I Applied Eleven Times For The Award Of Senior Advocate Of Nigeria - Patrick Okolo (SAN)
Chidi Nwachukwu, Aug 11, 2016
Barrister Patrick Ocheja Okolo (SAN) is one of the 21 lawyers who were awarded the Senior Advocate of Nigeria on the 10th of July 2015 by the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee. In this interview with Chidi Matthew Nwachukwu, he bares his mind on sundry issues as they pertain to his sojourn in the herculean world of Legal Practice. Excerpts:
Becoming a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, what does it entail?
Very simple! What it entails is that you must be in core practice. You must have had cases in court, in superior courts of record and handled them diligently, get a judgment on them to satisfy the requirements. There are other areas – the academics; the doctors and professors who have made contributions in the development of the legal profession. Both of these people must have contributed to the development of legal practice in Nigeria.
Looking at the background you’ve offered, it will be logical to say that there are actually lots of Nigerian lawyers today who have met the requirements of becoming Senior Advocates and who are yet to be offered that award. What will you say is the reason for the delay?
I understand that you pay some amount (like N300,000) to get enrolled.
So, if you pay this money, do you still pay it when next you’re applying again?
Yes of course. It is non-refundable.
So, each time you apply, you pay the N300,000
In fact, as we speak, over 400 lawyers are Senior Advocates of Nigeria and we have more than 10,000 lawyers in this country.
It was said that every year, over 4,000 lawyers are churned out of the Law School. If every year we have this number graduating from the Law School, then it means that by now, we should have hundreds of thousands of lawyers. Now out of these thousands, we have just a little over 500 Senior Advocates of Nigeria. Don’t you think the LPPC should check this ratio and do something about this figure?
Does something in respect of increasing the number?
Well, it is desirous. But for policy consideration, it is very much not possible to do so. But let me tell you if you look at the number of those turned out from the Law School and the number of lawyers in practice, more than 60 to 70% of lawyers turned out from Law School do not go into legal practice. So, don’t use those statistics to estimate. A lot of them are in administration. A lot of them are even into music. A lot of them are in entertainment, and a lot of them are in the universities. They may even go to a profession that is totally not related to the legal profession. So, a lot of our people have disappeared into thin air. The people that are actually in practice say, not up to 20% of the whole number. So, it is not always necessary to compare the number of lawyers turned out to the number who become Senior Advocates. Like in my own class when I was in the university, we were about 120. Incidentally today, I’m the only Senior Advocate of Nigeria in that class of 1982, and less than 20 of us went into legal practice. Some of my mates went into farming, and they have not come out of farming
You cannot combine legal practice with any other thing. Legal practice is so jealous that you can’t combine it with anything else, not even contract or lecturing, or any other activity for that matter. You must face the practice, and the practice must be pure and pure. To get these people to be pure in legal practice is not an easy thing, let alone narrowing it down to them excelling to become Senior Advocates.
Most of our activities in Nigeria today are driven by politics. What then will you say about the lawyers who were awarded the title of Senior Advocate without being qualified? Would you say that was also based on merit?
As far as I’m concerned, it is totally based on merit. For the 11 years I applied without getting it, I didn’t blame anybody for my not getting it. One, because I know it is a privilege. Two, if you say it is not on merit, then the whole society should be held responsible, not the Privileges Committee alone. Everybody is held responsible. Why am I saying this? Each year before they turn out Senior Advocates, the Privileges Committee will advertise the names of all the applicants in all the media houses, and ask for comment from the public, to pinpoint those they feel are not qualified. Let me tell you, the Nigerian public are very insensitive to such issues. There are many that will decide to keep mute. In fact, the people that write such things are even the mischievous ones, not the honest ones. The honest people will not even get up to say anything. What then is the need for advertising? It is so that the process can be purified; so that the society can be carried along. If you refuse to respond, whether positively or negatively, you are not helping the selection process. During my own time, I had a senior engineer friend who wrote about me. All that he wrote about me was true. He was the only person who got up to write about me. And in the Privileges Committee, I don’t think they receive such letters in large numbers – either for or against. Nigerians are not sensitive to it. We like blaming our own institutions that we set up. Making contributions to the growth, development and good works of such institutions is not the business of Nigerians. They only wait by the roadside to criticize and to find faults. What effort have you made? If you say somebody is not qualified and they are going to give him, and they advertise in the paper, what else do you want? What did you do?
