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‘We intend to run a transparent and an accountable administration’

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Paul Usoro (SAN) . PHOTO Lawyard

The 2018 election of national officers of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) can rightly be described as the fiercest election in the history of the association. The build-up to the universal suffrage electronic voting contest raised tension, intrigues, controversies, brickbats and verification challenges such that there were fears about the possibility of cancelling the entire process. In the end, Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN), erudite commercial litigator and advocate emerged the president. In this exclusive first post-election interview with JOSEPH ONYEKWERE, he pledges to run a transparent and accountable administration and holds out an olive branch to his opponents.

Can you give us an overview of the kind of things you would like to introduce in the NBA?

There are different things that I need to introduce but I think the underpinning would be reforming the NBA in a way that it is efficient, in a way that it engenders and boosts the confidence of members, in a way that we start building the NBA brand, in a way that it also gives us moral equity particularly if we are criticizing third-parties or we want things done differently.

So those reforms are important – internal reforms that would of course impact on justice administration generally and also on the affairs of Nigeria as a whole.

Now that’s one serious underpinning of this incoming administration.

But let me also state that the very unfortunate divisiveness we seem to be having as far as the members of the associations are concerned would be tackled.

There are lots of divisiveness in some of our branches.

There is pending litigation even as we speak with regards to the elections of two years ago. 

That divisiveness, I believe, is something we would have to tackle and to make the house whole, heal wounds and then bring back the respectability of the profession.

We will at the same time, make sure that discipline is instilled as far as the profession is concerned.

Those are the critical issues that I believe; we would need to tackle in the next two years.

On the amendment of the NBA constitution, how do you intend to go about the issue especially harmonizing the issue of branches organizing elections the same day? 

Okay, what I know is that the current administration has actually proposed an amendment of the Constitution and this is something that would be taken up at the Annual general conference.

I would not want to preempt the members of the association and the branches on what their decision would be as far as that proposed amendment is concerned but I know that it is already on the table, proposed by the current administration and we would see how that plays out.

But on a general note, constitutions are not perfect documents. Now and then, you find things that you need to tweak and if it is necessary that you tweak it, then it just has to be tweaked. 

So if there is a need during the incoming administration for the constitution to be tweaked and this is without prejudice to whatever the decision might be at the planned annual general meeting, one of the critical things that I believe needs to be done and which resolves some of the kind of issues that you are raising is having extensive consultation with members and letting members understand the valued proposition on the table which necessitates the amendments to the constitution.

I find that lawyers generally are reasonable people and if they understand the valued proposition in whatever you want to do, they will support you.

A lot of people believe that NBA has not been very vocal on burning national issues.

This, they attribute to the gentle nature of the outgoing president.

Now, you have similar demeanor with him. How do you intend to reform the NBA such that it becomes vocal again and the mouthpiece of the oppressed in the country?

 
First of all, being a gentleman is not negative.

Actually, lawyers are meant to be gentlemen and so, I would take that more as a compliment but that doesn’t mean that you being a gentleman, you cannot be forceful in what needs to be done otherwise, I would not have been an advocate, handling critical matters.

With regards to your specific question about NBA being a mouthpiece, I would not want to be judgmental of previous administrations, but I would tell you what we intend to do.

We do intend to speak up at all times and when it is necessary.

One of the things that we are going to be doing is that on a monthly basis we do plan to have a press briefing with all of you and during which we would take on critical national issues, discuss them and give advice on them on how those things ought to be done differently.

The advantage of having such a monthly press briefing is: if you do draw attention to certain issues during the first month and then in the succeeding month those issues are still outstanding, you would review some of the things talked about earlier in which nothing was done.

You draw attention to them, suggest certain things that need to be done and where it is necessary, if it involves having to go to court to seek remedy then we would also encourage that and we would take certain steps to make sure it is achieved.

That way, the person would be drawn to the challenges that would give voice to those things that need to be done differently. We will also work for the protection and promotion of rule of law as well as the welfare of our members.

That is one way that we intend to do it. Another way is through consultation. Sometimes, consultation works!

It is useful in having to resolve issues and straightening up issues.

