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Olusegun Adeniyi: When lawyers put Themis to shame

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Olusegun Adeniyi: When lawyers put Themis to shame

By Olusegun Adeniyi

A few years ago (please don’t ask me when), a junior partner in a Lagos law firm was sent to a state to represent a Governor friend of his boss accused of misappropriating public funds. After days of trial, the case was won and the client acquitted. Excited about his success, the young lawyer sent a two-word text message to his boss from the courtroom: “Justice prevailed.” The senior partner, who knew the real facts of the case immediately panicked, and misinterpreting the text, he replied: “Appeal immediately.”

It is my great pleasure to join members of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Lagos State branch this evening for what I understand to be an annual event which is in itself a surprise considering that the impression most of us have of lawyers is that of “alowo ma jaiye”. An event like this is therefore a clear indication of the value lawyers place on spending time together and I commend it.

However, as I was jotting down my thoughts last night, one of the interesting materials I read is an interview with a British lawyer, Mr. David Whitehouse, a Queen’s Counsel who was asked whether he would defend someone he considered guilty of the offence to which the person was being charged. Now, let me be honest here: I was particularly looking for materials like that because I am coming to interact with an audience of distinguished lawyers, some of who have, at one point or another, defended people they themselves know to be big-time crooks as illustrated by the story I told earlier.

So, how did Whitehouse respond to the question? He began by saying that it is interesting that people never ask: “How can you prosecute someone you know to be innocent?”; then he added: “There is a huge difference between knowing someone is guilty and suspecting or believing they’re guilty. We work under extremely strict rules of ethics and we’re subject to the law.”

For me, that explanation is fair enough since it is difficult to fault the argument that the administration of justice works better when both sides to a dispute are represented by legal practitioners. But let us continue with Whitehouse. “The first case I tried as a recorder with a jury, I was certain that the defendant was guilty at the end of his evidence. Then he called a completely independent witness who proved beyond any question that he was totally innocent. I was wrong and it taught me a very important lesson, which is that it’s not for me to make up my mind. So I try to keep an open mind at all times.”

To the extent that we live in a society where people believe the first tale, the work of lawyers is made very difficult and that explains why I sympathise with the distinguished men and women in this room tonight. However, that is not the end of the story considering what Whitehouse said next: “I am not going to prevent my clients from having a fair trial because I personally suspect, as I sometimes do, that they committed the crime. The real thing is: can the prosecution prove it so a jury is sure they committed the crime?”

It is trite to say that the legal profession occupies a very strategic position in every society as it is key to development in the areas of peace, justice and equity. Yet over the years, we have seen and heard so many recorded misdeeds of lawyers in Nigeria just as we hear of journalists, I must add. The good thing, however, is that today we are not here to talk about brown, green or yellow envelopes, so I am allowed to throw pebbles even when there may be some big logs in my own eyes.

Nothing indeed can be more appropriate than the theme of this dinner which is “Undressing Themis” and one can look at it in two ways. If you choose to be positive, you can argue that it is about interrogating the basis upon which justice is founded but on the other hand, you can also say it is an attempt to reflect on the several ways those in the temple of justice in our country, either by omission or commission, put Themis to shame. That happens to be the interpretation that suits my brief remark here tonight.

Before I go further, I must state that the whole idea of Themis reminds me of the impact the inhabitants of ancient Greece have had on the world. Whatever the people could not understand, they attributed to some gods by creating myths around practically everything, from medicine to architecture and law. But the interesting thing is that not only have such myths endured, they have helped to influence human civilization in practically all areas of our lives. It is within that context that we can situate Themis, believed to be the Greek goddess of divine law and order, who presided over the most ancient oracles of her time. And if we believe the tale, as lawyers obviously do, it was from this role that she first instructed mankind in the essential laws of justice and morality, such as the precepts of piety, the rules of hospitality, the difference between good and bad as well as right and wrong and the rules of friendliness and good governance.

Whatever may be our disposition to the myth, it is most fitting that this august gathering has chosen to “undress Themis”, the goddess that is usually depicted holding a set of scales and sword and in most cases, also in blindfold. According to Moses Finley, the whole essence of the “Themis’ custom, tradition and mores”, was to institute a highly developed sense of what was fitting and proper in a society. To “undress Themis” therefore, in my view, is to bring into the open some of the issues that impact negatively on the dispensation of justice in Nigeria. That, I suppose is why a journalist was invited since we are very good at pointing fingers at others.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, if there is any time that this noble profession needs to do self examination, it is now. Lawyers in Nigeria today bear enormous responsibility not only because of its traditional roles to the society but also because never in our history have we had a situation, as it currently obtains, when members of the profession would constitute nearly one third of the federal executive council while the number two man in Nigeria is both a professor of law and a member of the inner chamber.

In the spirit of the ancient Greek goddess, let me provoke the senior members of this profession by speaking on a few issues that have always been of concern to me, and perhaps also to many Nigerians. The first one is Abuse of judicial process.

