A new controversy erupted on the legal landscape recently with the publication of a new regime of practising fees for lawyers. The new rate of practising fees which is payable from 2013 thenceforth introduced 250 per cent increment compared to the fees paid in recent years.
Practising fees are payable every year by every lawyer duly called to the bar and who is engaged in any form of legal practice. The accumulated funds are employed by the Nigerian Bar Association to finance all its numerous projects. Some of these projects include ranch capacity building; professionalisation initiatives of the NBA Secretariat; human capacity building at national branches level; institutional synergy with regional and international organisations; human rights programme; anti-corruption crusade and other initiative aimed at uplifting the legal professional standards.
The first major controversy on the issue of fees started last year when the NBA increased the fees for the 2012 Annual General Conference of the association by 500 per cent. Many lawyers were prevented from registering as a result of the phenomenal hike. This drew ire of a section of legal practitioners some of whom organised protests during the association’s annual conference in Abuja. The aggrieved lawyers barricaded the gate the entrance to the venue and prevented members of the organisers and some top NBA officials from entering the conference hall. Those locked out as a result of the protests included the NBA third Vice-President, Dr. Ogugua Ikpeze; the Chairman of Council, National Human Rights Commission, Prof. Chidi Odinkalu and the General Secretary, Mr. Muyiwa Akinboro. They also momentarily prevented those inside the hall from coming out. As the dust of dispute over the conference fees of last year AGC started to settle down.
The waves of controversies on the practising fees began when the General Council of the Bar proposed a 500 per cent increment to be made effective from 2013. There was a sustained outcry against this proposal as a result of which the then new President of the association, Oke Wali, SAN, intervened and negotiated it downward by reducing the proposed fees by 50 percent. Thus the present rate which represents 250 per cent increment over the old rate was accepted and has now been announced by the leadership of The NBA as the fees for 2013. The new practising fees are as follows: Senior Advocates of Nigeria members of the Body of Benchers –N50, 000; Members who 15 years and above –N25, 000; 10 years and above but less than 15 years – N17,500; five years but less than 10 years – N10,000; those who are less than five years at the Bar N5000.
When the controversy raged, a group of dissatisfied lawyers, led by a former General Secretary of the Lagos branch of the NBA, Mr. Seth Amaefule, filed a suit against the NBA at the Federal High Court, Lagos seeking for an order setting aside the new schedule of fees. They are also asking for the following orders. “That the powers to fix the Bar practicing fees rest with the Attorney General of the Federation in consultation with the bar; That the defendants ought to table the proposed review before the members of the Association in a general meeting.; A declaration that the president of the NBA is negligent in his duty to protect the interest of members of the NBA from such overbearing imposition; A declaration that the General Council of the Bar lacks the powers to fix the practicing fees of Lawyers and an order setting aside the gazette increment.
The case has not been determined. When interviewed, he NBA President , Wali , said, “Let me seize this opportunity to speak to my dear colleagues on increased practising fees regime. What we paid before now was as fixed by the General Council of the Bar in 2002. “The Nigerian Bar Association of today is not the Nigerian Bar Association of yester years, and practicing fees constitute the main source of income for our dear Association of over 80,000 lawyers. And so sometime last year the General Council of the Bar increased the practising fees but following protests by our colleagues, National Executive Committee in Lokoja sometime in May, 2012, mandated the immediate past president to request a reduction of what was approved by the General Council of the Bar by 50%. Of course it was an election issue and I promised my colleagues that I will ensure that the General Council of the Bar to respect the views of the Nigerian Bar Association. “The Campaign promise I have successfully delivered.
What we have now is the 50% reduction as requested by the Nigerian Bar Association, so we expect commendation. It is important that we explain this to our colleagues; we must thank you for your understanding. Chairmen of branches are expected to ensure compliance by their membership, as we are determined to satisfy our commitment to the Branches. Payment of practicing fees will definitely come with concomitant services to members of the Nigerian Bar Association, while showing the strength of the branches.” A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Lawal Pedro, was of the opinion that the present fees rate is not abnormally high. H e said “I think It is an encouragement, it is reduced 50% from what was introduced last time, the reduction is a good one.
