ADDRESS BY PAUL USORO, SAN FCIArb, PRESIDENT, NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION AT THE SPECIAL SESSION OF THE SUPREME COURT TO MARK THE BEGINNING OF THE NEW LEGAL YEAR/ CONFERMENT OF THE RANK OF SENIOR ADVOCATE OF NIGERIA ON 24TH SEPTEMBER, 2018
1. It gives me great pleasure, on behalf of the Nigerian Bar Association, to welcome Your Lordships from a well-deserved long vacation and to felicitate with My Lords upon the commencement of the 2018/2019 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 to dispense justice to all manner of men without fear or favor, as the court of last resort in the land, Your Lordships deserve all the rest period that we can afford. Indeed, Your Lordships deserve, not just the rest period but the deep and sincere appreciation of the Bar and all Nigerians for the diligence and punctiliousness with which Your Lordships attend to all matters brought before the Supreme Court and/or ancillary thereto. We would presently return to the issues of Your Lordships’ New Legal Year. For now, permit me, My Lords, to touch on the second aspect of today’s ceremony and event.
2. Traditionally, the Supreme Court’s New Legal Year ceremony is always a double-barreled event.
Not only do we celebrate the New Legal Year, the event is always made more colorful and celebratory with and by the preferment of the ranks of Senior Advocates of Nigeria on newly elevated members of the Inner Bar. Today is no exception; 30 new members have been inducted into the ranks by My Lord, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Mr. Justice Walter S N Onnoghen, GCON. On behalf of the Nigerian Bar Association, I congratulate these new leaders of the Bar who have been found worthy by their superiors and peers, represented by the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee (“LPPC”), of wearing the coveted ranks of Senior Advocates of Nigeria.
3. 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. 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 order and oil your words and speeches in a way that makes them soothing and respectful; it is the humility in you that would permit 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 already occupied. Humility! That is actually the hallmark of great men and you must not forget that fact while adorning your SAN rank.
4. In that regard, it bears emphasizing that the privilege of adorning the SAN rank, like any other privilege or rank, comes with enormous responsibilities – to wit, responsibilities to all the stakeholders that I had earlier enumerated and indeed responsibilities to the society at large. You are no more ordinary persons or citizens of Nigeria or lawyers; you are the leading lights of the profession, leaders of the Nigerian Bar and leaders of thought in society. You are now role models to millions of our youth and torch bearers for the Nigerian Bar Association. Your words must consequentially be measured and weighted. In these days of prevalent social media communication, your contributions thereat must represent your rank and status as elders and leaders, notwithstanding and irrespective of your biological ages. I must, at this point, commend the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (“BOSAN”) for organizing the first ever Induction Program for the newly elevated Senior Advocates of Nigeria. For completeness, I must thank the Chief Justice of Nigeria, My Lord, the Honorable Mr. Justice Walter S N Onnoghen, GCON, for coming up with the idea of the program and challenging BOSAN to implement same. I was privileged to attend the program that was held in Lagos on 13 September 2018 and I found it very useful and instructive on the “dos” and “don’ts” that are attendant upon your elevation as SANs. It is my hope that the Induction Program, the rich contents of which I expect should still be fresh in your minds and memories, would be sustained by BOSAN in the coming years and indeed turned into a refresher program even for older SANs.
5. Just before leaving the newly inducted members of the Inner Bar, permit me, My Lords, to adumbrate slightly on one or two of the responsibilities that now rest on them. The first is their respective responsibilities to the Courts and the administration of justice. A few of our colleagues, sadly, see their elevation as license to be rude not only to their colleagues but also to Judges and the Courts; they also believe that it is a carte blanche for them to engage in court and litigation practices that are less than salutary. For those who engage in those practices, it bears pointing out that the privilege of wearing the rank is not unconditional; it is indeed conditional and is anchored on the continued good behavior of the SAN. As you are all aware, the rank could be suspended and/or withdrawn on account of bad behavior or professional misconduct. We have all seen this happen in recent times. For the avoidance of doubt, the right of the LPPC to suspend and/or withdraw the rank is incorporated into the Guidelines for the Conferment of the Rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria, 2018 as may be reviewed and revised by the LPPC from time to time. If you are one of those persons who may be tempted to indulge in bad behavior after your elevation today, I respectfully admonish you to go back and very carefully read and assimilate the recently published Guidelines and (a) note in particular the fact that it is the prerogative of the LPPC to withdraw and/or suspend the rank for bad behavior; and (b) also note the arduous, tedious and extremely difficult process for restoration of the rank upon its suspension and/or withdrawal; and (c) finally note that, even with the fulfilment of the grueling, taxing and draining conditionalities, the restoration of the rank, once withdrawn and/or suspended, is not guaranteed howsoever. The NBA does not wish any such misfortune on any of you or indeed on any other member of the Inner Bar and you must not wish it on yourself either.
