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Pro Bono Legal Services: Reflections, Gains and Prospects for Nigerian Lawyers

Hameed Ajibola

Rendering Pro bono legal services by lawyers is encouraged at all times, despite the current economic challenges, but lawyers in a great number, will not be willing to render such legal services pro bono whether in civil or criminal matter. Their plight or constraint too is understood perhaps due to the economic pressures telling on them from either family members or other dependents. This paper is a reflection on the true nature of pro bono legal service, also considering the gains and prospects for lawyers in Nigeria as a courage or encouragement for lawyers of all categories to see the good impact of pro bono legal services on the societies, themselves (as a financial boost) and to the nation as a whole.

Legal Aid is the free legal services provided by the government through an attorney employed by the State. Free legal services (pro bono) provided by a private lawyer to an indigent is also legal aid. See: page 41 of Legal Aid and Right to Justice, by Hanbal A. Muhammad Zubair (M. DRI). The Nigerian law recognizes the right of a legal practitioner to offer legal services to his clients without any remuneration. See section 9(2) of the Legal Practitioner Act, 2010-herein after referred to as LPA. Also Rule 52(1) of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners, 2007-herein referred to as RPC. Such free services may be rendered to indigent clients, friends, family members or clients with long standing relationship with the legal practitioner. Such free services may also be rendered by a legal practitioner in contentious and non-contentious matters. See: A. Obi Okoye, Law in Practice in Nigeria: (Professional Responsibilities and Lawyering Skills), Snaap Press Ltd., 2011, second Edition, Enugu, at page 114.

Furthermore, Pro bono is a phrase from Latin Language whose full meaning is ‘pro bono publico’ i.e. ‘for the public good’. Being or involving uncompensated legal services performed especially for the public good. See: Black’s Law Dictionary, Eighth Edition, 2004 at page 1240-1241. It was quoted in the above dictionary, the words of Deborah L. Rhode & Geoffrey C. Hazard, Professional Responsibility, 162 (2002) on pro bono thus ‘ The bar in this country has a long-standing tradition of service pro bono publico- legal services ‘for the public good’, provided at no cost or reduced fee (underlining is mine for emphasis). This concept encompasses a wide range of activities, including law reform efforts, participation in bar associations and civic organisations, and individual or group representation. Clients who receive such assistance also span a broad range including: poor people, nonprofit organisations, ideological or political causes, and friends, relatives, or employees of the lawyer’. As stated earlier in this paper, the RPC also allows the rendering of pro bono services at the convenience of the legal practitioner thus ‘The professional fee charged by a lawyer for his services shall be reasonable and commensurate with the service rendered: accordingly, the lawyer shall not charge fees which are excessive or so low as to amount to understanding: provided that a reduced fee or no fee at all may be charged on the ground of the special relationship or indigence of a client’. See Rule 52(1) RPC (supra). Unfortunately, there is no definition of what amounts to professional fee either by the LPA or the RPC. Professional fee is defined by the Black’s Law Dictionary (supra) as attorney’s fees to mean ‘The charge to a client for services performed for the client, such as an hourly fee, a flat fee, or a contingent fee’. See page 139. However, it is humbly submitted that professional fee is such type of remuneration or compensation which a legal practitioner may receive from his client for the professional services rendered to the client, either by the nature of such services rendered to the client, the existence of an agreement between him and the client relating to the retainership and other statutory considerations which affect fees of legal practitioners generally. 

Nevertheless the economic challenges of the country, a lawyer is still humbly requested to be ready to offer free legal services. The pro bono legal services is one way of polishing and learning the practice of the law. For instance, where a lawyer is to wait till he gets clients before he would carry out legal practice, he is likely to remain for years doing no practice of the law. Whereas, if he takes at least five pro bono legal services for a year, he has five clients already and those five clients might be his link to more than fifty other rich and influential clients that would even pay his bills. So, there are gains in offering pro bono legal services if a lawyer is ready to bear the sacrifices. Also, I have always advised that those lawyers who are from influential or rich background should use the medium of pro bono to make way for the fulfillment of their aspirations for proficiency and greatness in the legal profession. Take for instance, your parents or family have money to support you, assuming you are given the sum of five hundred thousand naira as pocket money. You then designate the sum of two hundred thousand naira only for pro bono legal services and then take like ten criminal or civil cases of indigent citizens up in a year, then, you can be rest assured that in less than ten years of practice, you are many times at the Supreme Court of Nigeria and be qualified to be conferred the prestigious rank of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria in ten years of practice.

Even if it is with the sum of fifty thousand naira budgeted for pro bono legal services, you as a lawyer or a young lawyer will become well equipped and relevant in the legal practice and the legal profession. Furthermore, through the pro bono legal services, you already acquired the required advocacy skills that you need to do the case of clients that are wealthy and that would pay your bills. So, it is always the best to sacrifice and render pro bono legal services. If you are not able to carry out the legal practice alone out of insufficient experiences, then, involve one or two experienced lawyer or seniors that you would do the cases together at least, just for a while or few of those cases, then, with their guidance, you can carry out the rest.

Also, I have always advised young lawyers to always utilize the opportunity of pro bono legal services immediately they are called to bar rather than writing CVs looking for employment, though, pupilage is good. The little change in their hands remaining from the National Youth Service Corps or that they were given by parents or family members can be divided and part of same be used for pro bono legal services. I can tell you that there is money too in pro bono legal services rendered but you only require patience and perseverance. You may be lucky that the money comes in even upon taking up just one pro bono legal service. Almost every lawyer aspires to get clients that are rich to brief them or retain them. Sometimes, some of those poor or indigents’ cases that you handled might encourage those rich persons to require your legal services!

Furthermore, from pro bono legal services, you get to be famous in your area of practice because, you have experiences to tell in those areas. Also, pro bono legal services assist you in being a senior lawyer even in your very few years at the bar. Furthermore, you are respected by God Almighty for the sacrifice in rendering those pro bono legal services and He will bless you, overall!

Furthermore, at this year’s legal year (2019/2020), the Honourable, the Chief Judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, recognised and encouraged rendering of pro bono legal services by lawyers by issuing award of excellence to two senior members of the bar for their selfless services to humanity by their recognised pro bono legal services rendered to litigants. This initiative of the Honourable, the Chief Judge of the High Court of FCT, respectfully, in my view, deserves applause and commendation!

Finally, it is my advice that lawyers should try their best to annually carry out pro bono legal services to indigent persons whether in civil or criminal matter. Also, law firms should encourage and permit their legal staff/lawyers working for them to take up at least one pro bono matter personally. Furthermore, government should encourage pro bono legal services by making money available for that purpose to those lawyers carrying out pro bono legal services and the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria. The Nigerian Bar Association, the non-governmental organisations too should make some funds available to lawyers who have shown interest in rendering pro bono to indigents without any unhealthy politics, favouritism or favour for justice to prevail for all.

Email: hameed_ajibola@yahoo.com

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