Gani’s chambers, end of an era

The information that the popular Gani Fawehinmi Chambers is to wind up is generating mixed reactions among stakeholders, who express surprise that the edifice, which represents a lasting legacy, is about becoming history, writes TONY AMOKEODO

WHEN the news filtered to the general public that the popular chambers of the late legal luminary, Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN), at Anthony Village, Off Ikorodu Road, Lagos, would be wound up on January 15, 2011, stakeholders in the judiciary and the masses reacted with mixed feelings.

It is unbelievable that the chambers, which popularises Ajao Estate and its environs in Anthony Village of Lagos and which represents a trademark within and outside the country, will no longer be available to litigants and lawyers who regards the chambers as symbols of crusade against injustice and oppression.

Indeed, the winding up of Gani Fawehinmi Chambers marks an end of qualitative and robust chambers whose stock in trade remains a reliable advocacy place where Nigerians from different walks of life believe will address their legal problems no matter whose ox is gored .

And when one considers the numbers of ‘who is who’ in legal circles that have passed through the chambers, the proposed closing down of this imposing chambers represents the end of a worthy legacy.

Some analysts have also argued that the winding up of the chambers is a lesson to those who erroneously believe that it is not profitable to team up with other lawyers to form a befitting chambers. According to the analysts, the lesson of the late Fawehinmi’s decision on his chambers is a need to embrace partnership for lasting legacy.

But the late legal icon had directed in his Last Testament and Will that the chambers, which had handled thousand of cases for individuals and firms from different walks of life, should be wound up within two years of his death.

Our correspondent also gathered that the chambers had written letters to their clients, asking them to collect their case files from the chambers on or before the fixed January 15 date.

A copy of the letter dated December 17, 2010 titled, “Re-Winding up of Gani Fawehinmi Chambers “, read in part, “ In line with the wishes of our late Head of Chambers , Chief Gani Fawehinmi , SAN, as contained in his Last Testament and Will that the chambers be wound up literarily within two years of his death, the Gani Fawehinmi Chambers will be wound up on January 15, 2011.

“Consequently, you are advised to collect your case file from the chambers on or before the said date of January 15, 2011.

Fawehinmi, who was born on April 22, 1938, died in Lagos on September 4, 2009 at the age of 71.

The deceased had in his last Will dated December 19, 2008 also appointed the First Trustees Nigeria Limited, a subsidiary of the First Bank of Nigeria Plc, as the executor and trustee of his vast estate.

And in what appears to be a painful decision that has continued to surprise his associates and admirers, the deceased seals the fate of the chambers in clauses 17, 18 and 19 of his Will thus, “(17) I direct my Trustee to ensure that all my Books and my entire library are taken from my chambers, the Gani Fawehinmi Chambers at 35 Adeniran Ajao Road, Ajao Estate, Anthony Village, Lagos to the new library and gallery in the Nigeria Law Publication House, CBD, Alausa, Ikeja as soon as the building is completed and ready for occupation. This direction shall be carried out within 7 days of my death if the books have not already been transferred in my lifetime.

“(18) My chambers, the Gani Fawehinmi Chambers at 35, Adeniran Ajao Road Ajao Estate Anthony Village, Lagos shall be wound up literally within two years after my death.

“(19) I direct my Trustee to effect all necessary repairs to my building at Adeniran Ajao Road, Ajao Estate Anthony Village, Lagos when it is vacant and after the repairs, the building should be let and the proceeds of the lease should be paid into “Gani Fawehinmi Trust Account”, (b) My Trustees, may in their discretion, convert the building into flats if that would make the property more commercially lettable.”

The late Fawehinmi had in April 1965 established his chambers at 116, Denton Street, Ebute-Metta, Lagos just as he moved the chambers to his house at 28, Sabiu Ajose Crescent, Surulere, Lagos in 1974 while he finally moved the chambers in 1978 to its present site at No. 35, Adeniran Ajao Road, Ajao Estate, Anthony Village, Lagos.

The chambers is reputed to be the largest law chambers in Nigeria and has a collection of over 290,000 law and law-related books on various subjects. The chambers (and sister organisations including Nigerian Law Publications Limited) has a staff strength of 201 with 19 out of the total number as practicing lawyers.

Between 1965 and 2002, the chambers has handled about 5,700 briefs while Fawehinmi had personally practised law and appeared in courts throughout the length and breath of the country.

It is on record that the late legal icon handled more than 1, 500 briefs free of charge for the poor and the oppressed.

But those who worked with him and other lawyers who shared his vision, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), Mr. Femi Falana, Mr. Fred Agbaje, Mr. Wahab Shittu, and an Enugu- based lawyer, Ms. Chidi Obeke , are unanimous that the closing of the chambers is unfortunate, saying that the deceased must have taken the decision with altruistic purpose.

According to Falana, “Closure of the chambers is regrettable. But since that was the late Chief Fawehinmi’s wish, it cannot be challenged.”

Ozekhome said, “I am thoroughly shocked, nay bewildered. I refused to attend the painful ritual even though I read of it in the papers. What went wrong? The Gani I knew and know is a man of history, I believe he would have liked the chambers to continue to serve the society even after his death.”

For Agbaje, “What an undesirable end of a legacy. What a way to end a factory that has produced prominent judges and lawyers and by extension, unforgettable legal literatures and cases laws that have shaped our political –socio-economic landscapes? The contribution of those chambers to the firmament of our legal practice would remain evergreen. The late legal colossus wish must be painfully and regrettably be respected. It is a clarion call for partnership in the legal practice.”

Shittu said, “The winding up of Gani‘s chambers is significant for a variety of reasons. It is a triumph of the sacredness of a testator’s wishes as expressed in his Will and a mark of respect for Gani’s wishes even at his death.”

But Obeke said, “It was Gani’s prerogative to do whatever he liked with his chambers. As per the lawyers in his chambers life should ordinarily continue, as they can join other chambers or set up their own. I think it is wrong to question the correctness of Gani’s decision.”

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