By Sokombaa Alolade
Generally in most legal systems, the lawyer/client relationship has long been recognized as a fiduciary relationship. The term ‘fiduciary’ means trust such that in a fiduciary relationship one person (the client) places his or her confidence, good faith, reliance and trust in another (the lawyer), whose advice and expertise is sought in legal matters. Section 24 of Nigeria’s Legal Practitioners Act, CAP 207 LFN 2004 defines a “Legal Practitioner” as “a person entitled in accordance with the Legal Practitioners Act to practice as a barrister and solicitor either generally or for the purpose of any particular office or in essence, an individual may be entitled to practice in any area of the law in any court or he may be entitled to practice only for the purpose of a particular office or for the purpose of a particular proceeding”.
By virtue of the Section 20 of the Legal Practitioners Act, the General Council of the Bar has the authority to create rules for the professional conduct of lawyers. Pursuant to this power, there is the Rules for Professional Conduct (RPC) 2007 which guides the conduct of lawyers in Nigeria. Under the Rules for Professional Conduct, the duties of a lawyer to his/her client are provided for. Below are discussed these duties and the relevant Rules of the RPC that provide for them.
DUTY TO ACCEPT BRIEFS
It is the duty of a lawyer to accept any brief, subject to the payment of or agreement on proper professional fees. His brief could also cover appearance before any the court in which he professes to practice provided the proper professional fee is offered unless there are special circumstances which justify his refusal. This is provided for in Rule 24(1) of the RPC. The duty of counsel as provided under this rule is otherwise called the Cab Rank Rule. This name is derived from the belief that the legal profession is like a Cab Rank where the cab driver is compelled to take whichever passenger boards his vehicle once it is his turn on the rank, regardless of the race or pedigree of the passenger. There are however some exceptions to this rule and they are:
Personal interest: Rule 18(2) states that where a legal practitioner receives instruction on a matter in which he has a personal interest, he has a duty to disclose this fact to the client and leave the client to decide whether or not to continue to retain his services in that particular matter.
Conflict of interest: a legal practitioner must not allow his own interests or the interests of an associate to conflict with those of a client. A legal practitioner generally cannot represent a client if he has previously provided legal advice to the person his client is in dispute with.
Religious ground: a legal practitioner may decline from accepting a brief from a client if the matter at hand is one that conflicts with his religious belief or inclination. Refusal on other grounds apart from the exceptions provided by law may amount to unprofessional conduct.
DUTY TO TAKE INSTRUCTIONS IN CHAMBER
A legal practitioner should always receive brief on matters in his law office and not at the client’s office or home. Special circumstances of illness or infirmity are exceptions recognized by law.
DUTY TO TAKE FULL INSTRUCTIONS
A lawyer must always take full instructions from his client and also obtain complete knowledge of the client’s grounds, as well as ascertain all the facts before advising the client on the course of law to take. During client interview and the process of taking instructions, interruption is advised to be at a minimal level. Linked to this, is the duty to follow client’s instructions. It is the duty of a lawyer to follow all the client’s lawful instructions and he will be held responsible for any loss which may ensue as a result of his disobeying them.
DUTY TO DISCLOSE CONFLICTING INTEREST
Rule 17 of the RPC is one of the predominant rules of reference. The rule requires a lawyer to disclose his interest in the subject of retainer or in connection with any person which might influence the client in the selection of counsel. The rule provides thus:
A lawyer shall, at the time of the retainer, disclose to the client all the circumstances of his relations with parties and any interest in or connection with the controversy which might influence the client in the selection of the lawyer. The case of Ikeme v. Anakwe (2003) 10 NWLR pt. 829 is instructive in this regard.
Except with the consent of his client after full disclosure, a lawyer shall not accept a retainer if the exercise of his professional judgment on behalf of his client will be or may reasonably be affected by his own financial, business, property, or personal interest. See the case of Onyeke v. Harriclem Nig. Ltd 1998 7 NWLR pt. 556
A lawyer shall not acquire a proprietary interest in cause of action or subject matter of litigation which he is conducting for a client, except that he may:
acquire a lien granted by law to secure his fees and expenses; or
contract with a client for a reasonable contingent fee in a civil case.
A lawyer shall not accept a proffered employment if the exercise of his independent professional judgment on behalf of a client will be or is likely to be adversely affected by the acceptance of the proffered employment, or if it is likely to involve him representing differing interests, unless it is obvious that the lawyer can adequately represent the interest of each and consents to the representation after full disclosure of the possible effect of such representation on the exercise of his independent professional judgment on behalf of each party. For instance, a lawyer is not allowed to act against a former client if he obtained confidential information while acting for him. Reference is the case of Onigbongbon Community v. Minister of Lagos Affairs and 31 Ors (1972) 2 U.I.L.R 235
A lawyer shall not appear as counsel for a client in a legal proceeding in which the lawyer is himself a party.
Where a lawyer is required to decline employment or to withdraw from employment under any of these rules, no partner, associate or any other lawyer affiliated with him or his firm may accept or continue such employment. A relevant case here is Anatogu v. Iweke 1995 8 NWLR pt. 415
DUTY TO THOROUGHLY INVESTIGATE AND MARSHAL FACTS AS STATED BY CLIENT
This duty bestows on the legal practitioner the responsibility of interviewing potential witnesses for his client or for the opposing side.
DUTY TO PRESERVE CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION
The legal practitioner has the responsibility of preserving his client’s confidence by not disclosing any confidential information given to him by his client without the client’s knowledge and consent. This is by virtue of Rule 19 of the RPC and section 170 of Nigeria’s Evidence Act Cap EA LFN 2011. The exception to this rule however states that this privilege will not exist when the communication relates to an unlawful transaction.
DUTY TO APPEAR IN LITIGATION ON BEHALF OF THE CLIENT
The lawyer being an advocate has a duty to appear in court for all matters in which his services have been contracted. Rule 21 of the RPC provides for this.
It is a well known saying that lawyers are officers in the temple of justice and so all legal practitioners must to their utmost best uphold equity and justice by not shelving their duties but ensuring that they assiduously and diligently deliver in carrying out these duties.