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Discipline of Nigerian Legal Practitioners at the Bar [Nigerian Law]

Discipline of Nigerian Legal Practitioners at the Bar by Leesi Ebenezer Mitee

Copyright © 2001 Leesi Ebenezer Mitee

Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee

Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) LogoSection 10 of the Legal Practitioners Act 1975 empowers the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee to consider and determine any case where it is alleged that a legal practitioner has misbehaved in his professional capacity or should for any other reason be the subject of disciplinary proceedings. It has the powers to caution, suspend, or even strike off the roll the name of any legal practitioner it finds guilty of infamous conduct, professional misconduct, or who has been convicted (by a court) of an offence that is incompatible with the exalted status of a legal practitioner.

10. (1) There shall be a committee to be known as the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (hereafter in this Act referred to as “the Disciplinary Committee”) which shall be charged with the duty of considering and determining any case where it is alleged that a person whose name is on the roll has misbehaved in his capacity as a legal practitioner or should for any other reason be the subject of proceedings under this Act.

(2) The Disciplinary Committee shall consist of –

(a) the Attorney-General of the Federation, who shall be Chairman;

(b) the Attorneys-General of the States in the Federation;

(c) twelve legal practitioners of not less than ten years standing appointed by the Benchers on the nomination of the association.

(3) The provisions of the Second Schedule to this Act shall have effect in relation to the Disciplinary Committee.

Discipline for Infamous Conduct in any Professional Respect, Conviction in respect of Criminal Offence, and Fraudulent Enrolment

Section 11(1) of the Legal Practitioners Act 1975 provides:

11. (1) Where –

(a) a person whose name is on the roll is judged by the Disciplinary Committee to be guilty of  infamous conduct in any professional respect; or

(b) a person whose name is on the roll is convicted, by any court in Nigeria having power to award imprisonment, of an offence (whether or not an offence punishable with imprisonment) which in the opinion of the Disciplinary Committee is incompatible with the status of a legal practitioner; or

(c) the Disciplinary Committee is satisfied that the name of any person has been fraudulently enrolled, the disciplinary committee, may, if it thinks fit, give a direction –

(i) ordering the registrar to strike that person’s name off the roll, or

(ii) suspending that person from practice by ordering him not to engage in practice as a legal practitioner for  such period as may be specified in the direction, or

(iii) admonishing that person, and any such direction may, where appropriate, include provision requiring the refund of moneys paid or the handing over of documents or any other thing as the circumstances of the case may require.

Discipline for Misconduct not amounting to Infamous Conduct, but incompatible with the status of a Legal Practitioner

Section 11(2) of the Legal Practitioners Act 1975 provides:

(2) Where a person whose name is on the roll is judged by the Disciplinary Committee to be guilty of misconduct not amounting to infamous conduct which, in the opinion of the Disciplinary Committee, is incompatible with the status of a legal practitioner, the disciplinary committee may, if it thinks fit, give such a direction as is authorised by paragraph (c)(ii) or (iii) of subsection (1) of this section; and any such direction may, where appropriate, include provision requiring the refund of moneys paid or the handing over of documents or any other thing, as the circumstances of the case may require.

Proceedings of the Disciplinary Committee and other Matters

Section 11(3) – (9) of the Legal Practitioners Act 1975 regulates the proceedings of the Disciplinary Committee and other matters:

(3) The Disciplinary Committee may, if it thinks fit, defer or further defer its decision as to the giving of a direction under subsections (1) and (2) of this section until a subsequent meeting of the Committee; but no person shall be a member of the Disciplinary Committee for the purposes of reaching a decision which has been deferred or further deferred unless he was present as a member of the Committee when the decision was deferred.

