‘Nigeria Law School should be deregularised’
The falling standard of legal education in Nigeria is becoming a great burden to some of the senior lawyers in the country such as Prof. Ernest Ojukwu (SAN). He was at a time, the Secretary of the Federal Governments Committee on the Reform of Legal Education. In this interview with JOSEPH ONYEKWERE, he pointed out that the Nigerian Law School, saddled with the responsibility of training prospective lawyers before they are called to Bar, needs to be deregularised to allow other private institutions train law students. He also said the study of ethics must be introduced in the law curriculum in order to set the right tone for addressing the decline among other issues.
What’s your view about the falling standard of legal education and how can it be addressed?
It is frighteningly getting lower and lower. We need to push our educators and teachers to state the goal for our legal education. A goal that focuses on the development of competent lawyers conscious of social justice and ethical values. If we get the goal right, that will lead to the adoption and deployment of training methodologies that uses the best practices for legal education. Our legal education must therefore at all levels integrate knowledge, skills, competencies and values. It must be outcome based and learner-centred different from the mostly traditional teacher-centred education still being practiced by a vast number of law teachers. Our legal education must be clinical combining liberal arts approach with vocational and experiential learning approach. All these are generally lacking as at present. The Nigerian Bar Association must stand up and insist that the training of our law students must conform to these philosophies, goals and values. We would also need to create new and very strong Council of Legal Education that would act as a strong oversight body both for the training at the universities and at the Nigerian Law School. By now we should no more be talking about how to actualize a sustainable continuing legal education programme to compliment the foundational learning, development and growth of the legal professional in Nigeria.
How do you look at the future of legal practice in Nigeria in relation to the emergence of technology, ADR and globalisation?
It is challenging. Our response to technology and globalization has been very poor and this is traceable to the foundational problem of our legal education. Can you for example find one court in Nigeria that has successfully stopped its judges from recording court proceedings in long hand in 2017?
You advocate deregulation for the Nigerian Law School, where you once served as deputy director general. Can you explain how you think such should be done?
In 2007 the National Committee for the reform of legal education set up by the government of President Obasanjo submitted a report calling for the deregulation of the Nigerian Law School. I was Secretary of the Committee. I am happy today that the call for deregulation has also been made by the NBA Legal Professional Reform Committee headed by Chief Tony Idigbe, SAN. The deregulation involves demarcating the authority and functions of the Council of Legal Education from the Nigerian Law School. Give full oversight functions to the Council of legal education to accredit and monitor Law faculties and Law Schools. Under the proposal, other law schools other than the Nigerian Law School funded by the Federal Government, could be registered and accredited to provide training for those wishing to be called to the bar side by side with the Nigerian Law School. Both the trainees who will go the Nigerian Law School and those who will chose other Law Schools would have their training under the same curriculum of the Council of Legal Education and take the same examination administered by the Council of Legal Education.
There are some bills you helped to push before the National Assembly aimed at improving the fortunes of legal practice in Nigeria. What are the bills and what are they meant to achieve?
Oh yes I have been part of the team that produced legal practitioners bills, legal education bills and legal services commission bill that at one time or the other were sent to the National Assembly. I mentioned earlier that I was Secretary of the Federal Governments Committee on the Reform of Legal Education in 2007 and we submitted a Legal Education Bill to the then Attorney General of the Federation Chief Bayo Ojo, SAN who in turn sent it to the National Assembly. I was Chairman of the Law Reform Committee of the NBA from 2003 to 2004 and we produced a new Legal Practitioners Bill in 2004 under President Wole Olanipekun, SAN. 2007 when the bill of 2004 could not get any headway President Olisa Akpakoba SAN involved me in a committee that produced a Legal Practitioners (Amendment) Bill. It suffered set backs as a private members bill in the National Assembly. So in 2011 under President JB Daudu, SAN I was again involved in the drafting of three new bills that are today pending at the National Assembly. They are the Legal Practitioners Bill, the Legal Education Bill, and the Legal Services Commission Bill. Basically the Legal Practitioners Bill creates many disciplinary committees for the bar as against the present status of one Committee that is overburdened, gives legal backing to the mandatory continuing legal education programme of the bar and reviews the compositions of the Bar Council and other organs like the Body of Benchers and Privileges Committee to give them greater independence for efficiency and increase the representations from the Bar. The Legal Education bill demarcates between the Council of Legal Education and the Nigerian Law School so that the Council is better empowered to carry out its oversights of universities and the Nigerian Law School and deregulates the Nigerian Law School to have other law schools not established by the Federal Government to be recognized and accredited.
