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Lawyer walking out on judge, withdrawing representation, displaying infamous conduct in legal profession

Justice Watch NewsNigerian Lawyers

By Isah Muhammad Lawal Esq.

WHETHER THE ACT OF WALKING OUT OF A JUDGE BY A LEGAL PRACTITIONER IN THE COURSE OF PROCEDDINGS AND WITHDRAWAL OF REPRESENTATION WITHOUT LEAVE OF COURT CONSITUTE CONTEMPT OF COURT, CONDUCT UNBECOMING OF A LEGAL PRACTIONER OR INFAMOUS CONDUCT IN A PROFESSIONAL RESPECT?

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INTRODUCTION
A Legal Practitioner as an officer of the court and a minister in the temple of justice is expected to maintain the highest level of professional conduct. It is instructive for every reasonable man to agree that respect to the rule of law and fostering the cause of justice is the most fundamental duty of a legal practitioner. However due to some unethical and dishonest acts which some members of legal profession tend to engage in such as fraud, corruption, arrogance, calumny etc., has to some extent hindered the development of this profession. Therefore it is very important to understand the duties of the legal practitioners to clients, to colleagues, to the state, to courts, and their relations with judge(s) as it is contained in the body of laws regulating the system in the society. The paramount of the duty to the court and relation with judge is of the utmost importance to the effective functioning of the legal system.

This Article is an attempt by the writer to shed more light on this particular area of the legal profession which are the duties and responsibilities of the legal practitioners and also to change the negative misconception on the profession. This article also emphasized on the importance of these duties and how a breach of these duties may lead to contempt of court, conduct unbecoming of a Legal practitioner, and infamous conduct in a professional respect.

DEFINITION OF TERMS
From the topic, five words stand out which denotes the essence of this study. The words are
Legal Practitioner, Contempt of court; sub judice, Conduct unbecoming of a Legal Practitioner, and infamous Conduct in a professional Respect

A legal practitioner was defined by the Supreme Court in Okafor & Ors v. Nweke & Ors (2007) 10 NWLR (pt. 1043) 521 at 530-532 as a person whose name is on the Roll; “The Legal Practitioner Act (LPA) 2004 defines legal practitioner thus: subject to the provisions of this Act, a person shall be entitled to practice as barrister and solicitor if, and only if, his name is on the roll”. While section 24 LPA defines a legal practitioner as “a person entitled in accordance with the provisions of this Act to practice as a barrister or as a barrister and solicitor, either generally or for the purposes of any particular office or proceedings”.

In other words a legal practitioner is sometimes used interchangeable as a lawyer, counsel, and in the words of Justice Yales in Mayor of Norwich v. Berry 1767 BURR 2109 at p.2115. ―The court must have Ministers; the Attorneys are its Ministers.

CONTEMPT OF COURT
Contempt of court is defined as any act or speech that may bring the powers and administration of the court into disrespect, scorn, or disrepute Furthermore, any act or writing published that obstructs or interferes with the due course of justice or the lawful process of the court constitutes contempt of court. In the case of Agbachom vs RTAC115, 1992 5 NWLR (Pt 241) 366,

Contempt of court was described as “anything done or writing published calculated to bring a court or judge into contempt to lower his dignity”. Also in the case of Basil Okomah v Sunday Udoh (2002) 1 NWLR (Pt 748) 438 the court held that before an act or omission is considered as contempt, it must be done with intent. As a result, in contempt cases, the question of motive is irrelevant.

PROFESSIONAL MISCONDUCT
The Courts have been equally concerned about conducts that are at variance with Rules of professional conduct for Legal Practitioners and these are reflected in their decisions. For example, the Courts in NBA V. ITEOGU (2006) 13 NWLR (PT. 996) 219 stated thus:

“What amounts to professional misconduct is not defined in the rules of professional conduct in the legal profession. Any conduct of any legal practitioner in relation to his practice of the profession in relation to his client that runs contrary to rules or any breach of the rules may amount to misconduct. Any conduct that 6 constitutes an infraction of acceptable standard of behaviour or ethics of the legal profession or any conduct which connotes conduct so despicable and morally reprehensible as to bring the legal profession into disrepute will amount to misconduct.

Any conduct, which is disgraceful, involving serious moral turpitude or such conduct that would shock every right thinking member of the society would qualify as professional misconduct.(P 250, paras. E-H) 3 USANI V DUKE

INFAMOUS CONDUCT IN A PROFESSIONAL RESPECT: There is an identical provision in the Medical & Dental Practitioners Act which defines what constitutes ―Infamous conduct. A definition is provided in the English case of Allison v. General Medical Council [1894] 1 QB 750 at 760 “Where a medical man in the pursuit of his profession has done something with regard to which it would be reasonably regarded as disgraceful or dishonourable by his professional brethren of good repute and competency.”

