If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin” -Charlse Darwin (1809-1882).
One of the unpleasant realities that have over the years become a recurring decimal snowballing into the standard in citizen-government relationship, is that of a monstrous social injustice, administrative nonfeasance and the unwarranted flexing of administrative muscles in utter disregard of the interest of persons whom such nebulous relationship wield the shorter end of the bargaining stick; usually the masses. These odious and otiose acts and omissions have since taken for themselves a larger than life status and have found adequate accommodation in the quarters of Nigerian public institutions where governmental quangos who are routinely remunerated with tax payers money, carry on as Lords of the Manor who cannot be touched and whose crass dereliction of duty however inane, atrocious and unprofessional cannot be questioned or at best treated with kid gloves.
The situation is not helped when one comes to the realization that certain institutions which ought to set the standard for others to follow are also mired in the web of such administrative “anyhowness” and cruelty. And One such body which coincidentally forms the kernel of this intervention is : The Council of Legal Education?the sole body established to admit successful law graduates from accredited Nigerian universities and their foreign counterparts, train, and after having found them qualified in character and learning recommend them for Call to the Nigerian Bar by the Body of Benchers; the highest regulatory organ of the legal profession in Nigeria.
For starters, the Council of Legal Education (hereinafter refer to as the “CLE”), is a creation of statute having being established by the Legal Education Act of 1962 and further re-enacted 14 years later in 1976 with amendments relative to the composition of the Council and the appointment of the Director General of the law school?the academic organ of the council.
Section 2 of the Act clearly states the functions of the council namely:
“The Council shall have responsibility for the legal education of persons seeking to become members of the legal profession”.
Section 5 of same Act went further to state the conditions upon which an aspirant to the bar would be entitled to qualification for the certificate namely:
“A person shall be entitled to have a qualifying certificate issued to him by the council stating that he is qualified to be called to bar:
If he is a citizen of Nigeria
If he has, except where the council directs otherwise, successfully completed a course of practical training in the Nigerian Law School which (including the time spent in taking examination at the end but excluding any interval between the conclusion of the examination and the announcement of result thereof) lasted for a period fixed by the council as an academic year.
From the inception of the Nigerian Law School in 1962, it maintained a single campus in Lagos state up until 1994 when administrative convenience and the increasing number of aspirants to the Nigerian Bar, led it into floating another campus in Abuja. Since then, the campus has since produced millions of distinguished legal practitioners who both at home and in the Diaspora have continued to make the school proud through diligent professional practice, immense contributions to legal reforms, social advocacy, Human Rights activism and what not; all of which has served to sustain and develope the socio-political and economic life of Nigeria. Today, the campus is located across the six geo-political zones for administrative convenience; headed by Deputy Director Generals with the central organ of the campus currently located in Abuja, Federal Capital Territory.
We have attempted a brief deconstruction of the structure and management of the Nigerian Law School in the interest of the reader who may not be acquainted with its history, organizational structure and modest achievements.
The qualifying examination usually written at the end of the nine month rigorous program is notoriously called the “Bar Finals”— an examination very popular for the amount of awful result it can produce. Although in the last two academic sessions, a considerable level of improvement have been seen in the average performance of candidates; with the 2015/2016 class producing what unarguably could be called the best result in the chequered history of the exam.
Usually written between the hours of hours of 3-6 PM across the campuses, with the examination papers flown and returned to the headquarters in Abuja on each day of exams, the Bar Finals is arguably one of the most secured professional examinations written in the country with the lowest chance(s) of the questions leaking in any way ahead of the examinations. Myth has it to this day, that the questions are usually approved by the head of the campus on the day of each paper. Students are expected to attempt four broad questions among six, in the tiny space of three hours leading to many students being unable to attempt all the questions within the latitudinal window allowed; an often overlooked factor in consideration of the reasons for the recurring awful performance of students.
Apparently in a bid to protect and preserve the integrity of the examinations and to ensure that qualifying candidates are academically fit for the rigorous work of the typical lawyer, the CLE abhors exam malpractice(s) of whatever kind or manner like the plague and in its Exam regulations proscribes such act with a ten-year suspension from writing the exams if not outright dismissal and rustication—a penalty which has served to disabuse the mind of too many a candidate from engaging in any such act or omission that might set them up against the Council on allegations of malpractice.
