By Isaac Ephraim, Esq.

Overview

Lawyers charging below the statutory legal fees for legal services have been an age long problem in Nigeria. This makes it difficult for lawyers to earn a living from the profession. In this article, we shall take a look at the effects of this practice on the lawyer charging such fees and on other lawyers who are not party to the transaction. We shall also look at the reasons for this practice and the possible solutions.

Effect on the Lawyer

  1. A lawyer who charges low fees most often at times can not practice in an aesthetic office befitting for a legal practitioner. The office is often defined by dilapidated furniture, a faulty computer (for one which has) and no air conditioning unit.
  2. There is often a chronic shortage of law books and law reports as the lawyer cannot afford them thereby resorting to perpetual borrowing from those who charge right.
  3. The lawyer cannot afford a befitting car, while for the one that manages to afford one, uses it for decades without adequate maintenance thus always looking tattered and haggard.
  4. The lawyer most often cannot afford to open his own law office. While the ones that manage to open their office space always owe their landlord arrears both at home and at the office space with great difficulty to offset.
  5. The lawyer most often cannot afford his yearly practicing fee and conference fees. While for those who pay the fees, struggle greatly to afford them.
  6. The lawyer often cannot afford to hire a junior lawyer in his office. While for those that manage to have juniors, either they do not pay them any remuneration or pay them what can barely offset their transportation fee monthly as their entire salary.
  7. The lawyer can not afford to take yearly courses to advance his professional knowledge.
  8. The lawyer often dresses tatterdly and can not afford to live a standard life.

Effects On Other Lawyers.

  1. The practice by those lawyers makes clients see other lawyers who charge the standard fees as wicked people and thus leave them.
  2. It causes lawyers who charge right not to have clients anymore because most people will prefer to pay lower for a service except they are left with no choice.
  3. Those lawyers negatively affect the practice of lawyers that charge standardly (‘spoil practice’ as commonly locally said) as they lower the prestige of the profession.
  4. They cause pain and poverty for new entrants into the profession (new wigs)
  5. They reduce the cash flow for lawyers who charge appropriately thereby causing them severe financial hardships.
  6. They function as sabotages to the profession thereby completely destroying the profession in the long run.

Reasons For Charging Below The Approved Standard

  1. The lawyers probably do not know the value of the document they are preparing. If they knew that all statutory land transactions must be in writing[1] they will probably act differently as they know the client cannot do without putting the transaction down in writing.
  2. The lawyer probably does not know that a lawyer is the only authorized person in the society to prepare a land document[2] thus making them have exclusive rights. A knowledge of such, could make the lawyer realize his worth.
  3. The lawyers often forget or do not care that they are breaching a law[3] (ie the Legal Practitioners Act which stipulates the scale of charges) which makes them liable to be professionally disciplined or sued by a fellow lawyer for breaking d provisions of the law or for negatively affecting their practice by their conduct thus asking for compensation and exemplary damages.
  4. The lawyers feel/know that if they reject to collect a meager fee from the client, another lawyer will accept it. Thus the initial lawyer losing that money.
  5. Laymen do not know the value of the document that is being prepared for them. If they know that the document is what represents the money they bought the land and the only legal evidence that the land is theirs and not the money they paid the land owner or their word of mouth, they will be willing to pay appropriately.
  6. Same goes if they know that it is the only document that can clothe their children with the title of that land when they are dead and not the fact that they paid money to the land owner.

iii. Same goes if they know that in event of any dispute, that it is the only document a third party or police or the court is interested in evaluating and not their oral story, they will be willing to pay even more than the price of the land for the document.

  1. They want to help the clients. This is very ironic because the client can afford to purchase a property worth hundreds of thousands of naira or even millions and the lawyer can barely afford this office rent space. The rhetorical question is thus who is supposed to help who. The further ironic part is that these property purchasers afford to pay the land agents their full fees, same with the surveyors and the land registry when applying for their certificate of occupancy but bankrupt when dealing with a lawyer who prepares for them the most important basic document.
  2. There is no modality in place to ensure they do not practice below standard and destroy the entire profession in the long-run.
  3. Low self worth. These lawyers feel their value is not up to the money that is supposed to be paid to them.
  4. Laymen do not know that they can be sued by another lawyer for aiding the contravention of the law and affecting their practice negatively through remote acts of channeling their clients to the defaulter lawyer.
  5. Some of these lawyers have other sources of income so do not feel affected when they charge below the stipulated fee.
  6. These lawyers do not know or probably care of the fact that the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) can discipline them for negatively affecting the profession and also sue them in the court.

Solutions

  1. There should be a special education periodically on the worth of a legal service and the effects of below the standard charges.
  2. There should be strong sanctions for erring lawyers.
  3. There should be public sensitization on the value of legal services and the legal consequences of below the standard payment if eventually unfolded.
  4. Lawyers should begin to sue laymen for aiding another lawyer to contravene the extant law.
  5. Lawyers should begin to sue defaulting lawyers for negatively affecting their practice by contraveying the fair play rule.
  6. The NBA should sue laymen caught for negatively affecting the profession.
  7. Defaulting lawyers should advocate for the reduction of the fees for legal charges if they feel the fees is too much and ensure the same is passed into law so that they will not be acting unlawfully anymore.

GOLDEN SOLUTION

All remuneration for the legal services of a lawyer should be paid into the bank of the lawyer by the client and not paid cash. The payment teller number/transaction number with the name of the bank, branch and date, or the evidence of payment must either be quoted or attached to every franked land instrument or legal document prepared by a lawyer. This will enable such documents to be easily verifiable by anybody upon any suspicion of infraction. The NBA should see to the inclusion of this in the Legal Practitioners Act and other relevant laws and fix a monetary reward of N500,000 or a million naira for anyone who successfully sues a defaulter. This will self enforce the law.

Also copies of franked documents of a lawyer should be verified for compliance by the NBA before legal appointments/elevation as all that is needed is for the receipt number/details to be copied and the counterpart verified with the bank.

Conclusion

Lawyers study intensively for several years in order to get license to practice their trade. It is only fair for them to be properly remunerated in proportion to the legal services they render. Lawyers who feel the present scale of charges for legal practitioners is too high, should champion a review downwards so as to avoid breaching the law. Payment for legal services should be made through the lawyers bank account and the details for confirmation duly inscribed on the franked documents for easy verification. Lawyers, the NBA and legal services beneficiaries must be awake to their responsibilities to avoid litigations and an ultimate breakdown of the legal profession in Nigeria.

The author of this article is by name Isaac Ephraim, Esq. He is a practicing lawyer in Nigeria and can be contacted via ephraimisaac3@gmail.com

References

  1. Property and Conveyance Law, 1959
  2. Land Instrument Preparation Law of Various States
  3. Legal Practitioners (Remuneration for Legal Documentation and Others Land Matters) Order.

[1]Section 67(1) Property and Conveyance Law, 1959

[2] Land Instrument Preparation Law of Various States

[3] Legal Practitioners (Remuneration for Legal Documentation and Others Land Matters) Order.

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