By Bartholomew Madukwe
The NBA-SLP (Section on Legal Practice) of which you are the chairperson, had been in limbo for over two years now. How did you manage the affairs of the section while it was dormant, given the fact that the parent body seemed to be against your emergence as chairperson of the Section?
It is incorrect to assert that the parent body was against my emergence. It is unfortunate that for some reasons, the past president decided to review the elections that had taken place. It was later found, when the current President came in, that due process was indeed followed and so there was no reason for the steps that had been taken. Consequently, at the Section’s AGM held in Lagos in August, 2017, the officers that had been removed were re-elected.
However, we do not want to dwell on it but to look ahead. The Section has a very bright future and the current Section officers and council members believe that with time, it will emerge stronger and rejuvenated. Our focus is on rebuilding the Section and positioning it properly because irrespective of your area of specialisation, as lawyers, the Section on Legal Practice covers all aspects of practice and has an impact on the manner in which we practise law. Before we were able to get back on track, we lost one of our very dear Council members, Chief Adetola-Kazeem, SAN. He was a pillar of the section. We miss him and his very wise counsel. May he rest in peace.
In a few months, Nigerian lawyers will elect their national officers; five candidates are already jostling for the office of the President. What qualities should lawyers be looking for in electing the next Bar President?
I do not know if I can be considered a barman but I believe that you do not need to be a barman to know what qualities are desirable in the next Bar President. He should have a listening ear, be honest, upright with integrity, financially prudent with managerial skills. He should also build on programmes commenced by his predecessor. Our regulatory system is long overdue for an overhaul and we hope he will build on what his predecessors did.
I also support universal suffrage electronic voting system which accords more with modern life. It is inclusive. The delegate system was anachronistic and had outlived its usefulness.
Rivers State seems to be carving a niche for itself in terms of the Justice/Legal Sector, as not only have the courts been totally revamped, many legal outings seem to be taking place in Port Harcourt these days.
What could be responsible for this?
Not too long ago, many people were reluctant to go to Port Harcourt because they felt that it was unsafe.
Is the narrative different today?
The general fear of insecurity exists nationwide but has never affected the hosting of law-related conferences. Rivers State has had its challenges, like other parts of the country, but to residents, there appears to be a concerted effort by all stakeholders to reverse the trend. Port Harcourt has always played host to a lot of law-related conferences since the return of democracy. Over the years, the state has always been very supportive of lawyers and has hosted several events and conferences including the NBA Annual General Conferences in 2011 and 2016, Annual Conference of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators which took place in 2016 as well as several other Section conferences and workshops. As the Governor is a lawyer, it is not surprising he has continued with this noble trend.
Many people have complained that the filing of frivolous applications, incessant adjournments etc. were some of the ways employed by lawyers to frustrate the course of justice. What steps can be taken to curb these excesses?
The Law reports and press reports suggest that lawyers are being disciplined for misconduct on a regular basis by the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee, LPDC. So, I believe the committee is doing quite a lot. I know that they have additional prosecutors so much is being done. I also know that the President of the NBA is working on models and modalities to be considered by the Bar, at the appropriate time, to reform our regulatory framework.
As for delays in court, there are several Rules of Courts and practice directions that have been issued by the various courts to stem the delays in cases. Lately, the courts have started awarding punitive costs to be paid personally by lawyers to discourage delays in court. However, the fact that a person seeks an adjournment in a matter does not mean that the lawyer is deliberately trying to delay the case. Furthermore, once a lawyer takes steps that are within the bounds of the law and the Rules of Court, it cannot be said that he is trying to frustrate the course of justice and our Rules of Professional Conduct make that clear. After all, some people have been the subject of frivolous law suits and they have a right not to be subjected to same, to object to such proceedings or defend themselves within the purview of the Rules of Court and the law. If you have been at the receiving end of such actions, you may have a different perspective. The important thing is to ensure that as a lawyer, you act strictly within the law. In any case, the Judge is the master of his court and has a duty to ensure that lawyers who behave in such unethical manners do not get away with sharp practices or dilatory tactics.
The NBA-SLP’s annual conference with the theme: Re-Thinking and Re-Tooling Legal Practice for the Challenges of Our Time, will hold in Port Harcourt April 12-13, 2018. What will be the highlights of the conference? What innovations will be introduced at the conference that will be of benefit to lawyers in their practices and what do you hope to achieve?
The conference will consider topical issues on professional ethics, the relationship between the bench and the bar, effectiveness of the prosecution of white collar and economic crimes, factors impeding lawyers in generating income and as 2019 looms large on the horizon, we will consider election matters and the journey so far with the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended). We have knowledgeable and amazing speakers who have the expertise, experience and passion to discuss the topics they have kindly agreed to speak on and we are very grateful to them. The positive response from our colleagues, who agreed to contribute their time as speakers, discussants or chairpersons so as to be a part of the SLP conference, has been overwhelming considering the fact that the Section has basically been inactive for a couple of years.
After our opening ceremonies, we will immediately kick off with the session, Practising law in a regulated environment – what we need to know. This session will deal with professional ethics which as we know, is on the front burner of public discourse. We are regaled on a regular basis with allegations of misconduct against lawyers, some of whom have been disciplined, to the knowledge of the public. As the Section on Legal Practice, we need to talk about this, how to stem the growing tide of misconduct and criticism that arises therefrom.
To show how serious these issues are in other jurisdictions, I will give an example of a friend who practises outside the country. I recall him being quite agitated on an occasion because he was handling a matter which was about to be statute barred and he had not filed his originating processes or informed his client that the action would soon be statute barred. He feared the Bar Council, where he practised, would take away his licence if the case became statute barred. So, we can see we still have a long way to go in Nigeria.
As lawyers, we need to fully understand the extent of our duties and where we can run foul of the rules and regulations. As a practising lawyer, can you be engaged in the business of buying and selling land? Can you manage an estate? Can you advertise? Are you liable for negligence? How many lawyers have liability insurance? What are the chances that the public will become more aware and start suing their lawyers for negligence? Our first session therefore will consider laws regulating legal practice, extent of practice, disciplinary issues arising therefrom. Our main speakers, Yemi Candide-Johnson, SAN, and Etigwe Uwa, SAN, will treat the sub-theme from different perspectives and at the end of the session, it will be clear to those who do not know or who claim not to know, what is right, what is wrong as a practitioner and the chances of being disbarred or disciplined, as the case may be.