(4) It shall be the duty of the Bar Council to prepare, and from time to time revise, a statement as to the kind of conduct which the Council considers to be infamous conduct in a professional respect, and the Registrar shall send to each person whose name is on the roll and whose address is shown in the records of the Supreme Court relating to legal practitioners, by post to that address, a copy of the statement as for the time being revised; but the fact that any matters are not mentioned in such a statement shall not preclude the Supreme Court or the Disciplinary Committee from adjudging a person to be guilty of infamous conduct in a professional respect by reference to such matters.

(5) For the purposes of subsection (1) of this section, a person shall not be treated as convicted as mentioned in paragraph (b) of that subsection unless the conviction stands at a time when no appeal or further appeal is pending or may (without extension of time) be brought in connection with the conviction.

(6) When the Disciplinary Committee gives a direction under subsection (1) or subsection (2) of this section, the Disciplinary Committee shall cause notice of the direction to be served on the person to whom it relates.

(7) The person to whom such a direction relates may, at any time within twenty-eight days from the date of service on him of notice of the direction, appeal against the direction to the Appeal Committee of the Body of Benchers established under section 12 of this Act; and the Disciplinary Committee may appear as respondent to the appeal and, for the purpose of enabling directions to be given as to the costs of the appeal and of proceedings before the Disciplinary Committee, shall be deemed to be a party thereto whether or not it appears on the hearing of the appeal.

(8) A direction of the Disciplinary Committee under subsection (1) or subsection (2) of this section shall take effect –

(a)  where no appeal under this section is brought against the direction within the time limited for the appeal, on the expiration of that time.

(b)  where such an appeal is brought and is withdrawn or struck out for want of prosecution, on the withdrawal or striking out of the appeal;

(c)  where such an appeal is brought and is not withdrawn or struck out as aforesaid, if and when the appeal is dismissed, and shall not take effect except in accordance with the foregoing provisions of this subsection.

(9) Where a direction is given under subsection (1) or (2) of this section for the refund of moneys paid or the handing over of documents or any other thing and within twenty-eight days of the date of the direction (or where an appeal is brought, on the dismissal of the appeal) the legal practitioner fails to comply with the direction, the Disciplinary Committee may deal with the case as one involving misconduct by the legal practitioner in his professional capacity.

Appeal Committee of the Body of Benchers

Section 12 of the Legal Practitioners Act 1975 makes provision for the Appeal Committee of the Body of Benchers over matters of discipline:

12. (1) There shall be a committee to be known as the Appeal Committee of the Body of Benchers (hereafter in this Act referred to as “the Appeal Committee”) which shall be charged with the duty of hearing appeals from any direction given by the Disciplinary Committee.

(2) The Appeal Committee shall consist of the following seven members of the Body of Benchers, as may be appointed by the Body of Benchers from time to time, that is –
(a)  as Chairman, a Bencher, who is a member of the Body of Benchers other than by virtue of section 3(1)(g) of this Act;

(b)  two Attorneys-General in the Federation;

(c)  two Judges of the High Court of any State; and

(d)  two members of the Nigerian Bar Association.

(3) On any appeal against a direction of the Disciplinary Committee, the Appeal Committee may allow or dismiss the appeal in whole or in part, and if it is of opinion that any direction given by the Disciplinary Committee should not have been given or that a different direction should have been given by the Disciplinary Committee (whether more or less severe), the Appeal Committee shall revoke the direction of the Disciplinary Committee or, as the case may be, substitute therefor such direction as it thinks ought to have been given, being a direction which, under section 11 of this Act, could lawfully have been given by the Disciplinary Committee.

(4) The Appeal Committee shall cause notice of any direction given by it under this section to be served on the person to whom it relates.

(5) The person to whom such a direction relates may, at any time within twenty-eight days from the date of service on him of the notice of the direction, appeal against the direction to the Supreme Court; and the Appeal Committee may appear as respondent to the appeal and, for the purpose of enabling directions to be given by the Supreme Court as to costs of the appeal before that court and of proceedings before the Disciplinary Committee, the Appeal Committee shall be deemed to be a party to the appeal before the Supreme Court, whether or not it appears on the hearing of that appeal.

