Godwin Tsa, Abuja
President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Mr Paul Usoro (SAN) has expressed his readiness to appear for his arraignment on Monday, before a Federal High Court in Lagos over alleged money laundering charges leveled against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
The commission had in a charge marked FHC/L/418c/2018, filed before Justice Muslim Hassan, claimed that Usoro converted and laundered N1.4 billion in connivance with the governor of Akwa Ibom State, Udom Emmanuel.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Bar Association has said that the EFCC lacks the locus to meddle into client-lawyer contractual relationship.
The position of the NBA is contained in a communiqué issued at the end of NBA’s National Executive Council, (NEC) meeting held in Abuja.
The body insisted that the fees that were paid by a client to his lawyer was not only a matter of privilege but also contractual.
President of the association, Mr Usoro, who read the communique at a newsmen in Abuja, revealed that the NEC deliberated and adopted as its resolution, a report he forwarded to the EFCC in respect of criminal charges filed against him by the Federal government.
Usoro who spoke on the criminal charge against him condemned what he described as media trial by prosecuting agencies as it destroys the individual involved.
He called on the National Assembly to make a legislation against media trial.
In the communiqué, the NBA said that Usoro was investigated by the EFCC based on a Zenith Bank N300 million inflow into his law firm’s account on March 14, 2016. The president also said he was investigated based on the subsequent outflows from the account to various senior counsels between March 22 and 23, 2016. NEC observed that the inflow was payment by Gov. Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State in respect of an election petition appeal that was determined by the Supreme Court, of which Usoro served as the coordinating counsel. NBA NEC said it observed that the EFCC appeared to be straining hard to criminalise the fees that were earned by lawyers for their legitimate work. “Usoro’s case is not the first of these intrusions; we all recall the case of Mike Ozekhome, (SAN) when the EFCC attempted to forfeit his fees on the pretext that the funds came from illegal sources.
“If these EFCC incursions are not checked, the Bar and the practice of our profession are doomed.”
According to the NBA, the practice of law is founded on the independence of the legal practitioner and his courage to advocate on behalf of his client to the best of his ability and conviction.
“That independence and the courage of the advocate are now being threatened and trampled upon by the EFCC.
“Lawyers now have to work and walk on tiptoe; looking over their shoulders to determine whether the EFCC would be coming after them solely on account of their courage and independence in advocacy.
“That does not bode well for the profession or for legal practice generally.”
The association held that client-lawyer privilege had judicially and historically acknowledged that issues of fees between a lawyer and his client, was a matter of privilege.
“The recent decision of the Court of Appeal that was delivered on June 14, 2017 between Central Bank of Nigeria v Registered Trustees of the NBA affirmed this position.
“By questioning lawyers on the legitimate fees that they have earned from clients, the EFCC is breaching the lawyer-client privilege and showing complete disregard for the judgments of the courts in this regard,” NBA said.
“As we all know, non-parties to a contract are complete strangers thereto and lack the locus standi to question and/or determine the propriety of such contract(s).
“The EFCC stands in that position in this and other matters of this nature; it lacks the locus standi to question the basis for the fees.”
On the 2019 general elections, NBA averred that several actions of government and its agencies continued to threaten and undermine the Rule of Law in the country and must be resisted.
“As we approach the general elections in 2019, vigilance must be our watchword as there are already signs of storms in our horizon.”
It behooves on us as lawyers and the conscience of society to be vigilant, vocal and remain on the vanguard of fighting for free, fair and credible elections where the will of our people will not be subverted.
“The votes of our people must count, and their will must not be sabotaged or subverted howsoever, and this applies to all the levels of polls – Presidential, Gubernatorial, National and State Houses of Assembly.”