As the Legal Practitioners' Privileges Committee (LPPC) of the Nigerian judiciary commences the process of fresh appointments into the prestigious rank of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, lawyers have expressed divergent opinions over the procedure.
The LPPC in advertorials published recently in national dailies, outlined conditions for nomination into the rank of SAN. According to the advertorial, qualified members of the Bar wishing to be nominated as SAN must pay a nonrefundable fee of N200,000. Also, such members must have attained a minimum of 10 years on the Bar.
Section 5(3) of the Legal Practitioners Act (LPA) provides that, the LPPC may by instrument confer on a legal practitioner the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. Sub-section 3 further provides that the committee shall consist of the following:
(a) The Chief Justice who shall be chairman;
(b) The Attorney-General of the Federation;
(c) One Justice of the Supreme Court;
(d) The President of the Court of Appeal;
(e) Five of the Chief Judges of the States;
(f) The Chief Judge of the Federal High Court; and
(g) Five legal practitioners who are Senior Advocates of Nigeria.
It also provides that, the members of the committee under paragraph (c), (e), and (g) of subsection (3) of this section shall be appointed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria in consultation with the Attorney General of the Federation.
Reacting to the development, Peter Odia Esq called for review of the process for nominations into the SAN rank. He also called for the scrapping of the rank entirely if the review cannot be done soon.
"We join the likes of senior lawyers such as Chief Afe Babalola (SAN) to call for a review of the rank. The whole process is not based on merit but zoning and godfatherism. We know that the position is allocated to some people as honorarium and they can give it to whosoever they wish. This sort of thing shouldn't be happening in the legal profession.
"At 15 years of practice, I am qualified to be an SAN but I can't pay N200,000 to apply because I know it would be a waste of time. So long as the process is not transparent and there are no written examinations, many qualified lawyers will not get it," he said.
But Chief Amaechi Nwaiwu (SAN) and Babatunde Oyefeso, former Assistant Secretary of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Abuja chapter disagrees with this submission, arguing that the rank has helped to entrench discipline and integrity in the profession.
According to Nwaiwu, the rank of SAN is a privilege and not a right. Any diligent lawyer who works towards it and with prayer will be conferred. The Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee is empowered by the Legal Practitioners Act as amended, to issue guidelines for admission of lawyers to the inner Bar.
"In Nigeria, the rank of SAN is an eminent position attained by hard work, contributions to the development of the law and good character. It is easier to be a Queens Counsel (equivalent of SAN) in England than be an SAN in Nigeria.
"I am strongly of the view that the privileges committee should discard the procedure of publishing names of qualified candidates in national newspapers as the rank of SAN is a privilege and not a right. It can be published within the Bar association journal. Lawyers should stop criticizing and scandalizing the rank as without the rank of SAN, the legal profession would have been a dead institution. It is a noble rank and naturally draws the envy of lawyers who are unable to work towards the rank. No human institution is perfect but lawyers conferred with the rank of SAN in Nigeria are qualified as they meet the criteria. To date the disciplinary committee of the bar is unable to cope with the huge number of cases of misconduct. Imagine what will have happened without the rank.
"Lawyers calling for abolition of the rank of SAN should stop it as being misguided, uninformed and lazy. Their reasons are flimsy, myopic, unconscionable and completely unmeritorious. Lawyers calling for abolition of SAN are embarrassing members of the legal profession and want to drag down the integrity and eminent status of the profession to the mud. All fingers are not created as God created man in the book of Genesis. All lawyers cannot be equal," he said.
Also commenting, Oyefeso kicked against the abolition of the SAN rank saying it has helped to improve standard of the legal profession. He said that those who are interested must attach certified true copies of judgments they have actively participated in; they must invest in infrastructure and books to upgrade their law firms in order to meet the criteria of the visitation panel.
"The issue of transparency is full of subjective innuendos. If you meet up with the criteria, definitely you will be selected. The only issue I have with the process is the pegging of available space. We do not like a situation where many are qualified and few are chosen. If you do that you now take the selection from the realm of merit to the realm of 'who you know," he said.