the law is that, for one, the seniority aspect is very important. If you go to an office and you are senior to all the lawyers there, not just because they know your name but they know you are senior to them and that you are in charge, the bulk is on your table and they must do what you say. If they don’t, you have to look over and make sure they don’t spoil your record.

After some time, they will support you because they want to stay. They want to have a good record and they want to be promoted. If you don’t do your work and you undermine what they are doing, you are setting yourself up for bad luck and low progress. I know that there is discrimination and some people’s religion in Nigeria doesn’t allow them to appear to bend down for women. So, you have to be aware of that. We had to create an atmosphere so they know that this is different from home. This is how we do it here. You just have to be strict.

Then some people come from patriarchal society and the male is superior. You have to let them know that when you are at home, you are superior but here it’s the intellect that is superior. We gave them advice, talked about it, they went to court and they won the case and they said, ‘oh, she knows what she is doing. Then there are times they will need your authority for whatever they want to do, and you will refuse to give it if they don’t cooperate with you and they can’t send you away because they didn’t put you there. So, gradually you get their confidence and if they do well, you reward them with praise and recommend their promotions.  If they do something bad, you can stop it immediately.

I will tell you a funny story. In those days they used to have what they called an essential commodity supply for government officials. So, when the supply came for the ministry, the permanent secretary would take half and give the remaining to others. They knew I was not interested so one day there was a commotion and I asked what was going on and they said it was about what the permanent secretary was doing. I said no, next thing when the supply and list come, bring it to me. I will share it.

Then I called him and said why did you do this? Though they can buy it they still pay. I said that a group could buy a bag of salt and not think they couldn’t buy it. Just allocate it to them to share. Of course, he wasn’t happy but he had to abide by it because it’s just. From that time I knew the way human beings behave. He had to accept that order. I think it also depends on who is in charge and the way you carry yourself. I have a standard and work hard even in the office. Many of them often met me in the office because I was always the first person to get to the secretariat.

Even the governor knew I was always the first person to get there. I didn’t know he was trying to corner me. Every day he called me at 7:30 am on the phone. So, one day he asked my colleagues what time I got to the office because I always answer his calls and they said they don’t know as I always get there before them.

So one day he tried to come early as he got to his own gate, I heard the siren coming. I told the driver to stop and let the governor enter and after he entered, he called me and I didn’t answer for the first time before I could get down from my car and walk to my office. So the next time he called I answered and he said, ‘today you are a little bit late.’’

I said no, we were on time but we had to stop for your car and that was why you got in before us. We would have come at our normal time. So that kind of thing is punctual. If you say you want to do anything, do it and be strict. People cut corners for the least reason and that is how corruption has taken root. Is not that people were not corrupt before, but not so openly and brazenly. Somebody will want to steal your money and steal your pen as well that you used to make the money. The next time they will come and cut your hand. It is too much, everything has broken down.

What challenges did you face serving as attorney general during the military era?

During my time I spent over two years with the governor, he was a perfect gentleman. He never asked for advice outside the ministry so he agreed that I am his legal adviser so whatever I told him, he expected it to be right and he would not disobey it. But sometimes maybe it is the policy from the Federal Government, he would come to the meeting, and said this was what we were supposed to do and everybody would discuss. The council meeting would start at 10am and we wouldn’t finish until night.

He would allow everybody to talk and give their opinions. He gave us the chance to talk about it to feel like we were part of the decision-making process.

But like he said, the military only has one decision from the supreme headquarters. They can say from tomorrow, all the women must walk only on the right side of the road when we ask him, “why, Group Captain Gbolahan Mudasiru. What if they see their mother or somebody on the other side of the road, will they not walk there too?’’ He would say “remember I am representing them here,’’ so this was what we were to do.

So we accepted it but these days the state governor listens to politicians who put him there or who are supposed to support him and the President has these funny people giving him different ideas. I wonder how they even make decisions. That is the difference.