Vice President Yemi Osinbajo SAN at the weekend reminded Nigerian lawyers and judges that they are not the owners but operators of the Nigerian Justice System, entrusted to them by the Nigerian people, and therefore duty bound to fix the rot in the system.
“Our system of justice is a public resource, it does not belong to the legal profession, it does not belong to the bar or to the bench. It belongs to the people. We are paid operators of a service that our constitution created to resolve their disputes and give justice. We are custodians, not owners. When this public resource is not working effectively on account of delays, or it is being discredited by corruption, we the operators have a moral, legal and civic obligation to fix it”, he said.
Osinbajo’s views that he delivered at the dinner of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN) in Lagos was in tandem with the way he operated the Lagos State Ministry of Justice from 1999-2007 as Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice. For the first time in the history of Nigeria, Osinbajo as number one government lawyer in the state changed the orientation of lawyers in public service who see themselves only as government lawyers. He made them understand that they are also lawyers to the people, and are bound to defend the interest of the people.
To achieve this, he created the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) and Citizens Mediation Center(CMC) both of which are full-fledged directorates in the Ministry today. OPD defends the legal interests of citizens that cannot afford lawyers fees, while CMC mediates in the affairs of citizens, particularly landlord tenant issues, who cannot afford the cost of legal proceedings. These two instruments became to popular with the people to the extent that today, virtually all states across the Federation, and even the Federal government have adopted the same model.
It was therefore not a surprise that Osinbajo again brought the same believe and message to his fellow senior advocates who as custodians of justice and fairness in society, their role goes beyond the development of an effective and efficient justice sector, it must also be at the forefront of championing reforms and deepening discourse that will continually uphold its excellence and prestige, and the rule of law.P
Referencing a quote from the Bible, Prof. Osinbajo added that “we must not become defensive or thin-skinned. If we do not fix it, we would have failed in our most important task; we would have failed to speak up for the voiceless and vulnerable.
Every one of us seated here today knows that there is a lot wrong with our system of justice today, history beckons us to fix it.”
Speaking further on the need for the legal profession to continually uplift its prominence and prestige, the Vice President noted that “some of the reputational damage suffered in recent times by our profession and our system of justice is one that could have been avoided with rigorous and sustained introspection on our part.”
The VP observed that one of the ways to improve the standard of legal practice in the country was to enhance the quality of legal education, including adopting a hybrid approach, so as to prepare the next generation of legal minds for the future.
For instance, Prof. Osinbajo noted that “there is no country with the number of law graduates we have yearly that provides in-person lectures and accommodation for those taking bar examinations.”
He continued: “generally speaking, professional examinations do not provide residential training. This is why I think the suggestion by some that we scrap residential training and enable law graduates to register online for bar exams, be provided online resources for training, mock trials, appearances in court, how to make applications in court, can be put on video and this will even enable the student play it over and over for mastery.”
While he noted the efforts of the Nigerian Bar Association in “conscientiously advocating and supporting continuous legal education for legal practitioners”, Prof. Osinbajo opined that there was a need to do more, especially using the BOSAN platform.
“When it comes to legal education, BOSAN stands in better stead in terms of knowledge of what is required in legal education,” the VP stated, adding that “we, in our various ways, have developed schemes through which we offer community service be it in the form of pro bono legal service to indigent litigants or undertaking of projects for the benefits of our surrounding communities.”
The Vice President further said that “a partnership of BOSAN, the Council for Legal Education and some faculties of law on a pilot basis for the provision of additional instructional support will not only be useful to the students of those universities, but also to some of the law teachers who may require mentorship.”
He recalled how Honourable Justice Amina Augie, JSC, CON, while serving on the Bench in Sokoto State accepted pro bono to serve as an associate lecturer at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto.
“Imagine students’ excitement and enthusiasm, and most importantly the expertise and experience that instruction by members of our body will bring to the classrooms. Only a few of our undergraduate students benefit from the tutelage of those of us, who are traditionally within the academia,” the VP noted.
Prof. Osinbajo also urged BOSAN to ensure continuous discipline among its members, noting that “the strength of character and integrity of our body could, to a large extent, be called into question by the transgressions of a few.
“We, as a body, are in better stead to internally ensure that our members abide by the highest standard of probity. I think it is time to commit to calling out those whose actions demean the rank of senior advocate and ensure that they are brought before the appropriate disciplinary body,” he added.
The Vice President also commended the leadership of BOSAN for sustaining this initiative and instituting the scholarship scheme to reward excellence for students in law faculties.
He congratulated the newly preferred Senior Advocates for the attainment of the prestigious rank, including Prof. (Chief) Ajagbe Toriola Oyewo, whom the VP praised for his resilience and persistent determination in the pursuit of excellence that had him donning the silk at the age of 91.
“The nonagenarian’s story of hard work and perseverance is one that would be told for generations to come. And that is as it should be. The incredible power of hope and the unfailing laws of sowing and reaping have been so decisively proved yet again,” the VP said.
Former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, GCFR (retd.) delivered the keynote lecture at the event.
Other speeches included those of Chief Justice of Nigeria, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, who was represented by Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, and Chief Mrs Folake Solanke, SAN, the first female Senior Advocate in the country.
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