We must urgently revamp Professionalism, Ethical compliance at the Bar – Prof. Akinseye-George, SAN charges BOSAN, NJC, others

…extols Prof Ernest Ojukwu, SAN

…says encroachment of the judicial domain by the political class must be addressed urgently

…Judges needs to be truly independent

Senior advocate of Nigeria, Prof. Yemi Akinseye-George, SAN has urged stakeholders to join hands and revamp Professionalism & Ethical compliance at the Bar.

Akinseye-George made this call at a dinner organized by the Body of Senior Advocates in July.

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According to him “As a profession, we must urgently address the ravaging encroachment of the judicial domain by the political class. Although the legal profession is a minority relative to the political branches, the profession is not helpless. With determination, courage and deliberate action on our part we can reclaim our lost glory and esteem; we can regain the trust of the public which is our greatest pillar of strength.”

Read the full speech below

Speech delivered by Prof. Yemi Akinseye-George, SAN at the dinner organized by the Body of Senior Advocates (BOSAN) (on 25th July, 2023 at the Body of Benchers Auditorium, Abuja.
I thank the leadership of the BOSAN for the honor of being selected to deliver this address. Although the invitation was made at a most inconvenient time, I could not refuse because it was delivered through one of the most revered seniors in the inner bar, Professor Ernest OJUKWU, SAN. Most people know him as ‘Teacher’. I know him as the foremost reformer of legal education in Nigeria and an uncompromising advocate of adherence to the ethics of our noble profession. He was the first to call that I should take up this role. I could not refuse. I also thank our leader, the esteemed Asiwaju Adegboyega AWOMOLO, SAN, FNIALS, Vice Chairman, Body of Benchers for being a beacon of light, rallying point and a source of inspiration and encouragement to us all. I thank another respected bar leader, Chief R.A. Lawal Rabana, SAN, former General Secretary of the NBA, Chairman of the Dinner Committee who equally called to encourage me. More importantly, I wish to express my gratitude to the entire Body of Senior Advocates and our eminent guests, your Lordships, retired and serving for your reassuring presence here tonight. You deserve accolades for your service to the noble profession and to the nation.
Although as a collective, we are still far away from the dream of the founding fathers of our nation, and from the ideals of the progenitors of the learned profession, I believe we are on our way.

My Lords, Learned Senior Advocates, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I crave your indulgence to disclose another reason why I cherish the opportunity to deliver this address tonight. When Professor Ojukwu informed me that I have been selected to address this august gathering, he was not aware that the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC) had just dismissed a petition written against me by a client whom I had sued for my professional fees. I informed him when the petition was filed against me but I did not inform him when the petition was DISMISSED. But because he believed in me, the learned bar leader gave me the benefit of the doubt. He trusted me.

The essence of this background is to enable me to highlight the positive, supportive and affirming attitude and unwavering belief of a learned brother silk in the integrity of a colleague or learned friend despite pending allegations of unethical conduct. and to contrast the same with the incipient mutual suspicion which tend to corrode our relationships in the legal profession, especially following the highly divisive 2023 General Elections.
It seems to me that our profession has become so badly divided, our minds so polluted that we are ready to believe the most improbable rumors about our colleagues and our justices. The well-known professional camaraderie or friendship has almost become a thing of the past. Gone are the days when, as the late Abdullahi Ibrahim,SAN, former Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, then as a young lawyer, would travel from Kaduna to Lokoja, pass the night in the residence of his friend, Muhammadu Lawal Uwais, then a Magistrate and appear in Uwais’ court the next day before returning to his base in Kaduna. Yet the opposing counsel, though aware that Alhaji Ibrahim had passed the night in the Magistrate’s residence, would not write a petition complaining of bias, or likelihood of it. Indeed, notwithstanding their friendship, Alhaji Abdullahi Ibrahim lost many of the cases he conducted before Uwais. Their friendship continued until Alhaji Ibrahim died in 2021. So also was the friendship between the late Hon. Justice Kayode Eso, CON (1925-2012) and the legal giant, Timi The Law, Chief Fredrick Rotimi Alade Williams,QC, SAN (1920-2005).