The definition adopted for an identical provision in the English case of Solicitor Ex-parte Law Society (1912) 1 KB 301 (311) was applied by the Privy Council in the case of Grahame v Attorney General of Fiji (1936) ALL ER 992 (1000).

DUTIES OF A LEGAL PRACTITIONER
The Legal Practitioners’ Act, 2004 and the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007 are the two body of laws governing the conduct of Legal Practitioners in Nigeria.

The duties of legal practitioners as stated in the Rules of Professional Conduct 2007 were created to promote a relationship between a lawyer and his client, court, and other lawyers in order to carry out his responsibilities. The duties owed are broadly classified into three categories: duties owed to the client, duties owed to fellow legal practitioners, and duties owed to the court.

However, any breach of the duties conferred upon a legal practitioner will result in violating of the Rules of Professional Conduct 2007. A lawyer is guilty of professional misconduct and subject to punishment under the Legal Practitioners Act 2004 if they violate any of the rules in these Rules or fail to carry out any of the duties required by them. Every lawyer has a responsibility to inform the proper authorities of any violation of these rules that comes to his attention in order to receive the necessary disciplinary action.

GENERAL RESPONSIBILITY OF A LAWYER
Rule 1 of the RPC, 2007 provides thus
“A lawyer shall uphold and observe the rule of law, promote and foster the course of justice, maintain a high standard of professional conduct, and shall not engage in any conduct which is unbecoming of a legal practitioner”.

The general responsibility of a lawyer has been given judicial backing in the English case of Rondel v. Worsely which has been received in Nigeria and cited with approval in a long line of cases. In Free Enterprise Nig. Ltd v. Global Transport Oceanico S.A & 1 Or , Onalaja, J.C.A stated that:

As an advocate he is a minister of justice equally with the judge. He has a monopoly of audience in the higher courts. No one, save he, can address the Judge, unless it be a litigant in person… he owes allegiance to a higher cause. It is the cause of truth and justice. He must not consciously misstate the facts. He must not knowingly conceal the truth.

He must not unjustly make a charge of fraud, that is, without evidence to support it. He must produce all the relevant authorities even those that are against him. He must see that his client discloses, if ordered, the relevant documents, even those that are fatal to his case. He must disregard the most specific instructions to his client if they conflict with his duty to the court. The code which requires a barrister to do all this is not a code of law. It is a code of honour. If he breaks it, he is offending against the rules or profession and is subject to its discipline. But he cannot be sued in a court of law…”.

The above dictum encapsulates the duties of a legal practitioner to the courts, to colleagues and clients. In PCN v. Lamlex (Pharmacy) (Nig.) Ltd (2018) LPELR-44686 the court stated that every responsible lawyer acknowledges that the most fundamental duty of a legal practitioner is to uphold the rule of law and advance the cause of justice.

LAWYERS DUTIES TO CLIENT
A legal practitioner has the duty to accept brief from a client as encapsulated under the Cab Rank Rule provided for under Rule 21(1) RPC; which is limited to only civil or criminal matters. This simply implies that a lawyer has the duty to accept brief relating to the area in which they practice, provided the right fee is offered to be paid such a Legal Practitioner shall represent the client competently within the bounds of the law and devote his attention, energy and expertise to the service of his client subject to any rule of law he shall act in manner consistent with the best interest of the client .

But in any case, where the professional services of lawyer is retained by a client, either as a Barrister or Solicitor, certain professional duties and responsibilities arise on the part of the lawyer and these duties are strictly regulated by law.

In Afegbai V A.G. Edo state & Anor (2001) 7 NSQR 549 pp. 571-572 the Supreme Court held that:
“The nature of the legal relationship between counsel and his client is one of an independent contractor and not one of principal and agent. It is not that of master and servant. Counsel is clearly not a servant of his client”

The fons et origo of a legal practitioner’s duties is the retainer (or contract of engagement) between himself and the client. The retainer may be written, oral, or inferred from conduct. Edozien v. Edozien (1993) 1 NWLR (pt 272) 678 at 702 per Karibi-Whyte JSC –

“It is well settled that the relationship between counsel and client arises from contract. The contract is with respect to the service which counsel has agreed and undertaken to render in respect of his client. The general accepted view is that counsel acts on the general instructions of his client. He must adhere to any special instructions given by or on behalf of his client. Counsel however, as a general rule has complete control over how these instructions are to be carried out”.

