Understanding Rule 10 of the RPC 2007 Through the Eyes of the Supreme Court in Yaki V. Bagudu By Oluwakemi S. Adeyemi

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Lawyer's wigs

1.0. ABSTRACT

This Article attempted to consider Rule 10 of the Rules of Professional Conduct 2007 in the light of the decision of the Supreme Court in Yaki v. Bagudu. The Article went on to highlight the purpose of The Rules. The article furthermore highlighted the effect of a legal practitioner’s failure to affix the stamp and seal of the Nigerian Bar Association on a legal document. The writer went on to express his views on the varying views of Ngwuta JSC and Peter-Odili JSC and the reason he prefers the view of the former to that of the latter. The writer further examined the suggested means by which a failure to affix the stamp and seal of the Association can be corrected. The article emphasized on some of the doubts expressed by the law firm of SPA AJIBADE on a strict application of Rule 10. This article went gloomy when it observed that it took eight years before a rule that guides legal practitioner’s practice was enforced or even tested in the courts of law. The article however gladly observed the need for the Rules of Professional Conduct to be complied with.

2.0. INTRODUCTION

The Full Bench of The Supreme Court of Nigeria had to decide on the effect of failure of a legal practitioner (counsel to the Appellants) to affix his seal to a legal process (in this case a Notice of Appeal to the Court below i.e. The Court of Appeal, Sokoto Division). The decision of the Supreme Court was a fall out of the Cross-Appeal of the 2nd Respondent[2] whose question for determination reads: whether the Court of Appeal was right to hold that the failure of a legal document to have affixed to it a stamp/seal as mandated by rule 10 of the Rules of Professional Conduct did not carry with it the consequence of rendering such document incompetent. Every member of the Supreme Court bench that heard this matter save one[3]had a statement or two to make on this point. The novelty of this question in relation to the Rules of Professional Conduct has demanded for this academic voyage into a better understanding of the provision.

3.0. THE APPLICABLE RULES

The Rules were made by The General Council of the Bar established by Section 1 (1) of the Legal Practitioners Act (simply The Act) by virtue of the powers given to it under The Act particularly Section 12 (4) which reads: It shall be the duty of the Bar Council to make rules from time to time on professional conduct in the legal profession and cause such rules to be published in the Gazette and distributed to all the branches of the Association[4].

Rule 10 of The Rules provides:

1. A lawyer acting in his capacity as a legal practitioner, legal officer or adviser of any Governmental department or Ministry or any corporation, shall not sign or file a legal document unless there is affixed on any such document a seal and stamp approved by the Nigerian Bar Association.

2. For the purpose of this rule, “Legal documents” shall include pleadings, affidavits, depositions, applications, instruments, agreements, deeds, letters, memoranda, reports, legal opinions or any similar documents.

3. If without complying with the requirements of this rule, a lawyer signs or files any legal documents as defined in sub-rule (2) of this rule, and in any of the capacities mentioned in sub-rule (1), the document so signed or filed shall be deemed not to have been properly signed or filed.

This was the rule that came for interpretation by the Supreme Court in the light of the directive of The Honourable, The Chief Justice of Nigeria in May 2015 that by the 1st of June, 2015[5] all Heads of Courts must desist from countenancing processes that fail to have the seal of The Association.

The Supreme Court per Onnoghen JSC (now CJN) commenting on The Rules of Professional Conduct observed that: I have to emphasize that the legal status of the Rules of Professional Conduct in the legal profession made by the General Council of the Bar pursuant to Section 1[6] of the Legal Practitioners Act, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004 is that of a subsidiary legislation since it is made by provision in a statutory enactment. See Fawehinmi v. NBA (№2) (1989) 2 NWLR (Pt. 105) 558 at 614. By virtue of Section 18(1) of the Interpretation Act[7], a subsidiary legislation has the force of law[8]This view is infallible. The Rules of Professional Conduct is in a class of subsidiary legislations and must thus not conflict with its parent law (in this case The Act) or it would be rendered null and void to the extent of its inconsistencies.

