I was inspired to write on “how to make your lawyer accountable” when a friend narrated to me what she had undergone in the hands of her lawyer who also happened to be her tenant. Her experience caused me to remember my own family’s experience with “our Lawyer”. I was very young when this happened and of course you can guess that I was not a lawyer at the time; I did not even know it was possible to become one then
My dad had consulted this lawyer and had given him instructions to perfect the legal documentation for a land we had already bought (You should never purchase a land without getting a lawyer involved in the first place). All the necessary documents for the perfection were given to the lawyer, and of course we paid the necessary fees. We kept paying for one thing or the other with “lawyer”. “Lawyer” as we loved to call him kept stopping by the house (this is really not permitted for lawyers) to assure us that work was underway and to request more money to “speed things up and perfect the work”, it goes without saying that he was entertained each time he came; we really had to impress him, you know he is a lawyer. To cut the long story short, “Lawyer” never got the work done, and then he moved out of Lagos, my family lost the land when the land became a subject of litigation and government acquisition. Since we had no document to prove ownership of the land, we did not get any compensation from the government.
We felt betrayed; “Lawyer” had taken so much from us and did not get the work done, and that led to an even greater loss. What made our loss even greater was the fact that we were unaware of a means of holding lawyer accountable for the wrong he had done us.
In this article I would talk about the ways in which you can hold your lawyer accountable perhaps in a subsequent article we could talk about the duties a lawyer owes his clients because it is when these duties are breached that a client can hold his lawyer accountable. But for now permit me to talk about how to hold lawyers accountable for a breach of those duties.
There are rules guiding every legal practitioner in Nigeria. A breach of those rules could result in a legal practitioner being disciplined by the appropriate disciplinary body. There are four broad classes of offences which could result in some kind of disciplinary action being taken against a Lawyer, they are:
1. When the legal practitioner in the discharge of his professional duties engages in an infamous conduct: this basically involves misconduct or any reprehensible conduct engaged in, during the course of discharging his professional duties towards a client. Examples of conduct which could amount to infamous conduct in a professional respect includes collecting money and not doing the job for which he received payment, misappropriation of a client’s money or property held or received on behalf of a client, conniving with a client’s opponent to cheat or defraud a client. It is under this head that our family “lawyer’s” conduct falls. If the misconduct is committed while engaged in discharging a duty to a client in a professional respect, then know that it can be brought under this head.
2. When a Legal Practitioner is convicted by any competent court of law for any offence which is incompatible with his status as a Legal Practitioner: the rationale behind this is that a Legal practitioner is seen as a Minister in the Temple of Justice, he is required to uphold the law and not break the law. If he is unable to observe the law himself how then can he uphold the law? Some offences are incompatible with the status of being a Legal Practitioner. A person who has committed such offences might not be allowed to continue practising as a lawyer. Examples of these offences include but are not limited to fraud, rape, theft e.tc.
3. Where a person without being qualified to practise as a Legal Practitioner gets his name on the Roll/Register of Legal practitioners (We could call it getting enrolment by Fraud): this is fraudulently getting one’s name on the Register of Legal Practitioners in Nigeria.
4. Where a lawyer is guilty of misconduct which though not so serious as to amount to infamous conduct is considered incompatible with his status as a Legal Practitioner: Because of a lawyer’s high standing in society and for the fact that he is looked up to as an example in society, a certain standard of conduct is required of him, when he falls below this standard, he could be subjected to discipline.
Earlier I was talking about my friend’s ordeal in the hands of her lawyer; well I guess I should use her story to explain this fourth category. She had approached her tenant who is also a lawyer to prepare and serve on one of her other tenants a notice to quit, she asked how much that would cost, and he assured her that he would do it for her for free. He did it liked he promised.
He had been in arrears in the payment of his rent and when he still refused to pay up, my friend approached him and demanded her rent, he refused to pay up and told her that she was still owing him for the legal services rendered, she reminded him that he offered to do that for free, but to avoid any further trouble, she asked him how much his services cost, he told her it was almost the equivalent of his rent and that he would not pay his rent anymore, he asked her to pay herself from his legal fees which she was still owing him. He vowed never to move out of her house and threatened to stay as long as he pleased without paying any rent. She was perplexed. She sought my professional advice afterwards.
OPTIONS AVAILABLE TO AN AGGRIEVED CLIENT OR PARTY
When any individual perceives that a Legal Practitioner might have engaged in any conduct which is unbecoming of a legal practitioner, or which clearly falls into any of the four categories mentioned above, he could do any of the following:
1. Lay a complaint to the appropriate body/person: the complaint should be in writing and should be signed by the complainant or aggrieved person, it should set out facts of the misconduct alleged and it should be forwarded to any of the following persons/bodies:
a. Chief Justice of Nigeria: The office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria is at the Supreme Court of Nigeria, located in Abuja
b. the Attorney-General of the Federation
c. the President of the Court of Appeal or any Presiding Justice of any of the Divisions of the Court of Appeal
d. the Chief Judge of the High Court of a State or the Chief Judge of the Federal
High Court or the Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory
e. the Attorney-General of a State
f. the Chairman, Body of Benchers
g. the President of the Nigerian Bar Association or the Chairman of a branch of the
Nigerian Bar Association.
After a complaint is laid, it would be forwarded to the Nigerian Bar Association for Investigation, if after its investigation, it is of the opinion that there is a case made out against the lawyer, it would forward its findings to the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee. This committee would determine the guilt or innocence of the Legal Practitioner and impose punishment accordingly.
The punishment could be prohibition from practising as a Legal Practitioner, in which case his name would be struck of the Roll of Legal Practitioners, or he could be suspended from Legal practice for a number of years, or he could be ordered to make restitution for his wrong by returning the money misappropriated and where apology is considered appropriate, he could be required to apologise. The committee could also decide to admonish him if thought necessary.
2. You could sue for negligence in the discharge of a professional duty: this is dependent on what the lawyer has done to you. Or you could sue in order to get remedy for any wrong done.
3. You could also consult another Lawyer and tell him what exactly it is you desire, he would be in a position to advise you on the options open to you under the law.
Before recourse is had to all these options, it is usually best to try to peacefully resolve the issue with the Legal Practitioner involved, it is where this fails that you resort to the other options available under the law.
It is also important to note that the Nigerian Bar Association on its website has made provisions for lodging complaint against Lawyers online.