Politics Of Becoming Senior Advocate Of Nigeria: What You Need To Know
Chidi Nwachukwu, Aug 10, 2016
The title of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) is conferred on a Nigerian lawyer who has distinguished himself in Legal Practice. It is a privilege that is awarded to a legal practitioner who has met certain crucial requirements; it is highly coveted by Nigerian lawyers especially those who are in the private practice of advocacy and solicitation. The conferment is based on the Legal Practitioners Act 207, Section 5 (1). It is similar to the title of Queen’s Counsel in the United Kingdom.
On April 3rd, 1975, Chief Frederick Rotimi Alade Williams and Dr. Nabo Graham Douglas became the pioneer recipients of the award, though that was after Chief F R A Williams had been awarded the Queen’s Counsel in recognition of his outstanding performance at the English Bar.
The title confers on its bearer a privilege that cannot be enjoyed by junior advocates. A Senior Advocate of Nigeria is said to have been admitted into the ‘inner chamber' whereas the junior advocates are said to belong to the ‘outer’ or ‘utter’ chamber. A major privilege that is enjoyed by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria is the right to get a hearing for his case even when he files it later than another lawyer who is not a senior advocate. He is allowed to bypass protocols and file his case.
This according to Barrister Patrick Ocheja Okolo, SAN, a notary public, is to create a means for the junior lawyers to learn from the experience of their senior colleagues. He said,“Since the senior advocate is more experienced and grounded in legal practice than the junior lawyers, it is only proper for him to be at the front of judicial proceedings so that his juniors can take a cue from his modus operandi.” Ocheja added that a judge who failed to accord precedence to a senior advocate’s case would be under obligation to render an apology to the SAN.
Now, apart from the right to prompt hearing at the court, a Senior Advocate is usually preferred above an ordinary lawyer in handling certain sensitive litigations. Because he is a well sought-after lawyer, he is disposed to more financial rewards than his junior colleagues. Clients of SAN are usually in the ranks of political big shots and captains of industries. Senior advocates are the calibre of lawyers that usually handle cases for president, senators, and governors. A junior advocate hardly gets cases of that magnitude. Therefore, it will be logical to suggest that the financial benefits that accrue to attaining the status of SAN, among other considerations, may be the reason why Nigerian lawyers struggle very hard to get the title.
While it seems as that the positions of President of the Nigerian Bar Association and Attorney General of the Federation are reserved for only senior advocates, they are actually not reserved for members of the Inner Bar alone. The senior advocates according to Patrick Okolo, SAN, are better preferred to occupy such offices because they are more experienced and are adjudged to have attained an excellent status that makes them impeccable. He added that there are actually no laws that bequeath such offices to senior advocates alone.
Expectedly, lawyers who aim to make their mark in the legal profession should set the target of achieving SAN. In fact, the peak of the legal career as far as private practice is concerned is the status of SAN whereas the peak of the legal profession for lawyers who grace the bench is the status of Chief Justice of Nigeria or a Justice. The Bar comprises of the lawyers, while the Bench are magistrates, Judges, and Justices.
The body responsible for conferring the title of SAN on lawyers is the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC), a special arm of the Judiciary that is headed by the Chief Justice of the Federation.
Legal practitioners who wish to apply for the award must be sure to have spent at least 10 years in the bar. That is the primary requirement. Another major requirement is that the candidate must have won at least 3 judgements in the Supreme Court, 6 judgements in the Court of Appeal and 8 judgements in the High Court. In an event where the legal practitioner is tendering only particulars of his Supreme Court cases without any of the High Court and appellate court, then he is to present at least 6 of the particulars.
Every year, calls are made for the submission of applications. Interested candidates are expected to submit their applications along with a certain sum of money and particulars of contested cases.
The SAN is opened to both the advocates and academics. The advocate is a lawyer who majors in litigations and solicitations, while the academic is a lawyer who deals with teaching jurisprudence and legal education.
While the advocate is required to present the particulars of the cases he has contested, the academic is expected to show evidence of published works on legal research, jurisprudence and other works that have contributed to the development of legal practice in Nigeria. Among other things, the advocate is expected to be functional in the local branch of the Nigerian Bar Association where he operates. He must be sure to have been paying all his legal dues. His conferment of the award is subject to the approval and confirmation of the Chief Judge of the state where he operates.
The legal practitioner who must receive the award of SAN must be of impeccable character, and must display qualities such as integrity, diligence, intelligence and dependability. He must be reliable and must have a deep knowledge of the Nigerian Law vis-à-vis Foreign Laws. He must be strong willed and highly disciplined.