4.0. THE PURPOSE OF THE RULES OF PROFESSIONAL CONDUCT

The Legal Profession is a noble profession. The Rules were made to enshrine the minimum best practices for Legal Practitioners. Rule 1 of The Rules in this light provides that: A lawyer shall uphold and observe the rule of law, promote and foster the cause of justice, maintain a high standard of professional conduct, and shall not engage in any conduct which is unbecoming of a legal practitioner. Providing further, Rule 55(2) of The Rules provides that: it is the duty of every lawyer to report any breach of any of these rules that comes to his knowledge to the appropriate authorities for necessary disciplinary action. What then is the purpose of The Rules? Let us turn to members of the exalted bench for guidance. Fabiyi JSC in FBN Plc v. Maiwada[9] commenting on The Rules observed that: … legal practitioners should reframe their minds to live by it for due accountability and responsibility on their part and for the due protection of the profession. In this same light, Ariwoola JSC in YAKI (Supra) observed thus: The rules are no doubt made by the professionals to protect and guard jealously the enviable legal profession that we all belong[10].

5.0. EFFECT OF FAILURE TO AFFIX STAMP

This was the gamut of the decision of the Supreme Court in the 2nd Cross-Appellant/Respondent’s appeal. Ngwuta JSC who delivered the lead judgement held that: What is the consequence of a legal document signed and filed in contravention of Rule 10(1) in the Rules? The answer is as provided in Rule 10(3) to the effect that: “…the document so signed or filed shall be deemed not to have been properly signed or filed.” It is my humble view that the legal document is not null and void like the case of a court process signed in the name of a corporation or association (even of lawyers). See Okafor v. Nweke (2007) 10 NWLR (Pt. 1043) 521. The document in terms of the Rule, is deemed not to have been properly signed or filed, but not incompetent… it is a legal document improperly filed. Peter-Odili JSC, a member of the hallowed chambers of the Supreme Court that heard this matter observed inter alia that: Therefore a Notice of Appeal not found with these components is an incompetent notice of appeal depriving the court of the jurisdiction to determine the appeal on the merit… therefore any non-compliance with the Rule 10(2) of the Rules of Professional Conduct, with the circular of the Chief Justice of Nigeria as a reiteration is visited with the sanction that the process is incompetent[11]The Supreme Court in M.P.P.P v. INEC (№1)[12]per I.T. Muhammad JSC opined that: The issue of bar stamp raised by Dr. Ayeni is in a circular which has been issued by the Honourable Chief Justice of Nigeria to all Heads of Courts for the betterment of the Legal Practice in Nigeria. The circular has not metamorphosed into a Practice Direction. It cannot be said to be a compulsory requirement for filing process in a court of law as of now. Section 10 of the Legal Practitioners Rules of Professional Conduct relied upon by Dr. Ayeni is directory and NOT mandatory in nature. Failure to affix the Nigerian Bar Association stamp cannot, in my view, invalidate processes filed in a court of law.

It would seem that the above opinions are divergent. On the one hand, Ngwuta JSC opined that failure to affix the seal of a legal practitioner to a process makes the process improperly signed or filed, on the other hand, Peter-Odili JSC holds the view that the process is incompetent. And then I.T. Muhammad JSC is of the view that the failure to affix Nigerian Bar Association’s (simply The Association) stamp will not invalidate processes.

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Dealing with the first two views, the first point to note is that Peter-Odili JSC was alone in the view that failure to affix The Association’s stamp will invalidate the process. The other 6 members of the Panel[13] variously held the view that the process was merely voidable and not incompetent. To this extent, the view of My Lord, Peter-Odili JSC is a concurring judgement that became dissenting. On this point, I find support in Tobi JSC’s dicta in Emeka Nwana v. Federal Capital Development Authority and 5 ors[14]that: A concurring judgement, has equal weight with or as a leading judgement. A concurring judgement compliments, edifies and adds to the leading judgement. It could at times be an improvement of the leading judgement, when the justices add to it certain aspects which the writer of the leading judgement did not remember to deal with…. However, a concurring judgement is not expected to deviate from the leading judgement…. A concurring judgement which does its own thing in its own way outside the leading judgement, is not a concurring judgement but a dissenting judgement.This writer admits that the concurring judgement of Peter-Odili JSC complimented, edified and added to the leading judgement but to the extent of its departure, it is not the law. Dissenting judgements are not judgements that form part of stare decisis unless they are later adopted as the majority opinion of the Court that initially delivered them. In a case heard by plurality of Judges, the judgement emanating therefrom is said to be unanimous when all the Judges agree on the resolution of the issue or issues presented and the ultimate decision on the respective rights and obligations of the parties thereto…. Where however all the Judges fail to agree on the resolution of the issues and the ultimate decision on the rights and obligations of the parties, then the decision of the majority (made up of the lead and concurring opinions) represents the judgement of the court or tribunal and which alone is binding on the parties. And as the same connotes, a concurring opinion or judgement must perforce agree with and support the lead judgement on all the material issues of law and facts deliberated upon and decided. On the other hand, the decision of one or more of the Judges in a case denoting explicit disagreement with and contrary to the decision of the majority is the minority or dissenting judgment and no matter how well researched and written it has no binding force on the parties…. The question now is whether on this specific issue the minority judgement can be held to represent the binding judgement of the court simply because the lead judgement of Kutigi happens to be one of them? I shall answer this question in the negative[15].