That candidates have over the years?at least in the recent past shown good examination conduct is a fact recently attested to, by the current head of the Nigerian Law School, Mr. Olarenwaju Onadeko SAN. While addressing the Body of Benchers and other distinguished guests at the presentation of candidates for Call to the Nigerian Bar on Tuesday, October 20th and 21st 2015, he said,
“…On a positive note, I must acknowledge the waning disposition of our students to the various forms of examination malpractice of the past. This is commendable and bears testimony to the emphasis which we place on character ……we shall continue to encourage our students to strive for excellence at all times”.
As a young lawyer who sat for the “almighty” Bar Finals last year and got called to the largest bar in Africa on the 29th of November, 2016, I make bold to say that the Bar Finals is one such exam approached with total disinclination to any form of malpractice. Many students who passed through the exams would attest to not knowing who sat to their right or left throughout the duration of the tension-soaked academic showpiece, how much more engage any form of communication. Not with a swarm of internal and external invigilators gawking at you like The “Big Brother” in the Orwellian political satire, 1984. Hence why candidates are rarely caught in the act of any form of malpractice in the examination halls.
Against the backdrop of the aforesaid, it becomes worrying therefore that despite not apprehending students “ inflagrante delicto” during the examinations, the CLE, through the Nigerian Law School virtually every year withhold the result of a number of students in the name of having been involved in one form of malpractice or the other. These unfortunate students who become victims of a terrible stroke of circumstance are not communicated to throughout the six weeks duration of marking of scripts, moderation , collation and approval of results at least to defend or otherwise, their scripts; only to be communicated afterwards at the publication of results that their scripts are flagged or withheld for one form of malpractice or the other.
In the circumstance, these quite unlucky fellows miss out from the Call to the Bar ceremonies that succeeds the publication of results; are made to undergo psychological and emotional trauma that leads many of them into contemplation of suicide and substance abuse among a host of other asocial behavioral patterns that have scientifically been proven not to solve any problem. The females among them in most cases kiss goodbye to the profession while some contemplate marriage pending when the CLE jolts from their administrative slumber which it seldom does.
A senior colleague who sat for the Bar exams in 2015 and became a victim of this imagined and speculatory form of malpractice has had to sit at home in the past two years and counting without a clear definition of his professional status. One would have thought that such a sensitive and delicate issue would be treated with every urgency it begs, but it is regrettably lugubrious that the supposed panel of enquiry set up to look into the matter has sat just once with no logical determination of the logjam and no official communication from the CLE to these students or their parents/guardians as at the time of writing this piece.
Another colleague who sat for same exam last year at the Yola campus of the Law School, is currently engulfed in the web of such sweeping allegations among other victims too. In their own case, they are yet to face any such panel of enquiry where they’ll be expected to make representations that would guide the panel in coming to its verdict. He and other affected students are currently idling away at home while their colleagues have since announced their first appearance in the various courts of the federation?the highpoint in the professional career of any new wig.
The sad story of these two young men whose identities we have kept from the public domain for obvious reasons, mirrors the pains and anguish of many other such students who have had to forgo a career in law in same ugly circumstances.
One is not inclined to making a case for the allowance of exam malpractices in the Bar Finals or any other exam for that matter, but professional courtesy and due diligence demands that case(s) of such nature because of their ‘sensitivity’ should be treated with dispatch , as it tethers around the professional career of “unsuspecting” students who have spent a fortune materially and otherwise to earn a career in law. Torpedoing or foreclosing such dreams and aspirations through needless bureaucratic bottlenecks , nay administrative indolence, is to put it mildly, the greatest affront to their sensibilities and leaves a huge question mark on the good judgment of the council. For if the same Law school which every year inundate law students on the need and importance of a quick dispensation of justice are in themselves, the very antithesis of what they preach, then great is the plight of our justice system.
In the determination of justice, timing is always of the essence. A principle targeted at the attainment of even handed justice for litigants in the justice process and a fundamental right guaranteed in Section 36(1) of the 1999 constitution namely:
“In the determination of his civil rights and obligations, including any question or determination by or against any governemt or authority, a person shall be entitled to a fair hearing “WITHIN A REASONABLE TIME ” by court or other tribunal established by law and constituted in such manner as to secure it’s independence and impartiality” (emphasis mine).
