Lawyers and national development
TO the credit of Nigerian lawyers, the Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) is one gathering that will not pass for an annual ritual or gathering of professional colleagues who hardly add value to the different aspects of national growth. Each generation of leaders of the association has worked hard to improve on what was done by the previous leadership in trying to make the body and its members relevant in the on-going search for good governance in Nigeria. The theme for this year’s conference, Lawyers and National development, is most appropriate and could not have come at a better time going by the political philosophy of the current administration and the mood of the nation.
As all roads lead to Abuja for the 55th Annual Bar Conference, it will be a good time to remind ourselves that our role as lawyers in the overall development of our nation cannot be overemphasised and for those who would prefer the narrow option of just being legalistic, it will also be a good time to remind one and all that the legal system is a creation of the political system.
There cannot be national development without lawyers in so far as the true administration of justice remains the firmest pillar of good government. The royalty and political establishment in England realised this sacred fact eight hundred years ago when they enacted the magna carta. Among the most outstanding declaration of the magna carta was the statement: “To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.”
These simple words from centuries ago endured and remain relevant today because of the true meaning and professional expression lawyers have continued to give to it.
Through the efforts of Nigerian lawyers, Magna Carta gave birth to our concept of fundamental liberty and justice as enshrined in the Fundamental Human Rights provisions in Chapter 4 of our constitution, just like American lawyers used it as a platform to enact the Bill of Rights some three centuries ago. The provisions of Chapter 4 of our constitution developed the principles in magna carta, assuring our citizens a fair trial by the court, due process, and protections from cruel and unusual punishment. Magna Carta marked the beginning of the idea of a higher law, one that is not susceptible to manipulation either by legislative acts or executive mandate, one that no man or woman, no matter how powerful, can rise above. It is this very idea of guaranteed freedom and fairness, recognised and embraced by our founding fathers, that is at the heart of the supremacy clause (Section 1, subsection 3) of the Nigerian constitution and the global contemporary concept of the Rule of Law.
Against the background of this historic role and responsibility imposed on us as ministers in the temple of justice, let us go to Abuja2015 resolved to further preach to our expectant country men and women desirous of change that beyond being recognised in our constitution, the concept (of magna carta) must be generally accepted, cultivated and ultimately ingrained in our Government and the hearts of the Nigerian people.
To continue to be relevant, Nigerian lawyers must recognise the current mood of the nation and be ready to identify with and drive the anticipated reforms in different sectors and this must be a major item on the agenda of the Annual General Conference in Abuja.
The heart of the Nigerian Bar Association’s mission must continually be to promote the rule of law and ensure access to justice.Our association must embark on initiatives to provide greater support to programmes that offer opportunities to bring access to justice to the poor and undeserved.The NBA must strive to work with relevant civil society organisations and legal service providers to help narrow the justice gap. By providing equal justice to the poorest and least informed among us, we are all served for the better.
In recent years, our nation has faced the harsh realities of fundamental flaws in our justice system.Our criminal justice system is more dependent on incarceration than rehabilitation; our trial system has lost our public’s confidence and needs reforms. These issues and many more need our attention, our resources, our resolve.We must use the collective strengths of our voices and experience to play a positive role in evaluating and providing recommendations with regard to those issues that impact our legal system and our constitution as was done by the 7th session of the National Assembly in passing the Criminal Justice System Reform Bill..
We must continue to review and make recommendations about our nation’s constitution, and promote initiatives designed to educate the legal community and the public. We must advance the understanding that reforms to our justice system and reforms to our nation’s constitution are not academic theories or philosophical prescriptions, but instead, core necessities.
There is the urgent necessity to modernize our outdated court systems and the bar, more than the bench, must commit to work hard to drive this process.The process of selection of Judges need to be further reformed in a way as to enhance public trust and confidence in the legal system.The NBA must help create an environment where the focus, more than anything and more than ever, will remain on the competence, temperament, and integrity of potential judges.
Equally, along the line of modernization of our court system, the NBA should set up a Task Force on Electronic Filing of Court Documents to put in place the necessary modalities for ensuring universal mandatory e-filing. Indeed, e-filing not only helps ensure uniformity in the practice of law for attorneys practising in different courts across the country, it also allows Appellate Courts to review documents already on file, and maximizes time and cost saving benefits by reducing the number of documents that would need to be filed and printed.
Furthering Criminal Justice Reform.
Our Bar association, made up of prosecutors and defenders, public and private attorneys, must work to ensure that our voice embodies balance in continued reforms that ensure our criminal justice system effectively and fairly addresses those who break the law and lets our law enforcement officials do their jobs with dignity and respect.NBA must evolve and introduce comprehensive initiatives intended to make our criminal justice system more fair and efficient in the hope that we can significantly reduce the tragedy of wrongful conviction.
