RPC regulates lawyer’s conduct, not law firm, court hold
The National Industrial Court of Nigeria, Port Harcourt Division has held that the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners in Nigeria (RPC) 2007, regulates individual lawyer’s conduct, not the law firm.
Justice Nelson Ogbuanya held that by virtue of the combined effect of Sections 2(1) and 24 of the Legal Practitioners Act, a law firm not being a legal practitioner, cannot come within the purview of the RPC for the purposes of regulating lawyer’s conduct in legal practice.
The judge gave the ruling on June 15, 2022 in Suit NICN /PHC/120/2021, (Mr. Wilson Udo Essien v. Unitech Drilling Company Ltd).
He handed down the decision while delivering ruling on Preliminary Objection filed by Wilcox Abereton SAN.
Abereton was challenging appearance of lawyers from the Zenith Law Firm, on the ground that the firm’s lawyers could not be allowed to appear in court to represent the firm whereas the two partners in the firm, (Christopher and Bassey), were salaried directors of the Defendant Company sued by its erstwhile Managing Director.
He anchored his objection on Rule 8 of the RPC, which restricts appearance of lawyers in salaried employment and company directors on behalf of their employer/company.
Abereton argued that even if the affected partners do not physically appear as counsel in court or sign the court processes, the entire lawyers are affected as the law firm has been tainted by breach of the rules by the partners of the law firm who have been confirmed to be salaried directors of the Defendant Company.
He further submitted that since the Directors are the same persons running the law firm, “whatever taints them by the RPC applies to their law firm, including whoever they would appoint to represent them in court for the company where they are paid Directors”.
Opposing him, Defence counsel G.Agi, Esq, contended that the provisions of Rule 8 of the RPC was not breached, as long as the said partners of the law firm, who were salaried directors of the Defendant company, neither franked the court processes filed in court nor appeared physically in court for the Defendant company.
And as such, the lawyers who filed the defence processes and appeared in court from the law firm should not be prevented from carrying out their legal practice in the law firm.
In his ruling, Justice Ogbuanya, while agreeing that both partners of the law firm could not appear in court or frank court processes, rather held that the act of the law firm’s partners being salaried directors would not prevent the other lawyers in their law firm from plying their trade and representing the Defendant company in court.
Dismissing the objection, the court held that: “Although individual legal practitioners can aggregate as a law firm, yet they are imbued with individual responsibility under the RPC, which is never collective within the legal regime of law practice in Nigeria. I so hold.