Mr Austine Alegeh, SAN, assumed office as the 27th President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, last week Friday, at the just concluded annual conference of the association, which took place in Owerri, Imo State.
Following his swearing in, he noted the challenges facing the Bar, but promised members to reform the association. He also outlined some areas his two years administration proposes to address, with the permission of the National Executive Committee, NEC and general members.
The recent amendments to the NBA constitution were ratified at the AGM of the NBA on August 28, 2014, and it addressed issues that were topical at the time and have essentially served their purpose.
However, there is a further need to amend our Constitution to meet present realities and take advantage of modern technological developments.
The cost of NBA national elections to the association is increasing at an unsustainable rate. The risks, dangers and inconveniences encountered by NBA members during these elections are becoming unbearable. The elections are becoming too expensive for NBA members and voter tampering appears to be encouraged when delegates at national elections are not provided with accommodation and other logistic requirements by the association. The resultant effect is that candidates are compelled to provide accommodation and logistic needs for the delegates in a manner that may compromise the decision-making process of the candidates. Same needs to be reviewed.
Our NEC meetings should be made more effective and dedicated totally and entirely for discussion of NBA matters. NEC must also take advantage of modern day technological developments in its operations.
Matters for debate at NEC must be by written proposals/counter proposals submitted and circulated to all NEC members.
Welfare of NBA members
I have always made it clear that the welfare of NBA members would be given high priority in this administration. I have since my election engaged myself in seeking ways of enhancing our collective welfare and I have received offers in principle in respect of the following:
NBA identification card
All lawyers who have been verified in the NBA Data Base shall be issued with NBA Identification Cards which would be a chip and pin card that would contain the following: Name of the Lawyer; Passport Photograph and Supreme Court Enrolment Number.
The card will also function as a payment card for ATM, Pos and Online Transactions.
Presentation of the Card would entitle the lawyer to a variety of discount and other packages negotiated by NBA.
NBA insurance policy
We have received offers from various insurance companies in respect of the NBA Insurance scheme, which will provide insurance cover for all lawyers who have paid their Bar practicing fees as at when due.
It is to be noted that all lawyers who have paid their Bar Practising Fees as at when due are automatically entitled to this insurance cover and a Policy would be issued in the lawyer’s name.
BAR practising fees
I shall propose to NEC a 10 percent reduction across board in respect of Bar Practising fees for all lawyers excluding Senior Advocates. Upon ratification by NEC I will take appropriate steps to give effect to the reduction.
I shall also propose to NEC, that the share of branches from BPFs be increased from 10 percent to 20 percent. The additional 10 percent to branches would be applied to set up a lawyers Welfare Trust Fund at all NBA branches.
The payment of the branches’ share of BPF shall be by Direct Debit utilizing currently available e-banking means.
We are currently in discussions with several leading financial institutions to provide specialized financial products to lawyers in the form of consumer loans for cars, generators etc as well as for Commercial and Residential Mortgage loans at reasonable interest rates and with repayment moratorium.
There are several other discount and value added services that we are negotiating for the benefit of NBA members.
Practitioners Disciplinary Committee
The decision of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in SC/111/2006 Akintokun v. LPDC has adversely affected the work of the LPDC with the resultant effect that the Committee has stopped sitting since that decision was given by the Supreme Court.
We cannot overemphasize the importance of discipline in our profession and we are all witnesses to the appalling level of indiscipline bedeviling the Profession. The work of LPDC which has started to restore sanity to the profession must therefore not be truncated.
I have reviewed the matter closely and I will engage the Attorney General and Minister of Justice to find a quick solution to the present logjam.
Employment of research assistants for judges
The provision of Research Assistants for our judges must not be delayed a day longer. The benefits of Research Assistant employed, not by Judges, but by the Judiciary would be a monumental step forward in our quest for speedy dispensation of high quality justice. Consequently, I will shortly engage the various government agencies involved in the process to sensitize them of the enormous benefit to the Nation.
The current secret shrouded appointment of judges must yield to a more transparent system where merit is the only consideration and nothing else.
