Law

Curbing unethical conducts among lawyers

  • ‘Non-enforcement of Professional Ethics  Rules fuelling misconducts’

 

TUNDE OYESINA writes that like the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), lawyers have called for a strict disciplinary mechanism to arrest the growing trend of unethical conducts by some members of the Bar

 

Some senior lawyers have called for a strict disciplinary mechanism in the legal profession as a way of curbing the decline in ethical conducts among practitioners.

 

The lawyers equally called for a strict enforcement of the provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct to arrest the ugly trend. The men of the wig and gown spoke at the weekend amidst concern raised by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) over the decline in ethical standard among lawyers

 

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) had at the inauguration of Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN) as Chairman, Body of Benchers in Abuja expressed concern over the decline in ethical conduct among lawyers.

 

The Association was also concerned about the waning capacity of the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LDPC) to effectively deal with cases of unethical conducts among lawyers in the country. It blamed the ugly development on the ebbing standard of discipline and rising cases of misconducts among legal practitioners in Nigeria. NBA President, Olumide Akpata, who made these observations however called on the Body of Benchers, whose organ is the LPDC to ensure an urgent reform of the committee to enable it function effectively to restore public confidence in the legal profession.

 

Akpata spoke in Abuja at an event held to commemorate the change of leadership at the Body of Benchers, with Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN) succeeding Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour (a retired Justice of the Supreme Court), as the Chairman, while Justice Mary Odili (of the Supreme Court) became the Vice Chairman. Akpata said: “I will charge the new Chairman to look closely at the issue of discipline; look closely at the issue of the LPDC.

 

“The public, right now, have very little confidence in the LPDC and they believe that we are shielding many of our colleagues who have committed one infraction or the other.

 

“So, more work has to be done by the LPDC. First, more panels should be put in place to enable LPDC sits across the country. It cannot be the case that a man, who has a matter against a lawyer in Ugheli in Delta State will have to travel all the way to Abuja to have his matter heard.

 

“The way things are just shows that we are not really keen or at least, it makes us look as if we are not keen to see that our members are disciplined. So, it is the responsibility of the Body of Benchers to ensure that the LPDC has more panels and that the process is more efficient.

“Right now, we have cases/petitions piled up, waiting to be heard. As the President of the Bar, I get calls everyday from people who feel that they have been hard done by lawyers; who feel that some lawyers have misconducted themselves in cases involving them, and they think we are not doing enough in terms of disciplining erring lawyers.

“It is a one-year term, as the Chairman of the Body of Benchers. It is not a very long tenure. But, as the Chairman, I know if he puts his mind to it, I am sure he (Olanipekun) can totally revamp the LPDC to ensure that our citizens regain confidence in the legal profession, not only that we are competent and can service the public, but that we can discipline our own”. Earlier, the Body of Benchers (BOB) had equally expressed concern about the state of affairs in the nation’s legal profession and noted that it requires urgent sanitisation to enable it retain its noble status.

The Body of Benchers is the highest body in the nation’s legal profession, with the serving Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justices of the Supreme Court, the President of the Court of Appeal, Presiding Justices of the Court of Appeal, Attorneys General, Senior Advocates and other distinguished legal practitioners as members.

 

BOB’s new Chairman, Chief Woke Olanipekun (SAN), however assured that the body, under his watch, would do all within its capacity to scrutize the profession and ensure discipline. Olanipekun spoke in Abuja shortly after his inauguration as the 50th Chairman of the BOB while Justice Mary Peter Odili was sworn in as the group’s Vice Chairman.

 

Olanipekun who is the immediate past Vice Chairman of the BOB, hailed his predecessors in office, whom he noted, laid solid foundation and assured that he would build on the foundation he inherited. Olanipekun said: “I will try to improve on what my predecessors in office have done. I have a focus about the legal profession. “We have to do something about it. And, what we have to do about the legal profession is very urgent.