Although FRA frequently conducted cases before the Supreme Court constituted by Hon. Justice Eso and others, opposing lawyers who knew about their close friendship had no cause to write petitions against them. Similarly, the late Chief Justice Atanda Fatayi-Williams, wrote in his autobiography, Faces,Cases and Places, of the depth of his friendship with the late Chief Olowofoyeku, a seasoned legal practitioner who often conducted cases before his court.
But nowadays things have changed. We lawyers are ready to believe the most unfounded of rumors, insinuations and conspiracy theories peddled by politicians to undermine the credibility of the judicial process. When a Judge winks, or coughs, smiles or frowns, some lawyers not only read meanings, they write petitions and the NJC entertains such petitions including the frivolous ones. One wonders what rules of admissibility govern the petitions that are written against judges. I think there’s need for a filtration process to ensure that only meaningful petitions against judges are acted upon by the NJC. We have said enough on this for now.

My goal tonight is not to ruin our dinner but to challenge us. I want to urge us not to lose confidence in our selves or in our ability to reinvent our profession and return to the path of rectitude from which we have wandered. I want to submit with utmost respect that even though some naysayers would want us to believe that our country is hopeless and that our profession is irredeemable, I want to say that we have reasons to be hopeful. What is wrong with Nigeria can be cured by what is right with the country. The legal profession, including the judiciary, has what it takes to correct itself and return to the glorious traditions that birthed the profession: integrity, nobility, honour, brotherhood, professionalism and commitment to the Rule of Law, equity and social justice.

As a profession, we must urgently address the ravaging encroachment of the judicial domain by the political class. Although the legal profession is a minority relative to the political branches, the profession is not helpless. With determination, courage and deliberate action on our part we can reclaim our lost glory and esteem; we can regain the trust of the public which is our greatest pillar of strength. Let me explain.

For too long, we lawyers have abdicated our role as the defender of the rule of law encapsulated in the popular quote of Lord Edward Coke, who at great risk of his life, informed the imperial majesty, that, “The King himself should be under no man, but under God and the Law.” We have too often not lived up to the rich traditions, founding principles, or foundational values of the the noble profession.

That is the reason our country is in dire straits. The legal profession has literally surrendered the judicial branch to the overwhelming and corrosive influence of the political class. The consequences of the compromise between the legal profession and the political class are there for all to see: the collapse of the 1979 Constitution, the Annulment of the June 12, 1993 Presidential Elections with the help of lawyers (like Chief Clement Akpamgbo,SAN, (1935-2006) former President of the NBA and former Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice); the unconstitutional removal of Justice Ayo Salami, the then President of the Court of Appeal by President Goodluck Jonathan, GCFR; midnight invasion of the quarters of some Justices of the Supreme Court; politically-motivated removal by President Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR of the Hon. Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, GCON, and some recent disheartening developments.

These include notably the agonizing spectacle of a grey-headed Politician, standing on floor of the nation’s Senate and under the gaze of national and global television, openly confessing that he had, at the behest of other politicians, compromised the integrity and independence of his wife during her tenure as a head of the second highest court in the land.

It is bad enough that such a possibility was within the contemplation of a public man; and even more tragic that such was made a subject of prideful public disclosure.

We can go on and on in describing the offsprings of the unholy romance between the legal profession and the politicians.
But we have said enough on this issue of societal decline which prompted that famous literati, to lament that “There was Country”.
Good News
But the good news is that it is not all negative. Let us therefore quickly highlight some positives that we often forget in our haste to point the accusing finger.

Our country’s current democratic dispensation which started in 1999 has exceeded the expectations of many pundits who did not give it any chance of lasting long. There is no doubt the legitimizing role of the judiciary, coupled with the inventive genius of the noble profession, has played a preeminent role in the sustenance of democracy in this country.

While some commentators may lampoon the so called ‘dodgy’ jurisprudence of our courts, especially in electoral matters, it is important to remember that judges are under a strict constitutional obligation to determine matters, including political ones submitted to them.

While it is undeniable that some rotten apples exist within the judiciary and indeed, the legal profession, these are certainly a minority. We can say without fear of contradiction that the great majority of our judges are decent, God-fearing and committed to upholding the Rule of Law without fear or favour and to defending the integrity of their office.
We need to magnify and capitalize upon the solid achievements of our profession in the areas of human rights, constitutional law development and the reinvention of the criminal justice system post the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015; and embark on some urgent measure for revamping the legal profession and strengthening the country’s democracy. We humbly offer a few tentative ideas for the consideration of this August body.

Decentralize the Supreme Court by establishing six Regional Supreme Courts. The present Supreme Court should URGENTLY metamorphose into the National Supreme Court. Nigerians have become accustomed to the legitimizing function of the judiciary and the legal profession in a democracy, as flawed as they are. That informs the continued recourse to the courts for adjudication of matters they consider important. The Supreme Court currently has over 15,000 Appeals and Motions pending and more are being filed daily. It is humanly impossible for the 16 Justices (assuming the Court is fully constituted) of the court sitting every day of the year to clear this humongous backlog. The Constitution must be urgently amended to create regional Supreme Courts to deal with Appeals coming from the 20 or so Divisions of the Court of Appeal. Only a few matters of grave legal and constitutional importance should be accepted for hearing by the Supreme Court.
Hands off all pre-election matters

When individual politicians subvert the will of their party members by using the court to gain undeserved ascendancy, compromising the integrity of the law and the courts, the judiciary and invariably the whole country are the losers. The judiciary looses public trust which is the bastion of her strength. The same politicians often turn around to punish the judiciary by demanding for bribes before approving judicial nominees or judiciary budgets. What a vicious cycle!

Thirdly, the legal profession must urgently restore the sanctity of the doctrine of stare decisis which has been badly eroded. The bogey of conflicting judgments and implied overruling must be jettisoned. These practices are antithetical to the certainty, predictability and supremacy of the Rule of law which stare decisis fosters.
Similarly, the extent to which judges adhere to the principle of stare decisis has implications for institutional legitimacy and, for the rule of law. The principle of stare decisis requires that judges must follow established principles of law and apply them in all future cases that involve similar facts. Occasional departures from precedent are justified when they allow judges to alter unsound or unjust legal doctrines. However, frequent and capricious departures from precedents often have detrimental consequences for the judiciary and for the public good. The principle of stare decisis promotes the ordering of citizens’ private affairs by enabling them to structure their transactions with confidence that they act in compliance with existing law. Stare decisis also promotes private settlement of disputes by discouraging forum and judge shopping, enhances fair and efficient adjudication by sparing litigants the need to relitigate (and judges the need to reconsider) every issue in every case, and discourages a rush of litigation whenever a change of personnel occurs on the bench. We now have a distasteful situation in which some high courts openly and unabashedly refuse to follow decisions of the Supreme Court. A good example is the recent tendency by some high courts to grant orders aimed at ‘gagging’ law enforcement agencies or preventing them from performing their constitutional or statutory functions. The Supreme Court, had long warned the lower courts against the temptation of granting such avaricious orders especially on the basis of ex-parte applications.
Improve transparency and accountability in the appointment of judges. The overbearing influence of politicians over judicial appointment processes must be condemned in clear terms. I personally do not agree that any Nigerian who is professionally qualified and passes the integrity test should be excluded from judicial appointment merely on account of conjugal or filial relationship with serving judges. What is important, in my humble view is to create a robust appointment system which will guarantee that only the most qualified mentally and in terms of character gets the job. Also, the judiciary must be unrelenting in weeding out the bad ones. But the process of discipline and removal must be open, transparent and accountable.

Finally, we must urgently revamp the ethics of the noble profession. There is no profession without discipline. Let the BOSAN, the NJC, Body of Benchers, Council of Legal Education and other authorities in the legal community support the ongoing initiatives to revamp professionalism and ethical compliance at the Bar. With clear rules and certainty of application, the legal profession can salvage itself and regain lost grounds.

My Lords, we have said enough for now. Let me end with the famous quote of J. B. Daudu, SAN, former President of the NBA, “Once the judiciary brings to an end the access allowed to politicians…the dignity of the bench will be instantly restored”.

And finally, “the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves….

The way forward is to restore the dignity and integrity of the judiciary so the judges can be truly independent and bolder in performing their constitutional duty of setting the country on the less trodden path of rectitude, rule of law and good governance.
Thank you for listening.

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