Some lawyers who, early in the year, went to file processes in court but were rejected for not affixing the right stamp on the documents, have protested against the treatment.
Ironically, the processes they sought to file were to challenge the Stamp and Seal Policy of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).
Under the policy, lawyers are expected to have personalised adhesive stamp/seal with the type of security features found in currencies. The features, which include individual lawyer’s number, can only be seen under ultra-violet light. The stamps are categorised into two different areas of practice, which are represented by green and red colours.
Lawyers in litigation and private practice are to affix the green seal in their documents, while lawyers employed by establishments like ministries, parastatals, agencies, MDAs, banks, corporations, associations among callings outside regular practice are to affix the red seal.
The stamp and seal policy inaugurated on April 15, 2015, by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed, was conceived by the Austin Alegeh (SAN)-led executive as a means of verifying the authenticity of legal documents prepared by lawyers and to fish out quacks in the profession.
Speaking during the inauguration in Abuja, the CJN stated that the stamp has breathed life into the provision of Rule 10(1) of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
The CJN said further that the stamp has elevated legal practice in Nigeria to meet the challenges of an evolving society.
The prevalence of fake lawyers in the country, according to the CJN, has negatively affected the integrity of the legal profession and cast a shadow of disrepute upon them all.
He mentioned that judges found it difficult to identify which counsel, appearing before them, is genuine or otherwise, adding that even members of the public were left in a quandary over who to trust.
He said that a key role of the NBA was the regulation of its members’ identities through various means of identification, adding that the credibility of the Bar has a direct impact on respect for the rule of law and the independence of courts.
The CJN described the stamp policy as timely, saying that the judiciary would introduce the use of information and communications technology solutions like legal email and court automation into the administration of justice.
So far, the policy has thrown up major debate among lawyers, with some supporting it and others opposed to it.
Proponents of the policy say that it will help purge the profession of quacks, streamline legal practice and provide more jobs and revenue for lawyers in private practice. Lawyers in paid employment can only file processes for relatives if it is free of charge.
However, opponents of the policy, especially, the Body of Benchers in Southwest region, criticised it for not having an enabling law authorising its introduction. They also allege that it deprives law teachers the practical experience they require to teach law students, arguing that it is targeted at stopping some lawyers from practicing, impoverishing young lawyers, discouraging pro bono services, rather than fighting quacks.
One of the groups against the policy, the Law Officers Association of Nigeria, contends that the policy is not only discriminatory but divisive.
In the same vein, a lawyer who pleaded anonymity argued that the policy is against the Legal Practitioners Privileges Act which does not prevent a lawyer from practicing while still in other engagements.
The Owerri branch of the NBA, at its pre-conference meeting August 23, dissociated itself from the expiry date fixed on the stamps.
Other criticisms by some lawyers include, but not limited to, allegation that there is no enabling law authorising the introduction and the NBA is merely embarking on a profit making venture.
However, a legal practitioner, Anthony Agbonlahor, hailed the introduction and enforcement of the stamp and seal policy. He explains that with the policy, legal documents will no longer appear with pseudonyms as in the past.
“The policy is slightly restrictive in that one legal practitioner cannot have two seals, every seal has a separate number which enables the lawyer monitor what they are doing. It is no longer feasible to go to land registry and obtain a pre-written agreement without a seal.”
Also expressing support for the policy, the NBA General Secretary, Mazi Afam Osigwe, said the policy is backed by Rule 10(1) of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
Osigwe said: “The Rule specifically provides that a ‘lawyer acting in his capacity as a legal practitioner, legal officer or adviser of any government department or ministry or any corporation, shall not sign or file a legal document unless there is affixed on any such document a seal and stamp approved by the Nigerian Bar Association.
“For the purpose of the rule, Rule 10(2) defines “legal documents” to include pleadings, affidavits, depositions, applications, instruments, agreements, deeds, letters, memoranda, reports, legal opinions or any similar documents.”
Speaking during the NBA Annual General Conference (AGC) in Abuja, August, he said that NBA does not make any profit from the stamps. “The company producing the stamps does so at the approved NEC price of N3, 600. (three thousand, six hundred naira) only and the NBA gets N400 (four hundred naira) only for processing and dispatching the stamps to branches which pay nothing for the dispatch.”
The stamps, according to Osigwe, cannot be free as the long term effect will be that the NBA subsidises the legal practice of practitioners and government employees. Lawyers have to pay for it, he said.
He advised that law faculties and schools should review their employment policies to put in place the engagement of law teachers who want to practice and carry private legal practice as consultants.
He suggests that lawyers wishing to file any matter for their relations should do so free of charge, adding, however, that they should declare so.