Law & Human Rights

May 20, 2010

De-robed lawyer seeks Supreme Court intervention

By Kayode Matthew

A Lagos based legal practitioner, Chief Ike Chinwuba who was barred from professional practice by the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association over professional misconduct has taken his case to the Supreme Court for redress.

In his appeal lodged before the apex court, Chief Chinwuba is arguing that the committee misdirected itself in its decision and should be quashed. The committee chaired by Justice Umaru Eri, which sat at the Court of Appeal Abuja gave a directive on April 13 this year that “the name of Mr Ike Chinwuba be and is hereby struck off the roll of legal practitioners in Nigeria”.

The committee held that Chinwuba was liable for professional misconduct contrary to Rules 1, 15 and 21 of the Rules of Professional Conduct in the legal profession and Section 12 of the Legal Practitioners Act.

The committee’s direction followed a petition written to the NBA by one Alhaji Lateef A  Jimoh on October 2005 accusing Chinwuba of criminal trespass, and fraudulent conversion of rent in respect of his property in FESTAC Town Lagos. Alhaji Jimoh said he let out his property comprising duplex and two rooms boy’s quarters to one Chief Henry Ogugua in May 1998 on a yearly rent of N200,000.00. There was disagreement when Alhaji wanted to increase his rent which prompted Chief Ogugua to engage the services of Chinwuba as his lawyer and while the matter in court was going on, Chief Ogugua moved out of the premises with his family.

According to Alhaji Jimoh, “after Henry Ogugua moved out, his counsel, Ike Chinwuba rented out my property to one Chukwuebuka Jonathan at more than N1million for another two years knowing fully well that Ogugua had three years unpaid rent.” In his response, Mr Ike Chinwuba said their law firm took Alhaji Jimoh to the rent tribunal on behalf of Chief Ogugua to protect his possession of the premises.

While the suit was pending, Jimoh through his counsel, Mr W.K Shittu brought an action at Ikeja High Court to eject Chief Ogugua. In the course of the suits, Chief Ogugua did sub-let part of his apartment through his counsel, Mr Chinwuba and the rent was paid to Ogugua through his brother, Mr Ben Ogugua who issued receipts in respect of the rent. Chinwuba thereafter issued their chambers receipt to the new tenants to cover the rents they paid to him.

In his submissions, before the Disciplinary Committee, Chief Chinwuba argued that as lawyer to the tenant, Chief Henry Ogugua he considered the following;   ‘Since the house had sub-tenants, if the space he requested to be sub-let is left, at the end of the case he would still pay for all. It is the law that where in a possession case the landlord obtains judgment against the tenant, the tenant goes with his sub-tenants. Where the tenant fails to utilise the space available to him and seeks from court to be absolved from paying same, the court will ordinarily tell him he should have mitigated his losses by putting the space to use.

At the time of sub-letting, Alhaji Jimoh had closed his case. That is, he had tendered all the things he felt were necessary and would entitle him to re-possess the property from Chief Henry Ogugua including tenancy agreement between and Ogugua. The tenancy agreement did not provide for consent of landlord before sub-letting and did not prohibit it either. The notice to quit was bad in law. It purported to terminate Ogugua’s tenancy of April 30 2003 whereas the tenancy agreement tendered by Jimoh at the tribunal gave the anniversary of the tena
ncy as 11th May. He had not therefore terminated Ogugua’s tenancy for this reason.

The condition precedent for recovery of possession had not been satisfied. If this condition is not satisfied, the case in court is a waste of time. The court will have to strike out the matter. It is also the law that where tenancy is not terminated after expiration, it rolls over and continues. If the above is known to Ogugua’s lawyer. Will it be advisable to turn down the request of a client in the exercise of his right given to him by the law? This is the position of Ogugua and his counsel when the sub-letting of the subject matter of the complaint in the direction was made. Ogugua’s rent had not expired when Jimoh took him to court. When the rent was due on 10th May, 2003 Ogugua gave Jimoh rent which he refused.

Chief Chinwuba then pointed out areas where he believed the Disciplinary Committee erred and misdirected itself. The committee in its report said Chinwuba admitted that the correct agreement contained full clauses and that clause VI prohibited Mr Ogugua from sub-letting the premises without the landlord’s permission. Chinwuba said he could not have admitted that what Jimoh tendered before the committee in 2009 was the correct agreement because Justice Idowu had earlier pronounced that the agreement which Jimoh tendered at the Rent Tribunal in 2005 did not contain the clause prohibiting Ogugua from sub-letting.

The committee in its direction said it expected Chinwuba to explain why the copy of the agreement which he produced as that between the petitioner and his client Henry Ogugua did not contain the missing clauses and to know what action he took to confirm the missing clauses.

Chinwuba however argued that there was nowhere he prepared, produced or tendered any tenancy agreement between Jimoh and Ogugua. Jimoh tendered the agreement without a clause on restriction or prohibition of sub-letting at the Rent Tribunal. Chinwuba also faulted the committee’s view that he deliberately removed or omitted the pages of the agreement which prohibit sub-letting without the consent of the landlord to create an alibi or a defence to his sub-letting a property to which his client’s tenancy had expired and in which there was a specific prohibition of sub-letting.

According to him, “one wonders whether this is deliberate falsehood because it will be utterly ridiculous to suggest or conclude that the Respondent removed pages of an agreement in the custody of the Complainant from where the complainant tendered same in court neither is it possible or plausible to suggest or conclude that the Respondent removed the pages in the court records while the document was in the custody of the court. “The Respondent was therefore punished because the complainant relied on two differing tenancy agreements, one at the tribunal and the other at the Disciplinary Committee consequent upon which the Respondent had to answer to the charge.

He then posed some questions which he wants the court to consider: “if in the opinion of a lawyer, the law confers a right on his client, why should the lawyer refuse the exercise of the right on his client’s behalf? How does subletting of an apartment of a sitting tenant amount to a collusion with tenants to rent out the property of a landlord and conversion of monies meant for the landlord as stated in the charge? If a lawyer’s interpretation or perception of the law and its application on behalf of his client is found to be wrong, should that amount to professional misconduct or infamous conduct? If so what is the function of the courts? Why did the committee leave the complaint with which respondent was charged and punish him for what he was not charged with and what he did not defend? We all demand for due process. How will operating within the due process of law be oppressive and amount to an infamous conduct or professional misconduct?