Secondly, the opinion of Peter-Odili JSC amounts to judicial legislation. My Lord failed to be temperate with His exalted words so these words may be in line with the real intention of the Law Makers. The Supreme Court in Dickson v. Sylva[16] observed on interpretation of statutes that: settled principles laid down by this Court on the interpretation of Statutes… are clearly spelt out that: it is the cardinal principle of law that a Court cannot, while interpreting a Statute, embark on judicial legislation, namely law-making, See: Akintokun v. LPDC (2014) 13 NWLR (Pt. 1345) 427 SC. It is also the law that a Court ought to expound and not to expand the law; that is to say it is to decide what the law is and not what it ought to be; it should tow the path of objectivity and not be subjective. See Amadi v. INEC (2013) 4 NWLR (Pt. 1345) 595 SC. It has been held also that a Judge cannot and should not supply omissions in a Statute. See Governor of Zamfara State v. Gyalange (2012) 4 SC 1. My Lord, went beyond the primary function of a Judge by adding more to the words of The Rules than the Rules intended. Rupert Cross & J.W. Harts observed that: It has been said to be ‘merely misleading’ to speak of judicial legislation, and it must be admitted that to do so is to use highly metaphorical language. There is no equivalent to the authoritative text of a statute, and, even when they are not bound by a statute or indistinguishable precedent, the judges’ power to innovate is limited by what they cannot consider as well as by what they must consider. They cannot conduct those extensive examinations of empirical data and considerations of social policy which precede, or should precede, much legislation[17].

Thirdly, it is also settled law that the sins of counsel will not be visited on client. To hold that failure to affix The Association’s stamp to a legal document will make the legal document incompetent is equivalent to visiting the sins of counsel on litigant. This, the present state of our law frowns at. In this light, the judgement of the Supreme Court in THE SHELL PETROLEUM DEVELOPMENT COMPANY OF NIGERIA LIMITED v. CHIEF ISAAC OSARO AGBARA & ORS[18] is apposite. Muhammad JSC at page 64–65 of the report observed that: It is a well laid down principle of the law that a court of law, because of the counsel’s error of judgement, carelessness, misapprehension, commission or omission will not punish a litigant or visit that innocent litigant with the sin committed by his counsel unless it can be shown that the litigant himself was a party to the commission of the sin. See AMADI v. ACHO (2008) 12 NWLR (Pt. 939) 386 at 405; FAMFA OIL v. AGF & ANOR (2003) 8 NWLR (Pt. 852) 453; EDE & ANOR v. MBA (2011) 18 NWLR (Pt. 1278) 236. The rule that the sins of counsel shall not be visited on litigants stands notwithstanding Counsel’s ostensible authority to represent the interest of his client. The well laid down position of the law is that when counsel is briefed to handle a case and he accepts the brief, he has authority to decide within his own knowledge of the law, how to conduct the case, and the client is bound by how the counsel conducts the case. The only remedy open to the client if he is not satisfied with counsel is to withdraw the brief or sue for professional negligence if that appears to be the case[19].

Fourthly, the term ‘improper’ means ‘inappropriate’ or ‘wrong’. The term ‘incompetent’ means not having the skill or ability to do your job or a task[20]. They are not synonymous.

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Thus, as at today in Nigeria, failure to affix the stamp and/or seal of The Association to legal documents as defined under Rule 10(2) of The Rules by a legal practitioner in capacities defined under Rule 10(1) renders the document not to have been properly signed or filed.

