ADDRESS BY PAUL USORO, SAN, PRESIDENT, NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION ON 23 SEPTEMBER 2019 AT THE SPECIAL SESSION OF THE SUPREME COURT TO MARK THE BEGINNING OF THE 2019/2020 LEGAL YEAR AND CONFERMENT OF THE RANK OF SENIOR ADVOCATE OF NIGERIA
1. It gives me great pleasure, on behalf of the Nigerian Bar Association (“NBA”), to welcome Your Lordships from a well-deserved long vacation – for those of My Lords who had any vacation – and to felicitate with My Lords upon the commencement of the 2019/2020 Legal Year, marked by today’s ceremony. Knowing how full and packed Your Lordships’ dockets traditionally are, coupled with the weighty responsibilities that rest on Your Lordships’ shoulders, Your Lordships’ vacation is always earned and well- deserved. Let me on behalf of the Bar, congratulate My Lord, Honorable Justice (Dr.) Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, CFR on My Lord’s deserved appointment as the Chief Justice of Nigeria. My Lord’s track record of diligence, hard work and uprightness, amongst other positive qualities, obviously recommended My Lord for this position. We wish His Lordship a most successful tenure even as we pledge the cooperation of the Bar with His Lordship in the fulfilment of My Lord’s mandate of dispensing justice to all manner of men and promoting the rule of law.
2. On behalf of the NBA, I also congratulate His Lordship, Honorable Mr. Justice Walter S N Onnoghen, GCON on My Lord’s recent retirement as the Chief Justice of Nigeria. His Lordship’s record of service to the Nigerian nation is indubitably well documented and preserved in our law reports and we remain grateful to His Lordship for those years of service and the attendant output even as we wish His Lordship a well- deserved rest and success in his post-retirement endeavors. While at it, we must again deprecate the process that culminated in the retirement of Honorable Mr. Justice Onnoghen. The process – and we underscore the process because it is the process that has always been the concern of the NBA – showed a brazen external intrusion and interference in the disciplinary processes of the judiciary in a manner that undermined its independence and, by extension, the rule of law. The process was not only contrary to the provisions of our laws but also degraded and desecrated the hallowed dignity that attaches to the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
3. Lest we be misunderstood, the Bar is not suggesting that anyone, including the Chief Justice of Nigeria, is above the law. However, there is a National Judicial Council (“NJC”) process that is prescribed by law for investigating and disciplining errant judicial officers. That process is put in place to preserve the dignity that attaches to the office of judicial officers and to secure the independence of the judiciary. Side-tracking that process, coupled with the condemnable media trial that is now the bane of some agencies, not only undermines the rule of law but desecrates the respectability that attaches to the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria. We pray never to again experience such dark days in our judiciary.
4. We would presently return to issues pertaining to the judiciary and Your Lordships’ New Legal Year. For now, permit me, My Lords, to touch on the second arm of today’s ceremony and event. Traditionally, the Supreme Court’s New Legal Year ceremony is always a double-barreled event, to wit, the celebration of the New Legal Year and also the more colorful and celebratory preferment of the ranks of Senior Advocates of Nigeria on newly elevated members of the Inner Bar. Today is no exception; 38 new members have been inducted into the ranks by My Lord, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Justice (Dr.) Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, CFR. On behalf of the NBA, I congratulate these new leaders of the Bar who have been found worthy by their superiors and peers of wearing the coveted rank of SAN.
5. You were obviously chosen from the large number of applicants based on your outstanding qualities of, inter alia, intellectual fecundity, hard work, diligence, unparalleled advocacy skills, sense of purpose, consistency, integrity and not least, humility. As I mentioned during the elevation of your colleagues last year, I include “humility” amongst the qualifying attributes because, sometimes, our colleagues of the Inner Bar tend to forget that the rank of SAN is best worn with and in humility. Humility, in general terms, exalts the person. In specific terms, humility stands out and elevates a Senior Advocate of Nigeria – to wit, humility to the Courts, humility towards your colleagues of the Inner and Outer Bars, humility towards your clients and indeed humility towards members of the public. It is the humility in you that would oil your words and speeches in a way that makes them soothing and respectful to everyone, not least, the courts; it is the humility in you that would persuade you to share your deserved front-row seats with members of the Outer Bar who are not entitled to the front-row seats as of right when you are in court but who are unfortunately consigned to stand in a crowded and sometimes, stuffy courtroom and wait while you conduct your case because all the seats to which they are entitled are occupied. Humility is actually the hallmark of great men and you must not forget that fact while adorning your SAN rank.
