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SANship as an instrument of grave injustice

By Emeka Ugwuonye on 15/07/2013

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I felt I should intervene in this topic because from several indications, it is clear to me that many misunderstand the meaning of the title known as SANship. It is not a soccer game where spectators could observe from the gallery which player is dribbling the ball better than others and cheer him accordingly. Many friends have asked me when I would apply for SANship. When I hear such question, I laugh in my heart because they have not bothered to ask if I regard such a ridiculous display of black man’s ignorance as a thing that would be worthy of my values. If I ever become a SAN, I hope it would be for the purpose of quickening the process of its abolition. It is anachronistic and backward, to say the least.

The problem with SANship is quite too numerous for anyone to view the title positively. It was supposed to have been the Nigerian equivalent of the British concept of the Queen’s Counsel. That was what we tried to copy, as our colonial appendage to Great Britain. All Queen’s Counsel were automatically converted to SANs, when it started. But SANship in Nigeria has unfortunately mirrored the Nigeria’s politics and public life in general over time. Merit was discarded or compromised and corruption and nepotism set in. And our megalomaniacal dispositions kicked in, too, all around the SANship title.

What do I mean by merit going out the window? While in the past, lawyers became SANs based on solid and verifiable achievements and contributions to legal development, in recent times, I hear Nigerian lawyers tell me to add their names to my cases so that they would improve their chances of making SANship. But how could adding your name in a case you are not really a part of make that difference? Lawyers now parade symbolic gestures rather than solid grounding on the law just to qualify for SANship.

Why do I mention corruption? Well, it has been heard that when the SANship inspection panel would come to visit your firm to inspect whether you have a suitable law-library, an absolute illogicality in itself, you just have to make sure that the visitors get envelopes. Indeed, I was advised that with the right amount you would surely get the commendations of all the right people to become a SAN. Today, many SANs cannot hold their grounds on logic or on any of the serious matters of lawyering skills.

The worst travesty of the SANship is how it has been perverted and converted into an instrument of oppression and denial of access to the market for legal services. The notion that whenever a SAN appears in court, his case will be called out of order and attended to first, changes all notions of fairness and market competition. And I dare to say that it violates the constitution that demands equal treatment. Yet the SANs charge more for their services instead of less since they spend less time in courts. Note that this is never done in London. All lawyers are treated equally. What being a Queen’s Counsel mean is that you are respected as an experienced lawyer, a successful lawyer and a senior lawyer, someone that has contributed much to legal development. It carries only social and ceremonial attributes.

In America, we do not have SANship or Queen’s Counsel. What we have in America that is comparable to award or recognition for success in the profession is becoming admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. Yet, this is not a cumbersome process once you meet the requirement. All those who are qualified and who apply to be admitted would be admitted. Being able to practise before the US Supreme Court (Supreme Court Bar) is not like becoming a member of an independent Bar Association like State Bar Admissions. When a lawyer refers to the “Bar of this Court”, he simply means that he has right to appear before this court as counsel. In my case particularly, when I was admitted to practise before the US Supreme Court around 2002, there was no complicated protocol. Also, note that in America, not every lawyer wants or wishes to practise at the US Supreme Court level. Most lawyers become fully accomplished without ever becoming licensed to practise before the Supreme Court of the country. In fact, practising before the US Supreme Court is a form of specialisation and not every lawyer is interested in that.

We can actually move further away from the conceptual, normative aspect of the debate to a practical, pragmatic or quantitative evaluation of the importance of SANship to Nigeria. And when you speak of the value or relevance of any segment of the professional body of lawyers, i.e. the Bar, it should be in terms of its contribution to legal development, as would be the case in a comparable analysis with the Bar of any other country. Looking at the contribution of Nigerian lawyers to legal development, you would generally find a poor and slow performance. And when you try to set aside the role of the minority group that is called the SANs, you will not find it at all. Rather, you would find that the SANs as a group might have actually dragged the legal profession backward in Nigeria and prevented what would have been a robust contribution to legal development from the Bar.

SANs have been implicated in the bribing of judges. You must bear in mind that the much-talked about corruption in the judiciary and bribing of judges could not have been done by the junior lawyers. It is more likely to have been done by the most senior lawyers who have the access and comfort sufficient to reach the judges and bribe them.

Also, the special pool of privileges that the SANship confers on some lawyers actually hinders their ability to aggressively promote justice or fight corruption. The fact that each lawyer is expecting to one day become a SAN, which means that he must be a good boy to others, implies that he would never want to challenge authority. He must be a yes boy to powerful and even corrupt people. Otherwise, he would never become a SAN. The case of Chief Gani Fawehinmi testifies to this. He was denied access and he knew that because of his work and opposition to injustice, he was not going to be made a SAN, and he almost never became a SAN until the very end.

So without a single doubt, SANship is an instrument of grave injustice, not just to the lawyers that are excluded from the pool of privileges, but also the entire Nigerian people, whose demand for access to justice has been greatly constrained by such pathetic and puerile sharing of privileges. Such will hold this country backward and deny it the much-needed progress in the areas of legal development. There are so many instances to point at to show that the legal profession led by the SANs has failed Nigerians. One obvious area is the fact that 90% of prison inmates all over the country are merely awaiting trial. Almost all the judges of the High Courts in this country insist on written bail applications, thereby needlessly prolonging pretrial detentions of suspects by more than 50% of the duration that would have obtained if only the judges would exercise their discretion to accept oral bail applications. And the Nigerian lawyers are not able to question such a situation.

A lawyer takes a professional oath on admission to the Bar to speak truth to power without fear and without favor. That oath is rendered wasted and of no effect by the ambition to become rewarded with SANship after years of being a “good boy”, a “yes boy’ and even a willing participant in corruption and abuse of power.

•Emeka Ugwuonye, Esquire, whose photo appears alongside this piece, is an international lawyer practising in Nigeria and the USA.

Source News Express

Posted 15/07/2013 11:55:05 AM

 

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