Opinion

The Chief Justice vs the progressive judges

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Chief Justice, Kwasi Anin Yeboah

I completed the Ghana Institute of Journalism (GIJ) in June 2010. I had gone to journalism school after secondary school. Prior to that, I hadn’t received any training in journalism.

In 2011, when the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) held its journalism awards to honour outstanding journalistic works for 2010, I won three awards, including the Most Promising Journalist of the Year.

When the GJA held its awards ceremony in 2012 to recognise outstanding works from 2011, I received four awards, including the overall Best Journalist of the Year. This was a year after I left journalism school.

In 2013, I carried out the GYEEDA investigation that resulted in the imprisonment of two people and the passage of the Youth Employment Agency Act by the Parliament of Ghana. That investigation resulted in the direct retrieval of GH¢60 million from the AGAMS Group of Companies.

All the GYEEDA contracts were cancelled, except one. The cancellation helped Ghana save not less than GHc500 million cedis. Scores of people involved in the scandal lost their jobs, and the rotten youth employment programme saw some restructuring.

It was only my third year after my training as a journalist and—knowing that I court the risk of being described as boastful for stating these raw facts—I will defiantly add that I had made an impact, which some journalists of 40 years had not or would never make.

The ingredients needed to accomplish this are not tied to age or the number of years of practice. And I was fortunate to be in a profession that made this a factor.

From this personal experience and other learning I have done, I strongly disagree with the recent directive by the Chief Justice, Kwasi Anin-Yeboah. The directive says judges should “strictly” adhere to the tradition of calling the cases of senior lawyers first before calling those of their juniors.

The Chief Justice said this had been a long-standing tradition, but some judges – those I consider progressive-thinking – often called cases represented by junior lawyers when senior lawyers were representing other clients in court.

The closest the Chief Justice and those backing this retrogressively disturbing directive have come to making sense is the claim that when cases handled by senior lawyers are called first, the junior lawyers learn from the way their seniors handle cases in court.

The main reason I consider the Chief Justice’s directive retrogressive, discriminatory, and worrisome is the assumption that the courtroom is for the lawyers.

Schools are not built for teachers. And the courts are not built for lawyers. The courts are built for us, the citizens. Lawyers and judges have no business in the courts if we, the citizens, don’t go there. This directive would not have affected me if it concerned what happens in law firms or at bar conferences.

Lawyers don’t get up and wear their gowns and wigs just to go and learn from their seniors in the courtroom. They go there to represent their clients and earn their fees. If you direct judges to jump queues and call senior lawyers first, you are directly punishing the clients the junior lawyers represent.

If I am asked to come to the court at 9 am, I have to be there by 9am. I could be cited for contempt if I go there at any time I wish. Going to the court means I have to reschedule the other activities I have for that day.  If I get there in time, I expect my case to be called within a reasonable time so that I can go back to do my job.

If I get there at 9am but end up having my case called at 2pm because a number of senior lawyers keep coming in, then I am being punished for engaging a young lawyer. And that won’t be fair to me, not just to my lawyer. The lawyer should also have a reasonable expectation of the time their cases will be called so that they can attend to different cases in different courts if the need arises.

I also find the excuse about junior lawyers learning from their seniors untenable. There is no limit in this directive, so if you’re 40 years old at the bar, someone who is 41 years at the bar will have their case called before you, per this directive. This defeats the purpose of ostensibly learning from seniors. Even if we limit the argument to very young lawyers, it remains flawed.

In every profession, it is assumed that the longer you practice, the better you become. But there is nothing to prove that the average senior lawyer is naturally more competent than their average junior counterpart. Even if that were the case, no research has been done to conclude that the best way to become a better lawyer is when you’re forced to sit through the proceedings of your seniors.

There are senior lawyers who are smart. And there are senior lawyers who are dumb, those whose laws are dustier than the colour of their wigs. There are some junior lawyers who can outperform their seniors of many years in every aspect of the law.

