HOW LPDC “PERVERSELY” BREACHED THE FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS OF A LAWYER SOUGHT TO BE DEROBED

The Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC) is the body charged with the responsibility to hear and determine allegations of professional misconduct against any legal practitioner in Nigeria.

Although the LPDC is not a regular court, it however ranks as a “court” in the sense that an appeal can be lodged against its decision; and it is interesting to note that such appeal can be made straight to the Supreme Court. Of course, there is no need to emphasise that the LDPC has no business with members of the public except to treat their complaints against lawyers only.

Being a special body with the power to even recommend an abrupt end to the career of a lawyer, the membership of the LPDC is drawn from legal luminaries in the Bar and the Bench (selected lawyers and Judges/Justices). Thus, one would naturally expect the highest level of professionalism and adherence to established basic principles in their dealings.

Surprisingly, in a recent case, some members of the LPDC were rotating themselves as if on a “roller-coaster” until a decision was reached. The Supreme Court considered the style of proceeding adopted as “perverse.” This was in the case of Waziri v. LPDC [2021] 13 NWLR (Pt. 1793) 368.

The story

A legal practitioner, Mamman Waziri Esq., was dragged to the LPDC on allegations of professional misconduct in his management of his client’s property. The LPDC heard the case, found Mr. Waziri guilty and directed the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court to strike out his name from the roll of legal practitioners. (That would mean end of the road for Mr. Waziri as a lawyer).

The decision was reached on 22 May 2017 by members of the LPDC comprising J.B. Daudu, SAN (Chairman), Hon. Justice Umukoro CJ (former Chief Judge, Delta State), Hon. Justice P. D. Damulak CJ (former Chief Judge, Plateau State), Yusuf Ali, SAN, E. C. Ukala, SAN, and Tijani Inuwa-Dutse.

Mr. Waziri challenged the decision of the LPDC to the Supreme Court on the grounds of lack of fair hearing and succeeded. His argument was that the LPDC juggled the membership of the panel that tried him every inch of the way at the various proceedings.

The height of it was that the variation in the membership of the Committee was such that out of the six members listed above who delivered the decision, only two (Daudu, SAN and Umukoro, CJ) were consistent during the hearing. The other four (Damulak, CJ, Yusuf Ali, SAN, Ukala, SAN, and Inuwa-Dutse) did not see and hear all the witnesses in the case. Yet, they joined the panel that delivered the decision.

As a matter of fact, other members of the LPDC that took turns to participate at various intervals during the hearing include: Dyeris-Sijuade, Amechi, SAN, Aguma, SAN, Galinje, PJCA (as he then was), and Bulkachuwa, PCA (as she then was).

Supreme Court intervenes

On 18 June 2021, after a review of the authorities, the Supreme Court had no difficulty quashing the decision of the LPDC for lack of fair hearing.

Eko, JSC held:

The Appellant’s right to fair hearing was denied and/or compromised. It was perverse of the LPDC to have allowed members who did not hear all the evidence or part of the evidence to participate in the taking of the decision, culminating in the direction that was predicated on the credibility of the totality of the evidence.

The LPDC and the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) (1st and 2nd Respondents) had argued through their Counsel that the LPDC is a tribunal and not a regular court and so is an administrative body with power to do as it likes as far as setting the rules and procedure for disciplining lawyers is concerned.

Curiously, this argument was tabled even in the face of earlier Supreme Court’s decisions to the contrary in other cases like the most recent one – Gbenoba v. LPDC [2021] 6 NWLR (Pt. 1773) 499. It is unethical for counsel to make submissions that run contrary to current position of the law.

The Supreme Court commendably dismissed the arguments of LPDC and the NBA. Mary Peter-Odili, JSC held that “The principles of fair hearing cannot be glossed over or infringed upon” on the basis that the LPDC is not a regular court.

The Court was right.

Conclusion

The apex Court consequently remitted the matter for a fresh hearing by a different panel. This means that the breach of Mr. Waziri’s right to fair hearing doesn’t translate to an automatic end to the case.

It is hoped that the LPDC will comply with the above decision in piloting its affairs in the future.



Stephen Azubuike
Author: Stephen Azubuike
Stephen is a lawyer with expertise in Commercial Dispute Resolution and Technology Law practice. He is a Partner at Infusion Lawyers. He has successfully argued cases from the High Courts of various jurisdictions to the Appellate Courts on behalf of financial institutions, other corporate bodies and multinationals. He has worked with a number of startup tech companies. He tweets @siazubuike.
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