With all these explanations, we still cannot rule out the fact that somehow, somewhere, some people still lobby to include those who are not qualified in the list, because we know of some mischievous lawyers who are Senior Advocates…..
(Cuts in) I can’t say Yes or No to that, but I know that there is no society that is perfect, and no institution is perfect. Even the people who criticize are not perfect. So, where is the perfection? We are not God. Let me tell you, it is true that people lobby despite the fact that the rules for this application abhor lobbying. But we are humans, therefore, you can’t totally rule it out. But how much of the lobbying is resisted? That is what you should think about. The committee tries as much as possible to resist it. The lobbying may come from high up, it may come from the middle, and it may come from the low. If it comes like that, may God give them the grace to resist it. But sometimes, you can’t say they are pure, they are clean, or they are saints. So, let’s just leave it like that.
Looking at the list, we have a preponderance of the South Westerners as Senior Advocates, and Nigeria six geo-political zones whereby you have so many ethnic groups, which explains why we apply the Federal Character Principle in whatever we do in this country. What then is responsible for the preponderance of the Yorubas in the list? Are they the most qualified?
Thank you very much. Two things are the reasons. The first one is historical. Historical in the sense that this profession started from the West, take it or leave it. It started and grew to a very high extent in the West before it later commenced in other parts of the country. In the North, like Maiduguri, there may not have been even a single Senior Advocate in the last 3, 4 or 5 years. In Taraba, Sokoto and the rest…..nobody in a particular year. But in Lagos alone, you see about 30 to 40 applicants. So, this thing started from there. One, Lagos was our nation’s capital, and everything started from there before it spread to the East, Midwest, South and other places. So, this historical factor will make us not to blame the West for dominating the list each year. The other reason I’ll say is that SANSHIP is first based on merit, and it is given to the best. In our attempt at getting the best, we must deemphasize quota, and we must also deemphasize tribal, religious or ethnic sentiments. I’m not saying that the minority groups in the north do not have qualified persons, but they are not in large number like there are in the West and the South. The West has more grasp of the profession. The cases that come to court in Lagos alone is far more than all the cases that are recorded in the whole of the North. Abuja is coming up. In fact, I did my NYSC in Niger State. For 15 to 20 years, I never had one land case. I had been in core practice from 1983, 84 till the year 2000. We had no land case in court. They have nothing to do with the land. They are local people. They are not developed. They are rural. If you want land, they will give you. There’s enough land. So, who will go and fight for land? It was only later on, that the influence of Abuja started causing people to go to court. In Kontagora, Suleja, nobody went to court. There is no land dispute. If you’re fighting over this particular land, they’ll give you another one. So, that is the extent of development of the legal professional. This historical aspect cannot be separated from what is happening today.
Are you saying that if there are say, 20 applicants from each of the six geopolitical zones, the South West will have like 16 out of its 20 applicants endorsed as against the other geopolitical zones' applicants who may not get even up to 10 endorsements?
Then, in that case, there won’t be a balance?
See, we are not talking about balance here. You mean 16 from the West, 2 from the North and 5 from the South right?