 

And I have my ideas, which I will present at the next meeting of the body. But, there is the need for us to sanitise the profession in Nigeria today. I will not at this stage reveal what I want to do. “I will present my agenda to the body at the first meeting that I will chair.

 

This is in July and during the time, I will roll out my programme. “At the time Adetokunbo Ademola was the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Teslim Elias was the Attorney General of the Federation, they both worked together to bring about a unified Nigeria legal system, creating the Council of Legal Education, which gave birth to Nigeria Law School.

 

About ninety percent of Nigeria lawyers today are products of Nigerian Law School”. Olanipekun however pledged to ensure the independence of the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC), the body that ensure discipline among legal practitioners (an organ of the BOB).

He also assured of his commitment of service to the legal profession in order to sanitise it. “In whatever position I found myself, I have always striven to represent our noble profession as an ambassador and exemplar, displaying the learning, good character and virtues which the law profession is reputed for, to the admiration of the non-legal communities.

 

“As leaders of the legal profession in our respective rights, who in the wisdom of the law, that is, the Legal Practitioners Act, has aggregated us from our different sectors of the profession, it behoves us to rejig, redefine and reorientate our profession in order to restore its cherished nobility and glory. “We must not lose sight of the unpleasant happenings around us, whether from the Bar and Bench. Succinctly surmised, our profession is under aggression and attack, both from within and without.

 

“These are not the best of times for the legal profession in Nigeria. But, let us be encouraged by the illuminating words of Criss Jami, in his recently published book

(2015) titled Killosophy, where he enthused that ‘To seek greatness is the righteous vengeance’. “Therefore, it is the bounden duty of the congregation of these great men and women of distinction, constituting the Body of Benchers, to work for the greatness and renaissance of our esteemed profession. In doing so as well, we may have to crack some glass ceilings.

 

“While paragraph 5 (1) of the Body of Benchers Regulations provides for three statutory meetings in the dining year, the same paragraph empowers the Chairman to call for other meetings, as may be necessary and/or expedient. “I hereby prepare the mind of the most distinguished members of this body that in the next one year, I would be calling on you for such extra meetings, as we have much to do and accomplish.

 

For this great sojourn, I commit to giving my all as the Chairman of the Body of Benchers. “The one year tenure appears short, but to me, it’s also time you can achieve a lot because to the glory of God I have been on the body since 1992, I became a Life Bencher in 2007 and I have learnt under many past Chairmen. I have followed all the procedures and proceedings”, Olanipekun added

 

. Lawyers react

In the meantime, some senior lawyers have added their voices to the condemnation of the growing spate of unethical conducts by legal practitioners. Reacting to the ugly trend, an Abuja- based lawyer, Ahmed Maiwada, noted that the concerns raised by the NBA over the decline in ethical conducts by lawyers is timely.

 

Maiwada said: “As an active practitioner, I have encountered situations of serious abuses of court’s processes by lawyers who, rather than content themselves with the ethical practices of serving as officers of the court, specially trained to assist the court in arriving at the justice of cases that they are handling, got busy focusing on victory at all costs.

 

“Because of this sad turn of events, which ultimately guarantees the size of the money the lawyer can make from the case he is handling, you can see all kinds of sharp practices, including the filing of frivolous documents or applications with a view to denying justice for three party who deserves it.

“Most times, one wonders whether those lawyers have actually been through the law school, where the ethics of the profession is taught concerning a lawyer doing his best possible in any particular case to help the court resolve disputes before it in just and equitable manner”. In his submissions, Benibo Chukwuma, stressed the need for a strict punitive measure against any legal practitioner found to have displayed unethical conduct.

 

“In recent times, certain events have made the spotlight to be cast on the legal profession in Nigeria. Regardless of the nuances, shades and sides to the issues that have arisen, it is clear that the esteemed place of Nigerian lawyers continues to take devastating hits. “In other words, there has been significant reputational damage  to the legal profession in Nigeria. Suffice to say that there is an urgent need for introspection, particularly engaging ourselves on a reflective analysis of what is personally required in striving to uphold the standards of the legal profession.

