By Felix Izuma UZOMA.
Finding a reasonable remuneration for legal services has been an issue of great controversy over the years in Nigeria. It has, and is still eliciting heated intellectual and non-intellectual debates by various countervailing interests for, and against. Should we have a law regulating fees charged for legal services? If yes; how much should a legal practitioner charge for work done? What are the challenges of establishing and enforcing such a regulation? Who should even enforce such a regulation? And so forth. This Work interrogates the foregoing with a view to finding acceptable workable solutions for all.
Scale of charges, legal practitioner, legal services, committee, client, Nigeria.
Despite the existence of a scale of charges for legal services in Nigeria, there have been repeated debates for, and against its existence. Some have argued that a lawyer’s fees cannot, and should not be pigeonholed to a scale of charges due to the unique nature of the legal profession, while others who canvass for its continued existence say it has created order and certainty in the expected remuneration for legal services. This Piece shall examine whether or not these arguments are tenable in the light of the prevailing circumstances, and then go on to interrogate the challenges of its establishment and enforcement, before proffering some workable recommendations.
Nigeria’s legal profession has its roots in the colonial era and has been divided from the periods between 1876 and 1914, 1914 to 1962, and 1962 till date. The Legal Practitioners Act (LPA) and the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC) are the major statutory frameworks determining a lawyer’s charges for legal services in Nigeria. Specifically, Section 15 of the LPA establishes the Legal Practitioners Remuneration Committee (LPRC) to amongst other things, regulate and standardise the remuneration of legal practitioners in Nigeria. Pursuant to this, the Committee enacted the Legal Practitioners (Remuneration for Legal Documentation and Other Land Matters) Order in 1991. This Order created three classes of scales that can be used in charging, depending on the nature of legal services rendered.
Now, having a scale of charges for legal services has a lot of advantages. A major advantage is the certainty it creates for clients and the legal practitioners especially with the existence of the (Remuneration for Legal Documentation and Other Land Matters) Order in 1991. It would prevent any incident of overbilling, as the client would be certain of the actual amount to be paid for any service rendered.
Similarly, law practices a noble profession. Thus, a workable scale of charges maintains its professional decorum. With a reliable scale of charges, lawyers would not have to endlessly haggle like local market commodity traders with their clients on the commensurate fees to be paid for service rendered. Haggling appears to diminish the nobility of the profession.
A colleague had once posited that having a workable scale of charges makes it easier in identifying and reporting colleagues who undercut other professional colleagues in the process of rendering legal services. The list of advantages is endless.
Rather than copying and pasting, an industrious lawyer would exert considerable effort into his/her work, and the fact that it is a non-contentious matter like preparing a deed of assignment or mortgages etc. is immaterial. But a scale of charges appears to be disincentivising ingenuity and hard work. Because a lawyer who has exerted tremendous industry into a particular work would likely be made to charge the same fees with another colleague who puts in minimal effort (like copying and pasting) in similar work.
A uniform scale of charges may not be workable, especially for contentious matters. It would be unreasonable to have the same scale of charges for all marriage or election petition cases, as no two cases are the same.
A lawyer must be able to advocate the cause of his/her client to the best of his/her abilities. Doing this requires special skills, wisdom, and tack. If a lawyer can successfully advocate for a client, s/he must be able to skillfully advocate for his/her fees by adducing convincing superior arguments on why s/he deserves a certain fee. This leaves the lawyer with no other option than to hone his/her skills, knowing fully that without it, daily bread may be uneasy to come by. Thus, negating the argument for the existence of a unified scale of charges for lawyers.
Similarly, economic realities are not uniform in all parts of Nigeria. For instance; in Lagos, the economic realities in Victoria Island and Ikoyi are not the same as Epe or Ikorodu. Compelling clients to pay the same fees may work untoward hardship for clients in locations with low economic/commercial activities.
THE CHALLENGES OF ESTABLISHING AND ENFORCING A SCALE OF CHARGES:
Earlier in the year 2020, Aisha, one of my professional colleagues, lost a brief worth over Four Hundred Thousand Naira (₦400,000.00) Only! Her only ‘crime’ was insisting on receiving her statutory percentage. The client engaged another professional colleague who jumped at the brief, albeit below the statutory percentage. This is one of the biggest challenges that lawyers go through daily. You insist on your right, you lose potential clients to another colleague who is ready to undercut you without batting an eyelid!
Another challenge of establishing a scale of charges for legal services in Nigeria is due to our social-cultural idiosyncrasies. Some people prefer consulting family heads, other traditional and religious rulers in settling their disputes, rather than a lawyer who employs the court system to attain justice. It is a fact that cases commenced in a magistrate court take an unreasonable number of years before even ripening for mention at the Supreme Court! Sadly, by this time, the res might have become otiose; many witnesses’ interests would have waned, and some even deceased. Hence, consulting traditional and religious rulers is believed to be faster, with a higher prospect of continuing preexisting relationships, than engaging the services of a lawyer. Some lawyers practicing in these areas would reasonably have reduced clientele. Consequently, fixing a nationwide scale of charges may work great hardship for such colleagues who may just be struggling to breathe.