Now the other part that needs to be complemented with that is communication of what you are doing to your members so that even if they are not hearing you spitting fire, they would know that something is being done and results are being achieved.

So that is also something that we would do. But we would have that complementarity in the methods of having to address these matters.

The public would expect some level of radicalism in your approach to some of those national issues.

Well, when you say radicalism, I don’t understand what you mean.

Maybe, in circumstances such as massive killings of innocent Nigerians or where there is invasion of the courts and you spit fire and call on lawyers to boycott the courts.  

What I have said is not very different from what you have described.

Let us take for example, there is an incidence as it is becoming very rampant that lawyers get harassed by security agents or crime investigation agencies for doing their jobs.

If there is such an incidence, it does not necessarily have to wait for the monthly press briefing.

The association will speak up and will make it very clear to the agency that this is unacceptable to lawyers.

But I will tell you something else that we intend to do. Very early in the life of this administration, we intend to meet with the heads of those security agencies and agree on protocols, rules of engagement and an understanding that these kinds of things would not happen again.

That is why I am talking about the complementarity of approach.

The first one; you speak up and condemn it in very strong terms when necessary.

The second one, which actually should be the first is to have a proactive approach of ensuring that this doesn’t even happen and therefore you meet the people who are responsible for ensuring that this does not happen and you agree with them that these type of things should not happen and you also agree with them that these are the steps to take so that these do not happen.

You also agree with them that these are the punishments or consequences when something like this happens.

You will also agree with them that these agreements have to be passed and drilled down the ranks so everybody understands and we do not have such incidents.

So that, in my view, is a constructive way of making sure that you remain the watchdog of society and that you give voice to the voiceless.

And I have used the incidence of the brutality against lawyers as an illustrative example.

It could be in different other things and you follow up with that approach and you might find that you will actually achieve quite some results.

Are you comfortable with the stamp and steal project as it is today? 

Well, let me understand what you are saying.

I am talking about the issue of the expiring date and cost.

Now that’s specific. First of all, the issue of whether there should be stamp is a legal issue because it’s already there. The statute books provide for it.

The Supreme Court has decided that yes, the stamp is there. The law requires it, so we can’t wish it away. 

There are also some other issues that you consider. Should it have an expiry date? 

My own position has consistently been that expiry date is not negative because if you are looking at the essence of the stamp and that is to make sure that people who are not supposed to practice as lawyers are not allowed to practice as lawyers, well, it truly makes sense that they should have expiry dates.

If you do not have expiry dates, then they make it possible, hypothetically, for somebody who may have simply come by the stamps at anytime, it doesn’t have an expiry date. 

Lets say, a lawyer’s office is burgled and somebody simply takes it and he can use those stamps at anytime. Let us also say a lawyer who has misbehaved, suspended or he is disbarred and he has unexpired stamps.

First of all, that lawyer who is disbarred for professional misconduct may not have much qualms having to continue using stamps that is unexpired.

Let us also look at another scenario. We talk about the need for continuing legal education and we want to raise it to the level that we ought to raise it to.

It essentially means that at some point, people’s practice licence would need to be renewed based on having attended a minimum number of continuing legal education hours.

Now, if you are going to get to that level and then you open this window of unexpired stamps when you have effectively shut down that proposition of having to be renewing people’s licences, what would be the essence?

This fellow who has not attended this minimum hours of continuing legal education has unexpired stamps, what is going to stop him from continuing to use it by the way? He will.

So from that perspective, I don’t see a problem with the expiration of the stamp but the question in regards to the cost is a different thing and I would find it difficult to answer that question at this moment because I do not have clarity as to what the constituents are in regards to the cost.

I have not seen the contracts for the production of the stamp.

It is only when you see the contracts for the production of the stamp, you will also understand the commercial decisions that went into entering that contract that you could say whether it is a fair bargain or it is not a fair bargain.

So you intend to look at all that?

Yes, I intend to look at all of those things because one of the cornerstones of our administration would be the issue of financial accountability and transparency.

Not only do I intend to look at it, I intend to make it open for everybody to understand the constituents of this cost and why that cost is X and not Y or why it should be reduced from Y to X.

