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OPINION: The Pros, Cons and Challenges of Establishing and Enforcing A Scale of Charges for Legal Services in Nigeria

The failure of many law firms to generate revenue through its legal services constitutes the root of this problem.

By Joel Eghosa Ighalo

It is quite an undisputed fact that one of the challenges, which beset the legal profession in Nigeria, is the inadequate welfare incentives for lawyers. This problem presents the practice of law in Nigeria as an uninviting and less lucrative prospect for a young lawyer desirous of a thriving career in the profession. The failure of many law firms to generate revenue through its legal services constitutes the root of this problem. Arguably, if there were a scale of charges that regulated lawyer’s remuneration for services and commanded the strict compliance of members of the profession, it would ensure that members of staff in law firms get a better deal. This essay seeks to explore the pros, cons and challenges of establishing and enforcing a scale of charges for legal services in Nigeria.

The scale of charges regarding real estate’s transactions                            

The concept of the scale of charges is not novel to the legal profession in Nigeria. The Legal Practitioners Act[1] provides for the creation of the Legal Practitioners Remuneration Committee. It consists of the Attorney-General of the Federation who also acts as the Chairman, the Attorneys-General of the States, the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and three other members of the Association.[2] Section 15(3) of the Legal Practitioners Act empowers the Legal Practitioners Remuneration Committee to make orders regulating generally the charges of legal practitioners. The section also accords the Committee the power to regulate the maximum charges, which may be made in respect of any transaction or activity of a description specified by the order.[3]

Furthermore, the section also accords the Committee the power to ascertain the charges appropriate for any transaction.[4] Against the background of the enabling provisions of the Legal Practitioners Act, the Legal Practitioners (Remuneration for Legal Documentation and other Land Matters) Order was enacted. It prescribes the scale of charges for sale or purchase of land and mortgage transactions, lease or agreement to lease at a rent, and other legal documentation.[5] This framework exists for the benefit of the lawyer to guide him in billing a client regarding land matters. However, it is noteworthy that the scale of charges applies to services exclusive of filing of processes and representation in Court. A school of thought posits that regulating fees chargeable for services such as courtroom advocacy will be difficult because one cannot determine the number of services rendered.[6]

The advantages of the enforcement of scale of charges

Predictably, the establishment and enforcement of a scale of charges will enforce a uniform range of prices for legal services in Nigeria. It is evident from the example provided by workers in the informal sector. In a township where there are barber’s shops or automobile repair shops doing business, one is likely to find out that the prices for services rendered appear the same within that locality. It is because there is a vibrant enforcement mechanism afforded by the Association to which these artisans belong, which ensures that they do not charge below or beyond the threshold of prices. Similarly, a scale of charges will provide guidance and clarity against the lawyer’s dilemma of issuing bills of cost.

Furthermore, with the enforcement of the scale of charges, the probability of a client preferring the services of a lawyer to another because of the former’s fees, will be greatly diminished if not, non-existent. It will ultimately check the unfavourable practice of some lawyers who offer ridiculous prices, below the benchmark, to clients in a bid to retain or poach them from lawyers that charge reasonably well. The establishment of the scale of charges will also strengthen the government’s ability to formulate tax rates for law firms in Nigeria. It will help the government to generate revenue from the non-energy sectors of the economy.

As regards lawyers-client relationship, there exist a prejudice among some clients that lawyers who do not charge a huge amount of money for their services, may not be capable or are professionals who offer substandard services. The existence of the scale of charges would assure such a client that the bill of cost issued by his lawyer is in tandem with the uniform range of prices, all over the country. It would also engender healthy competition among law firms. Given the fact that law firms charge based on a scale, which ensures uniformity, law firms will be motivated to distinguish themselves based on the quality of services in a bid to attract clients. Consequently, all hands will be on deck towards attaining excellence regarding the provision of legal services.

The disadvantages and the challenges of scale of charges

Although the establishment and the enforcement of the scale of charges will be advantageous to the legal practice, it is bound to be fraught with certain limitations. Firstly, the services rendered by law firms are of such an incorporeal nature that it may be quite difficult to determine the amount or the value of services rendered. Top tier law firms have solved this problem by charging by adopting an hourly rate fee. Therefore, it will be difficult for such law firms to adopt a scale of charge that regulates the price for services. It is because the price rates established by the scale of charges may not necessarily reflect the quantum of time, energy and resources committed to executing a client’s instructions.

Furthermore, the preceding argument also buttresses the fact that the size and structure of a firm will determine the enforcement of a scale of charge. In the top tier law firms, there exists a division of labour, and as such, several employees may work on a client’s brief. The cost of these firms in doing business will be high. It is not the case for relatively small law offices e.g. a Sole Proprietorship, Associateship etc. It means that that the top tier law firms may not be able to recoup their overhead cost from the prices they would be favourably disposed to charge. Overhead cost, in this context, refers to expenses associated with running the law firm that is unconnected with creating legal services.

Another drawback to the enforcement of a scale of charge lies in its inflexibility. The scale of charges might not be so easy to change having regard to the prevalent economic conditions such as inflation and the devaluation of the currency. A prominent example is the Legal Practitioners (Remuneration for Legal Documentation and other Land Matters) Order, which has been in force and have remained unchanged since August 15, 1991.

The geographical location of a law firm also plays a part in determining the success in enforcing the scale of charges. Law firms in commercial hubs like Lagos and Port Harcourt are exposed to a robust clientele, which can afford their services. Its customers represent industries and prominent stakeholders in the various sectors in the economy. In contradistinction to law offices situated in areas such as Zungeru or Damaturu, the clients, which represents less formidable strata of the society, may not be able to afford the prices put forward by the scale of charges. This, therefore, means that the practice of some lawyers charging ridiculous prices to attract clients may continue. These factors militate against the establishment and enforcement of a scale of charge for legal services in Nigeria.

Conclusion   

The enforcement and establishment of the scale of charges will usher in its peculiar challenges; however, these challenges are not insurmountable. With proper planning and execution, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and all other relevant bodies should be able to create a scale of charges, which cater to the expectations of legal practitioners in Nigeria.

Joel Eghosa Ighalo is a legal practitioner who works in the Dispute Resolution Practice Group of Jurislaw, a top tier law firm in Ikoyi. He writes from Lekki.


[1] Cap. L11, Volume 7, L.F.N. 2010

[2] Section 15(1)

[3] Section 15(3)(a)

[4] Section 15(3)(b)

[5] The scale of charges consists of three scales. The Scale-I deal with the sale or purchase of land and mortgage transactions. Scale-II deals with the lease or agreement to lease at a rent and Scale-III accommodates other legal documentation not provided for in Scale-II and I.

[6] Ngozi A. Chioke, Professional Ethics and Skills in Law Practice, Pg. 195, 2016.

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