Legal practice in Nigeria

Modernising legal practice in Nigeria


Chairman, Nigerian Bar Association, Mr. Okey Wali
| credits: File copy
In 1862, the British colonial administration introduced a system of courts akin to those found in the British system in order to create an organised legal profession which would gradually familiarise the country with English laws and procedure.

Legal training in Nigeria has traditionally been divided into three phases: 1876-1914, 1914-1962 and 1962 to date. During the period, 1876-1914, two categories of lawyers, namely, the local attorney and the professionally qualified attorney undertook legal work in Nigeria. The Supreme Court Ordinance empowered the Chief Justice of Nigeria to grant temporary licence to admit fit and proper persons to practice as local attorneys. To qualify for such a licence the applicant must sit for an examination to test his general education and knowledge as well as principles and practice of law and show good moral character testified to by a judge or two District Commissioners. The licence to practice was usually for six months and renewable subject to good moral character. The power to grant such licence was discretional.

The second category of lawyers that practised during this period was the professionally qualified lawyers. The professionally qualified lawyers were those who were qualified to practice as Barristers or Solicitors in England and enrolled in the Supreme Court of Nigeria. To qualify to practice as a Barrister in England at that time, a person must pass the Part I and Part II of the Bar Examination, join one of the four Inns of Court, and keep terms by dining in his Inn. Similarly, to qualify to practice as Solicitor, a person must enroll as a student with the Law Society, serve a period of pupilage – article for a minimum of four years with a practicing Solicitor and pass Parts I and II of the Law Society qualifying examination. It is worthy of note that the first Nigerian Barrister was Christopher Alexander Sapara-Williams. It is also noteworthy that prior to 1945, lawyers trained in England had no law degree until the University College, London started law degrees in that year.

The nature of legal practice during this period was aptly captured by Adewoye thus:

“…of the seven men who served as chief magistrates for Lagos between 1862 and 1905, only three had legal qualifications. Of the remaining four, two were ‘writing clerks’, one was a merchant and the fourth was a commander of the West Indian garrison stationed in Lagos. Also, 14 served as police magistrates in the same period. Of these, four were merchants, six were military officers, two were colonial surgeons, one was a retired naval officer and one was a deputy collector of customs.”

One might be tempted to ask the nature of private legal practice in Nigeria during this period. In the words of Doherty, “There were no legally qualified private legal practitioners to render services to the business community and the community at large”.

However, the year 1913 was remarkable because it was the beginning of the legal profession and legal practice in Nigeria and those who trained overseas as Barristers and Solicitors joined the profession as legal practitioners.

In 1914, the Supreme Court Ordinance 1914 replaced the Supreme Court Ordinance of 1876. This marked the second phase of legal training in Nigeria. During the second phase, the professionally qualified lawyers monopolised legal practice in Nigeria. This was so because enrolment was restricted to qualified lawyers only.

Clearly, the legal training in the UK then did not take into account the Nigerian legal System especially our customary law and the strong influence of Islamic law. Accordingly, in 1959 the Unsworth Committee was set up by the Federal Government of Nigeria and the recommendations of the Committee included setting up of the Nigerian Law School in Lagos and establishing a Faculty of Law in University College, Ibadan. Based on the recommendations, in November 1961, a board was constituted to make arrangements for the establishment of the Nigerian Law School. This was accepted by the Government and the Legal Education Act, 1962 was passed under which the Council of Legal Education was set up.[4] Unfortunately, the recommendation of the Unsworth Committee that a Faculty of Law be established at the University College, Ibadan was not accepted by the government. However, in 1961, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka established the Faculty of Law – the first in the country. The rest of this chapter will be devoted to the consideration of the third phase, namely, 1962 to date.

At the very beginning, the Law School consisted of just one campus in Lagos but over the years, particularly under the present administration, there has been a significant increase in the number of campuses to wit: (Lagos, Abuja, Enugu, Kano, Yenegoa and Yola). In the last 50 years since the advent of the Nigerian Law School, the pattern has basically remained the same. Students with a law degree from an approved university are qualified for admission into the Law School ,where they are trained professionally. These students are required to pass the Bar Part II Examinations. There are presently over 30 Law Faculties contained within various Nigerian universities to prepare students for the Nigerian Law School. Students who are admitted into the school with degrees obtained outside Nigeria are required to pass the Bar Part 1 examination. Persons who have completed the professional training offered by the Nigerian Law School are entitled by Section 4 of the Legal Practitioners Act to be formally called to the Nigerian Bar and are issued a certificate authorising them to practice law in the country by the Body of Benchers. This certificate can be withdrawn by the same Body for reasons usually related to gross misconduct and fraud.

After they have been called to the Bar, they are qualified to practice as Barristers and Solicitors of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and have the right of appearance in any Court in Nigeria among other privileges (signing of conveyance documents, statutory declaration of compliance at the Corporate Affairs Commission etc). They also consequently become members of the Nigerian Bar Association and are bound by the rules of that Body as well as the Rules of Professional Conduct which serve as a check on the attitude of lawyers whether they are in court or not.

Practice is also regulated by rules of courts, the Nigerian Constitution and various other enactments which govern specific aspects of law (The Criminal Code and The Criminal Procedure Act, the Penal Code and The Criminal Procedure Code, The Companies and Allied Matters Act and the various High Court Civil Procedure Rules). Those who are hardworking and dedicated may become judges after having spent at least 10 years at the Bar (In the case of High Court judges), 12 years (In the case of Court of Appeal judges) and 15 years (In the case of Supreme Court judges). Those who prefer to stay at the Bar, may after fulfilling the conditions, apply to be made Senior Advocates of Nigeria.

All these innovations are efforts to ensure that legal practice in Nigeria remains competitive and up to date when viewed against what obtains in other countries of the world. Unfortunately, it now lags behind the leading countries of the world in several areas and these are the issues that should be addressed if legal practice in Nigeria is to conform to modern times.

Challenges slowing down the modernisation of legal practice in Nigeria

As already stated, legal practice in Nigeria faces some obstacles which have prevented its modernisation. Each challenge will be identified and analysed, after which solutions will be suggested. Some of the challenges have been with us for quite some time while others are more recent occurrences.

To be continued

Excerpts from a lecture delivered by Gadzama, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, at the 2013 State of the Legal Profession Lecture of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, in Abuja.


One thought on “Legal practice in Nigeria

  1. Pingback: Lawyer–Solicitor–Advocate–Barrister–Counselor–And-An-Attorney | opiesnoopie

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