How SANship criteria sieves out senior lawyers
Many senior lawyers fail to make the criteria for appointment into the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) due to several factors, findings have shown.
Many lawyers are sieved out through the evaluation scrutiny by the various subcommittees, interviews sessions, recommendation letters of judges, and the professional competence required to attain the SAN, which is an equivalent of the Queens Counsel (QC) in the United Kingdom.
Ranked lawyers enjoy certain privileges like sitting in the front row in court and to have their cases called first. Besides, it has been claimed that the rank attracts the confidence of both political and corporate clientele with more lucrative briefs.
It is not as easy as it seemed when F.R.A. Williams and Dr Nabo Graham Douglas wore the garb as the only two selected as SANs on April 3, 1975. There was the unequalled feat of Lateef Fagbemi, who attained the rank at exactly 10 years on the Bar in 1996. Fiery Lagos lawyer, late Gani Fawehnmi made the rank after several attempts, as he was eventually listed by popular demand.
For many observers of the legal profession, it was a huge relief when the name of human rights and anticorruption lawyer, Festus Keyamo, and before him Mike Ozekhome and Femi Falana finally appeared on the 2009 and 2012 lists of SANs after several attempts.
The expectation was that having spent over two decades in the defence of the rights of the downtrodden, the lawyers would be easily bestowed with the prestigious rank. But after applying for the position on several occasions without success, the popular sentiment was that the rank is deliberately made difficult for some lawyers to attain. Some analysts point to a deliberate scapegoating of the more vocal and activist lawyers by denying them the much coveted rank.
This perception is deepened by the fact that many more senior lawyers have had to sweat through their brows to get conferred with the SAN rank. For instance, late Dr Olu Onagoruwa did not make the SAN rank despite becoming the Attorney General of the Federation in 1996 under the General Sani Abacha regime. The tradition has been that a person so appointed automatically makes the next batch.
The Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) chaired by the Chief Justice of Nigeria has the mandate to implement the provisions of the Legal Practitioners’ Act. The 2016 Federal Government Official Gazette for appointment of SANs listed the criteria for becoming SAN.
Section 16 (2) of the Act stipulates integrity- 20 percent; opinion of judges and the strength of references received by candidates-20 percent; general knowledge of law-25 percent; contribution to the development of law-10 percent; leadership qualities in the profession-10 percent; and qualities of law office/ library-15 percent.
Sub-section 2 further provides that: “Each member of the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee shall receive copies of application forms, copies of references, and a list of particulars of reported cases or copies of unreported judgments and reports of chambers inspection in respect of all candidates at least one week before the final selection interview date.”
Section 17 of the Act provides varied criteria for the candidates to be assessed on. The candidate must have been called to Bar for at least 10 years, consultation may be held with the chief judge of the high court where the candidate practices and the local branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). The candidate must be of good character and must have successfully concluded a number of cases, and must present income tax for a period of three years.
According to the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, Uwani Mustapha, the 2017 list of SANs, which successful candidates will be inaugurated in September, a total of 156 candidates applied, out of which 153 submitted the requirements. Of this 72 candidates were shortlisted for oral interview out of which 32 succeeded. Among the list are four lawyers from the academia and four women.
A newly elevated SAN, who would not want to be named, attributed the rejection of some lawyers to their attitude to the profession. Citing section 18 (2) of the Act, he said some lawyers exhibit unacceptable behaviours like mismanagement of clients’ funds, self-seeking, praise or advertisement, while neglecting to develop their knowledge of the law.
“Many of them were not qualified based on the criteria. They have not made the required score for chambers inspection, knowledge of law, opinion of other judges and lawyers and the quality of cases you have handled. The process is based on objective criteria, not sentiments,” he said.
But an Abuja-based lawyer, who pleaded not to be named, criticized the process for SAN award, and called for its liberalization or scrapping.
“I must say I am not quite satisfied with the criteria for the award of that honour. To me the criteria are oppressive, it is a common fact that states that have many qualified people would, candidate would resort lobbying. I would have expected that there should be a qualifying examination like that of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN),” he said.
Legal luminary, Afe Babalola (SAN) submitted “all persons who merit the rank in any given year should be conferred with it. The sole test, as is now the position in England should be excellence in advocacy. This way there will be no backlog of applicants.”
For his part, Chukwu Machukwu-Ume (SAN) said it is not possible for many lawyers who have applied for SAN in a year to all make the list.