Ethics and Discipline in Law: Akin to Waiting for Godot (Part 7)

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

The Legal Profession and the Society (Continues) 


According to the very erudite and distinguished Judge, Hon. Justice I. C. Pats-Acholonu, JSC, CON of blessed memory: ‘The Lawyer of the 21st century should be astute enough to defend the rights of man. The rights are fundamental because they were not given by men, but by God. It is the duty of the Lawyers, to watch the observance of these rights with eagle eyes. It is therefore, evident that, a modern Lawyer should be everything to everybody. His learning, his experience in human psychology, his understanding and appreciation of the frailties of mankind, will bring to bear on the problems that are bound to arise in future, as the society becomes more and more complex.’ On this note, we shall continue our discourse on this issue.

The Legal Profession, Ethics and Values

We live in a society full of people like Pozzo: people who are leaders, but are blind and forgetful. These are the people leading and enslaving some people in our society. The goal of these people is obviously to profit from the voiceless and helpless people, like Lucky. This is the society in which legal practitioners in Nigeria live. The legal practitioner is a person whose mind has been renewed. He lives in a society that is subjugated and helpless. However, he is not helpless. He is learned, and has been equipped with the tool to help the society in which he lives.

In the practice of law, a Lawyer has a responsibility to uphold and observe the rule of law, promote and foster the cause of justice, maintain a high standard of professional conduct, and not to engage in any conduct which is unbecoming of a legal practitioner. This is the general responsibility of a Lawyer. If a lawyer succeeds in everything, but fails in this responsibility, he has failed woefully, and his success in other areas will amount to a nullity. The legal profession is a calling. It is about service, and how the Lawyer renders this service is regulated by the Legal Practitioners Act 1990 and the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners, 2007. It is therefore, a breach of professional ethics to act contrary to these rules.

A discussion on the importance of ethics of the legal profession cannot be considered, without making reference to the rules provided for in the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC).

Rule 1 of the Legal Practitioners’ Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC) provides as follows:

“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”.

The purpose and relevance of RPC was stated in the case of IKEME v ANAKWE (2003) 10 N.W.L.R. 548 C.A, where the Court of Appeal held that:

“The rules of conduct in the legal profession, are designed to protect and preserve the high standard of professional ethics at the Bar”.

Rule 30 of the RPC also provides that:

“A Lawyer is an officer of the court and, accordingly, he shall not obstruct, delay or adversely affect the administration of justice”.

Sequel to the provisions of the RPC and other relevant regulatory authorities guiding the ethical conduct of Lawyers, the duties of a legal practitioner in Nigeria can be distilled into three distinct parts: the duties owed to his client; the duties owed to the court; and the duties owed the other Counsel. Let us touch on these duties.

Duties of Counsel to His Client

This is the ultimate duty of any Counsel, as an Advocate. Before an Advocate can be held to be lawfully and properly performing his duties to his clients, the mandate of his client to him must always remain intact and in exercise of his apparent authority. He must demonstrate that the best interest of his client, is always uppermost in his mind. See the case of NNPC v TRINITY MILLS INSURANCE BROKERS (2003) 9 N.W.L.R. 384 CA.

A Counsel is a Minister in the temple of justice, and an officer of the court. Let me state that, this duty imposes the obligation on Counsel appearing in court as a Minister of Justice, to honestly disclose all facts favourable and unfavourable, as doing so will assist and guide the court in the judicious discharge of its judicial functions.

The point must be emphasised however, that as much as the Judex cannot speculate, so also must the Bar not put the Bench in a state of factual uncertainties of material facts in the case. See generally the case of UMAR v FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA & ORS (2020) LPELR – 5252449 SC.

Clients sustain legal practice. Without them, what a Lawyer has is a mere wig to cover his head and a gown to cover his body. The client is the person that perfects the brief of the Lawyer, and he is the person whose cause a Lawyer promotes. By virtue of Section 14(1) of the Rules of Professional Conduct, it is provided that:

“It is the duty of a Lawyer to devote his attention, energy and expertise to the service of his client and, subject to any rule of law, to act in a manner consistent with the best interest of the client.”