On the ostensible difference between MPPP v. INEC (№1) (Supra) and Yaki v. Bagudu, what needs to be said is that while the former failed to provide the consequence of failure to affix The Association’s stamp, the latter provided the consequence. Furthermore, the former decided that the Chief Justice of Nigeria’s directive on the use of stamp and seal does not add more weight of force to the provision of Rule 10 of The Rules. This much can also be gathered from the latter judgement per Onnoghen JSC (now CJN) who after a copious reference to MPPP (supra) held the view that: It is clear that the first part of the above ruling deals with the effects of the circular issued by the Honourable, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, which the court held does not have the status of a Practice Direction. The court is right in that the said circular is purely an administrative exercise by the Honourable, the Chief Justice of Nigeria directed at effective administration of the relevant Rules of Professional Conduct, 2007 by the various judiciaries in the country. It was not meant to bring into effect the provisions of the said Rules of Professional Conduct, 2007 neither is the enforcement of the said Rules dependent on the Chief Justice of Nigeria issuing a circular or Practice Direction. The Rule haven (sic having) been made by the appropriate authority with an assigned date of its coming into effect[21], does not need any further action by anyone to bring it into force, as there is no provision therein to suggest such a requirement[22].

In essence, the views held in MPPP and the majority view in Yaki are one and the same.

6.0. CORRECTING FAILURE TO AFFIX STAMP

If it is accepted that a legal document without The Association’s Stamp is improperly filed or signed, how then can such a legal document be corrected?

On this point, the members of the Supreme Court bench were not ad idem. Apart from Peter-Odili JSC whose opinion ruled out the possibility of correcting the process, the other members of the bench did not provide helpful insights. A quick look at some of their views will be attempted here.

Ngwuta JSC held: it is a legal document improperly filed and the fixing of the seal and stamp would make the filing proper in law[23]Rhodes-Vivour JSCalso opined thus: A voidable legal process is made valid when counsel affixes the stamp and seal to the said legal process[24]How can you affix the seal and stamp after filing? My Lords did not provide any clue. Will there be need for a formal application or not? No clue from the Honourable Justice. Therefore where a document is filed without the seal and stamp of the lawyer who prepared same, such document will be deemed not to have been properly signed and filed, and shall remain voidable until the necessary steps are taken to regularize same[25]What are these necessary steps? The Honourable Justice failed to provide a clue. Onnoghen JSC held that: In the circumstance it is only fair to the client, the legal profession and in the interest of justice that the legal practitioner involved be given opportunity to prove his call to Bar and enrolment at the Supreme Court of Nigeria by affixing his seal to the document involved at any stage in the proceeding including appeal or whenever an objection to the authenticity of the documents is raised under the provisions of the said Rules of Professional Conduct, 2007. In the instant case, there was no application to regularize the documents objected to[26]. The view of Onnoghen JSC seems most helpful here since Courts of Record will not likely listen to oral applications to remedy an error in form. However, the Learned Jurist did not proceed further to provide a clue as to whether the motion should be exparte or on notice. It would however seem that whether or not the motion should be exparte or on notice will be dependent on the state of the suit where the stamp-less legal document was filed. This will mean that if only one party was still before the court, the appropriate motion should be exparte. While, if there are more than one party already before the court and the motion is likely to be contested, it is safest to come by way of a motion on notice.

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7.0. CONCLUSION

Ogunbiyi JSC opined that: The refusal of the document by the registry is a sanction in itself and pending proper signature and affixing of stamp/seal as required by Rule 10(1)[27]What arrangements have been made in the registry of courts of records for proper scrutiny of processes? What about legal documents that may not get to courts? What about the financial implications of getting stamps and seals?

To summarise, the issues as raised by the Law Firm of SPA AJIBADE & CO. in their article entitled: Implications of the Recent Supreme Court Decisions on Non-Compliance with Rule 10 of the Rules of Professional Conduct on use of Authenticating Stamps and Seals, need to be considered. After the average Nigerian Legal Practitioner is made to pay his practicing fee, he is still required to pay for stamp and seal before he can be allowed to practice his profession. Is this not too much a financial strain on the average Nigerian Legal Practitioner? Would it not be better and more convenient if payment for practicing fee covers payment for seal and stamp? Are registrars of courts of records trained to scrutinize processes filed by legal practitioners to ensure their compliance with the rules?

If it took eight years after the enactment of a rule on professional conduct for legal practitioners for it to be enforced, what is the fate of the Nigerian populace in the face of numerous laws on best practices in the nation which are merely gathering dusts?

