THE NEED FOR A UNIFORM SCALE OF FEES REGULATING ALL TRANSACTIONS FOR THE LEGAL PROFESSION IN NIGERIA
The body of benchers conducts the yearly call to bar of new wigs into the Legal Profession. As of 2018, 4,779 numbers of persons were called to the Nigerian bar. According to Prof. Gbolahan Elias (SAN) more than 4,000 Lawyers are called to the bar yearly when the nation is already having more than 100,000 leading Lawyers practising and competing for recognition in the labour market. No wonder it has been nicknamed “The Largest Bar in Africa”. While this might be a good recognition, the effect might be that it has left too many hands to scramble for a small piece of bread. Hence the once very revered profession distinctly separated for the elites might have been cast open for every class to benefit from. This is of cause a good thing; it implies that the phrase “equal opportunity for all” is a reality in the Legal Profession. However, does the Legal Profession have enough room for the children she births every year? While I leave that question to your thoughts, I will proceed to ventilate on the subject matter.
It is certain that some legal transactions are regulated using a scale of fees under the Legal Profession. Whether or not this scale is complied with is not the subject of this discussion. Our focus will be on the unregulated areas and the effect thereof if left unregulated.
Before we delve into the unregulated areas, it will be of keen importance to briefly discuss the regulated areas.
The only specifically regulated area is the remuneration of a Legal Practitioner in respect of business connected with any sale, purchase, lease, mortgage and other matters of legal documentation. These areas are regulated by the Legal Practitioners (Remuneration for Legal Documentation and Other Land Matters) Order 1991. This is also known as scale fee, and stipulates the amount a Legal Practitioner can charge based on a particular transaction. It is fixed. Scale I has to do with purchase and sale of land and mortgages, Scale II has to do with the regulation of Lease agreement and Scale III has to do with matters not in scale I & II. Scale III not been specific enough, has left plenty of room for time and chance to be the fate of the Legal Practitioner who decided to charge under scale III, stating that “….shall charge such sums as may be fair and reasonable..”Hence, scale III is also unregulated.
Other type of fees as obtainable in the Legal Profession in Nigeria (unregulated) includes, but is not limited to:-
- Contingent fee (Success based fee – only applicable in civil matters): Contingent fee is coveredby Rule 50 RPC. Rule 50(5) RPC defines contingent fee as a fee paid or agreed to be paid for the Lawyer’s legal services under an arrangement whereby compensation is contingent, in whole or in part, upon the successful accomplishment or deposition of the subject matter of the agreement. The fee is strictly based on the agreement between the client and the Legal Practitioner.
- Appearance fee: This is fee charged by a Lawyer upon any appearance he makes in court. Appearance fee is usually charged in addition to other professional fees of the Legal Practitioner. The fee is strictly based on the agreement between the client and the Legal Practitioner.
- Fixed fee: This type of fee is usually charged for non-contentious matter. For instance, conducting a search in Land registry or at the Corporate Affairs Commission.
The appearance fee, contingent, and other type of fees are not strictly regulated, hence it will be safe to say that the legal fees of a Legal Practitioner in most cases are “subject to negotiation” between the client and the Legal Practitioner. While this may be good especially where the client is reasonable, the negative effect it has caused, is causing and will still cause far outweighs its positives.
Let’s paint a picture that analyses the current reality.
Mr. Chiwendu (Client) contacts Ayoola Esq to represent him in divorce proceedings. Ayoola Esq tells Mr Chiwendu that his legal fees is N200,000 (Two Hundred Thousand Naira). Mr Chiwendu replies by saying “Lawyer I go give you N50,000 (Fifty Thousand Naira), if you no collect, I know other Lawyers way go even collect N30,000 (Thirty Thousand Naira) sef. ” Meaning; Lawyer I will give you N50,000 and if you reject it I will contact another Lawyer who will accept the brief for N30,000.
I recently heard of a Lawyer who had to collect N15,000 (Fifteen Thousand Naira) for a real estate transaction worth millions! The situation is more precarious than it appears. Some Lawyers will accept peanuts just to survive, because out here, especially for the “not so privileged Lawyers”, survival is a struggle. For the Lawyers who will not bend to accept peanuts for diligent work done and for the Lawyers who will accept peanuts just to survive; it is a terrible situation which has brought into question the sanctity of the Legal Profession. Lawyers are unappreciated, legal services are negotiated with the same level of skill used to price tomatoes in the market. So how do we cure this pandemic?
THE NEED TO REGULATE THE FEES OF A LEGAL PRACTITIONER VIS-À-VIS THE DAMAGE LACK OF REGULATION HAS CAUSED SO FAR
- Hardship to new wigs and not too fortunate older Lawyers.-Hardship caused by unemployment, other Lawyers scrambling to take the job, and so on. Earlier, I mentioned how many Lawyers get called per year. Where a Lawyer rejects a brief, another Lawyer gladly accepts it “to keep body and soul together”. This makes the profession look cheap, unorganized and “not so professional”. Regulation of fees shows organization, professionalism and the wealth of resources will go round.
- Diminishing reputation of this noble profession: Imagine Lawyers in faded once dark gowns, adumbrating in their bent shoe heels and their squeezed wig. With this sort of appearance, and the scrambling for “along” or “free ride”, the profession is leaving a lot to be desired. This is still as a result of how cheap legal services are priced. This is quite similar to my third point.
- Reduced attractive nature of the profession: A lot of persons read law because they thought it will be a life line out of poverty; this was actually the case some decades ago, but the statement “Every Lawyer has money” is now a misconception. Parents struggled to see their children through the University and even Law School, thinking they have opened the portal to wealth by doing that, with neighbors screaming “De Law” at the sight of the shadows of Law students or Lawyers.
More saddening is the fact that the stories of first class graduates loitering the streets of Nigeria with their brown envelopes participating in the reality ultimate search show for jobs,that has become the tale of “first class” law school graduates. There used to be a guarantee for the exceptional students but now, everyone is now “on God”. No assurances except for the “connected”. All these put together has reduced the attractive nature of the Legal Profession. I want to be a Lawyer is not more as mind-blowing, mouthwatering and exciting as before.
The Legal Profession albeit beautiful is characterized by certain dents like the issue of unregulated fees, that reduces its reverence.
HOW CAN THIS ANOMALY BE CORRECTED?
- Enacting Legislation(s) just like the Legal Practitioners (Remuneration for Legal Documentation and Other Land Matters) Order 1991 to regulating all transactions. This should be done by the General Bar Council. Just like the practice fee is paid according to years at the bar and appointment, the Legal Fees should be regulated accordingly, to ensure that a minimum fee be paid per transaction depending on the years at the bar or privilege obtained by the Legal Practitioner. The only exception to this should be where the case will be handled by the Lawyer pro bono.
- Any Legal Practitioner who does not comply and settles for less than provided by the bar council should be treated as one who is bringing disrepute to the Legal Profession hence should be made to face the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee as an offender.
Earlier I asked if the Legal Profession in Nigeria has enough room for the children she births every year. The answer is yes. Assuming we have 500,000 Lawyers in Nigeria (we do not have up to 200,000 yet), for a population of 180 million, it will equate one Lawyer to 360 clients. The issue is not the amount of Lawyers we have, it is the lack of regulation that has led to the cheapening of Legal Services.
We should also talk about the way a lot of young Lawyers are unfairly treated and receive stipends as salary. That is a discourse for another day.
About the Author
Sam Omotoso Esq, ACarb is a Legal Practitioner and a Chartered Arbitrator with specific interest in legal drafting. He has published several articles on legal analysis and interpretation of various laws in Nigeria.
You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org