President Muhammadu Buhari yesterday urged lawyers to back his admistration’s fight against corruption and impunity.
The President, who acknowledged the lawyers’ professional responsibility of defending their clients, urged them to do so without compromising their professional ethics and the integrity of the legal system – no matter how lucrative the brief may be.
President Buhari spoke in Abuja last night at the opening of the 55th Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).
The cream of the legal profession, including Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (SAN) and Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Justice Mahmud Mohammed, were at the ceremony.
He urged lawyers to see corruption as a gross violation of people’s rights, because pervasive corruption in the country has continued to deny the people access to basic needs.
“For the masses of our people, the millions still wallowing in want and diseases, corruption is a major reason why they cannot go to school; why they cannot be gainfully employed; and why there are few doctors, nurses and drugs in their hospitals and health centers.
“It is the reason why pensioners are not paid and potable water is scarce. In effect, corruption diverts public resources meant for millions of people into the private pockets of a greedy few, thereby causing a lot of suffering, deprivation and death. In my view, there can be no greater violation of human rights.
“Viewed in this way, I think we can all fully appreciate the gravity of this oppressive and destructive evil. This should rouse us to fight it with the same zeal and doggedness as we deploy in the defense of fundamental rights.
“I am convinced that law, law-makers, lawyers, law courts and the law enforcement agencies all have pivotal responsibilities to discharge, if the change we seek is ever to materialise.
“As you all know by now, this administration has taken on the challenge of improving security, fighting corruption and revamping the economy, among many others.
“The fight against corruption is in reality a struggle for the restoration of law and order. Corruption and impunity become widespread when disrespect for law is allowed to thrive in the society. Disrespect for law also thrives when people get away with all sorts of shady deals and the court system is somehow unable to check them.
“Ability to manipulate and frustrate the legal system is the crowning glory of the corrupt and, as may be expected, this has left many legal practitioners and law courts tainted in an ugly way.
“In a gathering such as this, I do not need to elaborate on the way that corruption and impunity have damaged our economy. But I would like to say more on what, I believe, should be your role as legal practitioners, in helping us back to the path of rectitude.
“First, we need to make our courts functional and effective again. This means that we must have lawyers who take the ethics of the profession very seriously; lawyers who will not frustrate the course of justice, even though they defend their clients with all legitimate means and resources.
“Nigeria needs ethical lawyers who always keep the end of justice in mind and will never sacrifice the integrity of the legal system to cover the misdeeds of their clients, no matter how lucrative the brief may be,” the President said.
President Buhari, who noted that a functional court system will aid the nation’s quest for foreign investment, said the current regime, where simple civil cases take ages to be resolved in court discourages investments.
He assured of his administration’s willingness to support needed legal reforms to enhance the effectiveness of the court system.
“Increased engagement with the outside world is called for as we seek public private partnerships in our quest for enhanced capital and expertise.
“There is no doubt that all these depend on enforceable agreements and a reliable legal system. Contracts are only good to the extent that they are enforceable without undue delay.
“If by the default of lawyers or the law courts, it is found that cases take ages to conclude or that the judicial system is somehow corruptible, we obviously cannot attract the kind of partnerships which we need or which our large vibrant economy would ordinarily have attracted.
“The world today has been correctly described as a global village. Capital and expertise are readily mobile. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn between our country and others when the choice of where to do business is being made.
“Our current position in this respect is not good enough. Our process for obtaining licenses and permits are too slow. It takes too long a time to enforce contracts in our law courts and our regulatory and administrative processes are not noticeably predictable or efficient.
“In all these lawyers have a key role to play, whether in the reform of our laws and regulation or in the integrity of our judicial systems.
“It is my fervent hope that this conference and other fora of lawyers and non-lawyers will closely and quickly work out ways of making our legal system much improved in terms of integrity, the human touch, efficiency and rigorous dedication to the cause of justice,” the President said.
