…Recalls how court processes are abused repeatedly
*“We must ensure justice system survives misconduct”
REMARKS BY THE VICE PRESIDENT, FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA, HIS EXCELLENCY, PROF. YEMI OSINBAJO, SAN, AT THE BODY OF SENIOR ADVOCATES OF NIGERIA MAIDEN DINNER AT INTERCONTINENTAL HOTEL, VICTORIA ISLAND, LAGOS, ON NOVEMBER 11, 2017.
Let me say how very honoured I am, to have been invited to speak at this occasion, of course I would have been here as a member but I think permitting me to speak is a special honour, and I really must say that I am privileged to be here to make these few remarks.
I must say that I am here in three capacities; one as a member of the body of senior advocates, the other of course, as a guest in my capacity as Vice President, but, I am also here as an indigene of Ikenne, the Nigerian village that has the highest number of Senior Advocates of Nigeria per capita, or if you like, per square metre.
When I listened to my brother, Silk Paul Usoro, speaking somewhat proudly of the nine SANs in Akwa Ibom State, I could not resist whispering to my Lord Justice Okoro, that my brother Akin Osinbajo, is the 12th of the SANs of Ikenne, and there are 13 so far, and that I am humbly the 7th SAN.
I became a SAN in 2002. So I would really like to encourage all of my brothers especially Paul Usoro SAN, and other SANs like himself, we could lend you a few if you like just to add to the numbers.
My Lords Senior Advocates of Nigeria, the elite in every community whether it be an ethnic, religious or professional elite, owe a responsibility to that community. It is their duty to define the common purposes, the ethics, the vogues, what is acceptable and what cannot be tolerated in that community.
Above all, they owe a responsibility to preserve the community. The future, as it were, depends on their vision or lack of it. For the professional elite such as ourselves we owe a responsibility to ensure that the profession that preferred us to the rank that we occupy, that is the highest in our profession, continues to thrive and flourish.
First for the selfish reason that it confers greater respect and prestige on the rank we enjoy, second that we being leaders in the profession can even become more successful, but more importantly, for the altruistic and ultimately more enduring reason, that we leave a profession that continues to provide livelihood and prestige for generations after us.
Ultimately, the difference between the elite who build great and enduring societies or professions, and those who destroy the patrimony, is the extent to which the elite is willing to make sacrifices and constrain that innate selfishness that all human beings have.
Put differently, the seriousness with which an elite recognizes and honours the responsibility of privilege or perhaps what the French describe as ‘noblesse oblige’: the responsibility of nobility or the privilege, the responsibility of the elite to act with honour, to act with integrity, to act sometimes with kindness, and sometimes with generosity.
So it was then the British elite, for example the Barons, who realized that their wealth and influence would always be in jeopardy, if might and power remained equivalent to right. They recognized that to control the abuse of power by the king, or by any one of them, they all had to agree to be subject to certain objective rules that recognized rights by virtue of ones humanity as distinct from means or power.
So they agreed to sacrifice individual ambitions, they agreed to sacrifice individual wealth or power, for the greater good by the observance of the rule of law. And so in 1215 AD sword in hand, they forced King John to sign the immortally egalitarian words of the Magna Carta Libertatum.
The great charter of freedoms from which almost every other charter of freedom in human history has borrowed; let me remind us of one of its famous provisions: it says, “to none will we sell, to none will we deny or delay, right or justice”.
The framers of the American constitution were also such elite. Not all were noble men, not all were of great learning, some broke laws, some were outlaws, some cheated on their spouses, some were outright outlaws, but all of them agreed on minimum conditions for efficient and just government and how these could be preserved. These documents, which have endured centuries, are some of the most eloquent testimonies to man’s ability for high thought and behaviour.
They have formed the basis of orderly society, and respect for the dignity of the human person. Over the years, despite the travails of every kind that the core of the American elite has experienced and the American Society, their elite have defended their constitution and insisted on its central values.
In our own profession, the British legal establishment stand out as the exemplars in self- preservation and the preservation of the commonwealth that the recognition of the obligations that attend the privilege of belonging to that profession.
By the strict enforcement of discipline, by strict rules of entry into the profession, strict rules of preferment to the rank of Queen’s Counsel (QC) and even stricter rules in judicial appointments, they have maintained the integrity, the prestige and the relevance of the British system of justice from generation to generation.
Such is the absolute trust in the British legal system, that today by the creation of extra-territorial jurisdiction for their courts commercial disputes from all countries of the world can by agreement of parties be tried in the royal courts of justice in London. It is important to point out that the British legal profession attained this enviable position by rigorous self-regulation.
While I served as Attorney-General in Lagos State, I was called upon to write a mitigating reference for a senior Nigerian lawyer who was in practice in England. He was at the time, on the verge of losing his license to practice in the United Kingdom. Why? He was before the court of appeal in respect of a criminal matter.
In the course of arguing the appeal, the court hinted him that his position was unarguable, but he stubbornly persisted in that line of argument. In the end he lost the appeal. But the court wrote to the law society seeking that he be penalized for pursuing an unarguable point. He came to me to ask for a character reference as he was, of course, on the verge of losing everything.
That is the nature of the discipline of that profession, which insists that you cannot trivialize the legal process in any way, that you cannot hamper the legal process in any way, and that behaviour of a dilatory sort will not be tolerated.
A very senior lawyer in Nigeria now, after terms of settlement were agreed and the court had given judgment, returned to court to contest some issues that he had initially agreed to. He was allowed to pursue this clear abuse of process and this sort of conduct is repeated time and time again.
The legal profession in Nigeria and the system of administration of justice is perhaps one of the oldest of the professions. It has created reputations; it has created dynasties, enormous wealth and modest livelihoods for generations.
But its integrity, its credibility and relevance are gravely threatened and have been so for many years now. It appears that some of the greatest acts of malfeasance are perpetrated by those of us who are senior lawyers.
Creating and maintaining efficient disciplinary structures and rules is a huge challenge. Self-regulation, especially amongst us, is non-existent. There is no forum for calling out a bad egg.
There is a need for a consensus, on how to ensure that the greatest gift that we have received, and that gift is of a respected and revered profession, is not destroyed in our own time. It is a consensus that will be built only on sacrifice, sacrificing ethnic, and other parochial loyalties where the profession is threatened. Enabling a system of discipline that truly neither fears friend nor foe.
Permit me to say that one is not advocating some mere moral reawakening, no! Because almost all of us, and I speak also for myself, have taken advantage in one way or the other, of a system where there is no consequence for misbehaviour; so truly, as the scriptures say, “all have sinned.”
But what one is calling for is a practical, clearheaded consensus on how to preserve our profession, and the prestige of our privileges and how to avoid the indictment of history.
It is our duty as professionals today especially those of us of the inner bar, to ensure that our profession and the administration of justice system survives the assault on it by all manner of misconduct.
Let me congratulate our new colleagues, and wish them much greater success in the years to come.
Thank you all very much.
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