Law  

‘SAN rank is the ultimate achievement for all of us at the bar’

Octogenarian law practitioner, life bencher and former chairman of Body of Benchers, Chief George Uwechue (SAN)

Chief George Uwechue was born in Ogwashi-Uku, Aniocha-South Local Council Area of Delta State on November 30, 1938. He was educated in Nigeria and the United Kingdom (UK) where he bagged his LLB (second-class honours) in 1965. At the completion of his law programme, he returned to Nigeria and enrolled at the Nigeria Law School between September and December 1965 and was called to the Bar on January 21, 1966.

He was appointed a Notary Public on September 27, 1975. On June 7, 1993, he was elevated to the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN).

Uwechue, a life bencher holds the fellowship of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS) and served as chairman, Body of Benchers, between 2010 and 2011.

He is the principal counsel of his firm of legal practitioners, G. N. Uwechue and Company since February 19, 1975.

In 2013, 35 professors of law led by Prof. M.O.U Gasiokwu published “Law in motion, nurturing democracy and development; essays in honour of Chief George Uwechue (SAN), (FNIALS), Owelle of Ogwashi Uku.”

There are lawyers who believe that the award of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) as a mark of distinction to selected members of legal practitioners is unfair. They argue that the rank should be abolished, insisting that undeserving members of the Bar get rewarded with it, while many qualified practitioners are left out.

For some, it creates a kind of cabal within the profession, while others think deserving lawyers should be awarded the rank without asking them to apply for it. But octogenarian law practitioner, life bencher and former chairman of Body of Benchers, Chief George Uwechue (SAN) in this interview with Assistant Editor, Law and Foreign Affairs, JOSEPH ONYEKWERE disagrees. According to him, the rank is still the ultimate achievement for all at the bar, irrespective of the numerous complaints.

What informed your decision to study law?

During our time, there were few professions that one could aspire to. The legal profession I admire greatly.

One lawyer then, the late Michael Agbamuche (SAN), was close to my parents and I watched him in court and felt it is the profession I could identify with. I saw him defending people who were in difficulty.

I told my father that I wanted to study law and Agbamuche recommended me to the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple.

He and one lawyer Thomas signed my forms. I left Nigeria in 1961 and I had no regret at all that I studied law.

Did you have another lawyer in your family at that time?

No, I was the first lawyer in Uwechue family. As a matter of fact, I attended St. Johns College, Kaduna, now Rimi College, Kaduna. I was the second lawyer from that college.

The first was John Ozor, who later became Justice Ozor (now deceased).

Who was your father?
My father was Edward Nwokocha-Ona Uwechue. He attended Government College, Umuahia. He was in the 1931 set with the late Senator Jaja Wachuku and one Wey who later joined the Nigerian Navy.

My father later did his senior Cambridge and joined the colonial service. He was a stenographer later and became the secretary to Sir Bryan Sharwood-Smith, who was the last colonial governor of Northern Nigeria. Because of the northernisation policy at that time, he was constrained to join the federal service and later retired.

My elder brother was Ambassador Raph Uwechue, who also attended the same St. John’s College, Kaduna. There, he was the senior prefect for five years. I was the senior prefect in 1957.

Share your experience with us as new wig? 

I was called to the Bar on a Friday and a well-known lawyer called me and asked me to hold his brief. So I appeared before the then Chief Justice of Lagos, Hon. Justice J.I.C Taylor.

When I appeared before him, I found out that I had to go back to develop the courage to practise law.

When I got there, I told him what my boss instructed me to do. I informed him that my boss had traveled and so subject to the convenience of the court, I would like to ask for a new date for the matter to be heard. His Lordship said, ‘counsel will you please go ahead’.

The matter was an appeal from the magistrate’s court. I told him ‘my Lord I was just called to the Bar last Friday’.

He said: “that made you a lawyer.” I didn’t know what to do. So I turned towards one Mr. Chigbue, who later became Hon. Justice Chigbue of the Court of Appeal and he whispered to me to withdraw my appearance.