 

“The foregoing should not only be the responsibility of the Nigerian Bar Association (“NBA”), the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (“LPDC”), Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee and the Supreme Court. It is one for everyone of us.

 

“The challenges facing the legal profession include, alleged corrupt practices involving judges and lawyers, increased cases of suspension and withdrawal of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria on grounds including, professional misconduct, acts “unbefitting of the holder of the rank” and most alarming, criminal conviction – for the offence of perverting justice, conflicts of interest, malpractice, misappropriation of client’s funds, willful delay of justice arising out of the exploitation of loopholes in technicalities rather than arguments based on merits.

 

“This has contributed to the downward spiral and dwindling standards in the legal profession in Nigeria. The hydra- challenges can be attributed to the failure to adhere to the traditional laid down rules of conducts/ethics of the legal profession. “In as much as there is sufficient provision for the code of conduct to regulate the legal profession in Nigeria, the sub-par implementation of the rules has immensely contributed to the falling standard of the profession.

 

“Therefore, we have to critically evaluate if in our own little ways, we are contributing positively or negatively to the general well-being and outlook of our profession. One way to do this is by looking at our relationship with legal ethics, the majority of which are embodied in the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC). “The level of adherence to legal ethics may well be the test of the foundation and pillar upon which our profession stands”, Chukwuma said.

On his part, Dr. Chris Onwuleri, noted that in order to maximally reduce the rate of unethical conduct among lawyers, , the provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC) should be enforced. He said: “Rules of Professional Ethics is the main Mechanism for stemming the falling standard of legal profession in Nigeria.

“It is my understanding that the falling standard of the legal profession in Nigeria necessitated the introduction of Professional Ethics as a stand alone course in the various campuses of the Nigerian Law School.

“The rationale behind the introduction of the course is to instill the ethics of the profession at the grooming stage of future members of the profession.

“To this end, and prior to being posted as externs to the courts, and afterwards, to law chambers, the students are taught for several months about legal ethics and the necessity of keeping same, including the possibility of sanctions for breach. “However, it cannot be said that the objective behind the several months of rigorous lectures on professional ethics has been met, as ironically, it is popularly said among law school students, that the reign of the RPC ends at the gate of the law school.

“The belief by aspirants to the Nigerian Bar that the rudiments of ethics ends as soon as they are called to the Bar is a disappointment which appears to have gathered momentum from the discouraging ethical infractions witnessed amongst lawyers and in the legal profession as a whole.

“Then comes the conundrum many of the students find themselves in, especially while they are  externing at the courts. They are required to log in their experiences in court day by day and reflect on a few and you can be sure that the most common issues to reflect on are the ethical violations they see displayed by their senior colleagues in court.

“From the subtle ones that may be overlooked to the very flagrant breaches that sometimes cause disorder in court, , these infractions include but are not limited to; two counsel jostling for the representation of the same client, filing of frivolous applications, lack of decorum, improper dressing and inappropriate language utilization.

“In day to day practice (outside the courts), there are several infractions which legal practitioners undertake in wanton disregard of the RPC. “For those who attempt to argue that these infractions occur out of the honest omissions or ignorance of the legal practitioners, the legal principle, Ignorantialegisneminemexcusat (i.e. ignorance of the law excuses no one) is clearly apt on this matter. “If ignorance of the law will not avail the man on the street, definitely, a lawyer cannot bandy ignorance around.

“Actually, it is a blight on the competence of a lawyer when he is unaware of the ethics that guide his profession. A lawyer is said to be learned but not expected to know all the law. “God forbid”, said the great Lord Denning, “that a man should know all the law.”

“However, God forbid, we dare say, that a practicing legal practitioner should not know the rules of his profession which spells out the core attributes of his daily practice.

This is especially so, as a legal practitioner is expected to display exemplary thirst for continued knowledge acquisition, one which is not only limited to his understanding of the law but extending to a constant and periodic reminder of the ethics and principles that govern his profession”.

 

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