LIM Round Table: Stakeholders Seek Improved Standards in Legal Practice

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Cross Section of Participants at the Lawyers in the Media Roundtable held in Benin.

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The maiden Roundtable of Lawyers in the Media (LIM) forum of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) was held in Benin Edo State, with focus on consumer rights protection.

The event which was organized in partnership with the firm of Alegeh & Co, had the theme: Consumer protection and economic development: need for media intervention.

During the event, stakeholders decried dismissal of cases due to lawyers’ inadequacies. They called for improvements in standards.

The roundtable the first of its kind had in attendance the Chief Judge of Edo State; Director General of the Consumer Protection Council Mr. Tunde Irukera; Mr. Augustine Alegeh (SAN); Dr. J. Odion; Former Dean, Faculty of Law and Dean of Post Graduate School, Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Prof. A. D.  Badaiki; Chairman, Edo State chapter of the Institute of Strategic Management, Mr. Edosa Eghobamien and representatives of Agencies of Government and private individuals among other dignitaries.

Speaking during his presentation, the Edo State Chief Judge, Justice Esohe Ikponwen, observed that in recent times, consumers hardly “get good and quality representation in their cases”.

She described as worrisome a situation where litigants who paid for quality legal services often lose cases due to lawyers’ inadequacies.

Justice Ikponwen said NBA-LIM has a responsibility to ensure consumers are well-protected and urged LIM members to uphold high ethical standards in the media.

“It is noteworthy that there are a lot of lawyers in the media now unlike in the olden days. We expect very high standard in the media,” he said.

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria Chief Arthur Obi Okafor (SAN)  who was ably represented by Prof. Ogugua Ikpeze, decried the falling standards in legal practice. He noted that due to some lawyers’ poor handling of cases, litigants who ordinarily would have won their cases end up on the losing side. He called for  improvement in the quality of legal services offered by lawyers.

“There is no gainsaying the fact that the quality of legal services in Nigeria has dropped in recent years. One often hears of matters being struck out in court for want of diligent prosecution, procedural mistakes or of legal documents invalidated because of incurable defects resulting to great losses to the clients in the forms of time and money.

“It is very well to sound off that the era of technicality is gone. However, the reality remains that whatever happens in practice, especially at the appellate level, entails technicality that requires the most consummate skill and experience.

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“I personally know of an appeal that is at the risk of being struck out now because the lawyer who drafted the notice of appeal did not avert his mind to the fact that he ought to have filed two notices of appeal since what he was appealing against was actually two judgments in a consolidated suit though contained in a single document.

“This highlights the reality of technicality still in our practice which underscores the need for practitioners to be properly trained and mentored so as to provide quality services the public,” he said. He described the topic as apt and timely.

Okafor called for the improvement of Nigerian Law School curriculum to improve the quality of law graduates.

“There is need to make the curriculum at the Nigerian Law School more practical than it is now. Mentorship of young lawyers under established law firms will go a long way in their overall development and mastery of the intricate procedural laws involved in high-powered litigation,” he said.

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Edo State Solicitor-General and Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Justice, Mr. Oluwole Iyamu, who represented Governor Godwin Obaseki, said consumer protection should be given a pride of place. “That is why this roundtable is important for the development of law, our economy and the society,” he added.

Former NBA President, Mr. Augustine Alegeh (SAN), who chaired the event, said consumers are faced with faulty billing systems, poor telecommunication services, shortcomings in the manufacturing sector, and the aviation industry.

The key note speaker, Dr. J. Odion of the University of Benin, said consumer protection is very fundamental to the economy. He argued that consumer protection being a contract between two or more parties should not be dependent on the intervention of the state.

Stressing that consumers were entitled to quality goods and services, Odion noted that consumers need to be protected against unreasonable prices and the vagaries of the market forces.

Odion predicated his submission on the premise that existence of consumer rights had necessitated the need to provide information to the consumers about certain goods and services to enable them make informed choices and decisions.

To do otherwise, he argued, would amount to entrapping the consumers into a contract not anticipated.