However, the NBA should think outside the box and look for another way of generating fund to run the association than tasking the bar members especially the young lawyers. If they ask the senior lawyers to pay more practice fees because they earn more at their practice, it is justifiable but the young lawyers are just coming up, they should not be overburdened with such heavy fees.” Another SAN, Mr. Niyi Akintola said “The Nigerian Bar Association has reviewed the practicing fees and thereafter reduced it to more reasonable fees.
Of course you should know that we need money to run the association, what is however important to note is that I am not comfortable with the idea of our professional bodies going cap in hand to meet government officials for certain financial aid. I mean some of our boys have turned bar activism to a profession which should is not ideal and that was the point I was making. “Chief Gani Fawehinmi stressed that point so much for us that we must have a sustainable means of livelihood alongside with activism but if you depend on bar activism or any other activism for survival, you will run dry. “For me every organisation is like pyramid, the pyramid starts with some people and as you climb up, the opportunities become narrow and narrow and smaller and smaller and before you know it some people will drop.
So, if you are not hardworking, if you don’t work to pay yourself, you are not likely to get anywhere, so people must have physical means of livelihood and that was what Gani Fawehinmi stood for . “He was very hardworking and handles thousand of cases yearly and yet was a great activist, he was never poor, with his hard work, he was able for make provision for the future even decades after his demise. We should all learn from him, he demonstrated leadership in all aspects of the bar. Like someone once said be hardworking and with luck on your side, all other thing shall be added.” Speaking in contrary vein, a Lagos-based lawyer and human rights activist, Bamidele Aturu, said “I completely agree that the new practicing fees is unreasonably high, irresponsibly high, indefensibly high, immorally high, and insensitively high. In other words how do you go increasing fees without critically assessing people and present economic situation? Because you just feel you want more money, how do you justify the fees particularly in a country many people who are lawyers are finding difficult to feed their families, in an economy that is already depressed, compressed and repressed? I think there is no way you can justify the hike in practicing fees, I think it is indefensible, oppressive and cannot be justified. I think it is oppression because when some people have the right to make certain decisions, they just make decision without due regard to reality.
This is totally callous.” A lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos, Dr. Sanni Abiola, shared the following view: “Nobody complained when the fees seemed to be ridiculously low. Even then, what percentage of members was paying the fees then? I think, NBA is seeking to boost its internally generated revenue which is legitimate. I will advise that future increments should be gradual within and at regular interval say between 3-5 years to account for inflation. In future, we should avoid increasing by 200 percent or more. Efforts should also be made to carry along majority of members who may not be active” The Chairman of the Ikeja branch of the NBA, Mr. Monday Ubani, said “My position on the new practising fees issue is that it is very high and since the NEC has given approval to it, we have resolved in Ikeja NBA to go ahead and pay the fees. Initially we fought them about the fees and recommend it should be reduce and it was done.
“The bar members are of the view that people must begin to feel the impact of the association at the national level. Our interest must be taken into account; the issue of welfare of lawyers must be taken into account. When we come for NBA conference, we want to have quality conferences having paid that huge amount of money .There must be a corresponding responsibility with the fees paid by lawyers. So in Ikeja, we are paying the fees.” The Chairman of the Lagos branch of the NBA, Mr Taiwo Taiwo, aligned himself with the position expressed by Wali, stressing that the reasons given for the increment are convincing and that there is no reason why lawyers should not pay the fees.
A Lagos-based lawyer, Mr. Robinson O. Ogundeji, who had condemned the increase in the annual conference fees last year, was critical of the new practising fees schedule. He said “The NBA leadership has kept to its unilateral ways of making decisions. You would recall that it increased the conference fees by 500 per cent at the last year conference which prevented many lawyers from attending the conference. Even though I could afford the fees then, I decided not to attend in protest on behalf of many lawyers who cannot attend. Now it has increased the practising fees by 250 per cent. I don’t think there is justification for this high rate of increment. Has inflation in Nigeria gone up by 250 per cent between last year and now? If there is any need for increment, I don’t think it should have been more than 50 per cent increase at most.”