The current drive and effort by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to rid the legal practice of quacks is laudable. Apart from the inherent danger posed by these usurpers to the legal profession, it tends to deny legitimate members of the profession a fair share of the benefits derivable from the practice. It also erodes the profession of the public confidence and trust which is imposed upon it.
The Legal Practitioners’ Act (LPA) regulates the qualification of a person to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria. Section 2 of the LPA spells out the conditions for entitlement to practice as a legal practitioner and Section 4 lists the requirements for a person to be called to the Nigerian Bar. It is worthy of note however that the above mentioned sections are not exhaustive to entitle one to be called a legal practitioner.
The Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007 (RPC) seeks to regulate and spells out the code of conduct for legal practitioners. Rule 9(1) of the RPC imposes an obligation on every lawyer in Nigeria to pay an Annual Practicing Fee not later than March 31st in every year. Specifically, Rule 9(2) provides that “a lawyer shall not sign documents, pleadings, affidavits, depositions, applications, instruments, agreements, letters, deeds, memorandum, reports, legal opinions or similar documents, or process or file such documents as a legal practitioner, legal officer or adviser of any Government department or ministry or any corporation when he is in default of payment of his Annual Practicing Fees.”
Therefore, going by the above provision, a default of payment of practicing fees in accordance with the provision of Rule 9(2) would result in a lawyer being unable to practice as a legal practitioner.
The recent position of the NBA on the implementation of Rule 10 of the RPC which prescribes that 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 such document a Seal and Stamp approved by the Nigerian Bar Association, is commendable and can be attributed to its goal to put an end to the practice of law by unqualified persons. This decision, taken at the NBA Annual General Meeting held on the August 29, 2013, in Calabar, Cross River State, is said to become effective from August 1, 2015.
As a result, every lawyer is required to affix his numbered Seal and Stamp on every document which he or she endorses as court processes not bearing a Seal and Stamp of the endorsing lawyer would not be admitted as evidence or accepted for filing by the courts from the effective date of implementation. However, the effect of failure to affix a Seal and Stamp on other documents such as legal opinions, deeds, letters and other similar documents is to a great extent, uncertain and debatable.
The Seal and Stamp is obtainable from the National Secretariat of the Nigerian Bar Association and through the branches of the NBA in Nigeria. Prior to issuance of the Seal and Stamp, a verification exercise of said lawyer’s qualification is conducted by the NBA.
However, despite this seemingly bold step by the NBA, there are certain questions which have been raised with respect to its implementation of this decision. Firstly, there are suppositions that it is a means of increasing the NBA’s revenue. It is this author’s view that Rule 10 of the RPC should be read alongside Rule 9, such that upon payment of practicing fees by a legal practitioner, a Seal and Stamp shall be issued at no additional cost.
Interestingly, and to put it beyond doubt that the essence it was originally meant to address has been jettisoned, the validity of the Seal and Stamp has been tied to March 31st of every year. If indeed, the motive behind the requirement of the Seal and Stamp regime is for determining that only duly qualified persons are allowed to practice as legal practitioners in Nigeria, then this can definitely be achieved without tying the validity of the seals to any date.
In conclusion, it is this author’s view that in light of the recent increase in the practicing fees payable by legal practitioners in Nigeria, the extra cost of obtaining the Seal and Stamp imposes a burden on lawyers and can be dispensed with as the fastest way to losing the noble status of the legal profession is its undue commercialization which could also make the rendering of pro bono services quite uninspiring.