Chief Gani Adetola-Kaseem (SAN) is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (FCIArb) and a pioneer practitioner in Medical and Health Law. He is also a former Membership Officer of the Healthcare and Life Sciences Committee of the International Bar Association. In this interview with ADEBISI ONANUGA and ROBERT EGBE he speaks on corruption on the Bench and related issues.
Do you agree that standards are falling in law practice? How can things be improved?
The standard of legal practice or any professional practice for that matter is a standard of the society itself. So, I don’t want to make a blanket admission that there is a fall in the standard of the practice of law, because generally in our society, there is a fall in standards. Take any profession or business, ethical values have been lost. To that extent, what we find in legal practice could also be a reflection of this. When you talk of the number of practitioners in relation to the available areas of practice, by and large a lot needs to be done in terms of improving general standards in training, practice and everywhere else. And let me say this, in any skill, training does not start from the university. To correct the fall in the standard of education generally, you have to start from primary school.
You cannot put something on nothing. If children have a weak foundation at the primary level, you can’t expect much to be done at secondary level and if they manage to plod on till they get to the university, the weak foundation is there and will affect subsequent things. I’m not saying there’s no fall in the standard of legal practice or legal education but that the fall is a reflection of the falling standards in our society. Correcting this requires a holistic effort by everyone. Government has to be up and doing. It has practically abdicated its responsibility
A lot has been said about the justice administration/dispensation slow process. What, from your experience, do you think is the way out?
There are a lot of factors. First of all justice administration is a triangular thing, in fact it goes beyond that. If you take criminal cases as an example, it starts from the investigation stage. If a case is poorly investigated, you can’t expect any dramatic result at prosecution level. So, it doesn’t start and stop at the court. Number two is in relation to the number of cases in court. There are very few judges, whether at the Magistrates level, trial court, high court and so on. An average judge on a daily basis has on his list of cases between 30 and 40 cases. How many of those cases will he try? Even if it’s just to take each of those cases and adjourn it – allot five or 10 minutes to each case, mention it for adjournment. Multiply the time by 30 and see how many hours would have gone. By the time that is done, the judge is tired. So, there are fewer judges, courtrooms and facilities in relation to the number of cases that are on to the system. So, we need to improve our facilities in the courtrooms and then increase the number of judges. Someone told me sometime ago that in his court a judge had not less than 200 cases and more kept coming in on a daily basis, meaning more would be assigned to the judges.
On average, the hardest working judge would hardly be able to try and deliver judgment in more than five cases in a month. It is not an easy thing to try an average case, whether civil or criminal, listen to it, take evidence, try it, conclude it and write judgment. At the end of the year, he completes 60 cases. If he has in a year 200 cases in his docket and before the end of that year another 100 is added, but he’s only able to finish 60, what should we expect? So, we need to have more courtrooms, more judges and more, better equipped facilities to facilitate quick administration of justice.
Thirdly, people are waking up to this little by little, not all cases need to go for trial. The court rules are providing for this now such that even within the court system we find mediation centres. Some cases are remitted to mediation so they can be sorted out without recourse to trial. Quite a number of cases are settled that way. So, Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) must be employed more. This can reduce decongestion in court.
Some have suggested that specialisation would do the legal profession some good. What do you think about this? Is it workable in Nigeria?
Specialisation is coming in bit by bit, people are buying into it. For example, labour and industrial relations matters have a specialised court, the National Industrial Court. People do a lot of practice in that area. But, generally speaking, we have a lot of societal issues. Also, the workload in some areas of practice is heavier than in others. For instance in medical health law related matters, one area where I do a lot of practice, how many lawyers are in this area of practice? How many cases are in court? How many people are enlightened to know that you can sue if you have issues concerning, for example, medical negligence? Nevertheless, specialisation is the way to go.
Estate managers accuse lawyers of taking over their profession. What are your thoughts on this?
That is property law, a very important aspect of law. Law is a versatile profession.
Taking a property matter to court is one thing, but what about lawyer collecting rent on behalf of a property owner?
If a lawyer is hired to manage a property for him why not? Your client is your client and he wants you to manage his property. You’ll take tenants, prepare agreements and so on and so forth. It is allowed. It is law practice. Estate managers have their own areas. There may be areas of convergence but there’s no conflict at all.
It has been said that having law partnerships will increase the competitive advantage of Nigerian firms in a global market by having mega-firms. Is that the way to go?
There’s no doubt about that. In other climes, we have partnerships of big firms employing 300, 500 lawyers, big partnerships. But that is a reflection of the level of development of the society. We must also note that unlike in other countries where practice is segmented, over here it is fused with lawyers practising both as barristers and solicitors. In the United Kingdom for instance, you’re either one or the other. So, talking about partnerships, there are a few firms here but they are not many. It is a reflection of our societal level of development.
