Becoming the first minority ethnic lawyer to be the Chairperson of the Association of Women Solicitors in the UK in its over 80 years history is certainly no mean feat. However, becoming the first ever female and first black person to be elected President of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, may be an even greater feat. However, Mrs. Boma Ozobia, in her unassuming nature, shrugs off her unique achievements as a mixture of focus and fate. She spoke with Mrs. Onikepo Braithwaite, Jude Igbanoi and Tobi Soniyi in a chat last week, about her passion to see the legal profession in Nigeria move to greater heights; and also about her recommendations for a rancour free succession in the leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association
Recently, the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria called for the NBA to nominate lawyers for the position of Supreme Court Justices. 9 lawyers, including 6 Senior Advocates, have been nominated. What do you think of this step by the Acting CJN? What do you think informed his decision to make this move? Do you think that any of these lawyers will actually make it to the Supreme Court via this call?
It’s an excellent initiative. The Acting CJN has shown that he is willing to think outside the box and that has to be a good thing. The Nigerian Bar Association, I understand, has been advocating for this for a while and no doubt that may well have influenced the Acting CJN’s decision in this regard. There is a school of thought that is worried about lawyers coming straight from the Bar to the highest level on the Bench. I am not. It has been done successfully in other common law jurisdictions such as England and Wales where we borrowed this system of law from, and coming to Africa, in Kenya. In fact, Kenya appointed an academic who had never served as a judge as it’s Chief Justice. We too, have done so successfully in the past with Sir Taslim Elias who was appointed CJN without ever serving as a judge previously. As to whether the lawyers will actually make it to the Supreme Court via this call, I don’t see why not! The NBA has certainly put our best foot forward with this shortlist and I think that they are all very well qualified to serve. The difficulty is of course, the constitutional limitation on numbers that can be appointed to the Supreme Court, which is a maximum of 21 and the CJN.
Has anything good come out of the October, 2016 DSS Raids on the Judges so far? What do you think that Government can do to curb corruption in the Judiciary? Recently, it was reported that Federal Judges were being owed their salaries for some months. Certainly, this can only exacerbate corruption as opposed to curtailing it. After all, Judges also have families to feed and bills to pay.
The DSS raids on the homes of our jurists diminished us all! I was so sad. It felt like the world was coming to an end. However, I think the NJC with the support of the NBA has done the right thing by nudging the judges involved to recuse themselves from presiding over cases, until the allegations against them are either proved or dismissed. We must always act in the best interest of the litigating public and ensure that nothing we do undermines public confidence in the judiciary. From that perspective, we have done the right thing for the Nigerian citizen. As for what government can do to curb corruption in the judiciary, government, meaning the executive arm, can stay away and stop meddling in the appointment process for starters, ensure that the budgetary allocation to the judiciary is adequate and promptly disbursed, and the Court infrastructure, regularly upgraded and adequately maintained.
Do you agree with the point of view that compared with their counterparts in other parts of the world, our Judges are overworked and grossly underpaid and that this fact alone makes for temptation on the part of Judges to be corrupt?
Absolutely! Overworked and under paid. I have been advocating better working conditions and remuneration for our judges for many years now. At both State and Federal level. Visit the Federal High Court, Ikoyi and see for yourself the conditions under which our jurists work, it is unacceptable! On the temptation to be corrupt, I will simply say that you are not corrupt because you are tempted, but rather, you are tempted because you are corrupt!
You were the President of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA) from 2011–2013. What purpose, in your opinion, do International Legal bodies like yours serve? What contributions would you say that you made to the Nigerian legal profession and the global legal landscape during your term in office?
The CLA exists to promote the rule of law in the 54 member Countries and standards in the legal profession. It is a very useful and effective advocate especially when it throws its weight behind the national Bar associations, it can keep the executive in check. For instance, during my tenure, our efforts certainly went a long way in assisting the Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and Ugandan Bar Associations in protecting the Judiciary from an over bearing Executive arm of government. Likewise in the Maldives and more recently Malaysia. Contributions to the Nigerian legal profession? I cannot be a judge in my own case, so this is a question better answered by my colleagues in this jurisdiction.
The 2017 CLA Conference is scheduled to hold in Melbourne, Australia in just a few weeks. What should Nigerians expect at this year’s Conference? Do you agree that membership of these International Organisations such as the CLA is elitist, at least for Nigerians, as many lawyers are unable to afford to travel to these destinations for conferences? What advice can you offer to younger lawyers who are keen to attend these conferences and network on an international level like the senior lawyers do, on raising funds to attend?
CLA conferences are always very informative and a useful tool for comparative analysis of jurisprudence from fellow common law jurisdictions. The Melbourne Conference will be no different. As usual we will have participation from all 54 member Countries and more. The program covers many issues we are currently grappling with in Nigeria including terrorism, human trafficking and other such issues. Naturally, with a theme this year that refers to “thriving in a global world” there are also plenty of topics covering commercial law and practice. The CLA elitist? Far from it! It is better described as an activist organisation, working very closely with other civil society groups for the good of our society. Yes, Melbourne is a long way from here and therefore costlier than most of our conference destinations if you are travelling from Nigeria, or indeed almost any other part of the world apart form New Zealand. The good news is that, the conference moves around the various continents. Prior to Melbourne, It was Glasgow and before that, Cape Town in South Africa. Hopefully the next one will be nearer to us and more affordable. Despite the cost, I would urge young lawyers to save on non-essentials and invest in their professional development by attending these conferences.