In addition to the contractual duties arising from the retainer and the general duty to exercise skill and care, the legal practitioner owes fiduciary duties to his client. The relationship between a legal practitioner and his client has been described as “one of the most important fiduciary relations known to our law”. However, the limits of those duties must be recognised. In Clark Boyce v. Mouat (1994) 1 A.C. 428,437 F-G, the Privy Council said:
A fiduciary duty concerns disclosure of material facts in a situation where the fiduciary either has a personal interest in the matter to which the facts are material, or acts for another party who has such an interest. It cannot be prayed in aid to enlarge the scope of contractual duties.

Also, in Nigerian Bar Association v. Fobur (2006) 13 NWLR (pt. 996) pg 196 at 216, paras D-E, Abdullahi Ibrahim, SAN, the Chairman LPDC (as he then was) said that:

“The relationship between a legal practitioner and his client is a fiduciary one and this implies that the legal practitioner must act with the utmost honesty and fairness to his client. Any form of dishonesty or fraud perpetrated against the client by the legal practitioner will amount to misconduct.”

To buttress the above submissions Rule 18(2) provides that “the lawyer shall ensure that important agreements between him and the client are, as far as possible, reduced into writing, but it is dishonourable and a misconduct for the lawyer to avoid performance of a contract fairly made with his client whether reduced into writing or not”.

However it is recommended to reduce the agreement into writing as held in Oyekanmi v. NEPA (2000) 15 NWLR (pt. 690) 414 at 431, para C per Uwaifo J.S.C. – A legal practitioner is entitled to make a written agreement with his client in respect of any professional business done or to be done by him for a sum”

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Under the Rules of Professional Conduct in the legal profession, there are enormous provisions detailing the fiduciary duties a legal practitioner owes his client, some of the relevant rules are Rules 17, 23, 50(3) and 54.

A Legal practitioner must act honestly and diligently with his client. The legal practitioner has the duty to accept his client’s brief, duty to disclose if there is any conflict of interest . Also, a legal practitioner may not reveal a client’s secret or confidence, use the client’s secret or confidence to the client’s disadvantage, or use the client’s secret and confidence to his/her advantage or that of a third party, unless with the client’s consent . These duties are contained in rule 14-25 of the RPC.

The limitation to the fiduciary-contractual relationship existing between a legal practitioner and client is that a legal practitioner is a Counsel of Law and not Counsel of Fact Tobi JCA (as he then was) said:

I have said it a couple of times that counsel is basically counsel of law and not counsel of facts. The facts of the case are not his. They belong exclusively to his client. The client is the owner of the facts and he is the only person who can make use of them. He can call witnesses to assist him in giving the facts to the Court by way of evidence. As the owner of the facts, it is within his province so to do. But counsel cannot, on his own, relate facts, which have not earlier been given in evidence.

Counsel can only relate evidence already given and vindicate such evidence by the application of the law. While he, counsel could be said, to „own‟ the law the facts are not his but those of his client.102 102 Per Tobi, J.C.A in Okoya v. Santilli (1991) 7 N.W.L.R (pt. 206) 753 at 768 paras B-C.

In a nutshell, a legal practitioner is regarded as a court officer who must never deceive or mislead the court, and he/she must never conceal facts, even those that are adverse to their case. They are expected to make full and frank disclosures to the court while seeking justice for their clients in this manner. See the case of Rondel v Worsley .

LAWYERS DUTY TO COLLEAGUES

The legal profession is one of the most regulated professions so as to enhance its nobility. Legal practitioners reverence themselves as primus inteperes to wit first amongst equals; this denotes that a high standard of professionalism and decency is required of them by members of the society at large. It is against this backdrop that we will be discussing lawyer duty to court and the way they conduct themselves both in and out of the legal parlance and the relevance, which is without question, to the legal profession.

This is well articulated in the words Justice W.S. Onnoghen in Okafor & Ors v. Nweke & Ors said “legal practice is a very serious business that is to be undertaken by serious minded practitioners particularly as both the legally trained minds and those not so trained always learn from examples. We therefore owe the legal profession the duty to maintain the very high standards required in the practice of the profession in this country”.

The basic requirements for a relationship between legal practitioners are respect, cordiality, fairness, and good faith. The relationship between colleagues is addressed in Rules 22 -25 of the Rules of Professional Conduct 2007. Rule 26(1) state that

“Lawyers shall treat one another with respect, fairness, consideration, and dignity, and shall not allow any ill feelings between opposing clients to influence their conduct and demeanor towards opposing clients”.

