Sacking your lawyer: Costly mistake you should never make.

Nature of lawyer-client relationship

Lawyer-client relationship is a relationship that has at least three natures. Firstly, the relationship is contractual in that it is a product of contract whereby a client seeks the services of a lawyer in exchange for payment of professional fees. Thus, the contractual relationship is governed by established principles of Contract Law. Secondly, the relationship is fiduciary in that the lawyer stands in a position of trust when dealing with his or her client; and the client relies on the lawyer for reliable legal advice to guide the client’s decisions. The Rules of Professional Conduct mandates that the lawyer act professionally at all times, avoiding conflict of interest, and advances, to the best of his or her ability, the cause of the client. The lawyer is expected to maintain lawyer-client privilege by treating the client’s information in strict confidence. Thirdly, lawyer-client relationship may also translate to an agency relationship – the lawyer as the agent of his or her client, the principal. The law is that acts of a lawyer on behalf of the client are the same as the acts of the client. In many cases, lawyers enjoy express power of attorney to deal with some specific instruction as seen in the case discussed later in this piece.

Terminating your lawyer’s instruction

Every client reserves the right to terminate a lawyer’s instruction and the contract of engagement at any time, subject to the terms of the contract and meeting with every outstanding obligation, especially as it relates to payment of professional fees. Steps involved in terminating a lawyer’s instruction (after thorough consideration of relevant factors) include officially serving the notice of termination (which may be by simple letter) communicating the decision of the client to disengage the lawyer. Other prior steps include ensuring that the termination is not ill-timed. More so, additional costs of engaging another lawyer, if necessary, must be considered as the erstwhile lawyer is not obliged to refund fees already earned.

Ordinarily, serving the notice of termination is all that is required as the client may opt to instruct another lawyer or proceed further as the client deems fit.

Nevertheless, in certain circumstances (as we shall soon see), there may be need to notify third parties of the client’s decision to terminate the lawyer’s engagement. In doing this, all that is required is a simple notice informing the third party of nothing other than that the lawyer has been disengaged and that the lawyer no longer acts for the client. In deserving cases, instruct the incoming lawyer to write directly or to draft same on your behalf.

If the client feels seriously offended by the lawyer, necessitating the termination, the client has a number of options including instituting an action against the lawyer or submitting a petition against the lawyer at the Nigerian Bar Association for onward prosecution by the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee.

Making any careless statement or unsubstantiated claims when communicating with third parties regarding the termination of the lawyer may expose one to heavy liability. This is one mistake a client must never make. The case of Omon & Ors v. Ekpa [2019] 15 NWLR (Pt. 1696) 504 presents an interesting scenario.

Omon v. Ekpa

The facts of the case are that the need arose for the construction of a road in a certain community in Akwa Ibom State. The road construction led to the damage of the properties of some residents (the Appellants) in the community. As a result, the Village Council appointed a lawyer (“the Respondent” or “the Lawyer”) as a consultant to oversee and collect compensations for those whose properties were affected. The persons, including the Appellants, whose buildings, economic trees and crops were destroyed, gave a duly registered irrevocable power of attorney to the Lawyer as authority to collect the compensation for them.

The Lawyer consulted an Estate Valuer who prepared the valuation report and wrote the project manager of the construction company (China Civil Engineering Construction Company – CCECC) for payment of the compensation for the donors of the Power of Attorney. The Lawyer briefed the Village Council on the efforts and progress made by him for which he was commended.

Months later, the relationship turned sour and the Appellants sought to terminate the engagement of the Lawyer. To this end, they wrote a letter to the Project Manager of CCECC, and the Site Manager of the Ministry of Works, Uyo, stating that they had lost confidence in the Lawyer and that the Lawyer betrayed their trust; and that the CCECC should no longer deal with the Lawyer as they had withdrawn the Power of Attorney given to him. One of the Appellants also swore an Affidavit to this effect, with similar contents as the letter.

The Lawyer on becoming aware of the development sued the Appellants for defamation of his character. He sought damages (N20 Million) and other reliefs which were granted by the Court. The Appellants’ appeal to the Court of Appeal was dismissed. The opinion of Ogbuinya, JCA, is worth quoting in full:

“I have in due obeisance and desire of the law, consulted the mountainous record, the bedrock of the appeal, especially at the residence of the Judgment of the lower Court which colonises pages 475-486 of it. I have perused the 11-page Judgment with the finery of a tooth comb. Admirably, it is submissive to easy comprehension. The lower Court, painstakingly, considered the elements of defamation vis-à-vis libel, on which the action was pegged, catalogued above. It found the publication, in Exhibit 3, as libelous of the Respondent’s reputation as a lawyer. Betrayal of trust, which the Appellants charged the Respondent in Exhibit 3, is certainly fraught with negative imputations against him as a lawyer. A lawyer pleads for others in the society. His trade is built and rooted in trust which members of the public repose in him. Allegation of the betrayal of trust portrays a lawyer as one who cannot be taken into confidence. It, undoubtedly, is a serious erosion of a lawyer’s reputation in his professional calling and financial credit. Exhibit 3, which labels the Respondent, who had held several pivotal positions in the society and gained legion of laurels, as a betrayer of trust constitutes a serious and invincible dents on his integrity and honesty as a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. It tarnishes his hard-earned dignity, appurtenant to his position as a lawyer, and, ultimately, neutralises the assurances of the members of the public in relation to his business. Indeed: “When wealth is lost, nothing is lost, when health is lost something is lost but when character is lost, everything is lost…”

In conclusion, in disengaging your lawyer, keep it simple. In fact, you may need to seek professional legal advice on how to go about it to avoid legal consequences.


Featured image credit: Halt.

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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