Please don’t forget that these applicants are required to produce evidence of the work they have done; and too, the quality of work they’ve presented must be considered. 70% of the consideration is based on the papers you’ve got, the number of cases you’ve done and how contentious the cases are, the complexities in these cases and the development of the law. If all these aspects of the requirement are not certified in your docket, then how do you get it? So you see, this historical factor coupled with the fact that these people down south are more aware of these things gives them more edge. Sometimes in the north, you will not see even one Senior Advocate in 2 years, in any of their courts. And if you go to Lagos, 15 Senior Advocates are in court in one day. That is just it. The competition is not stiff in the North and their awareness is not as much. I have a mate who said to me, “Okolo, this SAN thing, leave me abeg. I have other things doing….politics, family and other things. I have four wives and 35 children.” The culture and the rest of then are all there for you to consider, and the quality of what you have produced is duly considered. If you’re not committed to it, you won’t produce. Some of the cases we do to get the award of Senior Advocate of Nigeria…………you have to think about the litigation consciousness of your community. If there are no cases, how do you satisfy the conditions? You need six cases in the Supreme Court, 6 cases in the Court of Appeal, about 8 to 9 cases in the High Court. If clients are not coming to give you case, will you be both plaintiff and defendant? These things contribute. This Senior Advocate application is one of the stiffest things I can think of in the world. The competition is very stiff. A lot of things are involved. The Committee is trying. A lot of considerations are there, and a lot of failures to satisfy the conditions are also there. At the slightest mistake, you’re out of the race, not to talk of the competition. There’s a condition in the rule which states that if you must have six High Court cases, then you must appear on every day of the adjournment, from the date you filed the case till the date of judgment. If you were sick, it’s not the business of the Committee. If you were not there at a particular adjournment, they’ll remove your name. For instance, you filed a case and it conflicts with one other case you can use to get money, you leave that case that will fetch you money, and go for this one because you want to be a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, and you must be there on any adjournment. If your vehicle broke down before reaching there, and your name was not there, and somebody else held your brief, you’ve lost the chance. That case cannot go for that application. So, there are a lot of things involved in it.
Talking about the requirements, having attained this status, what makes you, different or special from other lawyers?
Nothing makes me different from other lawyers. We are all the same. The only thing is that I now belong to the Inner Bar, and there is the Outer Bar. In every stratum of the society, there are some of these hierarchies. It is not special to the legal profession. But what makes us different is the recognition they’ve given us. Some people might have contributed more than us, but they had no opportunity, or that they did not care to go after the title. You won’t blame them. They are not Senior Advocates because they don’t want it. Some say they don’t like it, while some even say they ban it. So, we are different in the sense that we were diligent and committed to practice. That makes us different from others.
Talking about being special, I’m aware that ranks such as Attorney General of the Federation and President of the Nigerian Bar Association are reserved for only Senior Advocates. There are certain benefits that are reserved for them alone………
(Cuts in) By convention, there’s no law that says you must be a Senior Advocate before you can become Attorney General of the Federation. A lawyer for 10 years can be Attorney General, that is what the constitution says. Immediately you’re 10 years post call, you are qualified.
How come in all these years, we’ve not had any ordinary lawyer occupy such positions?
It is easier to pick a Senior Advocate because he has attained that level where his abilities and sense of judgment are trusted. He is a ready choice, therefore it is much easier to choose an accredited, tested and trusted a person than to take someone whose abilities are not known. The Senior Advocate is one who the society can vouch for, and who has paid his dues and has done up to expectations. He is diligent, and the society has accepted him as a leader of the bar.
Part of the privileges a Senior Advocate enjoys is his right to get a hearing for his case even though he filed it later than other lawyers who are not Senior Advocates. What does that entail?
His case must be mentioned first, and the judge must apologize to him if he fails to do so because the legal practitioner's law says he must mention the Senior Advocate’s case first, and there’s a reason for that. You see, the Senior Advocate has been categorized as more experienced. The judge must do his case first for the juniors to learn from him. Why should a junior mention his case first? The Senior Advocate has nothing to learn again, he has gone very far; but the junior should sit down and learn, that’s the policy reason behind it. The junior should sit down and listen to this man. In London where this profession started, you must be a junior under somebody. You watch him as he does his things. You watch him even as he eats, that is why before you get out of Law School, you must have eaten 3 dinners, and you must eat with the Body of Benchers. The Body of Benchers is the highest ruling body of the legal profession. The Privileges Committee is a sub-committee under the Body of Benchers. Council for Legal Education in the Law School is under the Body of Benchers. So, this Body of Benchers eats with the students who want to be called to the bar. They see how they pick their spoons and watch how they pick their fork to eat, how they clean their mouth and all that. You watch them, and you do exactly what they do. That is the reason for the Senior Advocate mentioning his case before the junior so that the junior can learn from him. Even if it is a small application he makes in court, the junior should hear how he is talking, he should listen to the quality of English, and he should observe the quality of his production and how he assists the court. Whatever he does is something for the juniors to learn from.
Thank you very much, sir, for your time.
You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.