Ethics of Justice, the Responsibility of the Fresh Executives of the Nigerian Bar

By Ikechukwu Onuoma and Joshua Nwachukwu

“The price of greatness is responsibility.” – Winston Churchill

Mazi Afam Osigwe (Secretary General of the NBA)

Mazi Afam Osigwe (Secretary General of the NBA)

The Nigerian Bar Association has elected a new executive to pilot its affair. The fresh mint chariot riders of the Nigerian Bar have our warmest felicitations, especially Mazi Afam Osigwe (the recently elected Secretary General of the NBA). However, a call to service in any association necessarily entails grave responsibilities. Nonetheless, without an ethical compass, it can be rather difficult to navigate the complexities that necessarily come with leadership. This is the price of greatness that currently faces the new executive members of the NBA.

In every democratic system – of which Nigeria claims to be one – a vital aspect of its governmental system is doctrine of the rule of law. With this doctrine comes the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, through which the rule of law is upheld and sustained. These two principles are not only intrinsically united but their union can be referred to as a Catholic marriage, which is they cannot be divorced.

In this process of dispensing justice, there is an indispensable role, which is left to the lawyer, who acts as a representative or advocate for clients. Going down the lane of history, it would be discovered that the lawyers in England acted as intermediaries between the adverse parties and the royal family, which formed members of the judiciary, and their services were rendered pro bono. In Nigeria, the constitution by virtue of S.6 (6), has opened its doors wide for the disputants to bring their case rather than result to self-help, and this has to be done either by the aggrieved party or with the assistance of a legal practitioner, which is a fundamental human right provided for in S. 36(6)(c) of the 1999 constitution as amended.

The legal profession just like every other profession has its code of conduct, which regulates and controls the affairs of its members. These codes express, in the broadest of terms, the standards of professional conduct expected of lawyers in their relationship with the public, the legal system, and the legal profession. In Nigeria, the particular legislation in question is the “Rules of Professional Conduct in the Legal Profession”.

In the wave of corruption and financial difficulty, there has been an upsurge of degradation of work values and ethics by lawyers: vigorous advertising. Some have done this through the print and visual media; online advertising, while others send letters to organisations and clients, offering their services. Most of these acts are not in keeping with the rules of professional conduct.

Against the backdrop of the global financial crisis, there is an apparent reason to seemingly overlook the real reason for our trade. The real question that begs an answer is; what is the reason for this condescending act? Would it be wrong to infer and conclude that the legal profession is not only losing its ethics and values but also needs to double its effort in affording legal practitioners with the adequate preparation and continuous legal education.

In relation to the legal profession, legal ethics is defined as “the minimum standards of appropriate conduct within the legal profession, involving the duties that its members owe one another, their clients and the courts[1]”. Values on the other hand refers to moral principles, standards, ethics, ideals, traditions, code of conduct, norms, etiquette etc. that need be observed. In a sense, ethics and values may be used interchangeably.

It is our humble but firm view that, the drafters limited the advertisement as provided in S.34, for some specific reasons. One of such reasons is to instill and imprint on the mind of legal practitioners that the profession is essentially a call to duty and service. Though concerning the need for financial remuneration, our duty to do justice, amid balancing the duty they owe to the court, to the client, and to the public cannot be underestimated. By limiting this act of advertising, the drafters in their natural wisdom did not want the legal profession to condescend to a modernized or ‘learned’ market where counsels fight and struggle for clients. Legal practitioners earn their clients based on how they had exercised their legal skills in previous cases. This new trend leads legal practitioners to be obsessed about winning cases at all cost, with dire consequences to the bar and the bench. With this, not only will the sanctity of the legal profession be defiled, but also the average Nigerian citizen, who looks up to legal practitioners with the potentials to repositioning , the justice system will be disappointed.

Some lawyers may try to legalize this illegality by attributing this frenzy to the need to satiate their financial obligations, and as such have to reach out to clients as their counterparts do in other jurisdictions such as United States of America. A comparative analysis of different legal jurisprudence show how this ethical decline, even in these jurisdictions has affected their laws. Lawyers should lay more emphasis on working hard, if this condition is met, then naturally other things like prestige and money will follow, in fact, a good lawyer would be overburdened with cases.

It goes without saying that the corruption of the best is the worst. Over the years in choosing leaders who will be custodians of the Bar (Nigerian Bar Association) we have always conducted the elections with some degree of decorum worthy of emulation by other professional bodies. In recent times any delegate can agree that, this hallowed system is gradually condescending to a war, not of superior reasoning but bello ad hominem-war against persons. This to our mind shows the degradation of ethical values.

Unfortunately this mentality of making money is gradually creeping into the thoughts of law students in the university, who do not see the act of advocacy as participating in the temple of justice in order to see that justice and equity are enshrined deeply in the territorial entity of Nigeria, but see this profession as an avenue of enrichment only. This line of thought will occasion more violations of professional ethics in future.

We assert that the enforcement of this act should be taken with a renewed energy and avenues where educating lawyers and aspiring lawyers on this ethics should be utilized. As the scope, of legal practice changes and as new situations create new ethical challenges, both the senior members of the  bar and bench ought to be proactive in giving guidance to practitioners and offer a high profile example of the optimal standard.

Finally though acquisition of values pertains in a very high degree to several extrinsic factors rooted in nurture and nature, very senior lawyers may have to double their effort in training lawyers attached to their law firm as these qualities apply both to office practice and to litigation. A lawyer should be mindful of the need to protect the judicial system and the legal profession. This is fundamentally so when we keep in mind that our profession is one of the few practiced in public glare. Again, members of the disciplinary committee have a duty to show good example and bring these principles to the attention of other lawyers when appropriate.

Ikechukwu Onuoma Esq., is a legal practitioner in A. J. Offiah & Co Enugu while Joshua Nwachukwu is a law student in the University of Nigeria Enugu Campus.

Parts of this post was originally published here

[1] See Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th ed., p.913



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