She holds a sacred positionApril 16, 2014
By a retired Supreme Court Judge
The recent problem at the Sierra Leone Law School has been more than a debacle and those interested in the integrity of the legal profession have watched in utter disbelief as the profession is dragged through the mud. Even lay people have watched the situation in a state of consternation and disbelief as to how such a reputable and honourable profession can be brought into a state of disrepute by the actions of individuals seeking to join the profession.
I am not in support of the belated action of the Council of Legal Education headed by the Chief Justice. As a result of that I have decided to write this piece in response to some of the comments I have read on the social media in addition to what I have gathered from friends, past and present colleagues. As I understand the situation, a number of people who were admitted to the Sierra Leone Law School to read for the BAR exams were declared to have passed the exams, thereby making them eligible to be called to the Sierra Leone Bar. A number of students, who were declared not to have succeeded in the exams, took offence and made a number of allegations that bother on fraud and corruption to wit:
- Those who were declared to have passed the exams did not pass;
- Those who were declared to have failed the exams did in fact pass the said exams and ought to have been called to the Bar.
Such an anomaly is not worth contemplating. Many of those individuals had been certified as having passed the exams, called to the Bar and were enjoying the status of Barristers and Solicitors of the High Court of Sierra Leone, albeit on the temporary register of legal practitioners. Whilst others had either returned to the law school to re-take the bar exams whilst others pondered over their fate with no clear decision as to where their future may lie. As a result of these allegations the Council of Legal Education headed by the Hon Chief Justice instituted an investigation into the complaints by means of a committee set up exclusively for that purpose.
The Committee reported and concluded that there was material substance to the allegations and a sizeable number of those who had been certified as having passed the Bar exams did in fact fail the exams and only about fifteen students out of a total of over eighty did not pass the exams and were not eligible to be called to the Bar. The Council of Legal Education then issued out a press release in which it requested the affected students who had been called to the bar to surrender their certificates. A number of those students have refused to surrender their certificates and others have resorted to insulting the Hon Chief Justice on national radio and on social media. The question to ask is why insulting the Chief Justice? What has she done wrong?
A recent article by the editor of this newspaper in my view is well in place. There is no reason to insult the Chief Justice out of ignorance or frustration. In my view she was entirely correct to set up an investigation into those anomalies for a number of reasons:
- It is within her mandate as chair of the Council of Legal Education to investigate complaints bothering on the integrity of Law School.
- As Chief Justice she holds a sacred position in society and cannot possibly be seen to condone wrong doing on a minuscule scale (let alone) a massive scale as has been alleged in this case.
- The integrity of the legal profession (and by implication the Judiciary) are at stake and no proper reasons can be advanced as to why such a serious issue ought to be ignored other than for selfish reasons of those who wish their family members to hold themselves out to a status they do not deserve.
On those grounds, I see no reason why she ought to be insulted for simply doing her job. She ought to be commended rather than vilified for one particular reason. Never before in the history of the Council of Legal Education have such an investigation being set up to examine such malpractices. No Chief Justice has ever carried out any investigations notwithstanding the incessant complaints over the years of malpractices at the Law School and the Law Department at the University. If we want our country to move forward I ask a simple question. What is wrong with carrying out an investigation into fraudulent practices?
For those who do not understand the issues at stake, I find it necessary to give a brief history about the Legal Profession and the eligibility to practice Law all around the world. An admission to practice Law, also called admission to the bar in some jurisdictions, is acquired when a lawyer receives a license to practice Law. Becoming a lawyer is a widely varied process around the world. Common to all jurisdictions are requirements of age and competence; some jurisdictions also require documentation of citizenship or immigration status. However, the most varied requirements are those surrounding the preparation for the license, whether it includes obtaining a Law Degree, or passing an exam.
In Kenya for example, a prospective Legal Practitioner must first complete a Law Degree from a recognized University in the Commonwealth, then attend the Kenya School of Law for a postgraduate Diploma in Legal Practice for training in more practical legal subjects. The point being made here is this. The taking and passing of an examination is compulsory if one wants to hold himself out as a Legal Practitioner. Why should Sierra Leone be different? In Sierra Leone, it is not different. The Law is very clear. s10 (b) of the Legal Practitioners Act 2000 provides: “A person qualifies for admission as a legal practitioner if (and only if) he has passed the appropriate professional examinations conducted by the Council of Legal Education…”
The above is the Law of our country which is similar to many other countries in the world and in particular the Commonwealth. If you have not passed the professional examinations you are simply not entitled to be admitted as a Legal Practitioner. I do not profess to follow the logic of those who have engaged in vilifying the Chief Justice. One would expect those students to take steps to get the Law School to hold re-sit examinations for them as a matter of urgency. I understand some of the affected students and their sponsors were touting the suggestion that they wish to take the matter to the Supreme Court. I have pondered on what basis they intend to seek a remedy from the Supreme Court against an outright illegality and can see none. Yes, it was wrong for the General Legal Council to call them to the bar; but a wrong does not cease to be a wrong simply because the majority shares in it. Had the GLC known of the malpractices, undoubtedly they would not have been called to the bar.
The fact that it has now been discovered that those individuals did not pass the exams, they have no legal or moral right to hold themselves out as Legal Practitioners. I cannot understand how people would want to endear to a status they know they do not deserve. The fact of the matter remains thus, now that these anomalies have been discovered, those who have not passed the exams ought not to have been called and if they have been mistakenly called to the bar, they should lose their status with immediate effect as any claims to such a status would be unlawful. This is an issue of general public importance. Those engaged in vilifying the Chief Justice should answer this question truthfully. Would they allow themselves to be operated upon by a surgeon who failed his exams at Medical school? If they would not, why should they think the public should be put at the mercy of their unqualified sons, daughters and relatives who failed to pass their exams? If these same individuals when going on holidays would not fly in a plane flown by a pilot who failed his pilot’s exams, they lack the moral standing to impose unqualified legal practitioners on members of the public, some of whom require legal representation of the highest quality to solve their legal problems.
This issue has the potential to bring our country into serious disrepute. We have foreign students who have been coming to our Law School for years. We need to resolve this issue at the earliest possible opportunity. I would have thought if the students affected refuse to surrender their certificates, the General Legal Council should seek an annulment in the courts as soon as possible with an order that the affected persons surrender their certificates. As a country, we must not only act in accordance with the law but we must be seen as acting in accordance with the law.