How should the NJC address corruption allegations against judicial officers in the light of prosecution of some judges by law enforcement agencies?
NJC’s role is not to prosecute crimes. NJC is a regulatory authority for judicial officers and handles a wide range of complaints against judicial officers, not necessarily of corruption but also of misconduct. Misconduct may not necessarily amount to corruption. If a judge is not sitting regularly or is fond of delaying trial, or judgment writing etc., these could amount to misconduct. If there are proven cases of corruption against judges, the NJC is not the right party to try judges. If in the course of its investigation of allegations of misconduct against a judge, it is found that there are elements of financial corruption or criminal conduct, what the NJC should do is to report the matter to the prosecuting authorities. The judge, apart from being disciplined, being removed from the judiciary, will also be recommended for prosecution.
What would make a judge to want to take bribe in spite of the sacredness of the bench?
Judicial officers are themselves members of the society. In years past, you hardly saw them mixing up in the society unlike these days when judges attend parties and things like that. They were almost in seclusion up there so that they wouldn’t expose themselves to temptations of inducement and things like that. That was then. I hope that with time, things will change again. But talking about corruption, there are so many factors that may be responsible. By and large and in fairness to the system, I think the remuneration of judges has substantially increased compared to what it used to be some years ago. But the way out is, judges are also human beings, so if the remuneration of a judge is so poor, or if a judge has no good transport system to move around or has no roof over his head by the time he retires, the temptation is very strong to be corrupt.
For example, if a doctor treats a patient, he becomes his friend and he continues to remember you like a god. But for every case a judge determines, whether criminal or civil, he makes an enemy because he would definitely pronounce against a party. The party against whom he pronounces would not look at him with favour and any opportunity he has to do anything against the judge, he would do it. If you have a judge, even after retirement, who has no means of transport of his own, even imagine a magistrate at the lower level of the judiciary ladder, if he has no means of transport, if he has to commute on public transport with others, imagine him commuting with a criminal or an accused person who has appeared before him, and is presently being tried now coming together in a public transport.
Even long after coming into retirement, he would have dealt with some people, convicted a lot of people, ruled against some people, now coming to meet with him in that situation. So, with all these things, there are a lot of things that could tempt a judge.
What is the way out?
This is why for the independence of the judiciary, you need to increase facilities for judges. You must be able to provide a house for him to stay, provide a car and other facilities. All these things must be considered. Again if the remuneration of a judge is poor, at this time of the year for example, people are thinking of how to pay their children’s school fees. If a judge has like N50,000 in his account, and he has two or three children whose school fees must be paid, he needs about N200,000 and he hasn’t got it, would he not be susceptible to temptation? So, they must be fairly remunerated. Remuneration must always reflect these societal issues in the income of a judge. The type of job they do is such that as much as possible, we must attempt to remove them from temptation. Of course, a greedy person would always be a greedy person. Those are exception to note. If somebody wants to be a thief or decides not to be contented, he would never be contended. Pay him N10million a month, he would still do what he wants to do. Those ones must be very few. But by and large, most of them would still do the right thing.
What areas of law reform should the Buhari administration work on?
We have a lot of laws in our statute books that are not being implemented and executed. For example, we are talking about corruption. Before the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) came in, the Criminal Code had provisions prohibiting corruption in the public service and everywhere. Corruption has always been a criminal offence. But how many people were prosecuted and convicted on the grounds of corruption before the EFCC Act came on? So, our problem is not the absence of laws. It is the will power to implement them. I agree that there are some statutes in our law books that are archaic and I am familiar with so many of them. They are areas that ought to have been updated. You can imagine that we have some laws, even in procedural laws that are still talking in pounds, shillings and pence. Should that be in our statute books? We dispensed of that currency almost 45 years ago. Those are things that shouldn’t take anybody too much time to do, that is if those who are responsible recognise the need for amendment and to do their job. A lot of our laws are archaic and they ought to be updated to be in line with modern times. By and large, we have laws, our problem is implementation and execution and the will power. Our entire process should not just be centred on making laws. Yes, we must make laws, we must update our laws, we must not rely on archaic systems, laws that have been used in other systems and reform is something that we now have to start carrying about. Laws that we inherited from our colonial masters some 60 years ago, for instance, we still have some of them in our statute books when they have dispensed of those laws many years ago.
Those are areas in which some people should do their job and update them. There are also those laws in our statute books which have not been implemented either because those who are to do it do not know or do not have the will power to look into their implementation.
International organisations continue to rate Nigeria high on the corruption index. Is the government losing the war against graft, especially when viewed against criticisms by the opposition that the war is one sided?