What about the Legal Services Commission Bill you mentioned? Why did you suggest this law?
The objects for establishing the Commission are to give consumers and users of legal services an independent, timely, fair and reasonable means of redress for complaints; promote, monitor and enforce high standards of conduct in the provision of legal services and advance integrity in the legal profession; protect and promote public confidence in the legal system, the legal profession, the administration of justice and the rule of law; improve access to justice; encourage an independent, strong, diverse and effective legal profession; increase public understanding of the citizen’s legal rights and duties; and promote and maintain adherence to the professional principles. For the past many years, consumers of legal services and the public have been complaining about ethics and standards in the legal profession, the conduct of its members and the fact that there is the absence of a sort of ombudsman where the public can lay their complaints and it would be attended to in a timely and proactive manner. The profession itself has come under tremendous pressure to cleanse itself but has identified that there is almost a total absence of oversight for the profession.
Based on these circumstances the creation of an independent Legal Services Commission was suggested with the following functions, investigating the conduct of legal practitioners; receiving and investigating complaints against legal practitioners; inspecting documents, facilities, files, materials, offices, premises and records of legal practitioners to ascertain their statutory compliance status and profile; reporting, presenting, and prosecuting instances of professional misconduct to or before the Disciplinary Committee; enforcing decisions, directions and orders of the Disciplinary Committee; deploying or encouraging ADR for minor complaints against legal practitioners; and advising and educating legal practitioners on proper professional conduct and statutory compliance. There is the notion that unless there is a petition against a lawyer, the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary powers cannot be activated. Under the Legal Services Commission Bill, the Commission has been empowered to investigate/report/prosecute disciplinary cases whether or not a formal petition or complaint has been made. This is how other jurisdictions have been able to stem the tide of indiscipline, corruption and unethical conduct by the legal profession. See Australia, Canada, UK and the US. If you pick up the Nigerian Law Reports for example, you will see litany of cases where courts indicted lawyers and because no person formally took those matters up in petitions to the Disciplinary Committee, those cases have remained un-investigated till date. The strongest impetus to impunity is a failed sanctions system, policy and culture.
NJC recently recalled suspended judicial officers for the inability of the State to charge them to court. What’s your position on the matter?
I support the recall. Our Constitution and governance is anchored on rule of law. And the basic foundation of rule of law is fundamental rights. We presume any person accused of a crime as innocent until proved guilty. The Nation waited for over eight months for the State to charge some of these judges alleged or suspected to have committed crimes and for eight months the state could not proffer any charge. Between the days the NBA President AB Mahmoud SAN called for their reinstatement to their duties and the date NJC recalled the judges to work was over a week. Within that week the State could not charge them. And since then up till date, the State has not charged them. The NJC therefore acted rightly in obedience to the rule of law. The continued suspension of the judges would be arbitrary without any legal support.
Will you subscribe to the establishment of a special corruption court in Nigeria?
I don’t think it would make a difference. We can rather designate such special courts from the existing courts. The main challenge to speedy trial in our court system today is the state of the Constitution relating to appeals, our laws, and rules of court and the way lawyers are trained in the LLB and Law school programme. The training does not have a justice focus and only one university since 1962 has recently introduced ethics as a course in our LLB programme. In other words ethics is not a course in the 5 years training of lawyers in Nigeria. Lawyers have not been made to internalize the consequences to the legal profession, the legal system, the economy and development of the Nation when nobody trusts the judicial system. So if I am asked to advise the Federal Government, I would ask them to tackle these fundamental problems and causes rather than going for new courts that would soon fail under the weight of these fundamental challenges.
What do you think of the anti-graft war of the current government?
I don’t think the Government has begun any war. None is going on. The statement that there is an on going anti-graft war is mere propaganda.