What programmes do you have to stimulate the interest of a lot of lawyers who are not showing the enthusiasm to own the NBA outside the annual general conference that happens once a year?
 
There are several reasons why different people do not have that much interest or the interest has sagged considerably.

If you ask why some people, they do believe that people who come into office, essentially come the office to cream off after elections.

That they simply do not bother about the welfare of the other lawyers.

One way to prevent that, is really, by having financial accountability and transparency and let everybody see how their money is working for the association and they understand that there is no creaming off and all that is required is instituting the principles of corporate governance and financial accountability.

Once people understand that you are not in office for the purposes of having to cream off or to use the office for your personal welfare, they will take what you say seriously and they would take the association more seriously. That is one level!

Another level is the essence of people being in an association.

It is for that association to protect their interest and to take care of their welfare.

Now, I have just explained to you that we would take the welfare and interest of members seriously.

For example, as far as brutality by security agencies are concerned. Once people understand and know that you do take this seriously, their interest in the association will peak.

They would have more interest because they know the essence of their being there is for their interest to be protected and that the executives, the elected officers are actually doing everything to make sure they protect that interest.

I will give you a third level and the third level is in regard to education. People want to practice law and make some money.

There are two things; one, that means you need to have continuing education, you need to expand your skills so that you would be attractive to clients and clients would be interested in your having to handle their matters for them.

Now that means the association must take the lead in the business of education, continuing legal education as far as lawyers are concerned. And you could do this in multiple ways apart from the annual general conference.

The NBA has sections and those sections and different fora are supposed to be engine rooms, the hub for continuing legal education.

If we build them in a way that they can be actively engaged in having to develop skills of members, let each committees of those sections have interesting programmes, workshops, seminars, then you would find lawyers who are interested in developing skills and becoming more interested.

Their skills will develop, which makes them more attractive to clients. It makes it easy for them to make more money. That actually would be a significant focus for the incoming administration.

There is also an adjunct to that and that is the fact that the legal market has unfortunately contracted in some ways and this is because people who are not lawyers are taking over lawyers’ jobs in some instances.

Sometimes people often get dispirited particularly as far as the courts are concerned cases take too long and matters are not dispensed with.

Now if the association take an active interest in having to take care of those things and ensure that there is speedy dispensation of matters and, litigants are assured of justice, fairly quickly, then you would see that the legal market will develop quite some bit and people who are encroaching into the legal market will be kept at bay.

Interests of lawyers would peak as far as the association is concerned because they would know by extension that the association is taking care of their welfare and is actually doing what associations are meant to do.

So, it is a mixture of things. And of course, communication is important, relating with the members and letting them understand that the association is theirs and that you stand to benefit and we can all work together and develop this association for everyone’s interest.

Closely tied to that; what do you have in the basket for young lawyers?

Actually, like you rightly said, that is closely tied to that.

Now once you have done some of the things I have suggested, the benefits would rebound also to the young lawyers.

One, you find that skills are developed, there is more money in the pockets of the senior lawyers and there is more money to take care of the young lawyers.

The current complaint of the young lawyers is their welfare package, and by welfare package, they are really talking about compensation, their emoluments.

In most instances, the pittance is not sufficient to even take them home and there are several reasons for this.

They have also claimed in some instances that their emoluments and compensations are that poor because senior lawyers are very selfish.

May be they are right, may be they are not. But let me presume that they are right.

What is required is education and we need to massively educate even the seniors that, having to take care of your juniors actually ensure the sustainability of the practice.

That it does not only take care of your own interest better, it actually builds the practice and we all want to build a sustainable and successful practice, at least most of us.

But it requires education for that class of lawyers who presumably are greedy and do not believe that they need to build other people.

It requires education for them to understand that it is actually in their benefit and the benefit of the juniors for them to develop those juniors and pay them well because in the process, the juniors will also invest their energies, their dreams, their ambitions in that practice and help to grow it.

That’s one side of the coin.

There is also something that I think the junior lawyers need seriously and that is mentorship.

Mentorship means somebody who is successful and who shows you the pathway to being successful and it would be helpful to identify leading lights in the practice, encourage them to mentor young ones and mentorship can be in different levels.