Another challenge is economic differences. A client in Ahoada Branch in Rivers State would be unwilling to pay the same fees as a client in cosmopolitan Port-Harcourt Branch due to economic differences.
The Legal Practitioners’ Accounts Rules and the Legal Practitioners (Remuneration for Legal Documentation and Other Land Matters) Order were enacted as far back as 1964 and 1991, about fifty-seven and thirty (30) years ago respectively. The real income value of legal service in 1991 is not the same in 2021.
Again, Rule 52 of the RPC provides more insight into some other determinants for charging, whether contentious or not. If contentious, the time it would take to accomplish the work, the skill and labour expected to be exerted to complete the case, the novelty and difficulty of the question involved in the proceeding, but without a scale of charges (especially for non-contentious matters), some colleagues would, and are still being undercut.
Now, on the issue of enforcement, despite having many cases of violations of the scale of charges, convictions based on such violations are uncommon. The reasons for this challenge are not far to see: apathy. There is an appreciable level of apathy in reporting a professional colleague’s misconduct to the appropriate authorities. There is also the seeming foot-dragging response of the appropriate authorities in investigating and prosecuting violators.
Importantly, how is the whistleblower protected against any backlash and sometimes, professional or physical harm that may befall him/her?
Section 15 of the LPA has vested in the Legal Practitioners Remuneration Committee the powers to amongst other things; make orders regulating generally the charges of legal practitioners. Pursuant to that, the Legal Practitioners (Remuneration for Legal Documentation and Other Land Matters) Order 1991, was enacted. Despite the existence of this Committee, the challenge has been the seemingly obvious obscurity of its existence.
A lot of issues have arisen since the coming into effect of the Order. Recent events have shown the need for an urgent upward review in tandem with the prevailing economic situation. A situation where swearing to an affidavit would be charged for as low as Seven Hundred Naira (₦700) only, in Lagos, and a client dictating the sum of Ten Thousand to Twenty Thousand Naira (₦10,000.00 – ₦20,000.00) only for preparing a Deed of Assignment is, to say the least; unsavoury. One is then tempted to ask, where is the Legal Practitioners Remuneration Committee in all of these?
As Lord Denning once poignantly posited: If we never do anything which has not been done before, we shall never get anywhere. The law will stand still while the rest of the world goes on, and that will be bad for both. Hence, the right time for having a standard scale of charges for legal services that would factor in all the intricate nuances in our profession is no other time than now. A holistic approach is required. A comprehensive survey of accurate data from relevant stakeholders would have to be collated nationwide, analysed, and executed by amendment of extant pieces of legislation to align with current economic realities and world best practices.
In agreement with the above, the Olumide Apata led Administration (which has shown over time to go over and above board in many ways) of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in conjunction with the National Executive Committee, set up a Remuneration Committee for the Nigerian Bar Association to design a workable and enforceable framework under which lawyers will:
(i) charge the right fees for their legal services using acceptable and realistic metrics; and
(ii) (ii) ensure that those fees, when earned, trickle down, in terms of reasonable living wages and emoluments, to those who work with, or for, the lawyers, amongst others.
It appears this is the right step in the right direction.
Now, this year’s Nigerian Bar Association Annual General Conference is scheduled to commence in the City of Port-Harcourt, Rivers State, from the 22nd – 29th of October 2021 with the theme: Taking the Lead. One then wonders in what area the NBA is expected to be ‘taking the lead’ if not in areas as relating to commensurate remuneration for legal work, or areas regarding widening the vast deficit in employment opportunity net for lawyers, or even if unable to widen the net, curbing the incessant incursion and encroachment of other profession into our now shrinking legal practice space! It is strongly hoped that this Conference would serve as a veritable opportunity in salvaging these refractory issues.
Again, it is hoped that the above exercise of reviewing the scale of charges for lawyers would not become another white elephant project that would be left as clutters for the next administration. This current Administration has the opportunity to emboss its name in gold in the heart of lawyers by successfully reviewing the scale of charges for lawyers. The time is ticking.
Need I add that another workable suggestion being canvased by practitioners is to consider designating some areas into tiers or bands. E.g. Lagos, Port-Harcourt, Abuja, and Kano into band ‘A’ with a uniform scale; then, a second, and a third-tier or band, with another uniform scale, etc.
It has also been advocated in some quarters that each state and branch should be left with the option, decision, powers to fix their scale of charges since they know where the shoe pinches the most.
Importantly, a scheduled and time-bound review of the extant laws regulating and/or connected with the regulation of a lawyer’s scale of charges for legal services is necessary. This would engender seamless adjustments as the needs arise.
In the meantime, the LPRC, established by S. 15 of the LPA is urged to be more alive to her responsibilities for the greater good of all lawyers throughout the Federation, including the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.
This Work has interrogated some of the lingering issues bordering on the scale of charges for legal services in Nigeria and the seeming obscurity of the Legal Practitioners Remuneration Committee. What is now left to be said is that; should this unpleasant status quo persist, we all should be prepared for a long-drawn controversy in no distant time.
Felix Izuma UZOMA is a lawyer, and he writes from Ibadan.
You can reach him via: email@example.com