Good enough, our courts have ad naseaum reiterated the need for, and the effect of Delay in the Dispensation of justice. In Okeke v. Federal Republic of Nigeria  9 NWLR pt 1145 94 C.A, the Court of Appeal Lagos Division , had this to say, “…A quick dispensation of justice is always paramount and of great essence. It is the duty of all parties as well as the courts to ensure that proceedings in a case and it’s determination are not unnecessarily delayed. For to do so would occasion hardship on hapless litigants….”
The Nigeria Law School should not hang on to the wide powers conferred on it by its enabling statute ala , Legal Education Act, 1976 to work mischief on innocent candidates cum aspirants to the Bar. Wide as the powers given to the Council in section 5 with regards to qualifying students for the Call, it is a cardinal principle of equity that such powers must be exercised or discharged judicially and judiciously since equity will not allow a statute to be used as an engine or cloak of fraud.
One also suspects that that the CLE consciously or unconsciously may be goaded in its administrative nonfeasance by the supreme court Judgment in Akintemi v Onwumechili (1985) 1 NWLR 68 to the effect that in matters which border on the award of academic degrees, diplomas and certificates and matters incidental thereto like exam malpractice, an aggrieved party, be he a student or lecturer should first exhaust all the internal machineries for redress available to him before a recourse to court and when he rushes to court without first exhausting all the remedies for redress available to him within the domestic forum, he would be held to have “jumped the gun” and the matter declared bad for incompetence .
Assuming, but without conceding that such is the case, then the CLE would also be in error for hanging onto an obviously generous decision of the Court to perpetuate injustice and a crass dereliction of duty. And what is more? The actions of the three law students of the University of Ife in the Akintemi case (supra) leading to the withholding of their results and subsequent suspension by the university authorities is completely different from those of these suspected victims of malpractice(s) in the instant case.
The Nigerian Law School is no doubt a respected academic institution and thus should not through a series of careless and needless acts and omissions tear to shreds its glowing and time honored reputation among the generality of Nigerians. The Director General of the Law School therefore, should do all within the ambits of its powers to set all the necessary machineries in motion to ensure a logical conclusion off all hangover cases of exam malpractices pending determination. And at the end of the process, let those who are found wanting face the consequences while those who receive a clean bill of health be immediately apologized to and recommended for the next Call to Bar pronto.
The current situation whereby they are left with their fate hanging on the balance and their professional career foreclosed almost sine die is most inhumane, unconscionable, atrocious and the worst form of man’s inhumanity to man.
The CLE must know that where all avenues of diplomacy and amicable resolution such as this fail, affected persons may be left with no other alternative but to approach the courts; the last hope of the common man to seek for reprieve and the necessary reliefs, the judgment of the court in the Akintemi’s case (supra) notwithstanding.
At law, the mantra is: Justice Delayed is Justice Denied and accordingly, though at the risk of sounding tautologious, the sole body responsible for the training of lawyers ought not be the grandmasters of the repudiation of same time honored principle of justice. May we also put it to the knowledge of the CLE that our judicial system is adversarial and not inquisitorial nor is it accusatorial. And therefore, suspicions of malpractice however grave, cannot be a conclusive proof of malpractice. The continued withholding of the results of candidates who sat for exams as with their colleagues, we dare say is a flagrant breach of the fundamental right of presumption of innocence as enshrined and guaranteed under section 36(5) of the 1999 constitution as altered by almost presuming them guilty even without having being heard thereby subjecting them to obvious ridicule in the eyes of rightly thinking members of the public. An act that falls short of the twin pillars of Natural Justice to wit: audi alterem patem and nemo judex in causa sua.
In the final analysis, the Rule of Law is not a loose concept reserved only for governments and the law courts but as well as every tribunal by whatever name called set up to look into a matter and of which the CLE panel on examination malpractice belongs to; and should be bounded by. There cannot be the much vaunted entrenchment of the Rule of Law and the eternal growth of our jurisprudence if such bodies persist in the unwholesome practices of condemning suspected persons on pre-conceived ideas or idiosyncracies. As such a spectacle forebode a gloomy and inhumane future for the trio of our legal system, man and country. These suspected victims of exam malpractice(s) ought to know their fate and the sooner that is done, the better; as the seemingly indifference to their plight is the worst sin towards them.
Let reason prevail. Enough said!
Nkannebe Raymond, a Lawyer and Public affairs commentator wrote in from Enugu.