You once recommended the Commonwealth Lawyers Association succession model to the Nigerian Bar Association. In your opinion, could the crisis that trailed the last NBA elections have been avoided if your recommendation was taken and followed?
I did, and still do. It aids continuity and means that we are able to plan in 3 – 5 years spans with the buy-in of the incoming leadership, since the incoming President would have served as Vice President for two years and been part of the leadership of the predecessor. It is the same model adopted by the Bar Council and Law Society of England and Wales.
You were able to achieve the feat of becoming the first minority ethnic lawyer to be the Chairperson of the Association of Women Solicitors in the UK. How did you make it happen, since you were the first in over 80 years, since the Association’s inception. Did you meet with much opposition?
Well, similar to the CLA, the Association of Women Solicitors had the same convention. If you are elected vice chairwoman, then you were likely to be the next chairwoman. Although an election is conducted, the convention is that you are not opposed and therefore, the sole candidate for the position. I didn’t set out to become chairwoman or first ethnic minority chairwoman, I wanted to make a difference and contribute positively to equality issues in the profession. Equal pay for women solicitors and their male colleagues doing the same work. The gender pay gap was 27%! In the United Kingdom. Flexible working hours to enable better work life balance was also a bee in my bonnet and these issues led to me engaging with the AWS, working to contribute my quota and eventually being elected as the Chairwoman.
You practiced as a Solicitor in the UK for several years. Could you highlight some of the differences you have noticed between practice here and in the UK? Are there any leaves that we can borrow from the British book to improve our own legal system? How would you rate the rule of law in Nigeria?
The most glaring area of difference for me is really in the pre-trial processes and the almost total lack of professional accountability on our part. In England, the pre – trial or house keeping matters are dealt with almost exclusively by the Registry rather than the Judge. This saves precious time, so that the Judge can focus on the substance rather than procedure. We spend far too much time litigating the margins, clogging up the courts and slowing down the process with interlocutory applications, nitpicking on process and appealing these peripheral issues back and forth at the expense of substantive justice. It was once like that in England too, and this led to delays, similar to or perhaps even worse than we have in our system today. They have reformed and improved, and we should too.
Another leaf which I would commend to us, is the practice in England where you as the lawyer, are held accountable for wasting the Court’s time, rather than your client. If the judge ever has course to ask you in an English Court, ‘have you advised you client?’ you better go back and double check that your claim or defence has a sound footing in law. Otherwise, you may find that costs in the case, which, can be very substantial – as the award is usually the actual cost and not a token as we get in Nigeria – will be awarded against you the lawyer! And serves you right too.
Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, has been away in England for over a month for ‘medical leave’. He has extended his trip twice. Do you think that his travel issue was handled properly by Government? Nigerians are saying that they have a right to know what is wrong with him and do not want to be kept in the dark, like in the late President Yar’Adua’s time. What is the position of the law on this issue? Do Nigerians have a right to know or does the President have a right to his privacy? Do you think that his absence may be having a negative impact on the country?
It is a fine balance between the right to privacy and the citizens’ right to information. I don’t see a comparison with the late President Yar’Adua at all. In this case, a letter and a further letter have been transmitted to the NASS and the Vice President is the Acting President, so constitutional requirements have been met. Beyond that, similar to the misconception that the Freedom of Information Act gives citizens the right to intrude into the private space of public servants, the fact that Muhammadu Buhari is the President of Nigeria does not give us the right to invade his privacy. He has fulfilled the spirit and the letter of the law and that is all that is required of him at this point in time.
Your books, Sisters in Law, and Survival Manual for New Wigs, which young lawyers confessed that they have really benefited from are not on the bookshelves. What are you doing about this?
Sisters in Law was published in England and is currently out of print. Survival manual for New Wigs was published here by Odade Lexis Nexis as we referred to them at the time. I believe they have copies available as I bought some copies for young colleagues not too long ago.
There seems to be a preference for IBA conferences by Nigerians over CLA. Why? What is your advice?
The IBA is a different conference to the CLA conference, and I enjoy both, particularly the chance to network with my Nigerian colleagues, as we do tend to attend the IBA in large numbers like you rightly pointed out. So, I attend both if my schedule and budget allows, but if I have to choose, I prefer the CLA conference. I find the topics covered are all relevant to my practice because it is a common law conference and I practice solely in common law jurisdictions.
Coming from Britain, a jurisdiction where bribery and corruption is not prevalent, how have you coped in Nigeria where judicial corruption is no longer strange?
I have to say that the perception, sadly for us, is far worse than the reality in my experience. And I’ll tell you how I know. I always weigh the chances of success before taking forward a claim or appealing against a decision of the trial court. That process of analysis and evaluation, invariably leads to a prognosis. So far, in the vast majority of the cases the outcome has been as predicted, which indicates to me that the judge has been persuaded solely by the evidence before the Court and not by some other extraneous factors.
You made history as the first woman to have been President of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and unarguably did Nigeria proud. But how do you feel that only once has a woman been given the chance to lead the Nigerian Bar Association, even then, not through an election but ascension?
That’s most kind, thank you! As someone once said, ‘Power is not biscuit.’ No one is going to hand it to you. I would like to see more women in leadership positions in the Bar and in the wider society. But we have to be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve this. Get involved. Build relationships and strategic alliances, and more importantly, believe in our abilities.