The life and power of a Senior Advocate all start and end with section 5 of the Legal Practitioner’s Act of 1974
On September 29, 2022, the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee, LPPC, rolled out the names of sixty-two legal practitioners deserving to be conferred with the prestigious Rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN. 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 unfair trade practice to confer special privileges on certain persons by way of ranking.
Some others believe that it is good to encourage healthy competition but that a lot of reform is required to make it more merit-based. The life and power of a Senior Advocate all start and end with section 5 of the Legal Practitioner’s Act of 1974, wherein it is provided as follows:
“5. (1) Subject to subsection (2) of this section, the Legal Practitioner’s Privileges Committee established under subsection (3) of this section may by instrument confer on a legal practitioner the Rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria.
(2) A person shall not be conferred with the Rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria unless he has been qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria for not less than ten years and has achieved distinction in the legal profession in such manner as the Committee may, from time to time, determine.”
It is stated further that the LPPC shall consist of the Chief Justice of Nigeria as Chairman, the Attorney-General of the Federation, one Justice of the Supreme Court, the President of the Court of Appeal, five of the Chief Judges of the States, the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court and five legal practitioners who are Senior Advocates of Nigeria. The LPPC is further empowered to make rules as to the privileges to be accorded to Senior Advocates of Nigeria. Two things should immediately come to mind from the foregoing provisions; first is that the Rank of SAN is conferred as a privilege and second, it is normally the privilege of the LPPC, following its own guidelines. On April 3 1974, the first set of SANs was duly conferred, being Chief F.R.A. Williams, SAN and Dr. N.B. Graham-Douglas, SAN. The conferment has proceeded yearly, since then. The point of this background information is to buttress the fact that the Rank of SAN is established by law. The LPPC has over the years, developed its own structure, by amending its guidelines for the conferment of the Rank, based upon the robust engagements of its own members, stakeholders within the legal profession and indeed members of the public.
At the time that I applied for the Rank, the guidelines set for the award of the Rank by the LPPC expressed the threesome purpose of the award as a privilege awarded as a mark of excellence to members of the legal profession who are in full-time legal practice, who have distinguished themselves as advocates and who have made a significant contribution to the development of the legal profession in Nigeria. The process of the award is largely independent, self-financing and strictly confidential. The LPPC is required to fix the number of persons to be conferred with the Rank in order to maintain the highest standard of excellence and prestige of the Rank, and to adopt transparency and a feedback mechanism for the assessment of candidates. The award has since been extended to legal practitioners in the academic community. Whereas there may have been some challenges with this process in times past, a lot of efforts have been put in place presently, to ensure that those who qualify for the award of the Rank meet certain minimum conditions, such that in the past five years or more, you could hardly point to anyone awarded the Rank that has not distinguished himself or herself in the legal profession. One of the things that excited me in the course of my own journey is the fact that the LPPC has now adopted a gender-friendly process to encourage female applicants, such that virtually every year, female legal practitioners have been screened successfully.
The good news in this process for every advocate is the place of merit in the basic criteria for eligibility for the award of the Rank, which is meant to encourage core advocates. Under and by virtue of Paragraph 14 of the LPPC guidelines, an applicant must submit the following cases wherein his name is reflected as having duly conducted the said cases in court as lead counsel:
(i) 20 final judgments of the High Court or Superior Court of Records, 12 of which must be trial proceedings substantially conducted by the applicant;
(ii) 5 final judgments of the Court of Appeal; and
(iii) 4 final judgments of the Supreme Court.
(iv) These cases must have been conducted within ten years preceding the application, in order to show that the applicant is currently engaged in full-time legal practice and is abreast with current developments in the field of law.
(v) Three of the cases must be pro bono cases conducted for indigent citizens who could not otherwise afford the financial cost of engaging a counsel.
