By Alex Enumah in Abuja
The Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) lacks the locus standi to meddle in client and lawyer contractual relationship, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has said.
In a communique issued yesterday at the end of NBA’s National Executive Council (NEC) meeting held in Abuja, the association insisted that the fees that are paid by a client to his lawyer are not only a matter of privilege but also contractual.
Briefing journalists yesterday, the NBA President, Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN), said the NEC deliberated on, and adopted as its resolution, a report he forwarded to the EFCC in respect of criminal charges filed against him by the federal government.
Copies of the communiqué and Usoro’s report were made available to journalists yesterday.
Usoro spoke against the background of his impending arraignment today in a Federal High Court in Lagos, over N1.4 billion money laundering allegations levelled against him by the EFCC.
The sum was alleged to have been received from the Akwa Ibom State Government.
The NBA noted in the communique that Usoro was investigated by the EFCC based on a bank’s N300 million inflow into his law firm’s account on March 14, 2016.
Usoro also said he was investigated based on the subsequent outflows from the account to various senior counsel between March 22 and 23, 2016.
The NBA NEC observed that the inflow was payment by Governor Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State in respect of an Election Petition Appeal that was determined by the Supreme Court, for which Usoro served as the coordinating counsel.
The NBA said it observed that the EFCC appeared to be straining hard to criminalise the fees that were earned by the lawyers for their legitimate work.
It said, “Usoro’s case is not the first of these intrusions. We all recall the case of Mike Ozekhome (SAN) when the EFCC attempted to forfeit his fees on the pretext that the funds came from illegal sources.
“If these EFCC incursions are not checked, the Bar and the practice of our profession are doomed.”
According to the NBA, the practice of law is founded on the independence of the legal practitioner and his courage to advocate on behalf of his client to the best of his ability and conviction.
“That independence and the courage of the advocate are now being threatened and trampled upon by the EFCC.
“Lawyers now have to work and walk on tip-toe, looking over their shoulders to determine whether the EFCC would be coming after them solely on account of their courage and independence in advocacy.
“That does not bode well for the profession or for legal practice generally.”
The association held that client, lawyer privilege had judicially and historically acknowledged that issues of fees, as between a lawyer and his client, were a matter of privilege.
According to the NBA, “The recent decision of the Court of Appeal that was delivered on June 14, 2017 between Central Bank of Nigeria v Registered Trustees of the NBA affirmed this position.
“By questioning lawyers on the legitimate fees that they have earned from clients, the EFCC is breaching the lawyer-client privilege and showing complete disregard for the judgments of the courts in this regard.
“As we all know, non-parties to a contract are complete strangers thereto and lack the locus standi to question and/or determine the propriety of such contract(s).
“The EFCC stands in that position in this and other matters of this nature; it lacks the locus standi to question the basis for the fees.”
On the 2019 general elections, NBA averred that several actions of government and its agencies continued to threaten and undermine the rule of law in the country and must be resisted.
It said, “As we approach the general elections in 2019, vigilance must be our watchword as there are already signs of storms in our horizon.
” It behoves on us as lawyers and the conscience of society to be vigilant, vocal and remain on the vanguard of fighting for free, fair and credible elections where the will of our people will not be subverted.
“The votes of our people must count, and their will must not be sabotaged or subverted, and this applies to all the levels of polls – presidential, gubernatorial, National and State Houses of Assembly.”
The NBA also condemned in the rampant killings of lawyers in the country, attacks on court premises, spate of kidnappings, menace of herdsmen, and other forms of criminalities across the country.
The umbrella body of all lawyers in Nigeria called on the federal government to be more proactive in addressing the hydra headed challenge of insecurity in the country.