NBA lacks internal mechanism for resolving disputes – Essien


Miannaya Aja Essien, the 7th Nigerian woman to attain the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) was recently elected as Chairman, NBA Section on Legal Practice (SLP) at the NBA Annual General Conference in Owerri. But like MKO Abiola’s election under Babangida, her election was annulled by

Austin Alegeh, the NBA President alleging ‘undemocratic electoral processes.’ Although a Federal High Court sitting in Oweeri last week ruled that status quo be maintained on the issue pending the determination of the suit before it, Essien believes Alegeh was wrong in dissolving SLP executives and appointing an ‘Interim Chairman’ in her stead. A partner with Principles Law Partnership law firm, Essien, who was called to the bar in 1985 and became a Senior Advocate in 2007, spoke with LAW EDITOR, Adam Adedimeji on why her Council members are in court over their elections’ annulment. She also speaks on the issue of mass failure in the recent Nigerian Law School’s Bar final exams. Excerpts:

Your election as Chairman, NBA Section on Legal Practice at the NBA Annual General Conference in Owerri recently was upturned by the NBA President alleging that electoral process was undemocratic. What really happened?

The NBA SLP is made up of lawyers who hold tenaciously to all due and democratic processes. All I can say is that all processes and procedure relating to the elections were strictly followed and adhered to. As a senior member of the Bar it will be inappropriate for me to say more as I am aware that the issues have been placed before the Federal High Court in Owerri to determine.

Why should some members of the Council have to rush to court to sue the president when in a professional body like the NBA which should have its internal mechanisms for resolving such minor disputes. Should this be encouraged?

I don’t agree that some members of the Council rushed to court. I know that there were efforts to resolve the issues with the president. Let us not forget that disputes are a fact of life without which lawyers would not have work! It may be considered unusual that they went to court but that depends on your perspective. As lawyers if issues arise and efforts by senior members of the Bar to resolve them don’t succeed any aggrieved person has a right guaranteed by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to seek redress in a court of law instead of justifying one’s actions with different (and changing) reasons in the pages of the newspapers. To the best of my knowledge there is no laid out internal mechanism the NBA has for resolving such disputes maybe with this the Bar may wish to consider setting up such a mechanism.

The High Court in Owerri in which one of the suits was filed held that status quo be maintained. What in your view on the status quo? Is it as it were as at August, or as it were as at October?

Yes I heard an interim injunction was granted ordering parties to maintain status quo.   Although I am not a party to the suit it is obvious that as at August some people were elected and were in office in SLP before the purported appointment of a so-called “Interim Chairman”, a position unknown and alien to the NBA Constitution and the SLP Bye-laws. It is said, you cannot resort to an abnormality to create a status quo. Therefore the status quo in my view and based on the law is that those persons who occupied those positions in August are properly there pending the resolution of the motion on notice and the dispute in court.

The purported dissolution of the SLP executives and the appointment of an “Interim Chairman” are to me miscalculated actions by Alegeh.

What further efforts have you and other members of the section put in place to resolve this issue?

We were all jolted by the president’s inaugural speech. For those in SLP it has always been about selfless service, trying to develop the law for the benefit of the society at large, NBA and younger lawyers in particular who may not have the opportunity to handle the type of cases a lot of SLP members handle.  So for the president to have made such a pronouncement without hearing the other side (which he could not have done as he had just that morning become president) dissatisfied members of the SLP and the NBA reached out to the president but it would appear that was unsuccessful as can be seen in his interview in the papers of October 29, 2014 justifying his actions. Although his reasons keep changing from interview to interview, I do not believe he is unaware of the disaffection his action has caused.

Judiciary in Rivers State is in limbo, no thanks to the deepening face-off between Governor Amaechi and the NJC. What is the way forward and what challenge would this pose to the judiciary especially as the 2015 elections itch closer?

The courts should be opened so that the litigants will have access to justice. The manner in which it is achieved is immaterial. What is important is the interest of the society. I can tell you that the consequences so far have been devastating. Litigants, lawyers and the society at large have been badly affected. You can imagine what those detained for bailable offences or awaiting trial have been going through.

This is quite a conundrum. Without the courts issues arising from pre and post primaries will suffer. There will be nowhere to resolve disputes and let us not forget that these cases are quite time sensitive. This will also apply to main elections although the Federal High Court can handle some aspects of election matters.