You also can arrange mentorship programmes where those who are in provincial branches for example, come in to urban centers to see how large firms are organized.

They pick up some of the practices in law office managements as far as those large firms are concerned and imbibe them.

It may not be very long periods, lets say in weeks or months.

There are different varieties of mentorship programmess that could be encouraged and that would help in having to develop the skills of the young ones and let them be successful practitioners.

Actually, you could mentor them not only in the process of having to handle matters or law office management, but even in terms of having to practice, whether as advocates or solicitors and that is very important.

That is when you would find that the quality of practice itself would improve and develop.

There are lots of indiscipline and unethical practices among the lawyers. Is it the Nigeria Law School or the law faculties that should be blamed?

That’s a little bit difficult and requires more than simply off-the-top-of-my-head answer.

What I personally believe we should do is, in having to look at the quality of lawyers, it would make sense to go beyond the law school and look at the university.

And that is something that we would need to look at.

There are two institutions that I believe can be used, but the Bar Association can instigate the action.

There is a council of legal education, which is primarily responsible for what happens as far as the law school is concerned.

And it is for the council of legal education to look at the quality, access where the problems are and if necessary to go beyond the law school, as I personally believe, to engage the National Universities Commission (NUC) and by extension, the faculties of law in different universities and see what needs to be done to upgrade the standards.

So that what comes in into the law school is much better than what we currently have presumably.

Of course, there is another institution that is responsible for the standards.

And they too can have a look at it from their own perspective. That is the Body of Benchers.

They are the ones who statutorily have the responsibility of calling people to bar and if there are complaints about the quality of those who are being called to the bar then it would be of concern even to the body of benchers and they too can start a process of having to look at and review exactly what is responsible for the standards and whether certain steps need to be taken.

I think a combination of these agencies seriously looking at the challenges, should be able to come up with some solutions, but what I can commit to is that as the Nigerian Bar Association, we would take steps to make sure we get to the bottom of it and understand exactly where the problems might be. You see the solution to problem starts with understanding the root causes.

It is when you understand the root causes that you are best able to address them and that is what I believe that we will need to do as the bar association.

There are people who believe that the Nigerian Law School should be scrapped, that it has over stayed its usefulness. What do you think of this idea?

Now, we can aggregate your question. The first one is: is there utility value as far as the law school is concerned? That is a totally different issue.

Are, the facilities in the law school sufficient to achieve its aim?

Do we have good facilities; particularly in terms of the buildings and maybe lecturers.

Now those are two separate issues. In regards to the utility value or the need for a law school, I believe that there is a need for a law school.

I would add something else, which is incorporated into your question. You have talked about having pupilage programme because what you were describing is actually a pupilage programme.

The pupilage programme doesn’t take the place of the law school. Where pupilage programme is practiced, it is part of the pre-qualifying process.

In other words, you get attached to a law firm, do one year or six months or whatever period and get to understand the practical aspect of practice. I personally believe that kind of a programme would be very useful in more ways than one.

It would help very greatly in improving skills and standards and letting people understand exactly how law ought to be practised but then in having to do that, it would be necessary that we set up a regulatory aspect of it to ensure that the standards are maintained as far as that pupilage is concerned and that the law students do not simply go to firms where their records are marked even when they are not doing the practical aspects of law practice that they are supposed to be engaged in.

The regulatory aspect will make sure that it is not only long enough but that it is well supervised and secondly, it would also ensure that people go to the right firms.

In other words, the quality or the standard of the firms to which law students would be attached should be such that they would actually learn something.

That is my answer in regard to the utility value or the need for a law school.

The other issue, is more of a question about the financials, budget allocation etc. Shouldn’t we look at the determinants for the budgetary allocation of funds for the law school?

Why are we not having new buildings? Why are they not well funded and the facilities are inadequate etc.?

Those are matters that relate more to the budgetary allocation and that is also a different issue that needs to be looked at and we look at where the bottlenecks are.

Are there creative ways in which those things can be sorted out? Are there different other ways by which these things can be sorted out and we still achieve the same purpose?


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