|I recently had the opportunity of attending the 8th Annual Business Luncheon of SPA Ajibade & Co. as the Best Graduating Student of the Nigeria Law School, Yola Campus. The theme of the Luncheon was “The Future of Legal Practice in Nigeria: Regulation and Discipline in the Legal Profession.” In a well-researched and brilliantly delivered paper, the lead speaker Mr Harry Matovu Q.C. along side other discussants at the luncheon proffered ways of reviving a profession which everyone agreed is on a steady decline.
Mr. Fubara Anga, one of the other discussants, pointed out that there is a lack of consensus of values in the legal profession. By this he implied that lawyers do not totally agree on the ethical problems facing the profession and the solutions to such problems. He gave an example of the controversial Stamp and Seal requirement – and how there seem to be two conflicting Supreme Court positions on the issue. Also Mrs Hairat Balogun (SAN) addressed the growing issues of trial publicity among lawyers especially Senior Advocates of Nigeria.
Despite these beautiful submissions and suggestions, one cannot but wonder what became of other equally beautiful submissions others had made before them at previous forums. This is not the first time the gradual ethical degradation in the profession have been discussed. Infact, at the 2015 All Nigeria Judges’ Conference, the issue was thrown up by President Muhammadu Buhari in his speech.
What then is wrong?
Perhaps the answer lies in the thoughts of Mr Anga, who wondered if the profession itself wanted a change.
This thought is germane. We need to first ask ourselves whether we really want a change or have we so much enjoyed and benefited from the rot in the system that we prefer it this way and do not want to upset the cart.
As Mr Matovu pointed out in his paper, Nigeria is definitely not the worst jurisdiction in terms of ethics, but must we wait until we become the worst before we get our acts right?
It is no secret that today’s legal practice is full of tales of misconduct and ethical violations with lawyers paying little or no attention to the Rules of Professional Conduct and other regulations set up to govern the legal practice in Nigeria. Unnecessary adjournments aimed at delaying cases, frivolous and annoying applications, and trial publicity have all become the order of the day. I once visited a Federal High Court and within an hour, eleven matters on the cause list had been dispensed with principally because many counsel sought adjournments for both germane and spurious reasons. The unfortunate recipient of these are the innocent litigants or maybe not too innocent because some of the misconduct by lawyers are engineered by their clients who encourage them to go for victory at all cost. This raises other pertinent questions that bother on conflict of interest. For instance, to what extent does a lawyer pursue the interest of his client as against the need to promote the course of justice? Is there a point where a lawyer should ignore his client’s wishes and disregard the ethos of diligence to a client’s cause in other to promote a more lofty cause as an officer of the court? Which is paramount, a lawyer’s duty as an officer of the court or his duty to his client who has retained his services?
In his paper, Mr Matovu made series of beautiful suggestions such as promoting the twin core duties of a legal practitioner to court and to client. He furthersuggested that regulation in the profession should be amended to penalize the failure of a lawyer to report a colleague who is in breach of the regulations amongst other things.
But are Matovu’s suggestions new?
The Rules of Professional Conduct 2007 contains provisions which deal with many of these ethical issues. For instance, Rule 30 speaks of the lawyer’s duty as an officer of the court and prohibits him from conducting himself in any manner that may obstruct, delay, or adversely affect the administration of justice. The now very recurrent practice of lawyers commenting on live matters before the courts have also been dealt with in Rule 33. The lawyer’s duty to pursue a client’s case with dedication and devotion has been covered in Rule 14 while Rule 15 limits that duty. Rule 15 also requires a lawyer to represent his client within the bounds of the law and to withdraw from any employment that would require him to compromise his ethics and standards.
As for the proposal to make lawyers collectively responsible for enforcing the rules, Rule 55(2) requires every lawyer to report any infraction of the Rules that comes to his knowledge to the appropriate authority for sanctions. Perhaps the only shortcoming in this rule is that it fails to penalize such failure as is the case in the UK and New York.
From these provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct above, one then wonders what the problem could be.
Interestingly, in Mr Matovu’s presentation, a power point slide contained a cartoon depiction of two lawyers in a discussion about a new set of regulations. Their views of the rules were – “These new rules require new ways of going around them!” this nicely depicts some lawyers’ attitude to rules. It captures my view of what problem really is- attitude’.
I submit that the falling standards in the legal profession is not one of rules or regulations but attitude. As Mr Matovu puts it, the lawyer must see his practice as a calling and not just a business where the sole aim is profit.
The Way Forward
The enforcement of the Rules should be intensified. Senior lawyers must take up the responsibility of sanitizing the profession, first with their conduct as role models and then mentoring younger lawyers. Where necessary senior lawyers must not shy away from invoking disciplinary procedures through relevant institutions against erring lawyers. But this burden cannot lie with the senior lawyers in the profession alone.
The duty to rebrand legal practice in Nigeria is the collective duty of all who lay claim to it. Let us hand over to our learned heirs a profession that is worthy of its calling.
Chief Policy Officer