A revelation by the African Women in Law has shown a glaring gender imbalance within the prestigious title of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN).
The AWL disclosed that since the title of SAN was first conferred in 1975, only one out of every 23 conferred SANs is a woman.
Delving further into the disheartening statistics, a disconcerting picture comes to light: out of a total of 685 SANs, men overwhelmingly dominate with a staggering 95.8 per cent, leaving a mere 4.2 per cent representation for their female counterparts.
Also, a report by African Legal indicates that only four per cent of the 732 lawyers bestowed with the prestigious title of SAN are women.
This imbalance reverberates across the broader legal landscape, as women make up a significant portion, approximately 40 per cent, of all lawyers in Nigeria. The discrepancy becomes pronounced in the levels of the legal profession, where the coveted SANship is an emblem of excellence and prestige.
In a thought-provoking discussion on the Nigeria Info 99.3 FM’s Morning Crossfire hosted by Sherif Quadry and Kofi Bartels, a spotlight was cast on SANship and the astonishing disparity that persists within the realm of female legal practitioners.
The Principal Partner at MIVES Legal, Ballason Gloria Mabeiam (Esq) delves into the intricate complexities surrounding the issue.
She submits that distilling the crux of the matter is a challenge due to the esteemed status of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), which is often regarded as a prestigious privilege. This unique context, she said, makes it perplexing to establish clear parameters.
“Consider, for instance, the scenario where hundreds of lawyers, numbering in the range of 500 to 600, vie for the same coveted position, each holding the necessary qualifications for SAN. In such a scenario, the daunting question emerges: how does one narrow down the selection to the requisite number for the year?
Mabeiam underscores that, especially concerning women, an unspoken assumption prevails – a perception that women are less active in the sphere of litigation. She refutes this notion, emphasizing that gender has no bearing on those who passionately engage in litigation; it is a matter of professional dedication rather than gender affiliation.
She expressed that the damaging implication of viewing women litigators as mere side-line participants undermines their rightful recognition and inhibits them from obtaining equitable consideration when pursuing the role of SAN.
Another critical aspect according to her is the intrinsic connection between prevailing court philosophy and historical precedence. Traditionally, the legal landscape has been predominantly occupied by males. This gendered landscape creates a skewed dynamic where males have already established a presence, while females are fewer in number and as the application pool reaches a point of necessary reduction, non-objective factors begin to influence decisions.
Mrs. Mabeiam maintained that this gender disparity contributes to the overall challenge.
Also, a prominent lawyer, human rights advocate, and active member of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in Lagos, Mrs. Lilian Eronini (Esq), lends her voice to the discourse. She unravels a complex tapestry of gender dynamics that have conspired to hinder the ascent of female lawyers in Nigeria.
The rank of SAN, according to her is often viewed as a privilege, seems to be shrouded in gender bias. Mrs. Eronini also sheds light on the societal pressures placed upon women to juggle familial responsibilities alongside their legal careers.
For many female lawyers, she said the journey is fraught with hurdles, as societal expectations often take precedence over professional pursuits. The weight of familial expectations, from parents urging marriage to husbands demanding children, casts a shadow over their progress.
This phenomenon, deeply rooted in African cultural norms, she added, permeates even the hallowed chambers of the legal profession; emphasizing that despite the female presence at the forefront of some chambers, the patriarchal undertones persist, relegating women to the periphery.
An alarming trend surfaces as well: the dearth of female-led partnerships in the legal profession. She underscores that while male lawyers readily form partnerships to advance their careers, female lawyers are held back due to a lack of resources; adding that, even within familial contexts where a father’s legal chamber is involved, a prevailing gender bias tips the scales in favor of male successors.
On why female lawyers are not seen leading or handling high-profile cases in front of about 10 top judges, which is one of the criteria for attaining the role of SANship, Eronini dissects the harsh reality that female lawyers, despite their brilliance, are systematically excluded from high-stakes cases as the spotlight is consistently reserved for their male counterparts, while women toil behind the scenes.
Even instances where female-led chambers possess exceptional talent, the recognition remains elusive. “If you go to the Chambers of Femi Falana, the wife is a high profile and very brilliant lawyer. Also, the chamber of Adegboruwa & Co, the wife is a very brilliant lawyer, she does most of the briefs, works at the background but has she written her name on any matter that has gone up to Supreme court?
“The male take the glory, so it is a gender thing and it will continue except something is done. That is why most of the women will have more female judges than the men because the women want to go to 9am-5pm job to enable them go home early to care for their family. But if you are working for the men, they keep you in the law firm even up to 10pm,” she said.
Mrs. Mabeiam however debunked the claim that women are unable to work together, saying it is factually inaccurate and not empirical in any manner. According to her, there is really nothing wrong with women working together as partners.
She pointed out that the rules allows for even sole practitioners to apply for the prestigious rank of SAN.
Looking at the dynamics of what women deal with, she noted that partnership requires a lot of trust and everybody bringing something to the table. “So when you have women who give birth at different times, it can change how they invest in this whole process but also, how the rules and guidelines for applying for SANship are structured also leaves a lot to be desired. There was a 2018 guideline which was updated in 2022, which requires that a person should be able to submit 20 High Court judgements, five Court of Appeal judgements and four Supreme Court judgements within a span of the 10years where the cases are supposed to exist.
“However, an interesting part to it is that for the Supreme court cases, it makes provision for the 2022 guidelines that if you have filed a matter and it’s been in the court for about seven years, the matter has not yet been dispensed with, it is eligible as part of that application.
“In the High Court cases, consent judgements, which are judgements that are entered by parties in agreement rather than waiting for the court to decide, that they don’t form part of the considerations for the application for SAN. I feel this is disturbing, because what this supports is that cases should stay long in court, which doesn’t help justice.
“For most women, and for myself, the philosophy of practice is to take law to justice and having to do cases for many years is detrimental to the clients, to the society and to justice itself. We cannot on the one-hand advocate for our prisons to be decongested and also advocate for lawyers not to enter consent judgement, which is faster, cheaper, which also helps in managing the emotions around court cases and the fall out that comes with it.
“Also, it is important to note that despite the challenges of women given birth, I know quite a sizeable number of women who applied for the prestigious rank, yet because of how it is not just tied to what the guidelines say, they fall through the process. I have applied for the rank and it wasn’t an interesting experience.
The senior lawyer lamented that having a few number of female SANs is truly alarming. “When you look at the number of females in the profession, it’s really a bad figure and it speaks badly and reflects on the profession because if we are the people that should be advocating for rights, then we should be seen in the way we carry out our affairs that the issue of fairness, credibility should speak.
“I am not advocating for any form of concession, I believe that people should earn their way through but when they apply and they have all that it takes, I believe, they should be given. They should earn their sweat because it takes a lot to apply, it’s a rigorous process and when you have to go through all and return been denied the rank, it is not encouraging.”