Ethics and Discipline in Law: Akin to Waiting for Godot (Part 1)


By  Dr. Mike A.A. Ozekhome, SAN, CON, OFR

The place of ethics and discipline, cannot be over-looked and/or overemphasised in law. For legal practitioners, ethics and discipline are two very sharp blades employed to order the seamless practices of Lawyers, cutting–off certain unbecoming practices with high proclivity to dent, soil and/or make mockery of the very hallowed echelon of the legal profession particularly in Nigeria and generally in the globe.

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) is the non-profit, umbrella professional association of all Lawyers admitted to the Bar in Nigeria, and a member of all statutory bodies that regulate the Nigerian Bar and Bench.

The NBA is Nigeria’s foremost and oldest professional membership organisation, and Africa’s most influential network of legal practitioners, with over 120,000 Lawyers on its roll in 125 active branches across the 36 States and the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria. It is organised into three practice Sections, eleven Fora, and two Institutes, all supported by one National Secretariat.

The NBA is engaged in the promotion and protection of human rights, the rule of law and good governance in Nigeria. It has an observer status with the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, and a working partnership with many national and international governmental and non-governmental organisations concerned with human rights, the rule of law and good governance in Nigeria and across the world.

The NBA offers a unique National platform, that is not available to any other civil or professional organisation in Nigeria.

It has been said that the more, the merrier. There is undeniable truth in that. However, we should not lose sight of the danger inherent in having a Bar as large as that. Evidently, we are now witnessing drastic decline in the standard of the legal profession. Many Lawyers now take-up matters they are not versed in. Some file frivolous claims and even get involved in unethical practices, to eke out a living. The NBA is trying its best to get things right by ensuring that Lawyers take part in continuous mandatory education. Its greatest challenge has been enforcement. The Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC), is inundated with a handful of complaints of misconduct against legal practitioners. One would have thought that the very coercive and firm reprimand of many legal practitioners involved in the act, would have deterred others from the unbecoming practices. The reverse, however, is the case.


 Misconduct in the legal profession, is not the exclusive preserve of the young or inexperienced Lawyers. Even Silks and a few other members of the inner Bar, have been caught and reprimanded. We have had cases where SANs and a few other renowned legal amazons were sanctioned by the Supreme for re-litigating a matter for which the Court was already functus officio. So, we cannot attribute misconduct to wholly poor/lack of mentorship and get-rich-quick syndrome. Misconduct is a societal issue.

Unlike what obtains in England and Scotland, the Nigerian legal profession is a fusion of both Solicitors and Barristers. The profession has had a chequered development, through the colonial period up to the evolution of the modern legal profession. The legal profession being a noble profession, it is characterised by great discipline and strict adherence to professional rules and the need to keep practitioners, especially errant ones, in check; that is the only way the nobility of the profession built and sustained on reputation, character and integrity can be maintained.

The Bench

The legal profession in Nigeria consists of the Bar and the Bench. It is from the Bar, that one gets to the Bench. The Bench is not a saint either. The essence of setting up National Judicial Council (NJC), is to protect the integrity and sanctity of the Judiciary. We have seen many conflicting judgements of courts in Nigeria. Forum shopping is now a new terminology in the Nigerian Judiciary. NJC, like the LPDC, is equally inundated with complaints against judicial officers. A few years ago, Samuel Walter Nkanu Onnoghen, CJN, was indicted for corruption. Some months ago, fourteen Justices of the Supreme Court accused Onnoghen’s successor, Tanko Muhammad, of corruption. It is obvious the standard has fallen. Some advocates now serve the cause of their clients, to the detriment of the cause of justice. Some Judges now sacrifice justice, and entrench impunity through ex-parte orders. Cases are now mostly decided on the grounds of technicalities; tender neck of justice is now un-meritoriously gashed on the very filthy altar of technicalities. Where then is ethics and discipline? Are they now in abeyance? Should we continue waiting for them as Vladimir and Estragon did in waiting for Godot?

Rules for Conduct

People resort to various kinds of rules, to guide their lives. This may either be moral or ethical rule. Moral rules and ethics remind us that it is immoral or wrong to covet, tell lies or engage in any activity which we have pledged not to engage in. Every society may well disapprove the transgression of these moral or ethical precepts. Over the last decade also, societal interest in the ethical aspect of legal profession has been on the increase. The question of protection of the individual client, fellow professional Lawyers, courts and the legal profession on itself, becomes paramount. There has been lately, a significant increase in the frequency with which litigants have written petitions against Lawyers and Judges, and in the case of Lawyers, with a view to suing them.

