For any student of the Nigerian Law School, an in-depth knowledge of the Rules of Professional Conduct (‘the Rules’) and an even deeper understanding of the application of each rule is a necessity. While some rules are generally applicable – the legal practitioner’s duty to uphold the rule of law, or to be devoted to the cause of his client, others are situation specific. For instance, the provisions of Rule 50 would be invoked where a legal practitioner’s remuneration is by way of contingency fees. Similarly, the particular rule(s) governing advertising are found in a joint reading of Rules 39 to 47. The application of these rules is always not clear cut. At what point does advertisement become unethical, considering the fact that the rules are silent on the use of websites and information technology?
2.0 FACTS AND DOCUMENTS
The simple set of facts birthing this legal opinion are that at exactly 8.53am on the 12th of April, 2016, Miss Linda Ikeji of Linda Ikeji’s Blog uploaded an advertisement of a ‘not-for-profit’ outfit providing access to justice ‘through prompt legal action’. The scheme tagged, ‘Fight for me’ is the brainchild of the Channel of Hope Initiative. They say that with as little as a thousand Naira subscription fee, they will provide the subscriber with ‘legal back up and legal assistance’ in matters ranging from domestic violence to employer-employee related matters. They even go as far as promising the first 100 subscribers what they have called ‘the three months active benefit’.
So, a Nigerian Law School Student stumbles upon this advertisement and uploads the link on a Whatsapp group, and the Great Debate ensues. Of course, the Whatsapp Cops (we have them in every group) think we are draining the batteries of all and sundry, and are disturbing the peace, so the Debate dies even before we can resolve the issue. Here I am trying to put my thoughts together coherently, while practicing my draft of a long legal opinion. (I promise not to look at my note for the format of this legal opinion.)
Since, this is a blog post; I have decided to leave ping backs in the body of the text to the necessary sites instead of the documents. The documents are Linda Ikeji’s blog and the Rules of Professional Conduct.
3.0 ISSUES FOR DETERMINATION
The issue to be resolved here is whether or not the advertisement breaches the Rules.
4.1 SUMMARY OF OPINION
The Rules of Professional Conduct applies only to Legal Practitioners, and since this advertisement is in respect of the activities of a ‘registered non profit NGO’ then the provisions of the Rules cannot be invoked as far as this advertisement is concerned. The propriety of the one thousand naira subscription fee and the first hundred people bonanza by a purported non profit organisation is a matter for another legal opinion.
4.2 BODY OF OPINION
The Rules define a legal practitioner to mean a legal practitioner as defined under the Legal Practitioners Act (as amended by Decree no. 20 0f 1994) (‘the Act’). S. 24 of the Act defines a “legal practitioner” to mean mean a person entitled in accordance with the provisions of this Act to practise as a barrister or as a barrister and solicitor, either generally or for the purposes of any particular office or proceedings. A legal practitioner is entitled to practise if his name is on the roll (s. 2 of the Act). His name can only be on the roll, if he has been called to the bar, and he is called to the bar, on presentation of the Qualifying Certificate of the Council of Legal Education. He also has to satisfy the Benchers that he is of good character –the fit and proper kind. He also has to be a citizen of Nigeria, but non – citizens can also be called to the bar. See generally s.4 of the Act.
An NGO is a juristic person once the trustees are incorporated by registration under Part C of the Companies and Allied Matters Act. But see rule 5(5) of the Rules which prohibits the practice of law through a corporation. The recognised from of legal practice are: sole proprietorship, sole practitionership, associateship and partnership. An NGO is not a legal practitioner for the purpose of the Rules.
Reference must also be made particularly to rules 3 and 4 of the Rules. The former prohibits, amongst other things, aiding a non-lawyer in practice of law, and sharing of fees with a non lawyer. The latter prohibits the use of an intermediary between a lawyer and his client. Charitable societies and institutions rendering aid to the indigent are not considered as intermediaries, and any lawyer in a working relationship with such societies cannot be said to have run afoul of this rule. As far as rule three is concerned, I sincerely hope their team of lawyers are not being promised a percentage of the returns on the subscription fees, because that is clearly prohibited except of course it is a salaried employment (rule 8). A breach of any of the rules amounts to professional misconduct (rule 55).
On the face of it, this should be a non profit organisation and the lawyers working with them are on the ethical side of the law. I did put a call to one of the numbers they put up on their advert. I asked if they are lawyers, the receiver of the call said they are a registered NGO working with the NBA i.e Nigerian Bar Association, and they have a team of lawyers that they work with.
An advert by an NGO publicising its services and calling for subscription by members of the public is not a matter for the Rules of Professional Conduct. The propriety of such solicitation for payment for services rendered by a supposed non profit organisation is another matter entirely.
It would seem that the NGO has a working relationship with the Nigerian Legal Aid Council. (the Video Clip uploaded with the post from TVC).
This is not an endorsement of the ‘Fight for me’ scheme of the Channel of Hope Initaitive, neither is it an endorsement of the Linda Ikeji’s blog. This is my legal opinion and not necessarily the real position of the law. Additionally, it was written for specific facts and circumstances, bearing in mind the extant laws. This is not to be substituted for legal advice. Please see a qualified legal practitioner. I will not be liable for the outcomes of any action taken pursuant to the reading of this opinion.