Onueze Chukwujinka Joe Okocha SAN, who was formerly the president of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) and a former member of the National Judicial Council (NJC), was accused of being behind the leadership crisis in the Rivers State Judiciary. In this interview, he tells his side of the story, and also speaks on how to combat quacks in the profession. Excerpt:
What is your reaction to the NBA Stamp policy?
Personally I don’t think we need Stamp and Seal policy; there are other ways of checking fakes who pass themselves as legal practitioners. We are told that very soon we’d go into e-filing and the western world has already started e-filing, how do you stamp a document that is e-filed? It is cumbersome and difficult to monitor. Who is going to be policing this stamp and seal policy in faraway towns? The discrimination that the law officers and law teachers are complaining about is very relevant. We need to take a second look at it before going fully into it.
Do you think law teachers should still continue to practice in court at the same time?
Yes, that is our position because they have to remain current, and they enrich the practice of law by practicing themselves. They write books and we expect those books to be current and how can they be current when they are not practicing. Is Prof. Ben Nwabueze not an academician? Yet he is practicing, I think they should be allowed to practice, the market is vast. A lawyer who is serious at what he is doing will always have his own client and that would not in any way short-change their colleagues who are in practice, they pay the same practicing fees.
But some of the students complain that their lecturers do not come to class?
I am the chairman of Council of Legal Education, any lecturer in the Law School that does not attend his classes will face disciplinary procedures and he is likely to be removed from office for neglecting his teaching assignment.
What other ways can we check quacks apart from Stamp and seal?
There are many other ways. We have a full data base of who is a lawyer, enrollment number and then insist that every lawyer must have a branch. If you are not of any identifiable branch, then you can be detected but it is going to be physical. We should be alive to our responsibilities and if you see anyone you are suspecting is not a lawyer then report him immediately so that we can investigate him.
People have said that it is only in Nigeria that the Council and Law School are playing the role of regulator; they have therefore called for the scraping of the council and are calling for the de-centralization of the Law school…
There is always a council for any educational institution of higher learning responsible for the policy of the institution and ensures that the staff of the institution are keeping to the terms of their employment. How can you say scrap Council of Legal Education and the Law School, they still have Council of Legal Education in England. We borrowed our practice of Law from England so it is totally irresponsible to say so.
What would they have in place?
If you de-regulate the training of a profession then you are likely to bring down the standard of the profession. Every institution needs to be regulated.
Any kind of person can also run a university, are they also saying scrap the National Universities Commission?
They must regulate the service providers for educational institutions in Nigeria because you need them to ensure that standards are maintained and to ensure that those standards are current with international best practices.
Do you agree that everyone who is qualified to wear the silk should be made SAN?
That is my position, if there are guidelines for the appointment of SAN in any particular year, all those who applied, and are screened and found to be entitled to be appointed SAN should be appointed, it will help to bring down the congestion that we are having now. It will also help to bring down the unbridled things that we hear that some lawyers are doing just to become SAN.
Do you feel culpable for shutting down the Rivers State Judiciary for almost a year?
I did not shut down the judiciary; I was a private legal practitioner at some point in the crises period, I was a member of the NJC. The Rivers State Judicial Commission nominated two judges – Justice Agumagu and Justice Okocha who happens to be my direct immediate elder sister. This was taken to the NJC in the normal way. That is what the constitution states – you recommend and the NJC nominates and they now forward the name of one to the governor. That was all on the 13th July, 2013. The then governor of Rivers State refused to appoint the person recommended and then they went into all those shenanigans attacking my character and personality, saying that I want to impose my sister as Chief Judge (CJ). I told them that it was irrelevant that she was my sister, it could have been any other judge and I would have stood for what the guidelines of the NJC were and are still are. I don’t feel culpable in any way and I am glad a new pharaoh is on the thrown and he has recognized that Rivers State cannot continue to operate without the Head of Court for the High Court of the State and the Customary Court of Appeal and has tried to appoint persons in acting capacity whilst trying to sort out the issue outstanding at the NJC.
What is your take on President Muhammed Buhari’s charge to lawyers during the 55th NBA Annual General Conference in Abuja?
I saw from his body language and from his statements that he needs the assistance of lawyers to fight corruption, he must realize that corruption is not as simple to fight as he had imagined. The circumstances are now different, he cannot just bundle all those who are alleged to be corrupt into prison and throw away the key. It won’t happen again. We need to re-jig those institutions that are in place for fighting corruption, re-train their personnel, motivate them very well and ensure that corruption within those systems are also eliminated. These include the EFCC and NPF, we need to fight corruption and we need honest people.