So, I announced to the judge that I wished to withdraw my appearance in the matter. He said, “alright, I will strike out this matter in this circumstance and your principal knows what to do.”

I now left the court in shock and panic because that was my first experience.

What are the circumstances that brought you in contact with Chief Louis Ojukwu, the Igbo billionaire of that time?

The gentleman who was my boss at that time, whose brief I held, is now Senator, Onyeabo Obi, an Honourable Bencher.

I was called to the Nigerian Bar on the 15th January 1966 and that was the day there was a military coup.

He was appointed legal adviser to Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in Enugu and he called me to hold his brief.

At that time, Onyeabo Obi and Co. were the lawyers to Sir Louis Ojukwu, the father of Emeka Ojukwu. Therefore, I became a young lawyer working for the Ojukwu’s.

Sir Louis was then living in Hawksworth Road, Ikoyi and my elder brother who was working in the Ministry of External Affairs was living in the same Hawksworth Road.

So it was easy for me to get to him and we became very close briefly until he died in 1966.

What impression did you have of that man when you first came in contact with him?

The man was a father to everybody. He was well educated. He attended Hope Waddell in Calabar. He was a great personality.

I had the privilege of being with him as a young person. He was so kind. My father was a civil servant.

One day, I went to his office and as I was leaving, he saw me and asked why I was waiting.

I told him I was waiting for a taxi, that I could not afford a car because my father was a civil servant.

He gave me a lift and later asked me to go to Africa Continental Bank (ACB). He was the chairman of ACB and ACB had seized some cars belonging to those indebted to it.

So he told ACB to give me a car of my size. He didn’t say of my choice! That was the beginning of that relationship. But he died before the gift could take effect in September 1966. 

Between 2010 and 2011, you were the chairman of Body of Benchers. What was the experience like?

As the chairman, you are merely playing a role in a very large body.

The legal profession, unlike other professions, comprises the bench and the bar. The Chief Justice of Nigeria heads the bench at any given moment.

The Bar is headed by the president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) at any given moment. Everybody called to the Bar becomes a member of the NBA, including the judges.

At any given moment, you have the CJN, who heads the entire judiciary running from the magistrates to the Supreme Court Justices.

Then the Bar, which comprises everybody, including those in the judiciary, who are now doing different jobs.

Lawyers everywhere in the world have utilized their opportunities as advisers to everybody and governments to their professional advantage. 

In every country, the chief law officer is called the Attorney General and he is a lawyer.

The permanent secretary in the ministry of justice is a lawyer in every country in the world. In the legal profession, you have people in the judiciary who preside over courts.

Then you have those at the bar led by the president of the NBA.

Talking now about the Body of Benchers, which I once headed, they are those who have attained the highest distinction in the legal profession.

The distinction begins from becoming a magistrate, which is an appointment. If one becomes a judge, that is an appointment too.

When one becomes a Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Chief Judge of a state or of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), one becomes a bencher.

Benchers are those who have attained the highest level of distinction in the legal profession.

Above the chief judges of the federal and state courts, are the Presiding justices of the Court of Appeal and their President. They are all benchers.

Then all the justices of the Supreme Court and of course the CJN are all benchers.

In the executive arm of the government, the Attorney General of the Federation and all the Attorneys General of the 36 states and the FCT are all Benchers.

As far as the legal profession is concerned, they have attained the highest level of distinction.

It is a very large body. The president of the Nigerian Bar Association and 30 members who are nominated to that position by the NBA are also benchers.

So the body of benchers is the body that rules that profession. The body of benchers has a chairman and vice chairman.

The vice chairman serves for one year and automatically becomes the chairman.

When the chairman is from the Bench, the vice would be from the Bar and vice versa. When the late former CJN, Katsina-Alu was the chairman, I was the vice chairman.

When I became the chairman, the late former CJN, Musdapher was my vice chairman.  

What is the primary function of that body?

The primary function of that body is to admit people into the legal profession and to discipline them if they err.