(6) A direction of the Appeal Committee under subsection (3) of this section shall take effect –

(a)  where no appeal under this section is brought against the direction within the time limited for the appeal, on the expiration of that time;

(b)  where such an appeal is brought and is withdrawn or struck out for want of prosecution, on the withdrawal or striking out of the appeal;

(c)  where such an appeal is brought and is not withdrawn or struck out as aforesaid, if and when the appeal is dismissed, and shall not take effect except in accordance with the foregoing provisions of this subsection.

(7) Subject to this act, the Body of Benchers may make rules prescribing the procedure to be followed in the conduct of appeals before the Appeal Committee.

Disciplinary Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court

By virtue of section 13 of the Legal Practitioners Act 1975 the Supreme Court of Nigeria also has a special jurisdiction to discipline any legal practitioner who has been guilty of infamous conduct in any professional respect with regard to any matter of which the Court or any other court of record in Nigeria is or has been seized.

13. (1) Where it appears to the Supreme Court that a person whose name is on the roll has been guilty of infamous conduct in any professional respect with regard to any matter of which the court or any other court of record in Nigeria is or has been seized, the Supreme Court may if it thinks fit, after hearing any representations made and evidence adduced by or on behalf of that person and such other persons as the court considers appropriate, give such a direction as is mentioned in subsection (1) of section 11, and the direction shall take effect forthwith; and except in the case of an admonition the court shall cause notice of the direction to be published in the Federal Gazette.

(2) Where it appears to the Chief Justice that a legal practitioner should be suspended from practice, either with a view to the institution against him of proceedings under this Act before the Disciplinary Committee or while any such proceedings are pending, the Chief Justice may if he thinks fit, after affording the practitioner in question an opportunity of making representations in the matter, give such direction as is authorised by paragraph (ii) of subsection (1) of section 11; and in deciding whether to give such a direction in consequence of the conviction of the conviction of a  legal practitioner, the Chief Justice shall be entitled to disregard the provisions of subsection (5) of that section.

In the matter of the Legal Practitioners Act, 1962; Re A. C. Abuah (1973) All NLR 165, a legal practitioner forged his client’s signature and as a result he was paid money due to his client, which he misappropriated. He was convicted of the offence in 1961. The Supreme Court dismissed his appeal and ordered that his name be struck off the Roll of Legal Practitioners in 1962. After 12 years, he was granted a free pardon by a Governor and upon the basis of his remorse, abject poverty, and the pardon his name was restored on to the Roll by the Supreme Court.

Restoration of Names to the Roll and Cancellation of Suspension

Section 14 of the Legal Practitioners Act 1975 provides for the restoration of names to the Roll and cancellation of suspension:

14. (1) Where either before or after the commencement of this Act the name of any person has been struck off the roll or a person has been or is deemed to have been suspended from practice, he may, subject to the provisions of subsection (2) of this section, make an application for the restoration of his name to the roll or the cancellation of the suspension –

(a)  if the striking off or suspension was ordered by the Chief Justice or the Supreme Court, to that Court; and

(b)  in any other case, to the Disciplinary Committee.

(2) A direction under subsection (1) of section 11 of this Act or subsection (1) of section 13 of this Act may prohibit an application under subsection (1) of this section until the expiration of the period specified in the direction; and where such an application is duly made to the Supreme Court or the Disciplinary Committee, the Court or Disciplinary Committee may direct that no further application shall be made under subsection (1) of this section until the expiration of the period specified in the direction under this subsection.

It was pursuant to this provision that the said A. C. Abuah’s name was restored to the Roll by the Supreme Court. It is heart-rending to observe that in recent times many legal practitioners are no more upholding the lofty ideals and professional decorum enshrined in our Code of Ethics. Members of the most-respected legal profession must always remember that we are ministers in the temple of justice, and shun all vices capable of denting the cherished image of the profession as well as constituting a stigma on their personal reputation.

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