The legal profession in Nigeria has a rich and complex history, deeply intertwined with the country’s colonial past and post-independence development. I therefore enjoin you to read this work painstakingly if you are searching for any information concerning the history of the legal profession.
It is truism that the legal profession actually started in Greek and Roman city states. However, what we had at that time were not lawyers. They only rendered probono services to people. Later on, the roman priests started to interpret laws for the people. They were known as the Roman juris or orators. For example, Paul in Caesarea in the bible was an orator. Conversely, the kings and nobles became attracted to the legal profession. For instance, King Hamurabi of Babylon is known for codifying the Hammurabi code. Also, King Napeleon codified the French laws into civil codes. Apparently, these laws were to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the society.
Before the coming of the colonial masters, communities in Nigeria had different ways through which law and order was maintained. For instance, the southerners had a collective legal system. Justice was not an abstract impart, nor was law an impersonal agency in the search for peace and communal solidarity. The system was geared towards ensuring the maintenance of peace and social equilibrium. The obligation of fostering justice in the south was placed on the ruler and his council of advisers. They were said to be very important persons because they play integral role in resolving disputes and ensuring that there is peace in the community. It is important to note that the pre colonial legal system of the southerners in Nigeria was not based on any written law but was based ultimately on the laws and customs of the people.
That Yorubas used both reparatory justice and peacemaking justice system. While reparatory justice system was used basically to give an injured party compensation from the other party (default party). The peacemaking justice system was used in situations where there was a quarrel or misunderstanding among members of the communities. Where there is a doubt in the facts of a criminal case brought to the rulers, ordeals were used to find out the truth. For instance, accused persons could be asked to swim pass a creek full of crocodiles to prove that his account of the facts of the case is authentic.
The Igbo judicial system was not absolutely different from that of Yoruba. In the Igbo system, an accused was presumed guilty until he is proven innocent. In proving his innocent an accused must survive an ordeal. Apparently, ordeals were used to replace investigation at that time. Accordingly, when there was a dispute among members of the communities or where a person is accused of any crime, the parties/accused is brought before the council of elders. The council of elders was responsible for deciding whether or not a person is guilty of a crime in the Igbo pre-colonial justice system.
Conversely, it is right to say that the pre-colonial justice system in Nigeria was inquisitorial in nature and was characterized by the use of ordeals. However, it should be noted that the use of ordeal has now been prohibited by the Criminal code (section 207 of the criminal code).
Emergence of the British judicial system in Nigeria
Following the coming of the colonial masters in Nigeria in 1861, there was a great need for the establishment of the legal profession in Nigeria due to the fact that there were so many ethnic groups in the country. A standard and universal legal system was therefore necessary to bring the people together. Another reason why the colonial master introduced the modern legal profession in Nigeria was to solve the problem of language. It was to breech the gap between the Whiteman and the litigants so as to ensure that justice was done.
In this regard, the Whites enrolled professionally unqualified people as officers of the English type court. Nonetheless this practice actually started in Sierra Leone in 1821. In Nigeria, the local attorneys until 1900 were Europeans. But at some point, Nigerians were made local attorneys. However to be qualified for that position, a person must have attained a certain level of education and familiarity with English law. Again, he must have been admitted into the English bar as a barrister or solicitor of the law. More so, he must have served five years continuously in the office of a practicing barrister residing within the jurisdiction of the court.
The legal profession in Nigeria was officially promulgated in the 1863 ordinance. It made provision for the laws of England to have the same form and application in Nigeria. However, there were no enough legal personnel, solicitors and clerks to effectively administer justice in the country at that time. The first lawyer in Nigeria was Safara Williams. He was called to the bar in 1886. Also, the first local attorney in Nigeria was Charles Foresythe. He was the only person who met all the requirements for becoming a local attorney. It should also be note that Charles Foresythe played the role of a Notary public. Other people who were appointed later as local attorneys were: Charles D. Turton, John Otumba and Edward Vincent. It is pertinent to note that some of these people were not even qualified for the profession, but the Whites used them because there were no enough persons for the profession at that time.
This continued until 1914 when people began to protest against the appointment of unqualified local attorneys. After much protest, one had to be trained abroad to be called to bar, this was until 1962.
Organization of the legal profession
Currently, below are the regulatory bodies in the legal profession and their respective functions:
Body of benchers:
The body of bencher was established by the legal practitioners (Amendment) Act, section 3 (1). This body is of the highest distinction in the legal profession in Nigeria. The body is a corporate body with perpetual secession and a common seal. It consists of: Chief justice of Nigeria and all justices of the supreme court, president of the court of appeal, attorney general of the federation, presiding justice of the court of appeal division, chief justice of the federal high court, chief justice of the high court of the federal capital territory, chief justice of the state of the federation, attorney general of all the state of the federation, president of the Nigerian bar association, Chairman of the council of legal education, 30 legal practitioners nominated by the Nigerian bar association, 10 member seen by the body to be eminent members of the legal profession in Nigeria of the not less than 15 year at the bar.