Besides, learning from seniors should not be reduced to the exaggerated drama in the courtroom, which is sometimes done mainly to amuse the unlearned and clients. Much of the work, in any case, happens outside the courtroom. The drama in the courtroom is just a little fraction of the real work—the research, the filings, the written addresses, and a host of others—that goes into handling a case. Sometimes, the junior lawyers are those who do the research and the background work for their seniors.

I’m not by any means discounting the importance of learning from the more experienced in every profession. The legal education we have here gives enough room for juniors to learn from their seniors, so deliberately discriminating against young lawyers in the courtroom may add nothing to what they are expected to know.

To become a lawyer, one must go through the law faculty in a university and proceed to the Ghana School of Law to learn the professional and practical aspects of the law. The would-be lawyers are expected to undertake internship programmes. After completion, they are also expected to do their mandatory pupilage with law firms before they get their licences to practice. They do this in order to learn from their seniors.

When they eventually qualify to practice, most young lawyers work in firms and are supervised by senior lawyers. They mostly follow these seniors to court for some time before they handle their own cases.

When they eventually come to the court, they are there to represent the interests of their clients. The courtrooms must not be turned into a mandatory extension of legal education.

If I want to become a lawyer and I am serious about excelling, I know the lawyers to reach out to and get one tip or the other even before I complete. And even during practice, I will still be selective about who I reach out to. I don’t want to sit through proceedings while my client’s interests are being sacrificed to some archaic and senseless tradition.

In reaction to a Facebook post I made on this subject, a young neurosurgeon, Isabella Opoku, wrote: “Imagine meeting these wig users in the emergency room, and I ask my ‘seniors’ to attend to their patients first.”

How would the Chief Justice and proponents of this tradition feel when they, like the clients represented by young lawyers, are treated this way? Or are they trying to discourage clients from engaging young lawyers, even if the young lawyers are capable of handling cases?

There are lawyers with two years’ experience at the bar who are far better than some lawyers with 20 years of experience at the bar. In this case, who should learn from whom?

Our elders have taught us that the size of an animal does not matter; what matters is the taste of its soup.

Caroline McHugh, in a Tedx talk titled “The Art of Being Yourself” asked:  “You know the people that say to you they have 15 years’ experience, when they mean one year, 15 times? They literally repeat themselves year after year after year.“

Experience counts, but the major ingredients needed for career excellence—competence, character, and courage—are not about being young or old in the profession. They come from our gifts and the inner motivation to excel. They thrive in environments where meritocracy is rewarded and excellence is elevated above the “me baaha akye” syndrome.

How can you expect standards to be improved when the system is rigged in favour of longevity and not excellence? Already, the system is such that junior lawyers cannot charge as much as their seniors. So why don’t you allow them to compete fairly in the courtroom, where timing is important in determining how many court proceedings they can attend in a day?

Even if  the Chief Justice wants junior lawyers to learn from their seniors, you don’t need a directive to delay cases they handle. I have been to the court on many occasions, and the cases I have been involved in have been called at different times—at the beginning, in the middle and sometimes towards the tail end of the hearing. Whoever my lawyer is, they will always sit through a case other than theirs at some point or the other.

Young lawyers can still learn without the conscious effort to discriminate against their clients.

If there is any place “equality of the law” has to be demonstrated, then it should be in the courtroom. The judges who have disregarded this tradition in the past are the progressive judges. They should be commended.

Compelling a judge to call a case represented by a senior lawyer first takes away the discretion that can be exercised by the judge based on the seriousness of the case before him or her. It has a way of psychologically telling the judge to put more weight on what the senior lawyer says than the junior lawyer, who is considered less knowledgeable and must learn from the senior. It can be prejudicial and detrimental to justice delivery, when fairness and equality are supposed to be cardinal principles.

The undue delay in justice delivery in Ghana is a major headache that the Chief Justice should be concerned about. There are many reforms that need to be made in order to enhance justice delivery.

Enforcing traditions that won’t pass any science or commonsense test is retrogressive. And that’s definitely not what Chief Justice Kwasi Anin-Yeboah wants to be remembered for.

Credit: myjoyonline.com/ Manasseh Azure Awuni  

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