There must be a start in anything. We are talking about a rot that has existed about 40 years or more and you want them to be corrected within two years? It is not possible. Children born about 40 years or 20 years ago or more, what they have come to meet is rot. The society has become rotten over the years. The standard we used to know is not what we have now.
If you drive into your office now with a Hummer jeep, nobody will ask you any question. They would just congratulate you. That shouldn’t be so. But in those days, you could not even dress above your income let alone driving a car or buying a house or living in a house that you cannot account for. You would be asked questions automatically. You knew the system, you knew what the rules were. So, you could not do it because they would ask the right questions. If you dressed above your income, they would ask you what you had inherited. If you belong to that cadre of officers that ride bicycles, you must apply for a bicycle loan to buy one. If you are qualified for motorcycle advance, you apply for it to buy a motorcycle. If you are entitled for car advance, you apply and take it and drive it legitimately. When you don’t take salary advance either as a public servant or private worker, and you want to join people riding cars, you cannot do it because people would ask the right questions.
But now, who asks anybody the right questions? People know your legitimate income and you are living above your income with impunity. You expect Buhari to come and correct that within two years. There must be a few issues like that that President Buhari must pay more attention to ensure the success of his administration. Those who are saying he is one sided have no point. I am not a politician. I have been working all my life. I have worked for over 50 years. I worked and studied law. I have worked in the private sector and in the public sector. I retired from the public service voluntarily over 30 years ago to start law practice. I know what I am talking about because I am talking with benefits of experience. So, at the political parties, at the federal level, PDP has been at the helms of affairs from the start of this political dispensation in 1999. They were there for 16 solid years.
So if anything went wrong at the federal level, who else would be held responsible? Is it not PDP and those in their party? Anybody who was not in their party, can they question him about what he has not done? So, what is wrong in asking people who have benefitted illegally, illegitimately from our common resources what they have done?
So, it is not an answer. If you are being questioned for illegitimate acquisition of wealth, it is not for you to say you are not the only one that did it, you answer your own first. So, there is a rot in the system and this thing has permeated the entire system. They are systemic failure and we must recognise that. It would take the Almighty God himself to pull us out of the rot. President Buhari is trying his best.
Not even all those in his party supported him not to talk about those outside the party. Corruption has killed Nigeria. In fact, it has left us prostrate. Nigeria has no business being poor with our abundant resources that God has given us, natural resources and economic resources. But some people have kept us down there, enriching themselves privately. You can count those people on your finger tip. Is that a fair system? At this point in time, as far as I can see, President Buhari doesn’t really have many people to be compared with, that have that level of integrity that is proven to be above board. So, he is one person God has preserved for us for this purpose. The reform has started and we must all support him.
Young lawyers often complain of bad treatment by senior lawyers and of poor salaries. How did you cope in the early days of your career? Has it always been rosy? What would be your advice to young lawyers?
It was not rosy all the time. But people must learn to crawl before they can walk. There must be a start in everything. The economic circumstances of the country has beaten very hard on everybody. This thing about senior lawyers, you can only pay from the resources available to you. You cannot go and borrow money from the bank to pay junior lawyers. The economic situation also determines what a senior lawyer can pay a junior lawyer. It affects their ability to pay young lawyers fair wages. I know that there are some lawyers who don’t pay more than N30,000. In those days, when you have small practices, they would just tell you to come along, use my office, do something, take on your own brief and so on. That used to be the pattern. There was no formal employment arrangement. In my own case, I didn’t have, I didn’t start that way. I worked in the private sector and in the public sector. I was working and reading at the same time and trained to become a lawyer on part time basis. When I finished, I still worked in the public service before I retired. By the time I retired, I left as an under-secretary. I was a very senior public officer by the time I retired. So, I wasn’t just a young graduate. Talking about experience, the first place I worked in my life was a lawyer’s chamber and I know that in those days, they don’t take them on on salary arrangements. They have to make good of their own practice and use facilities of their seniors. Times are changing. You cannot look at that time and say that system must continue. You need to encourage young ones and there is also population explosion among lawyers. Now, we used to have only one law school between 1962 and 1999. During my own time, it was the Lagos Law School and it used to produce about 500 lawyers every year. But now there are five campuses and each of the campuses produces over 1,000 every year. So every year, there are about 5,000 lawyers that are turned out, yet there is an economic recession, yet they must work somewhere. So, it is affecting ability to be fully employed and to be fairly remunerated and so on and so forth. That was why I say we must all work very hard to improve the country and pray very hard for God to bring back the glory of Nigeria.
Do you remember your first day in court? What was it like?
Naturally, when a lawyer comes to the court the first time, they don’t move a motion. In my own case, when I was working, I was going to court to watch proceedings. Then I came out with a brief of mine, which by the grace of God, I handled excellently. Up till today, I still have relationship with those clients.