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Pro Bono Legal Aid: Challenges Of Private Lawyers In Nigeria

By: Hameed Ajibola Jimoh Esq.


Pro bono legal aid and the challenges of private lawyers in the emerging developing socio-economic Nigerian communities

Legal Aid is the free legal services provided by the government through an attorney employed by the State. Free legal services (pro bono) provided by a private lawyer to an indigent is also legal aid. See: page 41 of Legal Aid and Right to Justice, by Hanbal A. Muhammad Zubair (M. DRI). The Nigerian law recognizes the right of a legal practitioner to offer legal services to his clients without any remuneration. See section 9(2) of the Legal Practitioner Act, 2010-herein after referred to as LPA. Also Rule 52(1) of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners, 2007-herein referred to as RPC. Such free services may be rendered to indigent clients, friends, family members or clients with long standing relationship with the legal practitioner. Such free services may also be rendered by a legal practitioner in contentious and non-contentious matters. See: A. Obi Okoye, Law in Practice in Nigeria: (Professional Responsibilities and Lawyering Skills), Snaap Press Ltd., 2011, second Edition, Enugu, at page 114. This paper considers some of the challenges of lawyers who render or are expected to render legal aid pro bono (i.e. free of charge).

Pro bono is a phrase from Latin Language whose full meaning is ‘pro bono publico’ i.e. ‘for the public good’. Being or involving uncompensated legal services performed especially for the public good. See: Black’s Law Dictionary, Eighth Edition, 2004 at page 1240-1241. It was quoted in the above dictionary, the words of Deborah L. Rhode & Geoffrey C. Hazard, Professional Responsibility, 162 (2002) on pro bono thus ‘ The bar in this country has a long-standing tradition of service pro bono publico-  legal services ‘for the public good’, provided at no cost or reduced fee (underlining is mine for emphasis).  This concept encompasses a wide range of activities, including law reform efforts, participation in bar associations and civic organisations, and individual or group representation. Clients who receive such assistance also span a broad range including: poor people, nonprofit organisations, ideological or political causes, and friends, relatives, or employees of the lawyer’. As stated earlier in this paper, the RPC also allows the rendering of pro bono services at the convenience of the legal practitioner thus ‘The professional fee charged by a lawyer for his services shall be reasonable and commensurate with the service rendered: accordingly, the lawyer shall not charge fees which are excessive or so low as to amount to understanding: provided that a reduced fee or no fee at all may be charged on the ground of the special relationship or indigence of a client’. See Rule 52(1) RPC (supra). Unfortunately, there is no definition of what amounts to professional fee either by the LPA or the RPC. Professional fees is defined by the Black’s Law Dictionary (supra) as attorney’s fees to mean ‘The charge to a client for services performed for the client, such as an hourly fee, a flat fee, or a contingent fee’. See page 139. However, it is humbly submitted that professional fee is such type of remuneration or compensation which a legal practitioner may receive from his client for the professional services rendered to the client, either by the nature of such services rendered to the client, the existence of an agreement between him and the client relating to the retainership and other statutory considerations which affect fees of legal practitioners generally.

Despite the socioeconomic challenges of lawyers in Nigeria, a number of persons whether indigent or not including relatives or friends of lawyers rendering pro bono would always expect legal services without any pay. I emphasise, the word ‘without any pay’, to include paying any token for such legal services. Such lawyer is expected not to be paid any professional fees; and to use his personal money to do the cases brought to him and to just submit or remit all the benefits accrued to the client whether with ‘thank you’ or no ‘thank you’! Even though such persons were to know that at least, some amounts of money are needed to prosecute the case or take up the complaints, they shy away from their responsibilities. One day, a man reacted at me when someone brought a case or complaints that require my legal services and I asked the person to provide money each time of my appearances. I was not even asking for my legal fees! Then surprisingly, one man asked me ‘are you not a human rights activist?!’ I was shocked to my veins, indeed! I then asked him some few questions that left him dumb when I responded to him that: ‘I am not arguing that I am not a human rights/lawyer activist, but the truth is, does a human rights/lawyer activist not pay house rent?! Does a human rights activist not pay office rent?! Does a human rights/lawyer activist not have family members that he is responsible for?!’. Does a human rights/lawyer activist not entitled to dress and appear well in good dresses in public?! Are people not the ones that will abuse him that his suit is torn and he could not afford to buy a pair of shoes?! He could not answer?! Then I asked that if all these questions are true, then, how will a human rights/lawyer activist achieve those responsibilities without money?! More so, the private legal practice being the only source of income for such lawyer, how will he take care of his responsibilities?! The man was still under his shock! I then asked him that how often do people or philanthropist or a rich man or someone that has money approach a human rights/lawyer activist and offer him some money as an appreciation for taking up causes free of charge as service to humanity?! Such a lawyer will still have to struggle on his own part to help people especially the indigent to render free legal services as service to humanity! I also replied him that it is not a bad decision for the lawyer to opt to bill those who can afford to pay for the legal services to pay for the services. More so, it is the lawyer’s right and a privilege enjoyed by the client. This man could not say word! It was like a lecture class for him that day, while other listeners seated commended my deep thoughts! That was how I was able to rescue myself from the man’s sarcastic remarks. That is why some clients who can afford to pay must be made to pay even if it is token or less commensurate with their capabilities or special relationship with the lawyer. A client had told me that he has no money and has a lot of family problems or challenges, one day. After taking pity on him and agreed to hold his brief, I observed that he bought a Toyota corolla car apart from the one Toyota Highlander that he already has. When discussion took us to the price of the new car, he said its worth was not less than N2,000,000.00 (two million naira) only.  And this is a client that only begged for N5,000.00 (five thousand naira) as appearance fee in a High Court’s matter, without legal fees! One can now understand that some persons rather than being merciful and honest to pay their fees for legal services, they pretend and hide their status by appealing for a no fees legal services! There was also a man that would always want to enjoy legal services by paying no consultation fees and by paying insulting fees that ridicule a lawyer and a lawyer’s status because he knows my achievements as a human and socioeconomic rights activist and would always blackmail me with friendship relationship that we are friends! One day, he informed me that a friend of his (whom I know) has some property that he would like me to manage for him. I was very happy that at least, the fees that I generate from the management would go a long way in my financial help. This man offered to pay me just only 2% of rent paid by each tenant of which one bed room flat is N300,000, which means that 2% is N6,000, a year and the rent will always be paid to the landlord’s account and not to the lawyer’s account! I was so ashamed of myself! I had to refuse such offer and I kept a distance from such relationship of such a man who would only derive value from me and not add any value to me, yet keeps saying that he is my friend! He would have brought the same offer to me to manage his property and that was actually his intention as known to me! So, one can imagine such treatment and deceit!

Furthermore, I always wonder how a lawyer would be able to render free legal services to indigents when those who can afford to pay are very cunning, stingy and would always refuse to pay for their services with due respect o them, whereas, there is no grant from third party or sponsorship of such legal services to equip such lawyer or human rights activist financially?!

Finally, in my humble opinion, it would be very important for government to make provisions for human rights activists or those rendering free legal services to indigent citizens. Also, a lawyer is always entitled to his legal fees and a client is duty-bound to pay all his fees for his desired legal services and he is expected to understand this fact and refusing to undertake such brief of dishonest client whenever the lawyer discovers is a good decision except such client is made to perform his duty of fees to his lawyer, for pro bono legal services is for the benefits of those whose annual income would not afford them to engage the services of a lawyer. Even a relative or friend is to pay for his legal services in order to add value to the lawyer and to show how truthful they are to such lawyer as a good relative and or friend.

Email: hameed_ajibola@yahoo.com

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