The Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC), the body responsible for the conferment of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria upon deserving legal practitioners who have satisfied existing criteria for the award of the exalted rank, has lately concluded arrangements to raise the minimum age of practice for lawyers interested in taking silk to not less than 15 years at the bar.
This proposal, for I feel a sense of serious discomfiture to refer to it as a decision, is unarguably toxic and clearly illegal because it is antithetical to the provisions of the Legal Practitioners Act under which the LPPC itself derives its mandate.
For one, the Legal Practitioners Act (LPA), Chapter 207, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (LFN), 1990 re-enacted as Chapter L11, LFN 2004 is the relevant law guiding the issue under consideration. This law has been amended nine times; 1962, 1975, 1976, twice in 1977, twice in 1979, 1988 and 2004. The validity of the 2004 amendment is however arguable but this is not the focus of this synoptic piece. A bill to further amend it has been pending at the National Assembly since 2007, if not 2003.
I am not aware that this law has been amended to give the LPPC the power to increase post-call years of prospective Senior Advocates of Nigeria to 15 in any of the nine alterations referred to.
As a matter of fact, by Section 5 (3) LPA, the LLPC is established, and consist of seven (7) categories of judges and lawyers, namely;
(a) the Chief Justice who shall be chairman;
(b) the Attorney-General of the Federation;
(c) one Justice of the Supreme Court;
(d) the President of the Court of Appeal;
(e) five Chief Judges out of the 36 States of the Federation;
(f) the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court; and
(g) five legal practitioners who are Senior Advocates of Nigeria.
By Sections 5 (1) and (2) of the same law, subject to subsection
(2) of this section, the LPPC may by instrument confer on a legal practitioner the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria and a person shall not be conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria unless he has been qualified to practise as a legal practitioner in Nigeria for not less than ten years and has achieved distinction in the legal profession in such manner as the committee may from time to time determine.
The LPA remains the living organism, which contains, in itself, the seed of future growth and development of the various bodies in the legal profession in Nigeria, and indeed the profession itself.
It is our humble submission that where a statute has prescribed a method of doing an act, it is only that method and not any other that must be utilised – Nnoli at 401 and the case of FAWEHINMI v ABACHA (1996) 9 NWLR (Pt. 475) 711 at 761. In other words, the LPPC has a duty to act STRICTLY in accordance with the statutory provisions on this and other issues as to act otherwise is tantamount to enthroning arbitrariness and promote executive lawlessness as explained in OBHIOHA v DAFE (1994) 2 NWLR (Pt. 325) 157 at 173 and 176. See also UDE v NWARA (1993) 2 NWLR (Pt. 278) 638
There are several canons of interpretation, including the 12 point rule by the Honourable Justice Andrews Otutu Obaseki JSC (as he then was) in AG OF BENDEL STATE v ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE FEDERATION (1981) 10 SC 1, the four points rule by Ogundare JSC in ISHOLA v AJIBOYE (1994) 7-8 SCNJ (Pt. 1) 1, among many others.
Although the pre-eminent scholar and Dean of legal researchers, Professor Itse Sagay SAN has made a fine distinction between construction and interpretation yet the first principle in construction or interpretation, also known as the golden or literary rule states that where the words are clear and unambiguous, their natural or literary meanings should be preferred, notwithstanding whatever reservations one may have. See NDOMA-EGBA v CHUKWUOGOR (2004) All FWLR (Pt. 203)P. 2043.
The only exception to this rule is where the natural meaning of the words will lead to absurdity. In such an instance, the court need not go beyond the golden rule, unless it will lead to absurdity, as held in ADEFEMI v ABEGUNDE (2004) All FWLR (Pt.203) P.2109; See also OGBUNYIYA v OKUDO (2001) FWLR (Pt. 72) P. 1987.
Interestingly however, none of all these canons support the planned increment from 10 to 15 years post call by the LPPC as the basic requirement for conferment of the honour.
Furthermore, only in respect of Section 5 (7) of the LPA is the LPPC mandated to secure the approval of the Body of Benchers, as opposed to the National Council of Ministers in the 1990 Act, in making rules as to the privileges to be accorded to Senior Advocates of Nigeria, as to the functions of a legal practitioner, which are not to be performed by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, as to the mode of appearance before courts by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, and generally, but without prejudice to other statutory requirements, for ensuring the dignity of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria.
Nothing in the extant law empowers the LPPC to unilaterally or administratively alter, amend, change or otherwise reconfigure statutory enactment. This, we submit, is not an administrative decision but a legislative one, which power, with due respect to the distinguished, well-regarded, highly putative and very learned members of the LPPC, they are not competent to exercise as same is ultra vires the body.
The recent popular clamour for the abrogation of the silk by well-meaning leaders of the Bar deserves the convocation of all stakeholders forum by the LPPC rather than the arguable option and seeming aloof disposition being portrayed. The Academic Forum outing at the just concluded NBA Annual Conference in Kaduna justifies this option as the most appropriate way forward even before any other step is taken. One hopes that the LPPC will equally hearken to the counsel of perfection ably and correctly offered by the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, J. B, Daudu, SAN.