The bench and conduct of senior lawyers
In the administration of justice, the role of the advocate is to help the court to take a right decision in a dispute. While performing this job, an advocate is duty bound to show due respect to the court and never act in any manner to undermine the confidence in the judiciary. He shall not speak ill of judges or use abusive remarks about them.
Judges and lawyers deal with variety of important matters affecting life and liberty of the people daily; so constant clash between them is common. Anxiety for a favourable verdict on the part of the lawyers and perpetual worry for the pursuit of the truth on the part of the judges generate strain and tension. Sometimes this degenerates into the use of strong terms by either party while addressing the court.
Lawyers strive to win their cases by persuading judges that their argument backed with facts is better than opposing counsels and deserves merit. Understanding rhetoric, the art of persuasion gives lawyers the opportunity they need to communicate effectively with judges and win cases. Rhetoric is however not taught in law schools. Lawyers who have mastered this act rarely fall out with judges during trials.
What is considered to be a perfectly unethical behavior of counsels is really rampant in our court these days. During trials, lawyers no longer display a dignified and respectful attitude towards the presiding judge. There have been instances where lawyers accuse judges of bias. This should not be the case especially for the sake of respect for and confidence in the judicial office.
Judges strive to achieve both balance and fairness in their rulings and courtrooms. When judicial discretion appears to be handed down or enforced in random or capricious ways, then bias is present. Sometimes bias is unavoidable, because judges are human. They have certain preferences, and lawyers do not always know how to get familiar with judges’ style and previous rulings.
This opinion piece is triggered by the incident at the Federal High Court in Lagos on the 5th of May, 2016, when senior members of the bar accused Ecobank’s lawyer, who is a senior advocate of Nigeria of disrespecting the bench in the matter between Honeywell Group and Ecobank. There was drama at the court when the SAN made a huge scene by accusing the judge, Justice Dagat of nodding his head while listening to the oral argument of counsel to Honeywell, Bode Olanipekun. According to him, the fact that Justice Dagat nodded his head showed that he was biased. This angered other senior members of the bar in the courtroom. Two senior lawyers, Wahab Shittu and Dr. George Olushola Ogunyomi, stood up to address the court and both of them expressed displeasure at lawyers attempt to ridicule the bench.
The senior lawyers insisted that his conduct undermined the court as it was disrespectful to the bench and totally unethical, as junior lawyers and students from the law school were in court to witness the embarrassing scene. Both senior lawyers apologized on behalf of the bar and advised learned silk to apologise to Justice Dagat. But he failed to apologise. Lawyers threatened to stage a walkout unless he did so. The situation was however brought under control eventually.
The SAN had on that day sought to move a motion on the petition against Honeywell Group by bringing other processes in support of the motion. This move was opposed by lawyers to Honeywell and the court thereafter struck out Ecobank’s application to include additional documents. Honeywell had succeeded in persuading both the court of Appeal and Justice Dagat to vacate the ex parte orders earlier granted by Justice Mohammed Yunusa in favour of Ecobank.
The incident referred above reinforces the fact that our lawyers should be reminded that the legal profession and the judiciary deserve full respect as the ‘pure fountain of justice. In order to maintain this respect, lawyers have to follow certain ethical regulations and etiquettes. The etiquette requires that an advocate should conduct himself orderly as an officer of the court, a privileged member of the community and a gentleman in and outside the courtroom. Members of the legal profession must observe this etiquette strictly.
In dealing with opposing counsel, judges, court personnel and other participants in the legal process, a lawyer should strive to make our system of justice work fairly and efficiently. He/she should avoid conduct that undermines the judicial system or the public’s confidence in the judiciary. Display of decorum and respect for the bench by senior lawyers will set good example for younger lawyers and help sustain public confidence in the judiciary as a bastion of justice.
Olanrewaju is a Lagos based legal practitioner