People are queuing up to get into the profession. If it was a bad one, why are they struggling to join? All the people who are appointed as benchers retire when they leave the office that qualify them as benchers.

From the Bar, they are appointed for three years.

When it elapses, you retire. From the Bench, all the justices leave the body when they retire.

The CJN alone by statute is appointed a life bencher by virtue of being in that office. That is the reason we say that the CJN is the leader of the profession.

But there are other members of the Bar that are also appointed life benchers?

Yes, but that of the CJN is automatic. He is a life bencher by statute.

Others are those who have served well over the years. They are elevated as life benchers. And unless somebody dies and a vacancy exists, there would be no appointment.

The appointment is also from the Bench and the Bar. A life bencher is the equivalent of a Supreme Court justice in America.

It is for life. I sponsor over 50 aspiring lawyers into the legal profession every season. That is the role of a bencher. Because life benchers do not retire, they continue to play the role all their lives.

Why is it that the body of benchers does not take interest in the training of law students because I believe that legal education should be of primary concern to such exalted body?

There are many bodies in the legal profession. Overseeing the training of lawyers is the responsibility of the Council of Legal Education.

The chairman of the Council of Legal Education is a member of Body of Benchers by statute. Through this chairman, the body supervises the training of lawyers.

From your observation, what do you think has changed in the profession?

Not much has changed but there has been some improvement in quality. I know that a lot of people are going into the profession.

There has been considerable improvement in the quality because it is becoming more difficult to get into the Nigerian Law School for so many people.

You can see how many people leave other professions – people who have been vice presidents, who have been doctors and professors. They leave their professions to go to the Nigerian Law School to become lawyers.

But there are people of your generation that believes that standard is falling?

This is subjective depending on how you look at it. Yes, in some areas, but the standards are still very high.

To become a Senior Advocate, you have to work very hard. As a legal practitioner, the highest you can attain is to become a Senior Advocate.

As a matter of fact, in England, you cannot be a judge unless you are a Queen’s Council (QC).  

Are you not aware of the agitations for the abolition of the rank of SAN by some lawyers for obvious reasons?

I know some people talk about it. SAN is not a Nigerian thing. In fact, it started from India. It is a mark of distinction. Nobody forces you in or out of it.

But the argument is that in most cases, some deserving members of the Bar are not awarded the rank while senior lawyers give it to their cronies and family members?

That is not true. Every year people complain. There are professors in the legal profession who have conducted extensive research in the field of law, yet queue up each year to become a SAN.

So, the apex of it is SAN. It is not true that undeserving people are getting it. If you see the screening process, in fact, it is becoming more difficult.

It is getting tougher and it requires the highest level of competence for anybody to become a SAN.

Do you believe that making the criteria rigorous translates to the rank being prestigious?

The rank is prestigious already. Like I told you, if professors who have studied and researched extensively still queue to become SAN, then you will understand that it is the highest level of distinction.

Those who carry out research in Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and present papers there are elevated into the fellowship of the institute.

The headquarters of the institute is at the Supreme Court, yet they scramble to become SAN too. So, the SAN is the ultimate achievement for all of us at the bar.

Why did you reject the offer to join the Bench?

In 1982, I was a member of the Federal House of Representatives.

I was a member of the Nigerians Peoples Party (NPP) and I believed that the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) wanted to get me out and offered me the appointment into the bench and I rejected it.

The people who accepted the offer were retired by the military when they took over. In any event, there was no time I had wanted to be in the Bench. I just wanted to remain in practice.

Was it that you had the premonition that you would be retired prematurely if you accepted the offer?

Not at all! First and foremost, I didn’t have the desire to go into the Bench.

In 1979, I was elected into the House of Representatives on the platform of NPP. I was chairman, Committee on Public Petitions and I was deputy leader of the NPP.

On the 23rd of February 1983, I was appointed speaker pro tempore of the House of Representatives. We were dispatched by the military led by an honourable gentleman who is currently
our President.

Why didn’t you go back to politics?

I found Nigerian politics to be total madness now. They are now breeding absolutely mad people.

