Law News
Legal profession: Making a case for the Girl-child

The zeitgeist of our time is accommodative of a world where women contribute as much, if not more than, their male counterparts, in all spheres of endeavour including in the legal profession. Prior to 1935, when Stella Jane Thomas was enrolled at the Bar, the legal profession in Nigeria was the exclusivity of the males. Today, women are found in all areas of the legal profession: advocacy, adjudication, academia, etc.

The journey had not by any means been turmoil-free. There were times in the history of the quest for education of the girl-child, especially in the Northern part of Nigeria, when the socio- cultural patterns and religious misconceptions limited her access, retention and completion of even the basic part of conventional education. Those practices of bias and discrimination are now gradually paving the way for more access and choices for girls. Having overcome some of the worst hurdles in the path to education, in this piece, I make a case for the girl-child to consider law as a first choice in the determination of courses of study, but first, I address some of the challenges/myths that may stand in the path of a Northern girl wishing to pursue the study of law.

Regalia: There is the misconception that it is part of the requirement of the legal profession for women to wear short skirts, tight jackets, and leave their hair uncovered. This is very much far from the truth. Certainly, the legal profession has its codes and ethics with regard to mode of dressing and appearance, but these codes and ethics are not at variance with the general culture of the people of the North.

The esoteric regalia of the lawyers in Nigeria traces its origin to the Legal Practitioners Ordinance No. 30 of 1915 (SAINT LUCIA), section 5 (1) which provides that “Every barrister of the Royal Court shall have a right of audience in all the Courts of Justice in this Colony: Provided that counsel appearing before the Royal Court, or Court of Appeal, have no right of audience, unless they are clad in dark clothes and wear the robes and bands proper to their calling.”

This in no way advocates for immodest dressing. In fact, immodest dressing is abhorred in the legal profession. There are cases where female lawyers have been publicly admonished on the importance of maintaining the culture of decent dressing when appearing before a court of law. In a lecture delivered at the Judges Forum of the Nigerian Bar Association Annual General Conference in Port Harcourt (2011) on the topic “Mutual Respect between the Bench and the Bar: Courtroom Ethics and Decorum,” Funke Adekoya, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) advised female lawyers not to dress to the court “as if you are going to a night club.” The learned Silk likened such mode of dressing to act of disrespect to the court.

This position expressed is clearly enshrined in the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007. Article 36 thereof provides that a lawyer appearing before the court shall “(a) be attired in a proper and dignified manner and shall not wear any apparel or ornament calculated to attract attention to himself; (b) conduct himself with decency and decorum, and observe the customs, conduct and code of behaviour of the court and custom of practice at the bar with respect to appearance, dress, manners and courtesy.”

It is also part of the dress code, right from Law School that ladies are strictly prohibited from wearing trousers and their skirts must, under no circumstance, be above the knees. Skull caps and cape hijabs are now a frequent sighting in courtrooms. Even in superior courts where wigs are part of the compulsory regalia of lawyers, Muslim women do wear skull caps or cape hijabs beneath their wigs. In spite of the secular stance of the country as adopted in section 10 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, as amended, the pluralistic religious nature of Nigeria has indeed been recognised and respected by the legal profession. In some campuses of the Law School, students go to classes clad in full length hijabs.

Cost: Some states in the North, such as Sokoto State, pay the registration fees for indigenes of the states at both undergraduate and Law School levels. At postgraduate level, there are scholarship and grant opportunities available to both male and female students of law from international organisations. These include the United Nations International Law Fellowship Programme, King’s Nigerian Law Scholar Fund for Masters Students, Global Leaders Fellowship for Nigerian Students, Chevening Scholarship, and Monbukagakusho (MEXT) Scholarship, among others. This writer benefited from the last two mentioned scholarships in the United Kingdom and Japan. You or your parents do not have to carry the entire burden of your training.

Lenght of Period of Study: This is a very real challenge to some girls, particularly those from the North. The study of law in Nigerian Universities takes four to five years depending on the point of entry (UG I or UG II – JAMB or Direct Entry). Upon the completion of the undergraduate training, candidates are required to undergo one (1) year training in the Nigerian Law School in order to qualify for call to the Nigerian Bar. It is only after the successful completion of this five or six year training that one could qualify as a lawyer. Considering that the earliest age one could gain admission into a Nigerian University is sixteen years, according to the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board (JAMB), which specifies that a candidate for admission into any undergraduate programme of a Nigerian University must have attained the age of 16 or will do so on the first day of October in the year of candidature, this is a real   challenge. It takes any girl wishing to qualify as a lawyer before marriage into her early twenties   before such qualification; an arrangement many parents in the North do not support.

In recent years, girls have succeeded in successfully combining the responsibilities of matrimony with those of pursuit of education. If you happen to get married before completion of your training, that should not be a barrier to your success in the study of law. Some of us waded through that hurdle.

Dr Saidu is of the faculty of Law, Usmanu Danfodio University, Sokoto.

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