BECOMING THE FIRST FEMALE CHAIRMAN OF THE BODY OF BENCHERS NIGERIA
My membership of the Body of Benchers began as a Nominee of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in 1981. I was appointed a Life Bencher in 1989 and unanimously elected Chairman of the Body in 1998 after one (1) year service as Vice Chairman.
In all the above gender was not a consideration because there were other female lawyers on the Body particularly in the rank of Judicial Officers.
The Body of Benchers comprises and I quote: “A body of Legal Practitioners of the highest distinction in the legal Profession in Nigeria”. (per Legal Practitioner Act).
It follows that membership of the Body of Benchers is the highest distinction which any Judicial Officer or Legal Practitioner can achieve not only did I become a member but was unanimously appointed the Chairman of the Body.
On the 31st March, 1998 the baton of Chairman of the Body of Benchers was passed to me by the Presiding Chairman Hon. Justice S.M.A Belgore JSC CON as he then was. I was then fifty-seven (57) years old with thirty-five (35) years post call experience at the Bar.
I belief it was the realization of the above that jolted me into the responsibility of rendering of high service to the Legal Profession that came to play.
Before then, (1980 – 1983) I had served the Legal Profession as the First Female General Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association and the Government of Lagos State as its First Female Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice (1984 – 1986).
I was particularly awed by the Role of Chairman of the most Distinguished Body of the Legal Profession by virtue of its membership – The Chief Justice of Nigeria, All the Justices of the Supreme Court, The President and the Presiding Justices of the Court of Appeal, The Chief Judges of all the States of Nigeria, The Attorneys General of all the States, The President of NBA and Twenty Legal Practitioners whose names are submitted by the President.
The handing over ceremony was short and simple. The outgoing Chairman thanks all members for their cooperation for One (1) year March 31 to March 30 and invites the successor to assume the Chair upon which the Successor would thank the members and pledge commitment to serve with the best ability for One (1) year.
The meetings at that time held in the Court Room of the Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja which accommodated us all as there were fewer Divisions of the Court of Appeal and Chief Judges. In any case the quorum for meeting was Nine (9) members.
Also, I do think in those early days the members were conscious of their enormous powers and duties, especially of discipline of all lawyers no matter the seniority.
It was during the period of my Chairmanship of the Body that I used my authority and position to save the Nigerian Law School Buildings in Lagos from being “Privatized” or being sold as a trading company to be used as a warehouse for storage of merchandise.
I am proud to recall that several former Chairmen, Life Benchers, Judicial Officers and other Benchers supported me at the meeting held to pass the Resolution to reinforce the actualization of my authority.
Nigeria as an entity made history in 1888 when the First Nigerian Lawyer Christopher Alexandra Sapara Williams was admitted to the Bar and also in 1988 when a female lawyer became the first Chairman of the Body of Benchers in the Commonwealth.
I have contributed to the visibility of the Body with the support of Chief S.M. Olakunrin a Former Past Chairman. I pioneered the design of a Bencher’s Tie and later a Ceremonial Gown, which continues to distinguish the appearance of Members of the Body at Call to Bar Ceremonies, Law Dinners and other necessary formal occasions.
My mantra has been to be frank and forthright in serving the Body with the utmost good faith, and God willing that is all I can wish for till my closing year.
With due respect to all members of the Body I crave indulgence to make a suggestion to end this short article.
- Our Rules should be amended so that all Supreme Court Justices, the President of the Court of Appeal and all Presiding Justices of Court of Appeal and Chief Judges shall become Life Benchers on appointment to such their respective offices.
I remember how I nominated a Chief Judge year after year until he was eventually appointed a Life Bencher. In the case of Mrs. H. A. Turaki the Secretary of the Body, I had to also run a one-man campaign and submit a written request to the Body with explanations.
- The NBA is always eager to increase its members by Law of the ground that the statutory members should not be the majority on the Body. With all respect, this is short sighted. This is unnecessary the statutory judicial members are “Lawyers” too and must speak for the profession and not just for Judges – there should be no marked division – such that in a procession Chief Judges walk behind members of the Bar.
I thank God and I am grateful for the goodwill of all Legal Practitioners.
Hairat Aderinsola Balogun OON
Former Chairman of the Body (1998).