48 years of SANship: A curse or a blessing?

Senior Advocates of Nigeria

In this report, Ise-Oluwa Ige traces the history of silk award from 1975 till date, examines what the award represents, its benefits, abuse, arguments for and against its retention and its impacts on legal jurisprudence in the country.


On November 21, 2023, a total of 57 advocates including an Abuja-based lawyer, Dr Olukayode Ajulo and one academic, Prof Babatunde Oni, will be officially decorated as Senior Advocates of Nigeria at a special court session scheduled to hold at the Supreme Court in Abuja to declare the 2023/2024 legal year open.

The Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee (LPPC) headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, had on October 12, 2023, announced the elevation of the 58 lawyers to the coveted rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN).

Although 57 advocates and 12 academics were shortlisted for the prestigious award, the LPPC at its 159th session approved the elevation of all the advocates with one academic, Prof Babatunde Oni, while the remaining 11 academics who are all professors were dropped.

Vanguard reports that the inauguration of new SANs usually takes place at the Supreme Court during the ceremony marking the commencement of the court’s new legal year.

SAN Rank

SAN stands for Senior Advocate of Nigeria. It is an honorary rank/title that is conferred on deserving and distinguished legal practitioners in Nigeria of not less than ten years’ standing.

The conferment is made in accordance with the Legal Practitioners Act 207 Section 5 (1) by the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee.

The committee is made up of the Chief Justice of Nigeria as the Chairman, the Attorney-General of the Federation, one justice of the Supreme Court (chosen by the CJN and Attorney General of the Federation for a term of two years renewable on one occasion only), the President of the Court of Appeal, and five chief judges of states (chosen by the CJN and the Attorney General of the Federation for a term of two years renewable on one occasion only), the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court and five legal practitioners who are SANs (chosen by the CJN and the AGF on a term of two years renewable on one occasion only).

SAN is the equivalent of the rank of Queen’s Counsel in the United Kingdom, from which Nigeria became independent in 1960. Several countries use similar designations such as Senior Counsel, President’s Counsel, State Counsel, Senior Advocate, and President’s Advocate.

The title was first conferred on deserving legal practitioners in Nigeria on April 3, 1975. The recipients were Chief F.R.A. Williams and Dr Nabo Graham-Douglas, both now late.

Since 1975, a varying number of advocates in Nigeria have consecutively been conferred with the rank, with the exception of years 1976, 1977 and 1994.

The award has however been extended to lawyers in the academics who are regularly paying their practicing fees. But transactional lawyers are exempted from enjoying the rank.

The newly admitted SANs are the first set of lawyers Justice Ariwoola-led LPPC is privileged to appoint.

Benefits of SAN Rank

Being a rank that attracts many applicants yet only a handful get selected, it is expected that the rank will come with certain benefits. Section 6 (1) of the Legal Practitioner Act (LPA) specifically provides that all courts of law in Nigeria before which legal practitioners are entitled to appear shall accord to every law officer specified in this section (i.e. SAN) the following rights and privileges: The exclusive right to sit in the inner bar or, where no facilities exist for an inner bar, on the front row of seats available for legal practitioners and the right to mention any motion in which he is appearing or any other cause or matter which is on the list for mention and not otherwise listed for hearing out of its turn on the cause list.”

Besides, a SAN is entitled to wear the full bottom wig (usually reserved for ceremonial occasions) and a silk gown. He also has the exclusive right to bear the letters “SAN” immediately after his or her name.

Consequentially, individuals and corporate bodies who want quick and meaningful results for the professional fees they to pay to lawyers have most times settled for SANs while fat briefs are their exclusive preserve.

Burden of a SAN

However, a SAN shall not appear as counsel or apply for or issue originating process or any other process from or before a court in any civil case before any superior court of record except with a junior or with another SAN while he is also not expected to be engaged or agree to be engaged in drafting any instrument where the appropriate or prescribed fees are less than a particular figure

In practical terms, to be able to hire a SAN as legal representative, one’s pocket must be deep, considering that the lawyer’s rise to the rank could only have come at a great cost to his person and resources.

Besides, the title of ‘SANship‘ is not forever. A SAN can be stripped of the title for any alleged misconduct pending the determination of any disciplinary action.

Vanguard reports that a former Attorney-General of the Federation, Chief Mike Kaase Andoakaa, SAN was on October 7, 2010 from wearing the SAN rank pending investigations of a petition submitted by the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) requesting his removal from the list of SANs in the country. Another SAN, Chief Ajibola Aribisala (SAN) was also suspended in 2013 when Fidelity Bank Plc said it engaged him to recover a N500million debt, but that he allegedly unilaterally deducted N163million as his fee without the knowledge of the bank.

Desperation to wear silk

According to a lawyer, Abdulrasheed Ibrahim, “The reality on the ground today is that the Legal Profession in Nigeria has become a big kind of cow that only very few of its members are milking.”

He argued that following the various benefits of wearing the SAN rank, there is so much craze in the legal profession for the title, adding that there were applicants for the rank who were even ready to pay any price for it including buying judgments from their colleagues to boost the number of cases to be submitted to the Legal Practitioner Privilege Committee so as to have the title conferred on them.