Chief Justice Mohammed, who assured the President of the support of the Judiciary, blamed the delay in court proceedings mainly on lawyers.
The CJN, who assured that the on-going reforms in the Judiciary will be sustained, sought an enhanced collaboration between the Bench and the Bar for the court to effectively play its role of justice dispensation.
“This is a very good sign of the cooperation that has developed between the Judiciary and Legal Profession on the one hand and the Executive branch on the other.
“Rest assured we shall strengthen our own efforts by giving full support to our President in laying a solid foundation for good governance in accordance with the Constitution and the Rule of Law.
“A major criticism of our system of justice delivery in Nigeria is the incessant delays in the administration of justice.
“Lawyers now insist on pursuing cases and interlocutory appeals based on nebulous points of law, regardless of the length of time or the expense involved in doing so to the detriment of their clients.
“Whilst it must be acknowledged that our Judiciary is not perfect, we cannot overlook the role of counsel in facilitating the onset of delay.
“As we all are aware, delay in most instances are either occasioned by the lack of diligent prosecution of a case, antics of counsel such as the use of interlocutory appeals to stall and frustrate a legitimate expectation of justice, or indolence on the part of some Judges.
“My learned colleagues this state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue. It is one thing to talk the talk, but I am also determined to walk the talk.
Justice Mohammed, who stressed the need for enhanced deployment of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools to enhance court operations, noted that the reforms recently introduced in the judges appointment process was yielding results and will, in no distance future eliminate indolent and unqualified judges from the Bench.
“It is for this reason that, as part of our determined effort to ensure that our Judicial Officers are alert to their responsibilities, the National Judicial Council has constituted an Inspection and Monitoring Committee for on-the–spot assessment of Judicial Officers on duty.
“As we continue to fish out and discipline indolent and lazy Judges by showing them the way out of the system, we must also acknowledge and praise those judges that are diligent and hardworking. To this end, the NJC’s Judicial Officers Performance Evaluation Committee has also been strengthened to perform its functions,” the CJN said.
He called for enhanced financial allocation to the Judiciary to enable it meets the expectation o the society. He also frowned at the increasing rate at which lawyers write frivolous petitions against judges, when they ought to utilise available avenue of appealing decisions they are not comfortable with.
He said henceforth, only petitions that dwell on abuse of ethical conduct and are supported with sufficient evudence would be treated by the National Judicial Council (NJC).
The CJN, who urged lawyers not to rely solely on litigation as a means of resolving disputes, called for more application of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanisms as a way of decongesting the regular courts.
”We must all work in unison to address the problems militating against our collective drive for quick disposition of cases and speedy administration of justice.
“To our colleagues on the Bench, I wish to appeal for total commitment and due diligence in the performance of our duties. We must eschew indolence and resist the evil temptation of corrupt enrichment, ensuring that we uphold the right of our citizens to fair hearing within a constitutionally prescribed period.
“I believe that where there is a unity of purpose by the Bar and Bench then discordant attitudes will be sifted out. ”That is why we must all speak with a unified voice after this Conference, regardless of what differing opinions we may have had at the start of it. ”There must be greater emphasis on working in tandem to provide speedy dispensation of justice, engender rule of law and endue our citizens with a healthy respect for the institutions of the Judiciary. To put it bluntly, it is time for the Legal Profession to revisit the issue of justice.
“I must re-iterate that the legal system and by extension, the Legal Profession must see to it that Justice is done. Key to this are the twin virtues of excellence and anticipation.
“We must attain mastery of the challenges that face us, develop the knowledge to tackle those challenges and ensure that the more we gain, the more we desire to achieve.
“I therefore believe that by working together, we can take the necessary steps towards ensuring a world class legal system,” the CJN said.
The NBA President Augustine Alegeh (SAN) commended both the President and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo for gracing the occasion.
He assured the President of the support of the Bar in the government’s anti-corruption efforts.