Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has lamented that the malfeasance of Senior lawyers in the country is a threat to the integrity and credibility of the legal profession, and by extension, the legal system the country.
He spoke at the Body of Senior Advocates in Nigeria (SAN) maiden Dinner in Lagos over the weekend.
According to him, the “integrity, its credibility and relevance (of the legal profession) 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”.
Osinbajo further noted, that “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”.
The Vice President, who recalled that he became a SAN in 2002, states that, “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”.
He called on the elite and the senior lawyers 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”, he said.
He continued, that “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”.
According to him, “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”, the Vice President stated.
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