THE LAW PROFESSION IN NIGERIA AND THE VEIL OF TRADITION
BY James Ode Abah Esq
On the 13th of December 2017, my attention was drawn to the news of a law school graduate who was denied her call to The Bar for refusing to take off her headscarf.
Amasa Firdaus Abdulsalam was not permitted by the Body of Benchers to enter the International Conference Centre on December 12 2017 where the call to bar ceremony is usually held.
According to the reports circulating online it was the position of the Body of Benchers that she was breaking the dress code set by the body and Law profession, but Amasa Firdaus Abdulsalam, who was already wearing her new gown, insisted on wearing the wig on top of her hijab and called the refusal of the Body of Benchers to call her to the bar a violation of her right to freedom of religion as protected by Section 38 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended).
This incident has generated a lot of controversy in Nigeria and what struck me was the veil of tradition of the law profession in Nigeria. The story also reminded me of the way the Pharisees taught their traditions in opposition to God’s laws as provided in Mathew 15 :2-9 and how many people would rather follow their own traditions rather than God’s Law as clearly provided in Colossians 2:8.
I Also remembered Matthew 22:21 where Jesus said “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” and Romans 13:1 “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God.
However, as a lawyer I kept asking myself the question was the Body of Benchers right in not calling this brave lady to The Bar? Was Amasa Firdaus Abdulsalam constitutional right to the freedom of Religion and association breached by the Body of Benchers?
The Position of the law
As a legal practitioner I was constrained to consult my oracle and by consulting my oracle I mean looking at the position of the law as regards the Constitution, statute books and decided cases to shape my legal opinion on this issue.
Section 38(1) of the Constitution provides that every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
(2) No person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance if such instruction ceremony or observance relates to a religion other than his own, or religion not approved by his parent or guardian.
(3) No religious community or denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of that community or denomination in any place of education maintained wholly by that community or denomination.
(4) Nothing in this section shall entitle any person to form, take part in the activity or be a member of a secret society.
Section 40 of the Constitution 1999 of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended also provides that Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests.
Furthermore it is important to note that Section 45 (1) (a) and (b) of the Constitution provides that nothing in sections 37, 38, 39, 40 and 41 of this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom or other persons.
The law that deals with the call to bar in Nigeria is the Legal Practitioners Act Cap L11 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004
Section 4 of the Legal Practitioners Act provides as follows
. (1) Subject to the provisions of this section, a person shall be entitled to be called to the Bar if, and only if
(a) he is a citizen of Nigeria; and
(b) he produces a qualifying certificate to the Benchers; and
(c) he satisfies the Benchers that he is of good character.
(2) The Council of Legal Education may by regulations provide that the provisions of paragraph (b) of subsection (1) of this section shall not apply in such cases and on such conditions (if any) as may be specified by the regulations.
(3) The Benchers shall issue to every person called to the Bar pursuant to subsection (1) of this section, a certificate of call to the Bar which shall be in such form as the Benchers may determine.
The question to ask at this juncture is whether the refusal of Amasa Firdaus Abdulsalam, to comply with the dictates of the Body of Benchers satisfied the Benchers that she is not of good character Or whether the demand of the Body of Benchers insisting that she removes her hijab a violation of her right to freedom of religion as protected by Section 38 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended)?
However the law I submit is trite that the court would not interfere in a case where members of a voluntary association have come to the decision within the provisions of their Constitution even if the decision is unreasonable. In the case of MBANEFO V MOLOKWU (2014) 6 NWLR PT 1403 AT 377 PP PG 409, PARAS B-C, 409-410 PARAS D-A , The Supreme Court held per Peter –Odili J.S.C , delivering the leading judgment of the court held as follows :
When the appellant entered and became a full member of the Agbalanze Society, he did so with the full knowledge and free will to adhere to the rules and regulations guiding it. Therefore it is not for him to pick and choose which aspect suited him at a given time and which he was at liberty to do away with. In order to do so, he had to first disengage from the association , otherwise , he was bound wholly and entirely to what was provided by the association for the association or members on how its operations were to be conducted…..the court will not interfere in a case where members of a voluntary association have come to a decision within the provisions of their Constitution even if the decision is unreasonable. Circumstances have not arisen by which the Court ought to intervene to quash a resolution of the association that an offending member should no longer attend its meeting. That resolution does not amount to a violation of the fundamental rights provided for under the Constitution. It is open to the applicant to attend any meeting he may wish and no one may stop him. But , so far as the association is concerned , it is to have the right to discipline its members. As a voluntary association, it has the right to lay down its own decisions even when they are unreasonable. They should be obeyed or the member in disobedience is entitled to quit. The association is in its own right supreme over its own affairs. This must be said loudly and clearly, and unless it has violated its own constitutional provisions the court would not interfere. The Court will not substitute its own will for that of a voluntary association. Those who join clubs, or associations or political parties must be made aware of the perils of membership. The majority will must prevail whether it is reasonable or unreasonable
It is my Opinion, that the Bar is a voluntary association and the authority cited above can be used to support the Body of Benchers position.
However it is sad that the Bar and Bench in Nigeria is seems to obsessed with the veils of its irrelevant tradition like the wearing of wig and gown when there are grave challenges facing the Law profession which needs urgent attention. It is important to note that this inherited tradition is also gradually phasing out in Britain. It was reported this year that Britain’s lawyers and judges are to break with centuries-old tradition and cease wearing white horse-hair wigs in non-criminal cases.