When the ceremony for conferment of the coveted rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) holds on November 27, 2023, at least three SAN designates who failed to meet the 90 percent pass mark set by the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) would be garbed with the silk robe, CITY LAWYER can authoritatively report.
Unimpeachable sources who are familiar with the screening process told CITY LAWYER that not only did the LPPC lower its cumulative 90 percent benchmark to award the prestigious rank to the three applicants, it may have taken on board the suggestion by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) that all the 57 advocates who went in for the final oral interview should be appointed.
This is coming against the backdrop of strident and prolonged efforts especially by the influential Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN) to restore meritocracy and prestige to the SAN awards. The clamour led to reforms which culminated in the “2022 Guidelines for the Conferment of the Rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria and for Related Matters.”
It is recalled that the LPPC under the chairmanship of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, had at its 159th plenary session held in Abuja appointed 57 advocates and one academic as Senior Advocates of Nigeria.
A high-ranking source, who participated actively in the screening of the applicants by the NBA General Purpose Committee (GPC) prior to the LPPC final oral interview, told CITY LAWYER that the association strongly canvassed in its report to LPPC that all 57 advocates who scaled the second filtration should be awarded the rank.
Confirming this position, another unimpeachable source told CITY LAWYER that the NBA urged that all applicants who scaled the chambers inspection should be given the award irrespective of their performance at the final oral interview.
It was unclear at press time whether NBA’s recommendation swayed the LPPC to lower its benchmark for the below-par SAN designates, even as CITY LAWYER gathered that at least one of the SAN designates may have scored as low as about 80 percent, 10 percentage points off the cumulative 90 percent pass mark.
CITY LAWYER recalls that BOSAN had written to then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad via a letter dated September 21, 2021, and signed by Prof. Ben Nwabueze (SAN), Chief Folake Solanke (SAN), and Mr. Seyi Sowemimo (SAN), expressing its concerns on the declining standards in the SAN awards process. This quest contributed to the issuance of the 2022 SAN Guidelines aimed to reform the awards. The 2023 SAN awards exercise is the first test of the implementation of the 2022 Guidelines.
The 2022 Guidelines provides in Article 1 that “The award of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) is a privilege conferred as a mark of excellence on members of the legal profession ….”
Setting out the “principles” for the award of the rank which place premium on merit, the Guidelines state in Article 2(b) that “applications will be considered with merit as the primary consideration and without regard to ethnic origin, pedigree, physical disability, marital status, age, religious belief, political views or affiliations.”
Article 24 of the Guidelines deals with “Interview of Shortlisted Candidates,” while Article 24(4) sets out 9 items and their corresponding attainable scores, totaling 100 percent. These include comportment, integrity, quality of presentation, general knowledge of law, and contribution to development of law.
The top-ranking NBA-GPC official told CITY LAWYER that the NBA screening exercise “was very successful. All the candidates distinguished themselves and were all recommended. We had recommended the candidates, having scored them highly. The prerogative of award usually lies with the LPPC. We wish them luck at the interview of the LPPC.”
Speaking after the LPPC announced its final shortlist, the source said: “We were glad the LPPC accepted our recommendations and all the applicants in the advocates category were awarded the rank. We thank God for his mercies.”
When CITY LAWYER contacted Hajo Bello, the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court and Secretary of the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee via a text message, she responded tersely: “I am not privileged to be answering your questions. You may write officially.” Though CITY LAWYER requested an email address to send in an enquiry, the LPPC Secretary had not responded at press time.
Also, efforts to access the LPPC through its official website (https://lppc.gov.ng/) proved abortive as the website is inactive. The website through which the Committee received applications for the awards (https://lppconline.com/) also has no information on its advertised “Contact” link.
It is recalled that controversies have trailed award of the SAN rank over the years, leading BOSAN to canvass that the awards should be paused to allow for reforms. This led to the 2022 Guidelines which sought to tighten the award process and make it more credible and devoid of controversies.
Meanwhile, applicants from the South West Zone dominate this year’s award list, taking the lion’s share of 19 slots. While South East took the second position with 12 slots, it is closely followed by North Central with 10 slots and South South with 8 slots. North West had three slots on the awards list while North East brought the rear with only two SAN designates.
The BOSAN letter to then Chief Justice of Nigeria, who statutorily doubles as Chairman of the influential LPPC, was titled “RE: LEGAL PRACTITIONERS PRIVILEGES COMMITTEE’S LISTING OF 130 LAWYERS AS SHORTLISTED IN THE PROCESS FOR CONFERMENT WITH THE RANK OF SENIOR ADVOCATE OF NIGERIA FOR THE YEAR 2021: REITERATION OF THE BODY OF SENIOR ADVOCATES OF NIGERIA’S (BOSAN) STRONG NOTE OF CONCERN ON THE QUALITY OF THE PROCESS AND PROCEDURE FOR THE CONFERMENT OF THE RANK.” Mr. Abubakar Malami, then Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, was copied on the letter.
The letter reads: “It is not willy-nilly that all candidates that meet the set criteria should be appointed in any given year, as such an approach cannot but result in the degradation of the rank. It is those that prove to be outstanding within the shortlist that should be conferred with the rank. This is the time-honoured rule applied in relation to admissions to all reputable institutions in situations where competition is high and spaces are limited and where it would be inappropriate to accommodate all those persons who appear to have met the criteria.
“There is even a greater need for more stringent approach in cases where appointments are to be made on the basis of academic accomplishments.”
According to BOSAN, “It has now become necessary that we reiterate, respectfully, the concerns raised in the body’s earlier letter. The members of the Inner bar are concerned that the current procedure and criteria for the conferment of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria would result in a watered-down perception of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. We are also of the considered opinion that it is imperative that the Committee pauses and reassesses the procedure and criteria for the conferment of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria as we fear that that (sic) the process could be reduced to a ‘mere compilation and submission of the listed documentation’ in the next few years, with no attention to excellence or distinction in the practice of law.
“In light of this, we write to reiterate our earlier recommendation that the conferment of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria be put on hold to enable the Committee to conduct and publish a credible and comprehensive review of the process for the conferment of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria.”
Pledging its support of the review process “in any way possible” and as a “dominant stakeholder” in the entire exercise, the body advised that the review process “should re-evaluate the criteria, guidelines and administrative processes leading to the selection, including the personnel at the SAN/LPPC Administrative Secretariat/Department, proper pre-screening of applicants, competitive processes and independent assessment free of lobbying, all geared towards attaining and sustaining continuous improvements and retaining the dignity, respect and reverence of the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria and the legal profession in general.”
It noted the urgency of its Save-Our-Soul letter, adding: “We would like to point out that a comprehensive review of the screening process is an urgent and necessary step to retain the dignity, respect, and reverence of the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria and the legal profession in general. The Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria is still committed to providing its expertise and support at every stage of the review process and we are anticipating positive feedback and implementation of the recommendations in this letter.”
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