While the black law dictionary defines abuse as “everything which is contrary to good order”, it goes further to define abuse of judicial process as “The improper and tortuous use of a legitimately issued court process to obtain a result that is either unlawful or beyond the process’ scope”. This act, that appears to be innocuous, constitutes a huge clog in the wheel of justice in Nigeria and it is unfortunate that it is common, especially among senior members of the bar who most engage in frivolous litigation even when they know that the claim being sought or the defense had no merit simply to achieve a pre-determined but nefarious end.

Another area of concern today is that of frivolous applications and stay of proceedings. When on 13th May this year, President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 (ACJA), many of us laymen thought that the legislation had abolished the vexatious issues of stay of proceedings and interlocutory appeals by merging all preliminary objections with the substantive case in any criminal case instituted in a federal court in the country going by the provisions of section 306 and 396 of the Act. But the recent Supreme Court decision with regard to the Code of Conduct Bureau has demonstrated that the era of stay of proceedings in criminal trial is not yet over. Now, for all that it is worth, it is important for this distinguished audience to know that I have read the Act, having recently bought a copy on Abuja traffic where, like Lagos, you can now shop while you drive.

The point I am driving at is that members of this profession must strive to make the salutary provisions in the ACJA work so that we can avoid a situation like the Mohammed Abacha trial which was stalled for 12 years on account of sundry preliminary objections raised and argued back and forth from the high court to the apex court by his high profile lawyers. 

Again, thanks to senior members of the bar, it is easier for a rich defendant who has committed a heinous crime like murder or stealing of billions of Naira to go free than for a person who has perhaps stolen a goat to get justice from our court. While the former would always be defended, sometimes by as many as 20 SANs, the latter is practically on his or her own unless qualified for legal aide. The situation is even worse for a poor person who is either a plaintiff or a defendant in a civil suit. While the Legal Aid Council provides legal aid for indigents in criminal trials, lawyers with established firms are expected to provide pro bono services in civil cases for the poor but they hardly do. That is not good for our society and I hope the NBA will look into the matter.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, let me now speak on an issue that I understand makes senior lawyers very uncomfortable. It is that of remuneration for junior lawyers. On a popular blog, there was this poser which reads: “Hi guys, I want to know how much lawyers are paid in Nigeria when working for a law firm. Please respond.”

The first respondent wrote: “It depends on your years of experience and the location of the chamber. When you are a new wig, you are paid between N10,000 and N15,000 in Agege; N20,000 in Ikeja and 50,000 in Ikoyi/Victoria Island. Some chambers will not even pay you anything”. The second respondent wrote: “That is terrible. I was thinking lawyers are paid approximately 500,000 a month at least!” The third respondent, obviously a lawyer wrote: “You talk like you don’t know about the profession. In Abuja, it’s terrible. I was attached to one, he paid nothing, even though within one month of working there, I helped secure two jobs that paid out N150,000 and N300,000. He gave me 10 percent of the first N150,000.”

The next person, also a lawyer, wrote: “My first salary was N8,000 for like six months before I moved to a swankier law firm in Ikoyi and they upgraded it to N15,000 per month. After two months, I realised that it wasn’t worth it because old lawyers don’t want younger lawyers to progress.” Now the fifth respondent: “At first, I actually thought you guys were joking. But seriously, this is pathetic. I was wondering why all my lawyer-friends never practiced law and went into banking and some other sectors. Now I know better.”

Given what I know about the kind of fees usually charged, especially by senior lawyers in our country, and the fact that those on the lower end of the professional ladder continue to face crushing financial burdens, I consider it the height of exploitation that young lawyers would be paid what is no more than slave wages. Paying such scandalous salaries to lawyers not only dehumanise them, it is contributing to the disrespect with which the general public treats people in the profession.  Something has to be done about this too.

Ladies and gentlemen, as I take my seat, let me state very clearly that I have tremendous respect for lawyers. I am particularly aware that members of the Lagos NBA contributed immensely to the democracy that we all enjoy in our country today because many of you confronted, at great cost, tyrannical military governments, in the eighties and nineties. Many of your members have also helped to develop the jurisprudence now being applied to protect constitutionally guaranteed fundamental human rights of our people such as the right to free movement, freedom of Association, freedom of speech and presumption of innocence of those accused of crimes.

However, to the extent that the legal system affects nearly every aspect of our society, from buying a home to crossing the street, you as lawyers hold positions of great responsibility and are expected to adhere to a strict code of ethics. If I therefore seem hard on you tonight, it is because you are the gate keepers at the hallowed chambers of justice. While we clamour for change in our society, it will not come until we have the support of the distinguished ladies and gentlemen in this room.

In the spirit of Themis, please permit me to conclude with the words of Justice Mahmud Mohammed (CJN) at the opening of the 48th Annual National Conference of the Nigerian Association of Law Teachers (NALT) recently held in Ado Ekiti, “all hands must be on deck to flush out the bad eggs so as to restore the dignity of the profession”.

Thank you for inviting me here tonight. I wish everyone a merry Christmas as we all look forward to a prosperous Year 2016!

  • Adeniyi delivered this Speech at the Lagos State branch of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) Annual Dinner on 10th December, 2015

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