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New Legal Practitioners Bill Seeks to Include Legislators into the Body of Benchers

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A bill for an Act to repeal the Legal Practitioners Act 2004 and re-enact the Legal Practitioners Act 2021, to provide for Reforms and regulate the legal profession, passed second reading in the Senate on 6th October 2021 and slated for public hearing on 15th November 2021. The bill which is sponsored by Senator Michael Opeyemi Bamidele (Ekiti:APC) contains modified versions of some provisions of the extant law, as well as some new provisions.

Clause 1 which establishes the Body of Benchers and its functions, seeks to include in the composition of the Body of Benchers, the President of the Senate (where he is a lawyer), the Speaker of the House of Representatives (where he is a lawyer),  Chairman of the Senate Committee on Judiciary (where he is a lawyer), Chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary (where he is a lawyer), the President of the National Industrial Court and life benchers. It also stipulates that 5 of the 30 members of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) who are members of the Body of Benchers shall be Law teachers. The bill specifically provides for the tenure of members of the Body of Benchers and seeks to change the quorum of the body for general business to 30, from 10 members. Also, the Body of Benchers’ function of call to bar contained in the current law is missing in this clause of the bill. However, clause 10 implies that the body still maintains this function since it shall be responsible for issuing a certificate to every person called to the Bar.

Clause 8 of the bill materially alters the provision on Practice as a Legal Practitioner. In the current law, a person is entitled to practice as a barrister and solicitor if his or her name is on the Roll (of legal practitioners in Nigeria); if he or she is authorised to practice by warrant or is exercising the functions of specified roles. However, the bill has categorised the meaning of legal practice into the ‘practice of law’ and the ‘provision of legal services’, each of which it further describes in detail. It also provides that a legal practitioner is entitled to practice if he or she has met all the conditions for practice set out in the Legal Practitioners Act and any rules made by the Body of Benchers, in addition to having their name on the Roll of Legal Practitioners kept at the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

Clause 9 specifies that a candidate is eligible to be called to bar if he or she is issued a Qualifying Certificate by the Council of Legal Education, is of good character and meets all conditions prescribed by the Body of Benchers for call to the Nigerian Bar. Unlike the relevant provision in the current Act, this clause does not specifically stipulate a candidate’s nationality as an eligibility criterion. Therefore, these conditions may be taken to apply to Nigerians and non-Nigerians seeking to be called to the Bar.  Clause 16 provides that foreign lawyers (authorised to practice the legal profession in another country) may be enrolled in Nigeria by regulations of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, upon the fulfillment of certain conditions

Clause 12 of the bill provides for a mandatory one-year pupilage for every person called to the Nigerian Bar, which will be a pre-requisite to commence practice as a Legal Practitioner. It further states that the Body of Benchers shall develop a Pupilage Handbook which will articulate the structure and duration of the programme, as well as other details including the remuneration of the pupil. To this end, the Body of Benchers will have a division (Mentoring and Pupilage Committee) responsible for the programme, with qualified legal practitioners to serve as pupil supervisors and such participation will be a criterion for conferment of legal practitioners’ privileges. This will be a new introduction in the legal profession if passed into law. Depending on its structure and implementation, it may have the potential of providing newly called to the Bar lawyers with relevant skills and knowledge in the diverse areas of law practice. This may equally address the festering issues of competence and welfare of young lawyers seeking gainful employment in the legal profession.

There is a new provision in  clause 14 of the bill which requires a legal practitioner to obtain a practicing licence from the Body of Benchers (Legal Practitioners Licensing Committee) certifying that he is entitled to practice. This licence is to be issued and renewed (at intervals) if the Body of Benchers is satisfied that a legal practitioner has fulfilled prescribed conditions, including the payment of practising fees.

Clause 15 requires that a stamp and seal be affixed on all documents signed by a legal practitioner. This requirement already exists in the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC) for legal practitioners and would now become mandatory if the Legal Practitioners Bill is passed into law.

The First and Second Schedules to the bill contain the functions and composition of 12 committees of the Body of Benchers, as well as other salient provisions such as eligibility for the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), penalties for unprofessional conduct, disciplinary jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and other salient provisions contained in the extant law.

Click here to read the bill: