Friday, February 23, 2024

Controversy trails award of 2023 SAN title

  • LPPC allegedly lowers standard for three candidates
  • Lawyers seek review of guidelines for award of prestigious rank

BY NICK NWAFOR AND BRIGHT JACOB

Ten days after the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee announced that it would confer the title of Senior Advocate of Nigeria on 58 legal practitioners out of 69 shortlisted applicants, controversy has trailed the selection process, a development that has pitched senior members of the profession against the LPPC.

The Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court and Secretary of the LPPC, Hajo Sarki-Bello, said in a statement on Thursday last week that the LPPC took the decision on the applicants at its 159th session held on October 12 presided over by the Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola.

“The swearing-in ceremony of the 58 successful applicants is to take place on Monday, November 27, 2023,” Sarki-Bello said.

It was gathered that three of the 58 shortlisted candidates allegedly did not pass the oral interview which is mandatory for qualification for the silk.

It was gathered that most of the disqualified applicants were those in academia.

12 professors were shortlisted in the category but only Prof. Babatunde Oni would be conferred with the SAN title on November 27, 2023.

Sources close to the LPPC told The Point that the committee may have lowered its cumulative 90 percent benchmark to award the respected rank.

The SAN rank is awarded as a mark of excellence to members of the legal profession who have distinguished themselves as advocates and academics.

Members of the Inner Bar, as SANs are fondly called, enjoy some privileges including having seats reserved for them in the front rows of all courts with priority accorded their cases in court.

They are also distinguishable from other lawyers by their attire which is styled differently from the gown other lawyers wear. Theirs is called “silk”.

While people have different views about the rank depending on which side of the divide they stand; some want it abolished completely, reasoning that it is an unfair trade practice to confer special privileges on certain persons by way of ranking.

Others believe that it is good to encourage healthy competition but that a lot of reform is required to make it more merit-based.

According to the source, three out of the 58 designated SANs did not pass the oral interview but have been approved for the award of the SAN title.

The Point recalls that in a bid to stop lowering the standards of becoming a SAN, in a letter dated September 21, 2021 and signed by Professor Ben Nwabueze, SAN, Chief Folake Solange SAN and Seyi Sowemimo to the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, they expressed displeasure at the ebbing of the standards set for becoming a SAN.

It was gathered that the letter prompted the LPPC to look into the standards and elevated but it appeared that the standards have been reversed to accommodate the three SAN designates who failed to pass the required 90 percent oral interview.

Article 2 (b) of the guidelines establishing the award of SAN stipulates that it is awarded on merit not based on ethnic or religious basis. Article 24 of the guidelines deals with interviews of shortlisted candidates while 24 (4) sets out nine items and its attainable scores totaling 100 percent.

These include comportment, integrity, quality of presentation, general knowledge of law and contribution to development of law.

According to impeccable sources, these rules are what the three SAN designates failed to meet up with during the oral interview.

The three were said to have scored 80 percent instead of the required 90 percent, but were still cleared for the award.

The successful applicants, according to the LPPC are a human rights activist, Olukayode Ajulo, Felix Offia, Lawrence Falade, Kingsley Obamogie, Folasade Alli, Abiola Isiaq Oyebanji, Bomo Agbebi, Daniel Uruakpa, and Oseloka Osuigwe.

Others include the wife of foremost human rights lawyer, Funmi Falana, Babatunde Adeoye, Babaseyi Joseph, Emmanuel Enoidem, Kehinde Aina, Nghozi Oleh, Aaron Okoroma, Ibrahim Angulu, and Olayiwola Afolabi.

However, many lawyers who spoke with The Point said the award of the SAN rank was supposed to be based on proven integrity by those who had developed the hard work and legal skills required.

They lamented that the way and manner the award is being conferred now leave much to be desired.

Some of the lawyers who did not want their names in print called for a review of the guidelines for the award of the prestigious rank.

They bemoaned the huge sums involved in applying for the rank of SAN.

“N600, 000 is just the amount made public, when the committee comes to inspect the offices of applicants and their libraries, they do get much more than that,” said a lawyer.

As of 2019, Nigeria had just 526 senior advocates with the first two being late Chief Rotimi Williams and Dr. Nabo Graham-Douglas who were conferred with the title on April 3, 1975. Today there are over 1000 SANs.

“The number of those being given the SAN rank is becoming alarming. The prestigious award has been bastardised and compromised.

It is losing its value because it is now given to all Tom, Dick and Harry. Like every other thing, it is now given to the highest bidders. It has also been tribalised and based on quota, and this has reduced the prestige attached to the rank.

I remember during our time, we were challenged to work very hard. We were grilled by icons like Chief Afe Babalola. Today the situation is different, and when one sees the calibre of those being conferred, it makes a mockery of the entire elevation process,” a SAN told The Point.

The sharp increase in the number of senior advocates has not gone down well with the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria.

After the release of the list of lawyers shortlisted for SAN rank in 2020, BOSAN wrote a letter to the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, praying him not to elevate any lawyer to the premium rank until 2024 to enable them to revamp the elevation process.

BOSAN criticized the LPPC for making a mockery of the elevation process with the conferment of the rank on an unprecedented number of 72 senior lawyers in the 2020 exercise.

It warned that unless a holistic review of the process was undertaken by the LPPC, the rank stands the risk of losing its prestige and standing among stakeholders.

Noting the urgency of its Save-Our-Soul letter, BOSAN pledged its commitment to providing its expertise and support at every stage of the review process.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court placed what were supposed to be fresh hurdles ahead of lawyers seeking to be conferred with the SAN title for the year 2021 and beyond.

Among others, the SAN rank seekers were to face a panel of selected serving and retired Supreme Court justices and senior lawyers for an oral interview as part of the last leg of the screening process.

The applicants were to during the oral interview, be subjected to rigorous interrogation to verify and confirm the authenticity of claims made in their individual application forms.

But The Point gathered that despite this, the process is still a sham as it is subjected to influence such as favouritism, bigotry, and bribery, among others.

In September last year, a retiring justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Addu Aboki, called on the Chief Justice of Nigeria and the LPPC to review the requirements for the conferment of SAN rank to the extent that it will reduce unnecessary pressure on the court.

To confirm the undue pressure mounted on justices of the Supreme Court by lawyers seeking SAN title, their parents and others, Justice Aboki said there was a need for the justices of the apex court to note that the Supreme Court of Nigeria is a policy court, which should only deal with matters of complex legal nature.

Efforts to reach the LPPC proved abortive as the secretary of the committee, Hajo Sarki-Bello, couldn’t pick his calls after many efforts.

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