Again, in line with global best practice standard, the Nigerian Bar must be at the forefront of the efforts to require video recording of interrogations as a way to help improve the criminal justice system. The NBA can work with the office of the Attorney General of the Federation as well as the leadership of the National Assembly in ensuring adequate budgetary provision to guarantee funding for recording equipment as part of the association’s efforts at promoting the goal of mandatory recording of custodial interrogations.NBA must equally support reforms in the use of solitary confinement in our prisons and detention centres by advocating restrictions on its use, and the adoption of stringent criteria for its implementation and duration.
There is no doubting the fact that one of the sectors needing critical reforms in our nation today is the police force. There cannot be a better time to do this than now. So much had been said on the need for police reforms in Nigeria, as it has happened in other civilized parts of the world. It is indeed time for us to walk our talk in this regard.
I have no doubt whatsoever that the current administration of President Buhari has the much needed political will to reform our police. It was indeed a cardinal campaign issue for the ruling All Progressives Party. With the military background and anti-corruption posture of Mr. President, with a Vice President who had served as an Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, with an Inspector General who has had a brilliant career in the Nigerian Police and armed with international exposure gained through serial participation in foreign missions in addition to being a lawyer and member of the Nigerian Bar, my question will be if not now, when?
The NBA must be ready to work with its members: the Vice President, the Inspector General of Police and the incoming Attorney General of the Federation to extend the change philosophy to the police and galvanize the institution in a way that will give it a humane and professional face with proper restructuring, funding and capacity building to withstand contemporary challenges. The bar must lend the police institution and those truly committed to its reforms the credibility of its voice in shouting it so loud to the relevant authorities that reforming the police cannot just be in theory but by way of political economy and so both the public and private sectors must be getting ready to adequately fund the police in order for such reforms to have meaning.
Moral decadence in governance over the years and the extent of impunity perpetrated within the corridor of power in recent time, had resulted in a huge loss of public confidence in Government officials. The NBA must commit itself to establishing a climate of ethical conduct that reinforces the public interest and reinvigorates our citizens’ confidence in our Governments at the Federal, State and Local levels.
In response to the public’s increasing loss of confidence in the governance process, it is suggested that the NBA also consider the possibility of putting together a Task Force on Government Ethics that will review the current situation and propose recommendations for reforming public sector ethics law, focussing on four areas:
Improving the structure of Government enforcement mechanisms in the area of ethics, consistent with our notions of fairness and due process;
Enhancing the ability of public prosecutors to bring criminal charges where a public official failed in his or her obligation to provide honest services to the public;
Enhancing requirements of public disclosure where needed to increase transparency and the public’s knowledge of potential conflicts; and
Modernizing the ethics laws as well as civil service codes and financial regulations applicable to Federal, State and Local Governments.
The NBA must galvanize the public and private sectors towards greater joint participation in corporate governance through PPP initiatives aimed at growing the Nigerian economy and creating jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities for our army of unemployed youth as well as small and medium scale enterprises. In the same vein, the bar must offer itself, more than ever before, as a platform to champion the cause of creating a progressive investment climate in Nigeria as a way of ensuring an influx of foreign investments into our economy.
Among other salient issues in this regard, the bar must network with both the legislative and executive arms of Government to facilitate corporate law reforms that will not only improve but seek to ensure compliance with global best practice standard in the areas of acquisition and ownership of commercial and industrial lands, including encouraging a uniform and less complicated procedure for the application and issuance of Certificates of Occupancy in different parts of the country; the cost and duration of incorporation of companies; a reformed and standardised business immigration law and procedure; and a uniform and standardised company tax regime.
The Bar, as a change agent, must also work with the President Muhammadu Buhari administration to drive Intellectual Property Law reforms that will ensure adequate legal protection for artistic creations and scientific inventions as well as transparent and predictable standard of adjudication and/or fair arbitration process and other alternative dispute resolutionmethods that are credible and consistent with global best practice standard.
A very important question which must also engage the attention of the leadership and senior members of the Nigerian bar as we all participate in the 2015 Annual General Conference of the association is how does our bar association remain relevant to the younger generations of attorneys? In particular, how do we communicate with these attorneys? How do we recognize and value what they bring to our profession? And how do we convey to them the many significant benefits that participation in our association can provide over the course of one’s legal career?
Convinced that the young lawyers are actually the mirror of our profession, I urge the leadership and secretariat of the NBA to always ensure that at our Annual General Bar Conferences, we always examine this issue as an important item on the agenda of our summit. We must continue to address it as a real challenge and consciously encourage discussions about bridging generational fault lines for the future of the legal profession.Either at this Abuja summit or at some point soon, a panel of leaders in the profession must discuss how today’s generational mix of practising attorneys can best work together in our profession’s new world order of rapidly changing technology, increased client demands, global competition and changing business models.
They will ex`amine the different attitudes these generations have in their career approaches and expectations, and what this means for employers; the differences in their communication strategies, use of technology and expectations of privacy; whether and how ethics might evolve and fit into a new and changing culture; and their interest in professional development and mentoring.How does our Bar association remain relevant? This is a critical question for all Bar associations, and we should work together to arrive at some answers to it in Nigeria.
• Bamidele is a lawyer, a former governorship candidate in Ekiti State and ex- federal lawmaker.
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