He must be found to have a very high level of control over himself so that he is never found guilty of inflicting harm (bodily or otherwise) on anybody. He is further expected not to have any pending disciplinary case or complaint relating to professional misconduct against him. The candidate is expected to be free from any form of addiction such as drug or alcohol, and should eschew any form of self-seeking aggrandizement or publicity.
The candidate is expected to have offered pro bono (free of charge) legal services to indigent clients who cannot afford service and contingency fees as this may be considered as his own contribution to the society. He must own a law chamber or be a partner in a law chamber which according to the standards of the LPPC is intact and complete with a good quality library. He must have at least five junior lawyers or other paralegal or support staff who will be placed under full-time salary employment.
Having considered the requirements for attaining the status of SAN, it suffices to say that a huge task lies ahead of the lawyer who must clinch it. It is indeed an award worth pursuing. It is an enviable rank to attain in the legal career. But the trends and legal indicators have proven that Nigeria has so many bright and impeccable lawyers who have been deprived of this award. If the award is totally dependent on merit, then it becomes a subject of investigation why only a few lawyers out of all the thousands of lawyers that Nigeria has produced are SAN.
Barrister Max Omakwu Ikongbeh, an Abuja based lawyer said, “The LPPC has the final say on who becomes a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. Meeting the requirements for the award is very key, but it is not an absolute guarantee to attaining the status. The LPPC may decide not to confer the title on the applicant………it is absolutely their prerogative.” He added that on several occasions, the Nigerian Bar Association had called on the LPPC to look into the issue of conferment of the title as there are more lawyers getting inducted into the legal system.
A good look at the list of all the senior advocates that Nigeria has produced (with the deceased ones included) revealed that the South West alone has produced about 30% of the figure. This might prompt an observer to question the rationale behind the lopsidedness of the conferments. From the list, it is clear that certain geopolitical zones of the country are poorly represented. The North-East, for instance, has only about 40 representatives in the list which comprise over 500 awardees.
Patrick Okolo (SAN) attributed this seemingly lopsided conferment index to two major factors. The first factor he noted was the pioneering efforts of the Yorubas in the legal profession. He explained that the legal profession originated in the western part of Nigeria and that the Yorubas have over the years, contributed immensely to the development of the legal profession in Nigeria. The second factor he noted was the Yorubas’ awareness of and high inclination to the practice of the legal profession.
He further cited the volume of litigations that are recorded in the south western part of Nigeria (especially Lagos) as a proof of the awareness of Yorubas of legal practice which contrasts sharply with the negligible litigation index of the north.
He added that the northerners are not inclined to be litigious, and cited Niger State as a case study where people hardly ever engaged in litigations because of their poor status and unwillingness to meddle in court cases. He summed it up by asking rhetorically how a lawyer could possibly meet the litigation requirement for attaining SAN if cases are not brought to him to advocate.
But Barrister Afam Osigwe had a different view on the issue as he cited Federal Character as a major determinant of the order of conferment of the title. He opined that against all odds, Federal Character is the major principle that determines the award of the title. He added that this is true even though it appears as if the conferment does not strictly adhere to the Federal Character Principle.
Now, like other sectors in Nigeria, the Judiciary is not free from external influences. Therefore, it suffices to say that external influences have greatly contributed to the lopsidedness of the award of SAN. The ‘Politics Factor’ must always play out in issues like this. The Judiciary has over the years not been allowed to exercise absolute authority over its own affairs. The executive and legislative arms of government have always interfered with the affairs of the Judiciary. This is the bane of the Judiciary.
There is no gainsaying that lawyers who have their family and friends at the helms of affairs can easily wangle their way to SAN even without being qualified. Such is the power play that happens in almost every sector of Nigeria. Sometimes, legal luminaries who are overqualified and most deserving of the title never get to scale over the hurdles. At the conferment of SAN on Dr. Oladapo Olumide Olanipekun in 2015, many lawyers decried the conferment and branded it nepotistic since according to them, Olanipekun was not up to 10 years post call when he was awarded the privilege. They attributed his fast rise in the legal profession to the influence of his father, Chief Wole Olanipekun SAN, who is a foremost jurist. The senior Olanipekun was a president of the Nigerian Bar Association and owns a classic chamber in a high brow area of Lagos.
It is the hope of most lawyers that as the call to review the terms and conditions of the conferment of SAN intensify, the LPPC would be forced to look into the issue and make serious adjustments.