The Pros, Cons And Challenges of Establishing And Enforcing A Scale of Charges for Legal Services in Nigeria
It was Oscar Wilde who said that “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing”. This feels prophetic but even worse than he had postulated, especially in the business of providing legal services. The reality is that nowadays most people in Nigeria know the price of nothing and perhaps also, the value of nothing while quantifying the consideration for legal services rendered in Nigeria. “What has the lawyer done to earn such humongous fee?” has become the mantra. The lawyer is forever inundated with the uphill task of making his client see the intangible services he has rendered and how without them the client would have been put to greater expense or lesser advantage. Indeed the dexterity that comes with such successful explanation is not possess by all lawyers. While this underscores the importance of having a scale of charge to regulate fees for legal service, it is even more important in the quest of robing the legal profession in her hitherto noble regalia. We must therefore appraise what a scale of charge is, the advantages, disadvantages and challenges of enforcing such for legal services in Nigeria.
As with all legal terminology, “Scale of Charge” has defied a mechanical and universally acceptable definition. Translegal considers it to be “a list showing the different prices that must be paid, especially for various services offered while Longman only defined ‘scale Fee’ as a way of charging for legal work based on a standard scale, rather than based on the amount of work done.
HISTORICAL APPRAISAL OF SCALE OF CHARGES FOR LEGAL SERVICES AND OUR EXTANT LAWS
One of the few attempts at regulating the scale for legal services in Nigeria is Section 15(1) of the Legal Practitioners’ Act of 1975 (the LPA) which established the Legal Practitioners Remuneration Committee (the LPRC) and by Section 15(3) of same act, grant the LPRC the power to make order regulating generally the charges of Legal Practitioners in certain areas.
It was pursuant to said S. 15(3) of the LPA that only the Legal Practitioners (Remuneration for Legal Documentation and other Land Matters) Order 1991 (the 1991 Order) was made, and provides a guideline only for remuneration in respect of legal documentation (solicitorship) and other land related matters. The LPA merely specified the powers of the LPRC, no enforcement mechanism or body was established to enforce the powers vested on the LPRC, hence making the provisions of the 1991 Order merely a guideline for fee-scaling some aspects of legal services in Nigeria.
A more tidy and holistic effort at regulating the scale for legal service is seen at Rules 48 to 54 of the Rules of Professional Conduct 2007 hereinafter referred to as (the RPC). Rule 48 (1) of the RPC in the attempt to regulate the fees for legal services ends up making general and vague recommendation that a lawyer is entitled to “adequate remuneration for his services”. Respectfully, the word “adequate” is relative and open to different interpretations. And though Rule 52 of the RPC further provides that “the professional fees charged by a lawyer for his services shall be reasonable and commensurate with the services rendered; and accordingly the lawyer shall not charge fee which are excessive or too low”, what is ‘reasonable and commensurate’ is a measure of one’s subjectivity nonetheless. The RPC, being a subsidiary legislation itself and not a penal law[i] under which a defaulter can be charged and convicted in a regular court, keeps making admonitions rather than provide a mandatory scale of charges.[ii]
ADVANTAGES OF ENFORCING A SCALE OF CHARGES FOR LEGAL SERVICES IN NIGERIA.
Interestingly, enforcing a scale of charge is a double-edged sword that protects the interest of the lawyers on the one hand, and the clients’ on the other hand. Some lawyers are guilty of overcharging clients, and even more for undercharging clients. A scale of charge will ensure neither party is exploited.
In the same vein, a uniform scale will ensure better remuneration for legal services and largely help in regulating the legal profession; and provide value for intangible services. In fact, using the United Kingdom as a case-study, solicitors are subject to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) Price Transparency Rules. Firms are also required to publish price and service information on their websites for certain areas of practice.[iii] Implementing this structure will help prevent price hike and backstabbing from other members of the profession who in an effort to attract more clients sell themselves short, and offer legal services for paltry sums.