Many have said that there is a decline in judiciary compared to the days of Oputa, Kayoed Eso, Idigb eetc, do you share this view?

No. Times have changed and the law has been developing tremendously as well as the personnel that man the judiciary. We have many judges and justices of this generation who have equally proved their mettle. Yes Justice Oputa, Justice Kayode Eso and Justice Idigbe made their marks and their judgments were always brilliant. However presently we have many who are just as good. Also remember that the drive towards an expeditious and efficient judiciary has been put in place by our various Rules of Court and Practice directions to enhance justice delivery. These Rules and practice directions are dynamic and have met challenges faced by litigants and lawyers in the conduct of their matters especially those that are time sensitive.

Also, many have canvassed special constitutional courts for corruption cases, do you think there is need for this especially when every court can deal with constitutional aspects of cases before it?

I do not think so. The solution does not lie in establishing special constitutional courts but rather to empower existing judges by making their conditions of service more comfortable and by appointing more judges so that they can deal with the volume of work. I must add that when appointing judges emphasis should be on a transparent appointment process that emphasises merit rather than quota (in any guise).

2015 is at hand, what roles do you expect of the NBA in a pre-election year and the forthcoming general elections?

NBA has always monitored elections and spoken its mind on crucial issues relating to pre and post elections. With what has happened in some states where elections have been held, I expect the NBA to be more vocal.

Mass failure recorded in this year’s Bar examination is a confirmation that the standard of legal education is on the decline, how can this be improved?

The mass failure cannot be attributed to the law school programme that runs for about one year. The problem is more fundamental and has to do with the quality of law graduates being churned out from the numerous law faculties. If the foundation is poor there is no magic the Law School can perform. You have undergraduates who probably should not have gotten into study law in the first place but somehow managed to get in maybe with the post JAMB assessment stage or otherwise. You also have some law faculties that are not accredited or lost their accreditation due to the quality of their faculty. I have interviewed lawyers who cannot speak proper English or cannot comprehend basic instructions. How do you expect them to pass?

The Director-General of the NLS, Mr. OlanrewajuOnadeko (who was our lecturer in 1984/85) has raised the standard and the inherent deficiencies in the quality of the university education came to the fore. I also read in the dailies that the failure rate was more pronounced amongst those who were re-sitting the exams. From the news reports the Secretary is said to have stated that over half of the students who were taking the exam for the first time (57.01%) passed while the failure rate was high among the re-sit candidates with about 1168 out of 1335 students who registered failing the examinations while 88 students recorded ordinary pass. Also, 26 of the re-sit students recorded conditional pass. Those are details most people don’t have.

I think the Law School is on the way to raising those standards the average lawyer complains has fallen.  Thus all the clamours for probes etc. cannot be justified once an analysis for the failure as stated by the Law school is considered. The quality of the law faculties and the programmes they run should be looked into.

Insecurity of lives is one of the greatest challenges facing the country especially with the latest attack on Adamawa state by the dreaded Boko Haram, how do you think this can be tackled within the internationally accepted best practice?

The defence budget has always been quite significant and is always one of the largest. The Nigerian Army has the personnel. The major role of the military and other law enforcement agencies is to secure the lives and property of the citizens. As far as I am concerned Boko Haram has declared war against Nigeria and this is how it ought to have been considered from the onset. With the latest attack on Mubi the Army needs to assert itself and tackle the insurgency. They should convince us that the accolades they win when they are on international assignments are well deserved.

The last appointment of Senior Advocates of Nigeria had no female lawyer on the list. What does this say about the status of women in the profession?

To start with all applicants whether male or female are subject to the same assessment criteria by the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee. This year, only one lady applied out of the initial 169 applicants. I further understand that she did not scale through one of the filtration stages.

So the problem is not with the status of women in the profession rather more ladies need to apply to increase the odds. I must confess though that it takes a lot of hard work and determination. There are no short cuts.

The CJN will retire on November 20, what are your expectations for the incoming CJN?

We expect His Lordship to build on the immense achievements of the outgoing one especially on the issue of corruption. And we know we can expect a more active and robust judiciary which will further enhance justice delivery.

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