What is happening there is sheer madness! So, I made up my mind that I would not go back to politics, but I would always vote for my preferred candidate.

When you say sheer madness, what exactly are you talking about?

The kind of things they do. See what is happening now in Akwa Ibom and Benue States.

In any event the current practice of defections and cross defections of persons from one party to another has made the situation even more repulsive.

The impunity with which the defectors stay on in total disregard for the law verges on madness.

This happens in the Senate, House of Representatives and States, Houses of Assembly.

It is on record that in April 1983, when I wanted to change from NPP to NPN, I resigned and left the House of Representatives.

I was reelected in July 1983 on NPN platform. This is the way things should be done in a sane society.

You are 80 this year and still in active practice. When are you mooting the idea of retirement?

The legal profession is not the type that if you are in good health, you retire.

As you age, you see why we wear the wig. So long as one has good health, one may remain in practice.

In any event, it is a challenging thing because we learn daily. So you don’t retire as a practitioner.

As a life bencher, I still come to the office to do my job of interviewing people to be called to the bar and sponsor them. I will not retire. That is the position!

What are your words of advice for practitioners?

To the legal profession, you owe a special responsibility to the nation.

That special responsibility is more emphasized now that we are about to have a general election. People carry out referendums and go for elections.

Like everywhere in the world, where there are disputes after elections, they go to the courts.

Those who advise on whether to go to court or not are lawyers! If it is a tribunal, all the members are lawyers, right up to the Court of Appeal to Supreme Court.

So people are looking upon us. It is a profession that is in control of most things. The Attorney General who decides whether a case should go on or not is a lawyer. 

My advice is that those who are members of this honourable profession should aspire to remain honourable forever. They have a duty to the country by ensuring that they do the right thing, particularly in advising their clients rightly.

For the Bench, I cannot speak for them, but I know that they also know their responsibilities.

When they talk about corruption in the legal profession, it is something that moves from the Bar and not the Bench. It is the lawyer that interfaces with clients.

Every four years we organize a general election. It is our duty as lawyers to ensure that we live up to what the public expect of us and advise our clients properly. 

Do you still show interest in what happens at the leadership of the Bar?

We are all members of the noble profession. Yes, very much so. The moment someone is elected as the president of the NBA, I endorse him 100 percent because that is democracy. People may disagree here and there in an election, but once somebody has been elected into that office, I give him my support.

Are you comfortable with the zoning arrangement in NBA?

Of course! There is nothing wrong about it. For the time being, the man who occupies the office, Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN) is a very distinguished and honorable member of the legal profession. I am proud that he was elected and I am proud of members who elected him.

I am not comparing him with anybody, but I am saying that I know him well. He is a man of honour, integrity and dignity. I support him; he is our leader!

How many of your children are lawyers?

I have six children. The first three are called to the Nigerian Bar. They include the first daughter, Mrs. Sally Uwechue-Mbanefo, Ifeoma Wachuku and my first son, George Uwechue jr.

Even my fourth child holds a masters degree in law. She has not gone to the Nigerian Law School yet. My fifth child read psychology.

He lives in America and the youngest one is a dentist. Her husband is a doctor and they both live in North Carolina, USA. 

My second daughter lives in Michigan. My youngest sister, the same mother, is Mrs. Monica Mbanefo, married to Nnamdi Mbanefo (SAN).

She is a lawyer also, called to the Bar in 1973. My youngest brother Paul Uwechue is also a lawyer.

How come your daughter got married to the same Mbanefo family since your younger sister is already married there?

As a matter of fact, when they came to marry my daughter, we gave them a discount on the dowry. The head of the family said, why another Mbanefo?

It means that they are satisfied with the first one we gave to them, so we decided to give them a discount on the dowry. 

The patriarch of the family was Sir Louis Mbanefo. He was the first lawyer in Eastern Nigeria.

He was the former Chief Justice of the Eastern Region, former Supreme Court Justice, former Judge of the International Court of Justice and the former Chief Justice of the defunct Biafra Republic.

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