6. The second responsibility that we must highlight is your responsibility to your colleagues of the Outer Bar and in particular the army of young lawyers whom you need to employ and train. The SAN rank elevates you to the position of role models and mentors and indeed trainers of the coming generation of lawyers. It must therefore not be heard of you that you do not pay your younger colleagues well or that you do not treat them fairly. As leaders, the younger members of the Bar and indeed all members of the Outer Bar look up to you for exemplary conduct; they look up to you for standards not only in comportment, advocacy and writing skills, spoken words, integrity, empathy, humility and other personal attributes but also in compensation packages to your junior colleagues and personnel. Do not forget, they need to be decently turned out to represent the profession well, they need to have a compensation package that takes them home, they need to feel your empathy through your compensation package to them. You fail in your role of training others and setting standards when you do not even have junior colleagues working with you in your Chambers and, worse, even where you do have such junior colleagues in your Practice, you do not compensate them well. Talking about mentorship, it is impossible for you to mentor younger colleagues whom you ill-treat by not remunerating and/or compensating them well. It is of course correct that you may not lose your SAN rank on the basis of poor compensation of your junior colleagues, but you lose respect and dignity thereby and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria without dignity and without the respect of his colleagues – to wit, seniors, peers and/or juniors – is not worthy or deserving of the rank. In sum, the NBA again congratulates all of you for the honor that is done to you today and for making the mark as Senior Advocates of Nigeria. We wish you all of life’s successes believing that you will wear the rank at all times with distinction and panache.
7. Permit me, My Lords, to return to the subject of Your Lordships’ 2018/2019 Legal Year – a Legal Year that coincides with our National Election Year. The precursor to those National Elections is, in some sense, the Osun State Governorship Election that was conducted on Saturday, 22 September 2018 – just last weekend. Not unexpected, matters relating to that election would sooner than later wound their way to Your Lordships’ court. Election related matters are always contentious and, in our climes, are considered and treated by politicians and the polity as matters of life and death. With that mindset and too often, these matters, even when there is no proof of any wrongdoing, are used by politicians to unfairly malign and besmirch judicial officers, including Your Lordships. The Bar has always deplored and continues to deprecate these ill-conceived political strategies and tactics. The temple of justice must not be sullied or degraded by and with unproven, often malicious and baseless allegations and innuendoes. The characters of Your Lordships must not be unjustly and unjustifiably tainted by and with such groundless and ill-motivated attacks. As we always point out, such unjustified denigration of Your Lordships amount to a degradation of the rule of law and the Bar will not and cannot stand idly by while such destruction occurs.
8. It behooves us indeed to point out to everyone that Your Lordships’ pronouncements in some of these contentious and extremely difficult political appeals have in no small way worked to maintain the peace and cement the unity and indivisibility of Nigeria, our great country. Riots, unrests and political chaos in different parts of our Federation have been averted consequent upon Your Lordships’ decisions and pronouncements in some of these matters. These are very weighty responsibilities and functions which Your Lordships continue to carry out and fulfill selflessly and without any self-adulation or self- exaltation. As a nation, Nigeria and its people owe much to Your Lordships and indeed the entire Nigerian judiciary. That said, it also behooves us to most humbly and respectfully point out that the Bar and indeed the Nigerian nation expect Your Lordships to maintain, in the coming National Election season, the standards of decorum, professionalism, discipline and integrity that have always been the hallmark of Your Lordships and also ensure that those standards percolate to and are fully and strictly replicated by Their Lordships of the lower courts. Any judicial officer that is found wanting in that regard, we respectfully posit, must be swiftly and decisively punished and routed out from the pack of judicial officers.
9. Election-related appeals will, of course, not be all that will fill Your Lordships’ dockets in this New Legal Year. There is still a huge backlog of appeals, mostly civil appeals, that are pending before Your Lordships. We note with deep appreciation, Your Lordships’ efforts, notably in the last Legal Year, to clear the deck of these backlog of matters. But then, the pile still remains. We know that there are still appeals pending before Your Lordships that were filed in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 – appeals that remain outstanding for more than 10 years. When this time-span is added to the timespan that it takes for the appeals to journey from courts of first instance to Your Lordships, then the delays in our judicial process becomes quite pronounced, frightening and discouraging not only to litigants but also to the Bar and other stakeholders in the justice administration sub-sector. These delays clearly impact on access to justice – a critical component or feature of the rule of law. The Bar will not pretend to have immediate or even complete remediation steps or answers to these issues, but we pledge our willingness to join hands with Your Lordships in working towards finding sustainable remediation measures that would resolve the challenge of speedy dispensation of justice by Your Lordships. This is an issue that, the NBA, with the greatest respect and in all humility, would be following up on with Your Lordships.
10. This Address will not be complete without our respectfully commending Your Lordships for the strides that have been attained in making the Supreme Court ICT-compliant. Your Lordships, under the focused leadership of My Lord, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honorable Mr. Justice Walter S N Onnoghen, GCON, have indeed set the pace in this regard. But, of course, we are not yet at or even close to the ICT mountain top; the journey has only just commenced, and perseverance and consistency must be Your Lordships’ watchwords. We also encourage all NBA members to subscribe to the Supreme Court Legal Mail system in order to facilitate and fast-track the Court’s communication system and e-filing procedures. The electronic recording system which, we understand, is already functional here at the Supreme Court needs to be replicated and made pervasive in all the lower courts, not least, at the courts of trial where evidence and proceedings are still hand-recorded by the Judges thereby occasioning great delays in justice dispensation and administration. The NBA would be privileged and happy to partner with Your Lordships and indeed the Nigerian Judiciary in achieving these defining and landmark milestones.
11. In conclusion, we once again wish Your Lordships the very best of and in the 2018/2019 Legal Year. The Bar will work assiduously with Your Lordships, in this New Legal Year and beyond, as always, to smoothen and ease Your Lordships’ workloads in ensuring that justice is dispensed to all manner of men without fear or favor. 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 2018/2019 Legal Year as well as in all the decisions that Your Lordship will or may reach. Finally, and once again, we congratulate our newly elevated Silks and wish them the very best that the profession can and will offer.
Paul Usoro, SAN FCIArb
President Nigerian Bar Association