A person may leave the body if he or she resigns voluntary or if he ceases to hold the office by virtue of while he was appointed or if removed for misconduct or other sufficient ground. The quorum for meeting of the body shall be 10 members. The body of Benchers is juristic.
Legal practitioners disciplinary committee:
This committee was established by section 10 (1) of the legal practitioners act 1962 as amended. It is a committee of benchers who have the responsibility to determine and consider charges brought against legal practitioners in Nigeria who have misbehaved. Members includes: A chairman who is not the CJN or a justice of the supreme court, the president of the court of Appeal and one Justice of the court of Appeal, two chief judges, two AGs one of whom may be the AG federation and four members of the Nigerian Bar Association who are not concerned with the investigation of a complaint or a decision by the Association to lay a complaint against a legal practitioner before the committee.
Its function is to consider and determine complaints brought against legal practitioners.
Council of legal education:
The council of Legal education is the body primarily responsible for the education of persons aspiring to the legal profession in Nigeria. That is, proprietors of Nigerian Law school. It was established by section 1 of the Legal education Act 1962. Members of the council of legal education include: A chairman appointed by the president of the recommendation of the attorney general of the federation, attorney general of states or the solicitor general where no AG, a representative of the federal ministry of justice to be appointed by the AG federation, president of the Nigerian Bar Association, the head of faculty of law of any recognized university in Nigeria whose course of legal studies is approved by the council as sufficient for admission to the Nigerian law school, 15 legal practitioners of not less than 10years post call nominated by the NBA, director general of the Nigerian law school, 2 authors of published learned works in the field of law, to be appointed by the attorney general of the federation.
Legal practitioners privileges committee:
This body was established by the section 5 (3) Legal practitioners Act (As Amended). Members include the chief Justice of the Nigeria who shall be the chairman, the A of the federation, one justice of the Supreme Court, the president of the court of appeal, five chief judges of the state. Chief judges of the federation high court, five legal practitioners who are senior advocates of Nigeria. The functions of the legal practitioners privileges committee include: Confers the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) on deserving legal practitioners in Nigeria, makes rules relating to senior advocate of Nigeria, with the approval of the body of benchers.
Nigeria Bar Association (NBA):
The Nigerian bar association is an essential association for lawyers in Nigeria. Membership is automatic upon enrolment at the Supreme Court. In Fawehinmi v. Nigerian Bar Association (No. 2)  it was said that the Nigerian Bar Association is only a juridical entity but without juristic personality. The functions of NBA are:
- To promote good relations among members of the bar;
- To maintain an independent and honorable bar and its integrity;
For better administration of justice;
- To promote law reforms;
- To maintain the highest standards of the professional conduct, etiquette and discipline;
General council of the bar:
The general council of the bar was established by section 1 (1) of the legal practitioners Act. Membership consist of the Attorney general of the federation who is also the president of the council, the AGs of the states, 20 legal practitioners nominated by the Nigerian Bar Association, seven of whom shall not be less than 10years standing at the bar. The functions of the body are:
- Making and review of the rules of the professional conduct
- It makes rules of accounts to be kept by legal practitioners with the approved of the attorney-general of the federation – s20 (1) and (2) LPA
Legal Practitioners Remuneration Committee:
This is established by section 15 (1) of the legal practitioners act. Members of this committee include the AG of the federation who is the chairman, the AG states, the president of the Nigerian Bar Association and 3 legal practitioners. 3 members of the committee shall from quorum including the chairman or one nominated by him to chair a particular meeting. This legal body is responsible for making order regulating the charges or remuneration of legal practitioners.
National Judicial Council:
The national judicial council is responsible for the recommendation of persons for appointment as judicial officers. It is also responsible for the recommendation of persons to be removed as judicial officers. Members include the chief justice of Nigeria as chairman, next most senior justice of the Supreme Court as deputy chairman, president of the supreme court or court of appeal, Chief judge of the federal high court, President of the national industrial court, 5 chief judges of the state to be appointed by the CJN in rotation to serve for 2years and others.
This was how the current judicial system in Nigeria began. Subsequently, this article will be update with more information you need to know on this topic. Hope you enjoyed reading this article? Let us know what you think using the comment box below.
Dr. Newman , “Organization of the legal profession”  Nigerian legal system
Dr. Mrs. Ochiabutor, “History of the legal profession”  Introduction to Nigerian legal method.
Section 3 (1), 15 (1), 1 (1), 5 (3), 10 (1) of the Legal practitioners act (LPA)
Rule of professional conduct (RPC)
Legal education Act 1962
Section 207 of the criminal code