By Akorede Habeeb Lawal
One point of agreement amongst members of the Nigerian Bar Association is the need to pay the annual practicing fee. It is an agreement rooted in a long practice and which door of choice has been closed by the relevant provisions of the Legal Practitioners Act and the Rules of Professional Conduct which mandate the payment of practicing fee. Laws close doors, but often leave some windows open to allow some air of changes and dynamism which often lead to disagreement and disputes. The constant resolution of these disputes is one reason responsible for the development of the law.
It is therefore heartwarming to note that the disagreements within the Bar on the amount payable as practicing fees for lawyers of certain call years and the computation of call or post call year is nearing judicial resolution. Kudos is due to the Plaintiff before the Federal High Court in Suit No FHC/ABJ/CS/925/2018 – Mr. Olumide Babalola, the Supreme Court Chief Registrar and of course, the President of the Nigerian Bar Association who showed courageous leadership by issuing a cautious direction on 4th of January, 2019.
It has to be said that this is arguably the first time that the leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association will be lending its voice to this controversial issue. Keeping quiet would have been an easy choice as there is a readymade excuse of “we cannot say anything, the case is in court”, but that has not been the manner of operation of this present bar headship. And this is why it is unfair of some commentators to state that “the NBA only speaks up when it’s time to collect members’ due”, but not this present NBA. The Paul Usoro leadership has spoken against the harassment of lawyers, it has condemned the killings and kidnaps of counsel and judicial officers, and it has been praised for its truthful report on Osun gubernatorial election amongst other vocal interventions. Therefore, the NBA President’s address on the practicing fee is not only the needful but the usual.
The NBA President’s direction which explains by way of illustration that a lawyer called in November, 2018 will by January, 2019 be two years at the Bar generated quite some interesting perspectives. Some lawyers posited that a new wig called in late 2018 will only be some few months at the Bar in January, 2019 and he or she will not be one year at the bar until the next legal year in 2019 while others called for the cancellation of practicing fees for new wigs in their call year altogether.
It is important that members appreciate the President’s illustration from the background that though the Nigerian Bar Association is the bigger beneficiary of her members’ practicing fee (the Body of Benchers being the other beneficiary by virtue of the Legal Practitioners Act), the association does not set when and what to pay as the practicing fee and neither does it collect the practicing fees, as those responsibilities are statutorily that of the General Council of the Bar headed by the Attorney General of the Federation and the Supreme Court Chief Registrar respectively.
The Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court as the fee collector has stated on oath that a lawyer is one year at the bar upon the payment of his first ever practicing fee. The General Council of Bar which determines when to pay that first ever practicing fees and indeed all other practicing fees has by virtue of Rule 9 of the Rules of professional Conduct stated “in the case of lawyers who are enrolled during the year, the fees shall be paid within one month of the enrolment.” That same lawyer who upon the payment of his or her first practicing fee is already one year at the bar, by virtue of the same Rule is expected to pay his or her next practicing fee before 31st of March of the year after his or her enrolment and upon that second payment, he or she becomes two years at the bar and by the time the lawyer pays the third practicing fee, he or she is a three year old lawyer.
Perhaps this computation will put paid to the confusion of some borderline colleagues who are within the thresholds of 5 years, 10 years and 15 years post call as to the amount to pay as practicing fees. Going by this extant computation, a lawyer called in 2010 will be 10 years at the bar in 2019 and the one called in 2015 is 5 years at the bar this year and not 4 years. It is therefore hoped that the Chief Registrar of the apex court will advise her bankers to amend the customized practicing fee tellers which presently recognizes “Zero year post-call”, even as online payment platform of the Nigerian Bar Association upon activation will automatically address any doubt a lawyer may have as to due amount to be paid as practicing fee.
It has been argued in some quarters that the computation above is illogical, but it is what it is, and what this means is that call age is not the same as birth age and the calculation of post call year is not determined by the everyday arithmetic but by the number of a lawyer’s practicing fee receipts. What is more? This computation is also lawful, except the court eventually holds otherwise. The question as to what the NBA will do if the court deems the above computation incorrect commanded a “promise of justice” by the NBA President to all lawyers who overpay.
There is every reason to believe that a reasonable percentage of lawyers will have no problem with celebrating an additional year at the bar upon payment of every practicing fee. The loudest and justifiable grievance however is the unfair system that forbids and does not permit access to some professional privileges in line with this computation. For instance, a lawyer called in 2010, who by 2019 has paid practicing fees on ten occasions and who by the calculation of the Supreme Court Registrar and the NBA President is a ten year old lawyer, will be deemed unqualified to apply as a Judge of any superior court or as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria or contest some elective positions within the Nigerian Bar Association, because for the purpose of these professional opportunities and many other benefits which mostly accrue to lawyers of 10 years and above, the system deems such lawyer called in 2010 as a nine year old lawyer. This is wrong.
A lawyer should not be ten years for the purpose of payment and nine years for the purpose of enjoying the benefits of payment. It is pertinent to note that this practice has been with us for decades because previous Bar leaderships refused to take a stance on this issue and many senior lawyers who had at a certain point been victims of this practice have failed to look back at others behind them the moment they escaped the threshold, and this is another reason Mr. Olumide Babalola deserves the appreciation of the entirety of the Bar for taking out a summons on this issue.
With the resolution of this issue in sight, the take away from this situation is that victims will no longer be counted, as members of the Bar are urged to follow the advice of the NBA President by paying their practicing fees bearing in mind the stance of the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court. The next beneficiaries of this extant computation should also have a lot to hang on to in reaping the benefits of their payments in accordance with the computation by the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court – if the court decision is not ready as a binding tool, the statement of the NBA President will be binding on any bar benefits and persuasive for professional privileges that are not within the NBA’s hold.