The fight to rid the judiciary of corruption would remain a mirage unless and until the appointment and promotion system is reviewed. We cannot expect judicial officers appointed through the back door to be incorruptible especially at this time when those who arranged the appointments have retired but rather than stay quietly at home to enjoy their retirement, now masquerade themselves as consultants in cases where they have never seen the court processes. Their main claim to fame and consultancy fees remains the fact that the judge is “MY BOY”. This is utterly disgraceful. It should be discouraged. It should be condemned. I say no more for now.
Digitalisation of our courts
We need digitalization of our courts urgently to enable us take advantage of modern technology in our quest for speedy and effective dispensation of justice.
I watched the recent Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa in awe when hour long trial transcripts were available for use by lawyers in court immediately thereafter. I don’t know the cost of this equipment but we cannot claim to be the Giant of Africa if we cannot afford to equip our courts with technological tools designed to ensure the speedy dispensation of justice we all crave.
Financial autonomy for the judiciary
The reluctance of the executive arm of government to comply with the provisions of the constitution, despite the oath of Allegiance and Oath of Office sworn by the persons holding Executive Office leaves much to be desired. How they expect the citizens to comply with the provisions of the constitution which they so flagrantly violate beats my imagination.
For relish, the judgments obtained by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria, JASUN and Olisa Agbakoba, SAN on section 162 of The 1999 constitution are not obeyed and executed by the executive.
The respect for constitutional provisions and obedience of court orders are integral parts of rule of law which is the hallmark of democratic government.
The recent JASUN strike was merely suspended for 45 days and may be resumed if there is no traction from the government. The NBA would take an active role in ensuring that this does not happen.
Closure of courts in Rivers State
The continued closure of courts in Rivers State is sad and shameful. Our members in Rivers State are essentially out of work apart from those engaged in corporate practice.
At a time when other countries are striving to ensure that trials start and end within six months, we have courts closed for almost four months and litigants and lawyers bear the brunt. Even if the strike persists for two years the Judicial Staff would get paid but nobody would assuage the losses suffered by the lawyers and litigants. This cannot be allowed to continue.
We urge all those involved in the Rivers imbroglio, whether as named or unnamed parties or as counsel for either of the parties, to apply their best endeavours to resolving this matter promptly.
I will as NBA President personally intervene in the issues leading to closure of courts in Rivers State with a view to ensuring a speedy resolution.
Pending Bills at the National Assembly
There are several bills which are backed up at the National Assembly. There are several justice Sector Bills which if passed would have enhanced justice delivery system in Nigeria.
Our Petroleum Industry Bill, PIB, is old enough in the National Assembly to qualify as an “ELDER”, “BABA” or “ODIONWERE” in any place other than the National Assembly yet it has not been passed till date.
Playing poker with our fortunes
A child conceived at the same time as our PIB would have finished school, started work and be married with children by this time. Countries that came to Nigeria to get a peek at our PIB when it was conceived have since passed and amended their PIBs several times.
We are a country dependent essentially on Petroleum and yet cur National Assembly is playing poker with our collective fortunes and future. I believe we still have men of integrity, courage and valour at the National Assembly and I call on them to take up the challenge of ensuring that the PIB is passed without further delay.
The NBA under my watch will not standby and watch when those entrusted with the constitutional duty of passing laws drop the ball on the entire country and get interested more in matters of scant legislative relevance.
The 2015 general elections
NBA will take a very keen interest in the 2015 general elections. The legitimacy of the ballot box determines the quality of government and also determines if the governed would ever enjoy the true benefits of democracy.
It is a relief to note that the elections in Anambra, Ondo, Ekiti and Osun were better conducted than previous elections. It would seem that INEC is improving but it must be noted that these were single state elections and we cannot truly determine if INEC has improved until the 2015 general elections.
We hope that the internal democratic structures in the different parties have been improved and that pre-election cases would be a rare occurrence this time around.
The Election Working Group [EWG] of the NBA under the leadership of Dafe Akpedeyi, SAN has done an excellent job at monitoring elections and has acquired experience and expertise in execution of its mandate.
The NBA as the leader of civil societies and professional bodies in Nigeria, as the voice of the oppressed, the defender of human rights and proponent of rule of law must not continue to limit itself to monitoring elections and reporting what transpired during the election. Our position requires the NBA to do more. Nigerians demand that we do more and certainly we can do more.