The lead speaker further x-rayed various approaches to enable lawyers enforce consumer protection regulations in the court. He said they include  contract –based remedy and product-based liability as enunciated in the locus of Donoghue and Stevenson.

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According to him, a claimant must discharge the burden of proof on him by proving the particular acts of negligence complained of against a defendant. He advised that lawyers should endeavour to navigate through the various approaches even though remedies might not be readily available in the laws.

Head of litigation and disputes resolution, Nigeria Bottling Company (NBC),  Mrs . Chinwe Odigboegwu, highlighted the exiting legal frameworks guiding consumer protection in the manufacturing industry.

This, she said, included, Consumer Protection Act, Bill on Competition Law, Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) Act, the National Agency for Foods and Drugs Administration Council (NAFDAC)  Act, Tobacco Smoking Control Act, and Manufacturing and Trade practices Act, among others.

Odigboegwu said while many complaints often made by consumers were frivolous, she listed some practical steps that could be applied. She recommended the need to improve consumer information awareness, the quick intervention of regulators, the use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms in resolving issues of consumer protection, the imperative of making a complainant exhaust the internal machinery available in the industry first before the litigation option, the protection of manufacturers from frivolous and exaggerated claims and lastly, the training of regulatory bodies.

The Director General of the Consumer Protection Council (CPC), Mr. Tunde Irukera, on his part said complaints received by CPC include defective products, excess bank charges, doctors’ strike that has led to loss of lives in some hospitals, among others. He urged NBA-LIM to hold manufacturers, marketers, regulators, other key players and the government accountable by virtue of their role as society’s watchdog.

An entrepreneur and Chairman, Edo State chapter of the Institute of Strategic Management, Mr. Edosa Eghobamien, hinged the integrity of any manufacturer or service provider on the attainment of best practices. He said if this was religiously adhered to, consumers would be adequately protected.

Chairman, Air Peace Airline, Mr Allen Onyema, represented by the company’s Corporate Communications Manager, Mr. Chris Iwarah, said despite obvious challenges besetting the aviation industry, Air Peace had been responsive to passengers’ needs.

He said occasional flight delays being encountered might be due to regulatory factors and VIP movements, beyond the control of the airline. Iwarah said all the parties, regulators, consumers, manufacturers and government representatives would need to dialogue to resolve the issues in the aviation industry.

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In his appraisal of the papers by the lead speakers, Mr. Seni Adio (SAN) supported the recommendation of pre-action protocol by Mrs. Odigboegwu.

He said the National Assembly should take note of this while considering the Competition Bill.

Adio suggested that companies that quickly settle disputes should be rewarded for such acts, as done in other jurisdictions. He, however, disagreed with Odion that strict liability should be applied against offending manufacturers or service providers.

It was on the ground that though such products were defective, a claimant must establish his claim in order to secure a remedy.

Former Dean, Faculty of Law and Dean of Post Graduate School, Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Prof. A. D.  Badaiki, adopted Dr. Odion’s arguments on why consumers’ actions might not succeed.

He also supported the application of strict liability rule because consumers are weak in the market place and challenged NBA-LIM to explore section 22 of the Constitution to justify media intervention on the issue.

Senior Special Assistant to Edo State Governor and former Executive Director of the NBA, Mrs Ifueko Alufokhai, said some consumers do not know what channels to use to file their complaints. She added that the manufacturers and service providers should develop a team of skilled personnel to respond to complaints timely.

NBA-LIM Chairman, Miss Theodora Kio-Lawson, said members are those with deep and  multi-disciplinary background in law and media.

She said they possess the skill to constantly promote and add value to the practice of journalism.

“With an appreciation of global trends, a strategy of building strong media partnerships and institutions, and a commitment to serve, the LIM Forum is set to make an impact and bring about change in Nigeria,” she said.

Kio-Lawson expressed optimism that the roundtable’s theme would bring to light critical issues and challenges in consumer protection, such as the urgent need for a Competition Law.

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