The key words/phrases in Rule 14 above are “devotion”, “attention”, “energy”, “expertise”, “rule of law”, “consistence” and the “best interest of the client.”

Devotion to the cause of the client, is an obligation that the Lawyer owes his client. This devotion must be carried out energetically, and with expertise. It is not enough to work, or report for duty. How are you carrying out the instruction of the client? Deploying expertise includes carrying out the instructions of the client, in accordance with the laid down rules and principles of law. An expert should do an appraisal of a case, and advise the client accordingly. Devotion to the cause of the client is not without any limitation: it is subject to the rule of law. Thus, where a Lawyer’s devotion to the cause of his client clashes with the rule of law, the rule of law shall prevail. A Lawyer must always act within the bounds of the law, and his devotion to the cause of the client is subservient to his devotion to the rule of law.

In the case of ADEWUNMI v PLASTEX (NIG) LTD (1986) LPELR-164, the Supreme Court, per Muhammadu Lawal Uwais, JSC (later CJN), held, at pages 34 – 35 that:

“… There is no doubt that, a counsel is duty bound to present his client’s case with utmost devotion. But, such devotion must be coloured with professional discretion. In other words, counsel must be the master in the conduct of his client’s case, and should not be dictated to by his client as to how to conduct the case. … In the judicial forum, the client is entitled to expect his Lawyer to assert every such remedy or defence. It must however, be borne in mind that, the great trust of the Lawyer is to be performed within and not without the bounds of the law. The office of a Lawyer does not permit, much less does it demand of him for any client, violation of law or any manner of fraud or chicanery. He must obey his own conscience, and not that of his client. …”.

Similarly, in the case of DARIYE v FRN (2015) LPELR-24398(SC), per Nwali Sylvester Ngwuta, JSC, held at page 37 that:

“… Lawyers are engaged, to espouse the case of their clients. It is a monopoly, and they should bear in mind that like all monopolies, their conducts are subject to strict rules of accountability for adherence to set ethical standards. They can fight the cause of their clients, but as Lawyers they must act within the rules regarding ethical conduct. They owe a duty to their client, but they owe a higher duty to a higher cause-the cause of justice. …”

Further, Rules 16 of the RPC provides that a Lawyer shall not:

a. handle a legal matter which he knows or ought to know that he is not competent to handle, without associating with him a Lawyer who is competent to handle it, unless the client objects;

b. handle a legal matter without adequate preparation;

c. neglect a legal matter entrusted to him; or

d. Attempt to exonerate himself from or limit his liability to his client for his personal malpractice or professional misconduct.

The cases cited above, are judicial re-statements on how a Lawyer should conduct the case of his client. A Lawyer’s devotion to the cause, is not limited to judicial forum. Solicitors must also act within the confines of the law, and their work must demonstrate industry and expertise. It is a breach of professional ethics to write an incoherent letter on behalf of a client, as the said act does not promote the image of the legal profession. Rather, it is denting it. A legal practitioner is a representative of the legal profession. He is the image of the body he is part of, and his work either brightens or corrodes the image of the profession. That is why the Rule 14 of the RPC calls for devotion and attention to the services of a client, and in a manner consistent with the interest of the client.

The Lawyer and the Court

A Lawyer owes certain duties to the court, the aim of which is to maintain the dignity of the court, the Judge or Magistrate, and the profession. The Bar and the Bench are partners in progress. In UBA v TAAN (1993) 4 NWLR ( pt 287) 373 at 380-381, Niki Tobi, JCA (as he then was) stressed as follows:

“…. I would like to say that in the judicial process both the counsel and the court are joint parties (partners) in the search for justice, the bedrock of any legal system built on the tenet of democracy and the rule of law…. And, that is why they are joint parties (partners) in progress, though not in the sense of corporate entity…” (To be continued).

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