Adapted from the Judgment of Bage, JSC:
Anthony Ojigho v. NBA & LPDC (2019) LPELR-46895(SC);  9 NWLR (Pt. 1678) 399.
A lawyer, Mr. Anthony Ojigho, was petitioned for fraudulently increasing the price of a property which the Petitioner (Banjo Onanubi) paid the vendor through the lawyer. It was alleged that the lawyer fraudulently induced the Petitioner into paying N40 Million for a property instead of N30 Million that was demanded by the vendor.
The case of the Petitioner was that it was the vendor who informed him that the excess sum of N10 Million had been returned to be paid to him through the lawyer being in excess of reserved price. When confronted, the lawyer admitted the wrongdoing and made an initial refund of N3 Million and issued a cheque for the repayment of outstanding N7 Million which he later countermanded (stopped).
At the hearing, the lawyer failed to enter a formal defence and chose not to appear at the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC) but was instead, represented by his Counsel, Mathias Emeribe.
The LPDC held that where a solicitor engrosses an agreement for both the vendor and the purchaser of property, and both of them rely on his legal advice, he is a solicitor to both parties. It is immaterial that one of them introduced him to the other.
Thus, the solicitor owes a fiduciary duty to both parties in the circumstance and that the lawyer in the instant case was in breach of same. The LPDC finally held that it was imprudent of the lawyer not to have entered a formal defence and to have sought to defend himself of very serious allegations of professional misconduct and impropriety through the avenue of his Counsel’s Written Address.
The LPDC found the lawyer guilty of infamous conduct in the course of the performance of his duty as a legal practitioner and accordingly directed the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court to strike out his name from the Roll of Legal Practitioners.
Appeal to Supreme Court
Being dissatisfied with the decision of the LPDC, the lawyer appealed to the Supreme Court which had no difficulty in dismissing the appeal for lacking in merit. Bage, JSC reasoned as follows:
“Clearly, the Appellant [the lawyer] acted contrary to his oath as a legal practitioner when he misled the Petitioner to purchase the property at a price other than that which was fixed by the owner. Assuming the Appellant was ‘beclouded’ by a sense of professional duty of maximising the benefit or gains for his client, he had clearly breached this by refusal to pay-over the N10 Million balance demanded and collected in excess of the price fixed for the property.”
Warning to lawyers and call for ‘cleansing’
This is a warning to all lawyers out there, especially those who also double as property consultants. Being overly too smart does not pay. According to Bage, JSC:
“The Appellant’s self-deceit smartness is less than a half. Having conducted himself in a rather unprofessional manner, and having also admitted the misconduct by repaying part of the outstanding sums, a prudent Legal practitioner ought to do more by disabusing the minds of an observer as to his ‘saintly’ disposition in the transaction to negative the likely outcome or consequence of lacking in professional decency and probity.
He has chosen to lace his bed with stones, pebbles, and crumbs of iron and broken bottles; he surely deserves to sleep on the bed alone. This will send appropriate signals to potential violators of Rules of Professional Ethics, 2007 and other applicable provisions of the Legal Practitioners Act 2004.
It is my view in this considered Judgment that having regard to the evidence led before the 2nd Respondent, I am convinced beyond any shadow of doubt, that the LPDC was correct in coming to the conclusion that the Appellant was guilty of infamous conduct in discharging his professional duties. I am also of the view that the 2nd Respondent was justified in its direction to the Registrar of the Supreme Court of Nigeria dated December 2, 2013, that the name of the Appellant be struck-off the Roll of Legal Practitioners in Nigeria.”
His Lordship also called for some cleaning in the legal profession when he said:
“We need a sharp depart from infamy in the legal profession. All Judges are first and foremost lawyers. Thus, the bench and the legal profession must continue in internal regulation and/or self-cleansing. This, in my view, is to save the legal profession and invariably the entire structure with which justice is administered in this country.
The justice mechanism essentially includes all legal practitioners and by direct implications all those who practice as solicitors, transaction advisors or as in-house Counsel and law academics. They all belong to the category of ‘Legal Practitioners’.
This is because their avoidable professional indiscretion, misconduct, imprudence or lack of probity in written agreements, transaction or advisory and other forms of professional engagements may, and have often formed basis of or cause of action in several suits and appeals.”