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Consequently, the maxim “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” has been said to govern the relationship between legal practitioners. Lawyers are required by their profession and occupation to demonstrate a high level of fellowship, understanding, and respect for one another. They address and refer to each other as “learned friends”. Cordial relationships and honest dealing between legal practitioners not only ease the dispatch of their job and the execution of their duties, but are absolutely necessary in the interest of the client and the public at large.

However, there are other duties expected of legal practitioners towards their fellow legal practitioners which are; duty not to covet clients, duty not to encroach on the employment of another etc.

LAWYERS’ DUTY TO COURTS
Legal practitioner are recognized as ministers in the temple of justice by virtue of their calling, and they have the noble duty of assisting the court and the government in the administration of justice. A legal practitioner must conduct himself in a manner befitting of his profession.

He has fundamental obligations to uphold and follow the law, advance and foster the cause of justice, and sustains the highest standards of ethical behavior in the workplace and shouldn’t engage in any actions that can damage the reputation of his profession.

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In relation to the Duty of a Lawyer to the Court, Lord Reid made the following observations:
“As an officer of the court concerned in the administration of justice [a legal practitioner] has an overriding duty to the court, to the standards of his profession, and to the public, which may and often does lead to a conflict with his client’s wishes or with what the client thinks are his personal interests”. It was held that a counsel must not mislead the court . Most importantly, attorneys must be truthful in their responses and disclosures to the court and must not intentionally mislead it. In other words, attorneys must make every effort to ensure that the law is applied fairly to the circumstances of the case.

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Similarly, where counsel’s conduct is unprofessional, the courts must reprimand such behavior. This can also be illustrated by the case of Salihu v. Gana & Ors Abiru JCA stated that Lawyers who abuse their knowledge of the law and legal procedure to stifle the administration of justice are a disappointment and a hindrance to the advancement of the legal profession. In the light of the foregoing, a lawyer is an officer of the court, and as such, he is not permitted to take any action or behave in a way that might hinder, delay, or negatively impact the administration of justice.

The duty of a legal practitioner to courts shall extend to duty not to walk out on court/judge, duty not to engage in trial publicity or subjudice and duty not to abandon or withdraw from proceedings without leave of court. In the case of Lagos state development and property corporation (LSDPC) v land and sea foods ltd (1982) 1 All NLR 1 at 6 , it was held that at all times, the lawyer must assist the court in reaching a just and equitable decision. In doing so, he must keep in mind that respect is directed not to the person of the Judge, but to the institution as a sacred temple of justice. This must be strictly adhered to in order to maintain respect for the dignity of the judicial office and confidence in the judiciary as a whole. This just shows the importance of respecting the court and importance helping the court administer justice.

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The role of the practitioner is to “assist the court in the doing of justice according to law,” not just to advance the interests of his or her client in the adversarial process is a duty that occurs from the legal practitioner’s role as a court officer and an essential player in the administration of justice . Rule 35 of RPC 2007 provides thus;

35. A lawyer appearing before a judicial tribunal shall accord due respect to it and shall treat the tribunal with courtesy and dignity.

WHETHER THE ACT OF WALKING OUT OF COURT IN THE COURSE OF PROCEEDING CONSTITUTE CONTEMPT,
The act of walking out on or from court in the course of proceedings by a counsel is a flagrant violation of Rule 31 & 35 of the RPC, 2007. Besides, such an infamous act does not only constitute contempt of court in facie curae but also amount to professional misconduct, a conduct unbecoming of a legal practitioner and requires disciplinary actions even where such an infamous act is being perpetrated by a senior member of the bar.

A Legal Practitioner owes the court duty not to walk out on or from it even on health grounds (i.e. where the Counsel is serious ill) as held in the case of Magna Maritime Services Ltd v. Oteju the court said
“Counsel who is ill or indisposed has a duty to apply for adjournment of the case to enable him seek medical assistance. He has no right whatsoever to walk out on or from the court just like that. That is certainly a rude and unprofessional conduct, unbecoming of a legal practitioner. I condemn the conduct of the counsel”.

On 4th of July 2024, In one of the Kano Emirate Legal Tussle between Sanusi lamido Sanusi and Aminu Ado Bayero before Court Number 7, Coram: Justice Amina Adamu Aliyu) Presiding Judge of the State High Court Kano State, the lead counsel in the matter Abdul Muhammad SAN and the other counsels with him staged a walk out of the court in the course of proceeding after the court refused to grant the stay of proceeding pending hearing and determination of the Court of Appeal’s Verdict on an earlier ruling delivered against the 1st7 Respondent .

The act of walking out on or from a Judge or staging a walk out of the court in the course of proceedings when the outcome of the verdict isn’t in one’s favour is akin to according more priority to the interest of the client over that of the court which is a flagrant violation of the ethics and etiquettes of the legal profession and a breach of Rule 1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, 2007.

