Seniority in Nigeria Legal Profession is as old as the Nigerian Legal System itself. There are however some yardstick for the determination of such Seniority, in the context of the Nigerian legal Profession and practice. Lawyers in Nigeria are trained to have adequate respect and decorum for their Senior colleagues and this is one tradition that has been a curse and a blessing in one coin.
However, Seniority in this context is not about the age of the lawyer per se.
What are the criteria to determine Seniority in Nigeria Legal Profession?
The following criteria are looked upon to determine Seniority:
- The date and time a Lawyer is called to the Nigerian bar (known as Date/Year of Call).
- The Year a Lawyer is called to the Inner bar (as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria).
N.B: The Second supersedes the First criteria. Let’s explain this with an example; if Lawyer A is called to the Nigerian Bar before Lawyer B, Lawyer A is regarded as his senior in the profession but if Lawyer B is called to the inner bar before Lawyer A, then Lawyer B becomes his senior in the profession.
Let’s discuss the Concept of Seniority in Nigeria Legal Profession: the Implications, Interpretation and Misinterpretations
The Nigerian Bar, is one that thrives on the wings of seniority on the one hand and further sails through the waves of the SAN-SHIP on the other hand; this highly prestigious ship, one too costly for all, the highest aspiration of a lawyer is carefully adorned with several privileges; the golden difference of the robe, the diamond crested suffix clipped to their names; the honour of having cases called out of turn where slated for mention and motion (though grossly abused and extended beyond the intent of the draftsmen) and the majestic and enviable inner bar(the front row) to the exclusion of all others are some of the rights and privileges enjoyed by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.
On a lighter note, the aura conferred on the rank also eases the invisible tension that sometimes scares the bar when it approaches or comes in contact with the bench.
The ‘Inner Bar’ has stirred up a lot of interpretations that have raised the following questions in the mind of Legal practitioners. Some of such interpretations can comfortably be said to be based on law, morality, philosophy, etc.
The First issue for determination here is whether or not the front row of the bar in a Nigerian Court is permanently marked the inner bar even in the absence of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria to assume the privilege?
Secondly, having regard to the law that confers exclusive occupation of the inner Bar by Senior Advocates of Nigeria, how applicable is the equitable practice that allows the learned Silk invite other members of the bar to the inner bar?
THE INTENT OF THE DRAFTSMAN
Addressing the first issue, there is no gainsaying that it couldn’t have been the intention of the draftsmen for the front row to be reserved for the Senior Advocate even in his/her absence. For starters the setting of our Courts is not one designed with a section specially carved and named ‘the Inner Bar’ and its substitution, the front row, has not been designed to be used to the exclusion of all others in the absence of the Learned silk. Such line of thought cannot be sustainable in a system that is blessed with a battalion of Lawyers and inadequate facilities to match its numbers.
A Cursory look at Rule 1 of the Senior Advocates of Nigeria (privileges and functions) Rules CAP. 207 LFN 1990, provides that ” … all courts of law in Nigeria before which legal practitioners are entitled to appear shall accord to every Senior Advocate of Nigeria the following rights and privileges.
That is to say:
(a) the exclusive right to sit in the inner bar or where no facilities exist for an inner bar, on the front row of the seats available for legal practitioners;
(b) the right to mention any motion in which he is appearing or any other cause or matter which is on the list for mention and not otherwise listed for hearing out of its turn on the cause list.
The provisions of Rule 1(a) of the Senior Advocates of Nigeria (Privileges and Functions) Rules CAP. 207 LFN 1990 clears every doubt as to which of the options of exclusive right of seat is being enjoyed by Learned Silks presently in Nigeria, having consideration of the fact that we do not have the facilities of an inner bar, the law provides that the Learned Silk shall sit on the ‘…front row of the seats available for Legal Practitioners.’ This will pass for an improvised inner bar. What this in essence means is that it is the front row of the general seats meant for all Legal Practitioners in the Nigerian Courts that will be exclusively occupied by the Learned silk whenever he is in court which is a bit different from what would have been obtainable where an inner bar exists.
Where an inner bar exists, it is restricted and preserved for the Learned Silk even in his absence.
Having considered the provisions of Rule 1(a), it is wise to also take a look at the provisions of Rule1(b) of the Senior Advocates of Nigeria (Privileges and Functions) Rules CAP. 207 LFN 1990 and its applicability.
The said Rule 1(b) provides to the effect that a matter slated for either a MENTION or MOTION on the cause list are the only preconditions that activates the right of a SAN to mention his case out of turn.
The provision of this rule further stipulates expressly that this right shall not be exercised where the matter has been listed for hearing.
Not only has this provision been grossly abused by the ‘exceptionals’ of this noble profession, the right has also been assumed by aspiring SANs who have little or no regard for the rules or seem to forget the restricted group this right is conferred on.
These aspiring SANs not only call their cases out of turn but do it with so much pride in the belief that they are seniors. Its gross abuse does not just stem from the fact that they do not belong to the class of people conferred with the right but also the widening of the scope of the cases called out of turn to those slated for hearing on the cause list.
The nobility of this profession will be preserved when the exceptional seniors are submissive to as little as a Rule regulating its affairs and are not carried away by their desires to display as quickly as possible how old they are at the bar or their ability to call cases out of turn.
This is a call to nobility and humility… A call to the observance of law good enough to inspire and teach the ‘aspiring seniors’ that observance/upholding the law is one of such duties that has earned the Legal Profession its nobility.
Observance of the law should not be one that is selective as to which to be obeyed.
Until the contrary is enacted, Only SANs (Senior Advocates of Nigeria) should call ‘some cases’ out of turn. SANs should humble themselves and call out of turn only cases slated for mention or motion.
Let’s teach those in the gallery how the word NOBLE was earned.
FINALLY, having regard to the law that confers exclusive occupation of the inner bar or better still the ‘front row of the seats available for Legal Practitioners’ on SANs, how applicable is the equitable practice that allows the learned SAN invite other members of the bar to the inner bar?
It is desirable and admirable for a SAN to invite other members of the bar to sit with him at the inner bar when the court is filled to the brim with no seats available.
This will go a long way to show the spirit of fellowship that exist amongst us which has been largely encouraged even by our Rules of Professional Conduct.
Of what delight is it for a SAN to look back on one of such times he gracefully turns to take a look at where he once was and faces the judge thankful for where he now is, and catches a glimpse of dignified and neatly dressed ‘ASPIRING SANs’ standing just by their clients, yet the front row on both sides (that would probably take an average of 8 people) is vacant. Where the front row of the bar is completely vacated to the exclusion of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, the sensitivity of our ‘EXCEPTIONALS’ should encourage the honourable act of inviting the ‘aspiring’, to the occupation of at least some of the seats unoccupied, not necessarily all the seats in the front row.
In further plea, it is worthy of note that the grace exuded by a SAN is not tainted by its direction of equity rather it displays and gives the EXCEPTIONALS a face of humanity and grace, admired by the bar and appreciated by the gallery.
This is not a call to taint the highly exceptional and deserving rank of a SAN but to plead for a more sensitive application of its rights and privileges.
God bless the bar … And of course the bench too.
Article by: IyanuOluwa Esther Oyatoye Esq.
Counsel in chambers of Bank-Afomolafe & co.