6. Your elevation comes at a time that the profession – both the Bar and the Bench– is under siege, mostly at the instance of agencies that ordinarily should be our partners in law enforcement. It is no longer news that some law enforcement agencies seem to derive sadistic pleasure in locking up lawyers and imposing impossible bail conditions for their release, mostly in the course of investigating the professional functions of these lawyers. Indeed, the practice of law is now being criminalized by these agencies all in an effort to demonize and humiliate lawyers and the legal profession. The practice of law has consequently become very dangerous and risky. To illustrate, it used to be the practice that lawyers under investigation by law enforcement agencies were routinely granted administrative bail based on self- recognizance; the NBA has no record that any of those lawyers subsequently refused to honor the invitation of those agencies or absconded in the course of any such investigation. So, what justification is there, other than abuse of powers and egotistic humiliation and degradation of lawyers and the legal profession by some law enforcement agencies, for the now commonplace imposition of horrendous bail conditions including the depositing of travel passports consequent upon the investigation of lawyers by these agencies? Do these agencies truly believe that these lawyers, some of whom are Senior Counsel, will jump self-recognizance bail? No, they do not so believe but they are sworn to humiliate and desecrate our profession. In a number of these cases, the lawyers are investigated and so humiliated for carrying out their professional duties and nothing more.
7. I underscore these issues because you all, by your elevation today, are leaders of the Bar and have a sworn duty to safeguard and promote the rule of law, an indubitable component of which is the independence of the legal profession. That independence is eroded when lawyers have to be choosy in accepting briefs and/or instructions solely because they do not want to incur the wrath of any law enforcement agency for performing their professional duties. The society suffers when we descend into that abyss. Access to justice and fair hearing suffers and this is because persons in need of legal services are not permitted and/or enabled to engage the lawyers of their choice. That is the pathway to self-help and anarchy not to mention the deleterious effect such a descent has on our economy. It behooves us therefore as lawyers and leaders of the Bar to stand up for the independence of our profession and, by so doing, push back on authoritarianism and malevolent abuse of power. We must, as members of the Bar, speak with one voice in this regard and you, as members of the Inner Bar, must join the NBA in taking the lead.
8. That said, I must continue to emphasize the imperative for us, as lawyers, to imbue our everyday conduct and practice with utmost integrity and professionalism. It is not for nothing that ours is referred to as the noble profession. That nobility must show in our uprightness, professionalism and utmost integrity. We must not by our conduct give cause for denigration and debasement of our profession by detractors and naysayers. To this end, the NBA will be working very shortly with relevant stakeholders in the profession to strengthen our self-regulating internal mechanisms including enforcement and disciplinary processes in order to ensure their enhanced robustness, effectiveness and efficiency in identifying and weeding out the bad eggs, if any, in our midst while protecting the consumers of legal services.
9. Permit me, My Lords, to return to the subject of the judiciary in the context of Your Lordships’ 2019/2020 Legal Year. It is our prayer and hope that the welfare of our judicial officers, at all levels, notably their compensation packages and allowances, would be reviewed and adequately enhanced in this New Legal Year. We betray our vaunted fight against corruption in the judiciary and public sector when we remunerate our judicial and public officers most inadequately as we currently do. The fight against corruption is best fought by tackling the incentives for corruption such as the extremely inadequate compensation packages for our judicial and public officers generally.
10. We appeal to relevant stakeholders, to holistically review upward the compensation packages of our judicial officers at all levels, sufficient to objectively eliminate any incentive for corruption in the judiciary. At the same time, the judiciary must not relent in ridding itself of corrupt elements, if any, in its fold. The internal self- regulating processes that reside within the NJC, pursuant to law, must be utilized and constantly oiled to weed out corrupt judicial officers who give the judiciary a bad name. The judiciary would, in the process, strengthen public confidence in the institution while keeping at bay those persons and agencies who demonize and degrade the judiciary.
11. The second issue that concerns the Bar and indeed, litigants generally, is the congestion of Your Lordships’ dockets and the need to address it in a manner that not only accelerates the conclusion of matters but also preserves the health of Your Lordships. It is common knowledge that Your Lordships have for some time now been burdened by and with political cases, most if not all of which are time-bound. Because of the time limitation in respect of these election-related matters, Your Lordships have had to prioritize these Appeals, to the detriment of the other conventional matters that remain the constitutional responsibility of the Supreme Court. Some of Your Lordships were robbed of any sort of vacation because of these matters thereby creating health risks for Your Lordships.
12. As it relates to the pending conventional appeals that are supplanted by these electoral matters, this situation feeds the dictum that justice delayed is justice denied. The problem is compounded by the fact that we now appear to be in a permanent season of election-related litigation. The season of pre-election matters, these days, morph into the season for the hearing and determination of the actual election disputations and even before these are fully disposed of, another season of pre-election matters takes over and the cycle continues. The time has come, in our respectful view, for the Bar and the Bench to critically examine ways out of this conundrum, in the interest of all stakeholders. The Bar does not pretend to have complete answers to this challenge, but we are prepared to constructively work with other stakeholders, notably the judiciary and the legislature, in confronting what is now a hydra-headed problem that threatens the speedy dispensation of justice and the rule of law at the apex court level.
13. In conclusion, we once again wish Your Lordships the very best of and in the 2019/2020 Legal Year. As ministers in the temple of justice, members of the Bar, as a collective, will continue to work with Your Lordships in edifying and protecting the temple of justice while promoting and defending the rule of law in all its ramifications. We wish Your Lordships good health, good humor, Divine Guidance and Divine Wisdom in the 2019/2020 Legal Year in all the decisions that Your Lordship will or may reach. Once again, we congratulate our newly elevated Silks and wish them the very best that the profession can and will offer.
Paul Usoro, SAN