Justice RO Odugu of the Enugu State High Court sitting in Obollo-Afor has declared that membership of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) is mandatory for all lawyers and therefore automatic upon their call to Bar and practising in Nigeria.The judgment, which was delivered three months ago, came about four days after a splinter group of lawyers announced the formation of a body to rival the NBA.
THISDAY had on October 31, 2022, reported the formation of a new association for lawyers known Law Society of Nigeria (LSN) reportedly led by a leading insolvency practitioner, Mr. Kunle Ogunba (SAN).
The formation of the rival group seeking to erode the decades-long domination of the NBA as the only recognised body of Nigerian lawyers is a defiance of the recent judgment delivered by the Enugu State High Court.
Justice Odugu, who delivered the verdict on a suit filed about two years earlier by an aggrieved lawyer, Ben Oloko, held: “It is compulsory for every lawyer called to the Nigerian Bar to become a member of the NBA.”The judge, according to The Premium Times, cited judicial precedents which he said were binding on him to follow in blocking attempts by lawyers to defect from the NBA.
He cited the judgments of the Court of Appeal in other related cases such as Kehinde Vs NBA; Fawehinmi Vs NBA; and Chinwo Vs NBA, as precedents, which he upheld, saying “this court is not allowed to swim against the tide.”“The summary of the current position of the law as decided by superior courts is that membership of the Nigerian Bar Association is automatic upon being called to the Bar,” the judge said.
The judge noted that before one is called to the bar, one must have paid the bar practising fees for the year of call and choose a branch of NBA to belong.The new lawyer is expected to indicate the NBA branch he or she has chosen on the Supreme Court teller for payment of the practising fee.“Membership of the Nigerian Bar Association is a condition precedent to one being called to the Nigerian bar,” the judge said.But Justice Odugu held that the NBA lacked the power to collect practising fees directly from lawyers.
The judge, citing sections 8(2), 8(3) (a), (b), and (c) of the Legal Practitioners’ Act, ruled that the duty of collection of practising fees from lawyers was that of the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court.Under the provisions cited by the judge, the Supreme Court’s Chief Registrar would pay to the NBA “a sum equal to ninth-tenth of the aggregate amount of the practising fee” received at the end of the year.
“The NBA has the power to increase or decrease tax/practising fees. However, it cannot continue to engage in the direct collection of the practising fees of lawyers in Nigeria, that being the duty of the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, and has been restrained from doing so,” the judge ruled.
The judge also awarded a cost of N50,000 against the NBA in favour of the plaintiff.Oloko filed his suit on August 10, 2020, urging the court to declare that the NBA “is not a compulsory association to which every legal practitioner becomes a member automatically upon a call to the bar.”
He argued that membership of the association is “a completely private and voluntary organisation of legal practitioners, who are interested in the set objectives of the association and have exercised their free volition to join and or/ participate in the activities of the association per time.”Similarly, the plaintiff argued that the NBA “lacks the power to increase the Annual Practising Fee for legal practitioners in Nigeria,” adding that “same being a function reserved for the office of the Attorney-general of the Federation.”
The annual practising fees for lawyers range between N2,000 and N20,000, depending on the year of being called to the bar.Despite the judgment of the court declaring membership of the NBA as compulsory for lawyers called to bar in Nigeria, some lawyers, on October 30, announced the formation of the Law Society of Nigeria (LSN).The formation of the LSN is the latest attempt by lawyers to break the monopoly of the NBA as the sole umbrella body of Nigerian lawyers recognised by statutory bodies.
Justifying the emergence of LSN, the National Publicity Secretary of the group, Douglas Ogbankwa, said the association came to redefine the ideas of the founding fathers of the legal profession in Nigeria
He referred to the LSN as a “new sheriff in town,” describing the legal profession in Nigeria as having a chequered history spanning from “the sublime to the ridiculous.”
But in a swift reaction, a senior lawyer, Mr. Richard Oma Ahonaruogho (SAN), objected to the announcement, saying the executive committee announced by Ogbankwa is not known to LSN.
He said the re-emergence of the erstwhile LSN originally registered by the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) on December 28, 1994, and its purported protem national executives, were unknown.