‘Innovative measures can make uniform salaries for lawyers a reality’
Mr. Godwin Omoaka, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and partner in Templars, in this interview with YETUNDE AYOBAMI OJO speaks on how the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) can achieve uniform salary scale for lawyers. He also addressed the proposed constitutional amendment to conclude non-political matters within 300 days, among others.
How achievable is the proposed constitutional proposal of finishing a case within 300 days?
It is trite in law to say, justice delayed is justice denied. The case of Ariori v Elemo took 23 years for the judiciary to adjudicate on it. By the time a final decision of the court was made, numerous witnesses had passed away. There are numerous factors that cause actions in court to span numerous years, including delay tactics, frivolous appeals, acts of God, general societal instability and others. It is therefore necessary to regulate the length of time during which a case must be decided.
However, strictly speaking, it may not be practicable to mandate that each case be concluded within 300 days. It is equally trite in law to say that “justice unduly hastened can be justice derailed.” Just for the sake of dispensing with matters promptly, the court cannot neglect its duty of ensuring that it gives fair hearing to all sides. For example, the court is required to hear all applications or objections before it, whether frivolous or not to give credence to the principle of fair hearing.
Additionally, acts of God, wars and unstable political situations can also affect the length of litigation. For example, in October 2020, the aftermath of the #EndSARS protests led to the destruction of judicial property by hoodlums. The loss of court files and destruction of court assets resulted in unplanned adjournments. Solutions to such issues include adopting innovative strategies such as virtual court proceedings, revising court rules, limiting time within which an application for extension of time can be brought, to speed up litigation.
While I appreciate the reasons for the intended 300 days limit for adjudicating matters, it will considerably overburden an already heavily burdened court system and may ultimately adversely impact on the quality of justice being dispensed.
As such, my preference is for us to undertake a holistic reform of our justice delivery system as opposed to a focused constitutional amendment that will result in cases being decided within 300 days, while other aspects of our justice delivery system remain unimproved.
We should also not forget that other countries are dispensing justice speedily without a time bound imposition on the courts by law. How have they achieved that? I will say by having a functional and efficient justice delivery system. Let’s learn from them.
NBA is trying to fix salary scale for lawyers in employment, just like doctors. Do you think it is doable?
The legal profession is extremely demanding, requiring six years of diligent study and continuous studying even after qualification as a lawyer. The work affects the lives of people and demands integrity and diligence.
It is indeed laudable that the NBA has proposed to fix a salary scale for lawyers in employment. I believe this is necessary, because most young lawyers are grossly underpaid by their employers. Nevertheless, innovative measures must be put in place to make this a reality. Lawyers can be guaranteed a certain amount of money depending on their year of call, the size of the firm, the yearly income of the firm, among few considerations before a salary scale can be fixed.
What is your perspective on the call for SANs to be appointed to the Supreme Court bench?
Section 231 of the 1999 Constitution sets the requirements. One of such is that a person shall not be qualified to hold the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria or Justice of the Supreme Court, unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner and has been so qualified for a period of not less than 15 years. It is important to note that by this provision, a lawyer needs not be a judge in a lower court or a magistrate or a SAN to become a Supreme Court justice.
A lawyer privileged to be made a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), must be highly qualified and must have distinguished himself in academia or in litigation practice. However, such a lawyer may not necessarily have his sight set on the judiciary.
With this in mind, I do not think that it is the prerogative of SANs or Justices of the Court of Appeal to be appointed to the Supreme Court. My view is that a potential appointee must fulfill the conditions for qualifications under section 231 of the Nigerian Constitution.
We must broaden the base of appointment of judicial officers to our superior courts from the legal practitioners generally. We should be looking at our best legal minds going to the Supreme Court. In the past, direct appointments have been made to the Supreme Court. Two examples readily come to mind. They are the late Honourable Justice Teslim Olawale Elias, who was appointed from the academia and the late Honourable Justice Augustine Nnamani, who was appointed from the Bar. I think he was the Attorney General of the Federation at the time of his appointment to the Supreme Court. We should be reforming our appointment process to replicate what we had done in the past. It is sad to say appointments into judicial offices generally are not on merit but on balancing quotas and other irrelevant considerations. Little wonder, we are presently experiencing the unpleasant consequences of a skewed appointment process.
As a senior member of the bar, what are the roles of NBA and other relevant bodies in restoring the ethics of legal profession?
The NBA, the Counsel of Legal Education (CLE), the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC), the Body of Benchers (BOB) are amongst the bodies required to maintain the dignity of the legal profession.
NBA can do this by organising seminars on maintaining the dignity in the legal profession. Young members of the bar must be educated on the need to practice law with due regards to legal ethics.
The LPDC must ensure that legal practitioners found wanting or engaged in unethical conducts, are duly punished to set an example of what is required of a practising lawyer.
The CLE must ensure that aspirants to the Nigerian Bar are duly educated on the importance of abiding by legal ethics. Progress is already being made in this regard as legal ethics is taught as a compulsory module in the Nigerian Law School. As senior lawyers, we also have a responsibility to lead by example. Unfortunately, that appears not to be the case at the moment.
What will you suggest to the 9th Assembly to work on before the expiration of its tenure?
As the world becomes more and more technology dependent, our laws and regulations need to adapt to the changing times. There is paucity of regulations in the Information and Communication Technology sector in Nigeria. Apart from the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) Act and the Nigerian Data Protection Regulations (NDPR), few laws cater for the growing advancements in technology.
Notwithstanding the current stance of the Nigerian government, Cryptocurrency, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and other aspects of financial technology are fast becoming the order of the day. For our legislature to meet the changing needs of the people, they must educate themselves and enact laws that cover these emerging issues.