Legal Practitioners, if they are really interested in ensuring best practices in the profession must regard The Rules highly. Onnoghen JSC (now CJN) as far back as 2007 observed that: Legal practice is a very serious business that is to be undertaken by serious minded practitioners particularly as both the legally trained minds and those not so trained always learn from our examples. We therefore owe the legal profession the duty to maintain the very high standards required in the practice of the profession in this country. The law exists as a guide for actions needed for the practice of the law, not to be twisted and turned to serve whatever purpose, legitimate or otherwise which can only but result in embarrassing the profession if encouraged…. The effect of the ruling is… to put the house of the legal profession in order by sending the necessary and right message to members that the urge to do substantial justice does not include illegality or encouragement of the attitude of ‘anything goes.[28]

Oluwakemi S. Adeyemi a Barrister and Solicitor of Supreme Court of Nigeria practices at the Ekiti State Ministry of Justice, Department of Civil Litigation as an NYSC Legal Officer. Comments may be sent to aolulaw17@gmail.com and 08121534871.

Footnotes:

[1] Yaki V. Bagudu (2015) 18 NWLR (Pt. 1491) 288.

[2] All Progressive Congress

[3] Onnoghen JSC (now CJN presided), Rhodes-Vivour, Ngwuta (read the lead judgement), Peter-Odili, Ariwoola, M.D. Muhammad (adopted the view of Ngwuta) and Ogunbiyi (J.J. SC) were other members of the bench.

[4] The Nigerian Bar Association. See Section 24 of The Act.

[5] See Peter-Odili JSC’s view at page 342 of the report.

[6] Although My Lord Oputa JSC had said in Adegoke Motors Ltd. v. Adesanya (1989) 3 NWLR (Pt. 109) 250 at 274–275 that: we are final not because we are infallible, rather we are infallible because we are final, My Lord Onnoghen (then JSC now CJN) should have directed his noble mind to the fact that Section 12 (4) not 1 of The Act conferred power on The General Council of The Bar to make Rules on Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners.

[7] Section 18 (1) of the Interpretation Act Cap. 123 of the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2010 defines law to mean any law enacted or having effect as if enacted by the legislature of a State and includes and instrument having the force of law which is made under a Law.

[8] At page 318–319 of the report.

[9] (2013) 5 NWLR (Pt. 1348) 444 at 488 cited with approval in Yaki v. Bagudu at 343 by Peter-Odili JSC at page 343 of the report.

[10] At 346 of the report

[11] At page 344 of the report.

[12] (2015) 18 NWLR (Pt. 1491) 207 at 212

[13] See Onnoghen JSC at 318–321; Rhodes-Vivour JSC at 322; Ariwoola JSC at 346; Ogunbiyi at 350–351; and M.D. Muhammad who concurred to the Leading Judgement at pages 346–347.

[14] (2004) 13 NWLR (Pt. 889) 128 at 140–141. See also Akpobolokemi & Ors v. Ihenacho & Ors (2015) LPELR-40563 (CA) per Oseji JCA at pages 36–37.

[15] O.S.I.E.C. v. A.C. (2010) 19 NWLR (Pt. 1226) Pg. 273 at 345–347. See also the Court of Appeal per Salami JCA in N.M.A. v. M.M.A Inc. (2010) 4 NWLR (Pt. 1185) Pg. 613 at 645.

[16] (2016) LPELR 41257 (SC) per Ogunbiyi JSC at page 63.

[17] Precedents in English Law 4th edition published in 1991 at page 34 quoted in Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th Edition at page 940.

[18] (2015) LPELR-25987. See also Lateef Adegbite & Anor v. Aminu Awosi (2016) LPELR-40655 per Muhammad JSC at pages 16–17.

[19] Ngere v. Okuruket “XIV” (2014) 11 NWLR (Pt. 1417) 147 at 176–177 per Rhodes-Vivour JSC

[20] Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, International Student’s Edition at pages 755 and 760.

[21] 2nd of January, 2007

[22] Supra at page 319 of the report.

[23] Supra at page 316 of the report.

[24] Supra at page 322 of the report.

[25] Ariwoola JSC at page 346 (underlining mine) of the report.

[26] Supra at page 321 (underlining mine) of the report.

[27] Supra at page 351 of the report.

[28] Okafor v. Nweze (2007) 19 WRN 1 @9–10

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