Some additional requirements of these new guidelines are that the candidate must show that he or she was personally involved in the conduct of these cases by signing the originating processes, the written addresses, the notices of appeal, the briefs of argument, the charge/information sheet, no case submission, etc. In the trial proceedings, the applicant must furnish the certified true copies of the record of proceedings to show his or her personal conduct during the trial, furnish a letter of instruction from the client, the recommendation and confirmation of the Judge that handled the case and the recommendation and confirmation of the opposing counsel in the case! The point of my defence of the Rank here is that if the LPPC is able to keep to these guidelines (which it has so far done), then you would hardly see a name on the list of SANs every year that will not merit the Rank. No matter his background or experience, for a lawyer to produce 20 final judgments of the High Court is not a tea party, that is if you know what I know as a practising lawyer, in Lagos State for instance. Anyone who has successfully conducted twelve trial proceedings up to judgment is not just qualified to be a Senior Advocate of Nigeria but can also be a Judge. Believe me, it is no child’s play to secure five final judgments of the Court of Appeal or four final judgments of the Supreme Court. What the LPPC has done is to stick to these minimum standards, irrespective of your status. This is in addition to a well-equipped library, functional infrastructure in the law office, payment of tax, involvement in and recommendation by the Nigerian Bar Association, Judges, Justices, Body of Senior Advocates, Body of Benchers, the LPDC, etc. This same rigorous process is also entrenched for candidates in the academic category, who go through a very detailed regime of qualification and filtration.
SUGGESTED REFORMS FOR THE RANK OF SAN
1. ALL-ROUND ADVOCATES - For those who are to be conferred with the Rank as Advocates, the court cases to be relied upon should cut across many areas of legal practice, to include, civil cases such as land law, chieftaincy, commercial law cases, election petitions, matrimonial causes, constitutional law, etc; criminal trials and other areas of law. We should not have a Senior Advocate who only conducted election petitions, or one who only attended to NDLEA or EFCC cases with only one witness who pleaded guilty and was summarily convicted or those who handled only political cases. How do we have a SAN who cannot conduct a criminal trial? In the same vein, the cases should cover all the superior courts of records, such as the High Court, Federal High Court and the National Industrial Court and indeed the appellate courts.
2. ACADEMICS AS ADVOCATES - In the last exercise for the Rank of SAN, over fifty applicants were reported to have applied for elevation from the academic community. It is my own personal view that the award of SAN to law teachers should be abolished outrightly. The Silk cannot be an inheritance, whereby the SAN does not appear in court ten years post conferment, as the job of advocacy is not in the classroom but in the courtroom. But if the award to law teachers must continue, then they are either given another designation or they must frontload at least five trials in contested cases in the High Court, three contested cases in the Court of Appeal and two contested cases in the Supreme Court. Why should a law teacher apply for the Rank of SAN if he has never practiced and has no intention to ever practice law? This does not derogate from the value of law teachers but that career path is totally different from courtroom advocacy. Law teachers who also practice law as advocates should only apply for the Rank as advocates.
3. POST SAN AWARD AND THE RETIRED SAN - In my set, we were about forty applicants and it has subsequently ballooned to seventy and above. The question that I have been asking myself ever since is this: where are the Senior Advocates? I go to court virtually everyday and I see the same sets of people in court. Does it not then mean that there are young, active and dynamic Senior Advocates who are no longer in active legal practice? That has defeated the purpose of the award. The LPPC should fix a five-year mandate upon Senior Advocates such that if after five years of the award, no single trial is conducted then the Rank should be withdrawn until there is compliance, except in exceptional cases of health challenges or old age.
4. REMUNERATION OF JUNIORS – No Senior Advocate should merit the Rank if he has any counsel in his firm who earns less than N150,000:00 monthly and after the award, he should submit a yearly salary scale of all his junior lawyers and other employees.
5. SAN AS BAR MAN - For all categories of awardees, none should be considered for the Rank if he/she is not an active member of any of the Sections of the Nigerian Bar Association, has not attended at least five consecutive meetings of his local NBA and provided concrete evidence of active participation in NBA affairs.