Moreover, such an act does not only constitute contempt of court but an unprofessional conduct unbecoming of legal practitioner. The last straw that broke the camel’s back is the fact that it emanates from a senior member of the bar, a Learned Silk for that matter.

The other arm of the unprofessional conduct is the withdrawal of legal presentation in the course of proceedings without leave of court by the erring lawyers. This arm is doubtful as there are speculations that the lawyers before staging a walk out on or from the court sought leave of court to with their representation. The Supreme Court held that “In criminal cases, it is the legal practitioner’s duty to be present in Court throughout the trial including the return of verdict and sentence even if he intends to be mute and inactive throughout. It is a breach of his professional duty to abandon his client and to withdraw from the trial without the leave of the Court ”.

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OTHER INCIDENTS OF CONTEMPT OF COURT BY LEGAL PRACTITIONERS
In 2022 a lawyer, who is a well-known human rights activist named Inibehe Effiong was sentenced to one month of jail term because he committed contempt, it was said that the lawyer was convicted over alleged rudeness and accusing the chief Judge of Akwa Ibom of being biased, while appearing in court for a case of defamation between Governor Udom Emmanuel and a lawyer . However, this case in now on appeal. Fola Akinhrinsola, a lawyer, was convicted for contempt by Anambra State chief judge over an article he wrote, which was published on a newspaper on May 13, 1979 but when case went on appeal it was squashed.

In the light of the above it is glaring as the dawn of the day that the flagrant violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct 2007 and the decay in legal education and practice has led to the degeneration of the legal profession in Nigeria as legal practitioners particularly the senior member of the bar violates the provisions of the RPC with impunity and the irony of the situation is that they turn around to accuse the young lawyers of being unprofessional in their approach.

This situation is akin to the pot calling the kettle black and they are quick to punish the young lawyers for any unethical practice, these unprofessional and unethical conduct of legal practitioners has been institutionalized and has been in practice since time immemorial as Hon Justice Chukuwdifu Oputa, (Retired Justice of the Supreme Court) who wrote in one of his lectures words that capture the objective or direction of this Article.

In one of his books, he published a Lecture titled “Cleansing our Temple of Justice” he wrote and I seek to quote him elaborately:
In 1976, I made the following significant observation ‘looking back on the legal profession in Nigeria in the forties and fifties and even early sixties one seeks in retrospect a rather dignified, respectable and self-respecting profession – the pride of lawyers, the ambition of many and an object of reverence by the generality of our people.
Nevertheless, things seem to be falling apart. Nowadays again, one notices a significant shift from the erstwhile awe and reverence with which the profession was once regarded. Could it be that members of the profession are now forgetting some of the qualities and qualifications which earned them and their profession the envy and dignified appellation of ‘learned’ and ‘honourable’? Could it be that we have said goodbye to the sublime objectives of our great profession?

But whatever it is, the fact remains that the present situation demands that something be done to restore the pristine dignity, the splendor and the glory that was the legal profession in our country in years gone by.

In 1984, the Body of Benchers set up the Legal Education Committee prompted by a memorandum dated November 28, 1983 by Alhaji Abdul Razaq, SAN complaining of falling standard in the profession.

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“There is the falling of legal and educational standards. That is serious enough, But what is heart rending and tragic is the falling morals ethical standard. The collective voice of many a Nigerian is that the Legal Profession in Nigeria (Bench and Bar) is sick that our Lawyers and Judges have conveniently completely forgotten the sublime objectives of their great profession. That our lawyers and judges, ministers in our temple of justice have thrown to the wind their code of honour and the traditions and so desecrated the temple that in the public mind it is a big joke to refer to the Courts of Justice (Courts of law, probably yes; but Courts of Justice.

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CONCLUSION
The flagrant violation of the Rules of Professional conduct 2007 by legal practitioners in Nigeria has existed since time immemorial and such violations has been on the increase as they are ever occurring despite reports of these violations before the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee and appropriate punishments has been meted out against erring lawyers who had been found liable by the committees and other convicted by courts of competent jurisdiction for the offence of contempt of court yet all efforts to curtail same had proved abortive.

Therefore, the writer suggest a more severe punishment should be prescribed for erring lawyers who are found liable or convicted by a court of law for the offence of contempt or other capital offences and those whom are found wanting in their both character and learning should not be admitted to the bar, and even when admitted they should be barred from practice at the bar.

Justice Watch News Bar Isa

Isah Muhammad Lawal Esq. is  Barrister & Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

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