DISADVANTAGES AND CHALLENGES OF ENFORCING A SCALE OF CHARGES FOR LEGAL SERVICES IN NIGERIA
The Greek philosopher Confucius once said that “the gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials”. I dare say neither can a Scale of Charges be established without its shortcomings nor enforced without challenges.
It is not only herculean to adequately access the quality and quantum of legal services rendered, but even harder to appropriately monetize the value of legal services. There is the possibility of undervaluing or overvaluing the legal services and in whichever case, a party is being exploited. Besides, Rule 52(1) of the R.PC has provided that it is unlawful for a legal practitioner to overcharge or even undercharge his legal Services. The RPC does not lay down the exact amount a Legal Practitioner must charge a client but guides as to how to go about it.[iv]
Moreso, taking into consideration the time, skill and labour; the novelty and difficulty of the problem to be solved and other incidental factors required to garner the expertise and know-how each case demands, enforcing same scale of charge for legal services may be rigid and unequitable. If the time, effort and money invested are different, why then should the same scale of charge be enforced on all? Also, if a client cannot afford the fees on the scale of charges, they will be shut from accessing legal services and justice may further become a mirage for the indigent.
It may also be argued that since clients do not possess the same degree of wealth, enforcing the same scale of charges on them will be unfair and inequitable. A more equitable thing to do should be each client paying proportional to the degree of wealth they possess. Even then this argument is not without its flaws, for instance who quantifies the wealth of each client possesses and how? The answer to these questions for some practicing lawyers, is a case of intuition not backed by empirical evidence; and sometimes based on the disposition, charisma and appearance of the clients.
Local firms may be at a disadvantage when dealing with international clients since they will be restricted to charging within the scale. However, this anomaly can be remedied by incorporating different and separate fees for international clients on the scale of charges.
It will be detrimental to lawyers and clients to bill for fees using same scale when there is a difference or disparity in location, standard of living and incidental cost for each legal services. For instance, the cost of effecting a search, registering and perfecting a document on land in Lagos will be costlier compared to Zamfara State or Ondo State. Providing a structure of scales charges, partitioned according to Geo-political zones, standard of living and other related factors, will help achieve an equitable scale of charge.
THE WAY FORWARD
Edward Counsel, a philosopher, once said “Laws change as the seasons” and so should our laws. The LPA should be amended to allow for a regulatory and enforcement unit saddled with enforcing whatever schedule of scale of charge for legal practitioners will be incorporated into the Act and mandating a Bill of Charge be sent in strict compliance with the Schedule of Fees annexed to the LPA. It is not enough to merely stipulate the powers of the LPRC as was done in see Section 15(3) of the LPA, intentional efforts must be made at corresponding punitive measures for contravention of the Scale of Charge.
The RPC can further define what is “reasonable and commensurate”[v] and mandate that all firms publish price and service information on their websites for certain legal services.
Hassan Sherif, Esq.
Hassan Sherif is a legal practitioner based in Abuja and called to the Nigerian Bar in 2019. He is a consummate reader with a flair for writing. He has interest in emerging areas of law, to wit; Artificial Intelligence, Space Law, Crypto Currency Laws and general litigation amongst others.
Mr. Hassan Sherif bagged a Diploma in Law (Distinction) and Law Degree from the prestigious Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria with top grades. He further proceeded to the Nigerian Law School, Yenagoa Chapter, from where he earned a BL (Second Class Upper).
[i] Nwobike v. FRN (2019) LPELR – 49244(CA).
[ii] The court has made pronouncement on this point in Ukah & Ors V. Onyia & Ors (2016) LPELR – 40025 (CA) per Ogunwumiju, JCA at page 22[iii] The Law Society. (n.d.) Paying for a Solicitor. Retrived 23rd November 2020, from www.lawsociety.org.uk|en|public|for-public-visitors|using-a-solictor/paying-for-a-solicitor
[iv] See Rule 52(1) and (2) the Rules of Professional Conduct 2007
[v] Rule 48, of the Rules of Professional Conduct, 2007
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