Indeed, a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen while swearing-in the new set of the Senior Advocates of Nigeria during the 2018/2019 legal year of the Supreme Court said: “I have to point out the fact that in the just concluded exercise, some applicants were found to have engaged in dishonourable conduct such as forgery of judgment, resulting in their being reported to the police for investigation and possible prosecution. “If this kind of thing is happening, then how do you condemn or dismiss with the wave of hand those who are agitating for the abolition of the rank,” he added.

Complaints against the appointment procedure and purported abuse of its privilege

Vanguard’s Law & Human Rights reports that in August 2009 at the Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association in Lagos, Pa. Tunji Gomez, now late, had moved a historic motion to abolish the status of Senior Advocate of Nigeria a position which many lawyers embraced and the revolution began like the Arab spring.

An activist and lawyer, Tunji Abayomi, had a year later, in 2010 joined the call by some lawyers for the scrapping of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) titles, saying the title was no longer serving the purpose it was intended for.

Specifically, Abayomi argued that the award of SAN titles to lawyers has destroyed the very fundamentality of equality among lawyers, adding: “Is it an honour or a promotion? If it is an honour, why applying for it? Why lobby for it? On the other hand, if it is a promotion, it should be applicable to everybody because if you want to be a fellow of West African College of Physicians, you have to pass through examination.”

Guidelines for Appointment of Advocates and Academics as SAN

Although the guidelines for the award of the SAN rank might not be as strict as expected before, the LPC had severally amended it to such a level that it becomes extremely difficult for anybody’s name to enter its annual list without deserving it.

For instance, as an advocate, Paragraph 14 of the LPPC guidelines provides that an applicant must submit 20 final judgments of the High Court or Superior Court of Records, 12 of which must be trial proceedings substantially conducted by the applicant; 5 final judgments of the Court of Appeal; and 4 final judgments of the Supreme Court while the cases must bear his name and signature as having duly conducted the said cases in court as lead counsel within ten years preceding the application, in order to show that the applicant is currently engaged in full time legal practice and is abreast with current developments in the field of law.

The guideline further stipulates that three of the cases must be pro bono cases conducted for indigent citizens who could not otherwise afford the financial cost of engaging a counsel.

Besides, the candidate must furnish the certified true copies of the record of proceedings to show his or her personal conduct of the trial, furnish a letter of instruction from the client, the recommendation and confirmation of the Judge that handled the case and the recommendation and confirmation of the opposing counsel in the case!

For candidates seeking the title from the academia, section 18 (1) provides, “In any given year the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee may in appropriate circumstances appoint an academic who has distinguished himself and has made substantial contribution to legal scholarship and jurisprudence through teaching, research and published works in any Nigerian University, Research Institute, Nigerian Law School and other Recognized Institutions.

Besides, such a candidate under this category shall furnish at least 15 copies of his published works to the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee along with his application while Section 9 (3) also provides that “Every candidate shall pay a non-refundable processing fee as may be determined by the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, any person who had held the title of QC may apply for the rank of SAN and such application will be favourably considered by the Committee and the rank will accordingly be conferred.

Outside the requirements outlined above, every applicant for the conferment of the rank of SAN is expected to possess the following basic qualities: good character and reputation, honesty, integrity, sound knowledge of the law and ability. 

According a respected member of the inner bar, Mr Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN, the guideline is so strict that with its religious observance, it would be practically impossible to see a name on the list of SANs every year that will not merit the Rank.

“No matter his background or experience, for a lawyer to produce 20 final judgments of the High Court is not a tea party, that is if you know what I know as a practicing lawyer, in Lagos State for instance.

“Anyone who has successfully conducted twelve trial proceedings up to judgment is not just qualified to be a Senior Advocate of Nigeria but can also be a Judge.

“Believe me, it is no child’s play to secure five final judgments of the Court of Appeal or four final judgments of the Supreme Court. What the LPPC has done is to stick to these minimum standards, irrespective of your status.

“This is in addition to a well-equipped library, functional infrastructure in the law office, payment of tax, involvement in and recommendation by the Nigerian Bar Association, Judges, Justices, Body of Senior Advocates, Body of Benchers, the LPDC, etc.

“This same rigorous process is also entrenched for candidates in the academic category, who go through a very detailed regime of qualification and filtration.

“The involvement of the general public in this process has guaranteed some form of transparency, whereby the names of shortlisted candidates are published to the whole world for comments and assessment.

“For me personally, any legal practitioner who has gone through these rigid procedures to be shortlisted for the oral interview of the LPPC is eminently qualified to be awarded the Rank of SAN, as a mark of distinction and excellence in the legal profession, ” Adegboruwa, SAN added.

Flowing from above, it can be inferred that the creation of the SAN rank appears to be a blessing rather than a curse to legal profession in that it has compelled many lawyers who aspire to wear rank to do their best to walk their way to the top while those who have been awarded do not have the luxury to abuse the privilege as they could be stripped of the rank and its accompanying privileges.

Source: Vanguard

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