By Romanus Okoye
The immediate past Attorney-General of Lagos State, Mr. Adeniji Kazeem, SAN, after a momentous tenure in office spoke recently on sundry issues, including the raging controversy on remote court hearings, some of his experiences in office and his expectations of the next President of the Nigerian Bar Association.
There has been a raging controversy on the legality of remote hearings. What are your views?
I am a firm advocate of the use of technology in dispensing justice and I strongly believe that it is an idea whose time has come. The major bone of contention over the legality of remote hearings had been about whether virtual or remote court proceedings meet the requirements of Section 36 (3) of our Constitution, which states that court proceedings shall be held in public. As you may be aware, the technology that will be used to achieve virtual hearings allows virtual proceedings to be streamed over the internet in real time or recorded and disseminated online afterwards. By the very nature of the internet, there is nothing in the world we live in now that is more public than information online. Therefore, engaging in lengthy debate over whether virtual proceedings, easily available over the internet, can be considered to be as accessible to the public as a physical courtroom for the purposes of satisfying the principles of open justice under section 36 (3) will, respectfully, only dissipate our energies unnecessarily. It may also cause us to lose sight of the larger issues involved in integrating technology into the fabric of our judiciary in a sustainable way, such that our court system can match or exceed the advances already taking place in the rest of the world. Once the proper infrastructure is installed to ensure that witnesses and suspects are captured and members are able to freely join or view such proceedings, then the requirements of Section 36 (3) will be satisfied.
Other issues have been raised about the practicality of virtual proceedings and whether requirements on procedure and evidence can be accommodated in remote proceedings. Such requirements involve the need of the judge to observe closely and clearly the demeanor of witnesses at trial and the need to prevent teleguiding of the witnesses. My response to that is that these are not issues that are insurmountable. What must be kept in mind at all times is that technology is a tool to be used to implement justice and not to supplant it. It is only when a tool is put to use and not avoided that challenges in its design can be observed and corrected to suit its purpose. In England, for example, the remote access guidelines that were made for the Court of Protection at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic require a minimum bandwidth speed of 1.5 megabytes per second in both directions. At that speed the judge is able to observe proceedings more clearly as if in a physical courtroom.
The election of a new President of the Nigerian Bar Association comes up next month. What leadership traits do you think an aspiring President of the Bar should have?
I believe that an aspiring President must possess maturity, humility, wealth of experience, willingness to embrace technology and a vast network of contacts well beyond his immediate practice zone which are usual critical success factors for any endeavor such as this. I understand that there are four candidates who have indicated interest in being President of the Bar. Out of the current candidates, Mr. Dele Adesina SAN has personally reached out to me to lay out his vision for the Bar if elected. He pointed out several of the innovations that were introduced during his tenure as General Secretary of the Bar particularly the creation of sections and the stamp and seal. I found our discussion very enriching and it was clear that he had garnered a lot of the critical key leadership traits from his extensive involvement with the Bar and his practice that clearly would give him a head start should he succeed in his aspiration. Based on my interaction with him I have no doubt that he is eminently qualified for the position of President of the Nigerian Bar Association.
Young lawyers are said to be very badly paid, do you agree?
Remuneration of lawyers and indeed the young ones has always been a very emotive issue and there can be a tendency for grandstanding by the uninformed. However, if you run a proper organisation you will know that remuneration figures that have no reference to a Firm’s income and expenditure is unsustainable. Nonetheless a living wage for lawyers and non -lawyers, young or old is very desirable and Law Firms must be formally encouraged to set salaries that are bench marked to a decent standard of living index. I personally take the approach that practising lawyers who are focused on their jobs are endangered species that must be vigorously protected.
What was your experience with Staff during your tenure as Attorney-General and Commissioner of Justice of Lagos State?
My experience in the Attorney General’s Chambers was that of pleasant surprise. I never realised that there were so many talented people in government service. Their experience levels are so deep and varied that I often pondered on the sometime negative public perception of Government lawyers. However, I found out that constant motivation of the staff with the limited resources and opportunities at one’s disposal was key and with that in mind you can achieve a lot. I found my tenure to be a largely wonderful experience working with great people. Any aspiring President must ensure that the welfare of the government lawyers including a clear-cut career progression scheme are put on the front burner because these are serious issues that must be addressed by NBA as a pressure group.
How would you rate the Nigerian Bar?
There is no doubt that the Nigerian Bar needs a constant upward review in the way it does its business but I must say that I have been impressed by the Paul Usoro SAN led NBA executive especially in the area of information dissemination, transparency and accountability. Global best practices on the use of technology and close monitoring and evaluation of law firms including discipline must be stepped up. The various law Firms both big and small are the constituent parts that make up the legal service industry and the NBA as driver must be at the forefront of supporting them to grow and sustain the emoluments and the livelihood they generate for both young and old lawyers. Law is a noble profession but it need not be stuffy and archaic so we must have a breath of fresh air. Therefore, a surgical overhaul of our rules, ethics and conduct is overdue and this too must be on the agenda of the new President.
Do you agree that the judiciary is underfunded?
As a child of the judiciary of some sorts I will always be sympathetic to their plight. The Judiciary is underfunded and over maligned. No doubt there are still unethical practices by a few therein but the majority are dedicated men and women committed to upholding the tenets of justice and they must be robustly supported. A situation where the judiciary is constantly being treated as the “poorer” junior brother of the three arms of Government is unacceptable and must be corrected. Happily, Lagos State has always been a leader in the welfare of its judiciary but I am sure there is still room for improvement. The next President must also be a champion of the cause of the judiciary and a strong defender when they cannot speak.
If you have to chose the NBA president, who will that be?
Mr. Dele Adesina SAN has personally reached out to me to lay out his vision for the Bar if elected. He pointed out several of the innovations that were introduced during his tenure as General Secretary of the Bar particularly the creation of sections and the stamp and seal. I found our discussion very enriching and it was clear that he had garnered a lot of the critical key leadership traits from his extensive involvement with the Bar and his practice that clearly would give him a head start should he succeed in his aspiration. Based on my interaction with him I have no doubt that he is eminently qualified for the position of President of the Nigerian Bar Association.