Commonwealth Lawyers Association president Boma Ozobia is nothing if not ambitious. Her sights are set on changing the global legal landscape. ‘The UK focuses too much on the EU to the detriment of the Commonwealth,’ she alleges. ‘The Commonwealth is a group of friends that shares a common heritage and language with your country [the UK]. You should throw in your lot with us to promote the common law worldwide and achieve a genuinely global voice.’
Ozobia is a partner at Nigeria law firm Sterling Partnership, having previously been a partner at its London office. In 2005, while still in London, she became the first minority ethnic lawyer to become chair of the Association of Women Solicitors (AWS) in its then 83-year history. She has now been president of the CLA for two years and is due to step down in April at its Cape Town conference.
The organisation she heads has 54 member countries, stretching from the UK to New Zealand and many points between. Some members, such as Rwanda and Mozambique, only joined the CLA in recent years after opting to turn their backs on their own colonial legal heritages – Belgian and Portuguese respectively – and embrace the common law that is the British legal heritage.
There are other countries waiting in the wings, including Brazil, which has made informal overtures to the CLA to find out more about the advantages of common law. Fiji is currently suspended for failing to live up to the CLA’s ethical standards, while Zimbabwe – following its suspension – has withdrawn from the Commonwealth. The CLA keeps no accurate record of how many individual lawyers it represents, but staff say ‘probably many hundreds of thousands, if not some millions’.
The CLA’s central role, with Ozobia as its ambassador and advocate, is to maintain and promote the rule of law throughout the Commonwealth by ensuring an independent and efficient legal profession that serves the people. That is a tall order. Does the CLA even get near to achieving it? ‘We don’t have an army or police force, but we do have moral authority,’ Ozobia says. ‘We come together as a group to talk to the executive arms of governments and remind them that they are signatories to treaties that set out the principles by which they should govern. There are economic and other benefits to Commonwealth membership, so moral pressure can often be effective.’
These principles of good government are most clearly set out in the Commonwealth (Latimer House) Principles, which were adopted by all Commonwealth heads of state in Abuja, Nigeria in 2003. It describes the roles of the three arms of government: the executive (the people responsible for the daily administration of the state, such as presidents and ministers), the legislature (or parliament) and the judiciary. And it explains how these three arms must be independent of one another to ensure a democratic state.
Ozobia says: ‘This hugely important document explains to emerging democracies how they can live by principles that protect the rule of law. The document is also used to hold to account states that fall short.’ That is a noble ambition, but how can the CLA possibly hope to apply a single set of principles to a diverse group of 54 states? Some are Christian, others are Muslim or Hindu. Some have mature democracies, others are emerging democracies. Some are economically developed, while others are impoverished or recovering from civil wars.
‘Core standards of good professional ethics embody the same values wherever you practise,’ Ozobia replies. ‘No matter whether you practise in Antigua or Zambia, New Zealand or Papua New Guinea, you should serve your client to the best of your professional ability, preserve trust and confidentiality, avoid conflict of interest, and not bring the profession into disrepute.’ She adds: ‘As well as promoting the highest standards of ethics and integrity, the CLA’s aim is also to ensure that a common bond of Commonwealth is preserved and fostered. It’s this "oneness" that transcends differences in religion or culture. A legal decision made in India, for instance, is equally relevant in Australia, the UK or Cameroon.
‘Similarly, a property law workshop we held in Belfast recently was addressed by lawyers from New Zealand, Nigeria and India. There was no need to reinvent the wheel. Delegates from all over the Commonwealth took away information to help them progress their own legal practices faster.’
But surely sharia law makes such ‘oneness’ meaningless? ‘Sharia law has existed side-by-side with common law for many, many years,’ Ozobia says. ‘It’s long been in Malaysia and in my own country. Usually, it covers just your personal affairs, such as rights of inheritance. It’s when the penal code of sharia law is put into the equation that it becomes a challenge and that’s a problem that has only arisen in recent years as Muslim extremists try to establish Islamic states. How does a democracy impose sharia criminal law on non-Muslim offenders? How does it countenance stoning or chopping off hands? It can’t – and that’s why Nigeria and Ghana, to name just two countries, are sending troops to Mali.’
SCHOOL FGGC Abuloma
UNIVERSITY King’s College London, Nigeria Law School, Rivers State University of Science and Technology
JOBS partner at Sterling Partnership; former chair of the Association of Women Solicitors; president of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association since February 2011
KNOWN AS campaigning for civil rights and social action, economic empowerment, education, environment, human rights and poverty alleviation
What about other cultural differences, such as the status of women – and women lawyers – in countries where the female is regarded as inferior to the male, and is often treated as a chattel? ‘Women lawyers in the CLA face much the same problems as those I remember from my days as chair of the AWS, such as interrupted careers because of caring responsibilities,’ Ozobia replies. ‘But, yes, the problems do go deeper in some cultures. I remember the self-effacing women lawyers I met in India, where the gender-style relationship in a social setting carries over to a professional setting. Elsewhere, one woman even confided in me that if you trained as a lawyer you would find it difficult to find a husband – because you might argue with him.’ But you have risen to become president of the CLA, I tell Ozobia, so obviously you have not been held back by gender discrimination. ‘Not quite,’ she says. ‘I have seen men wondering why I have to go out to work. Don’t I have a husband to look after me?’
So what is in Ozobia’s in-tray right now? ‘The biggest item in my purely figurative in-tray is our upcoming 18th biennial Commonwealth Law Conference from 14-18 April in Cape Town, South Africa,’ she says. ‘It’s not like an International Bar Association conference, which I think of as something of a "spectator sport" – learned talks on Mexican or Korean law in which you have no interest or involvement.
‘Every session at our conferences is relevant to every delegate because all of them are centred on common law. The conferences themselves are a place for members from the judiciary, academia and all areas of the profession to meet and share common ideas and problems, and network with international delegates. The Law Society of England and Wales has been very supportive, for which we commend it, and we have a full programme of seminars, breakout and plenary sessions scheduled.’ She adds: ‘And as a final plug for the conference, simply contact the CLA for details or to book your place.’
Looking back on her two-year tenure as CLA president, the achievements Ozobia is proudest of, she says, are ‘protecting the rights of legal professionals to do their work without threats or persecution from the state’.
‘Uganda was arbitrarily detaining lawyers representing people accused of a bombing campaign. We intervened and, because the Ugandan government knew that the international community of lawyers was watching, it responded to our concerns and changed its behaviour.’
She adds: ‘We are also working in Belize to support a constitutional challenge by the Human Dignity Trust, which campaigns against the criminalisation of gay people. My own country is even developing a law to criminalise the witnessing of gay activity. This may all sound barbaric to countries like the UK, but don’t forget that these laws are still on the books from the days of the British empire. States simply dig them out when it suits them.’
Returning to a point Ozobia made at the beginning of our interview, I ask her if she thinks the UK should withdraw from the EU and focus its efforts on the Commonwealth instead? Should UKIP and elements of the Conservative party, not to mention certain red-top newspapers, get their way without a struggle? And should we no longer be signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights?
‘The UK sets a noble example of fairness and adherence to the rule of law,’ Ozobia replies. ‘How many other states would have allowed Abu Hamza such leeway? But Europe isn’t really the centre of the world when it comes to human rights. There’s the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which we all acknowledge. There’s no real bar to you throwing in your lot with the Commonwealth.’
Jonathan Rayner is a Gazette reporter