Professional misconduct tends to have profound effect, upon the way in which law is practiced by Lawyers. The Legal Practitioners Act assigns to the Bar Council the responsibility amongst others 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…”.

It must be stated however, that since time immemorial, man has been struggling to make the world a better place to live in. Man has defined a better place to live in, as a society that is free and just. Consequently, people have tried to implement rules and regulations that will make society as free and just as possible. On top, restrictions have been reduced with regard to trading between different countries, in a move that is aimed at making life fair.

However, life is about relationships between people, and not about trade or political endeavours. Therefore, it is upon human beings to make life bearable to them and to others in the society. A free and just society, requires upholding of moral values and ethical standards. In this regard, there are some moral values and ethical standards which are considered as being crucial in sustaining a free and just society.

It is the responsibility of people to make the society what they want it to be. Institutions are present, but they cannot change human behaviour. As a result, self responsibility is an important virtue in ensuring that society is bearable to live in. In this regard, people should be responsible for their own actions and the way they behave in the society; that is where discipline comes to play.

No institution can work in the world, except when everybody is self responsible. We can have rules and regulations in place, schools, the government and free trade, but all these can only help in advancing human life, only if human beings uphold the value of self responsibility and discipline. Justice can only prevail if human beings assume responsibility for their actions, and make life good for themselves and others.

Religion and Belief in a Supernatural Being

On the other hand, the belief in a supernatural being enhances the moral uprightness of human beings. Besides the materialistic needs, human beings need to satisfy their spiritual and psychological needs. Religious teachings help in regulating human behaviour to conform to the requirements of the society. Research has shown that, spiritual conformity ensures that rationalism is maintained in all aspects of human life.

When people believe in God, they tend to be realistic in life and truth becomes part of their nature. These people will treat others fairly, which makes society free for everybody. Furthermore, self responsibility is enhanced when one is spiritually upright. It should be noted that religiosity enhances objectivity, logic and above all, ensures that people resolve their differences amicably.

Moreover, spiritual teaching has been known to soften people’s hearts which reduces the tendency of people to be violent to one another. As a result, people who believe in the existence of God are less likely to offend others.

Consequently, the belief in supernatural being will help in making society a free and just place to stay.

Justice is also another crucial value, in making society free and impartial. Society is made up of people, and it is how these people relate with each other that matters. As a result, society cannot be fair if people cannot treat all those around them equally. If each person treats one another fairly and without discrimination, society as a whole will be fair. Moreover, society does not have the ability of possessing behaviour.

It is the collective behaviour of members that makes up what is considered behaviour of society. Furthermore, it is human that people will accord others the treatment they themselves are accorded. As a result, when all people exercise justice to others in society, even those with the tendency of being unfair find no reason of treating others unjustly.

For society to be free and fair, lies, misguidance and other misleading behaviour must be eliminated. Each member of society should ensure that all that he or she says is true. In society where truth prevails, everybody has equal opportunity of advancing. Therefore, the virtues of being honest, ethical, discipline are very crucial in any society.

People will be very hesitant of anything in a society where honesty, ethical standards and discipline are not upheld. Moreover, in the absence of honesty, considerable ethical standards and discipline, freedom of people in society will be limited, suppressed and repressed, catalysing into reprisals, rebellion and deviance. It will be difficult to get any correct information in a society where people are rarely honest, unethical and un-disciplined in whatever they do or say.

Moreover, it should be noted that justice goes hand in hand with truthfulness. One cannot claim to be treating others justly, if the person is not honest. Honest people will neither lie to others, nor defraud them.

Most importantly, respect for the rule of law is the crux of sustaining a free and fair society. If everybody chooses to behave in a manner that is best to his personal interests while disregarding others’ rights, society will be chaotic. It is the moral obligation of members of society, to respect the institutions that are in place.

Without law, people can do anything and go unquestioned by anybody. Therefore, in a free and just society, rule of law must prevail and guide the behaviour of people. The poor have to be protected from the rich in the society, otherwise they will be mistreated. People will be confident in places, where they know that they are protected by the law. Therefore, it should be noted that unless people take the responsibility of making society free and just, all other efforts will be futile.

The observance and practice of societal and individual ethical standards and discipline in law, ensures attainment of an egalitarian society. But, the ultimate question which this Article seeks to answer is: How realistic is the attainment of an ideal society by observance of ethical standards and discipline in law? Is it not like waiting for Godot? (To be continued).

“The Bench is not a saint either.… NJC, like the LPDC, is equally inundated with complaints against judicial officers”


“Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do, and what is right to do”. (Potter Stewart)

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