The Body of Benchers House at Jabi district, venue of the 2022 Call to bar ceremonies was full of activities on Tuesday. The 4,711 “new wigs” as law graduates who were successful at the Nigerian Law School (NLS) in the September Bar Final examination were being taken through the final ritual of call to bar
The Body of Benchers House at Jabi district, venue of the 2022 Call to bar ceremonies was full of activities on Tuesday. The 4,711 “new wigs” as law graduates who were successful at the Nigerian Law School (NLS) in the September Bar Final examination were being taken through the final ritual of call to bar in the auditorium, only very few initiated ones could feel the undercurrents in the auditorium.
The President of the Nigeria Bar Association, Mr. Y. C. Maikyau (SAN) had notified the 150 strong members of the Body of Benchers of his intention not to attend the ceremony if Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), the Chairman of the Body would be presiding. Section 3(1) of the Legal Practitioners Act (LPA) established the Body of Benchers which is a body of legal practitioners of the highest distinction in the legal profession in Nigeria.
It is made up of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, all Justices of the Supreme Court, the President of the Court of Appeal, the Attorney General of the Federation, Presiding Justices of the Court of Appeal divisions, the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court and Chief Judge of the FCT.
Others are the Chief Judges of all the states, Attorneys General of all the states, the Chairman of the Council of Legal Education, 30 legal practitioners nominated by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), and not more than 10 legal practitioners who appear to the Body of Benchers to be eminent legal practitioners of not less than 15 years post call.
Under the LPA, the functions of the Body include formal call to Bar of aspirants and the issuance of Call to Bar certificate among others.
Chief Olanipekun is the current Chairman of the Body but one of his Partners, Ms Adekunbi Ogunde is in the eye of the storm and for her sin, considered a deadly sin in the legal profession, her Principal(Chief Olanipekun) some members of the legal profession believe should recuse himself from the position of Chairman.
Reason: on June 20,2022 ,Ms Adekunbi Ogunde, a United Kingdom-trained lawyer, sent a three-page letter to Saipem’s top executive, Francesco Caio soliciting for offer of legal services in a criminal case instituted by Rivers State Government against Saipem SPA, Saipem Contracting Nigeria Limited, Mr. Walter Peviana and four others. It is an unpardonable sin in the legal profession to solicit for briefs. It was considered to have offended Rule 39 of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007.
Section 39 (2) of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007 specifically provides that a lawyer practising in Nigeria shall not engage or be involved in any advertising or promotion of his practice of the law which (a) is inaccurate or likely to mislead; (b) is likely to diminish public confidence in the legal profession or the administration of justice or otherwise, bringing the legal profession into disrepute; (c) makes comparison with or criticises other lawyers or other professions/professionals; (d) include any statement about the quality of the lawyer’s work, the size or success of his practice or his success rate or (e) is so frequent or obstructive as to cause annoyance to those to whom it is directed.
This was the Rule the NBA invoked when it wanted to make the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi uncomfortable in 1981. He was accused of professional misconduct allegedly committed by him in that he engaged himself in “advertising, touting and publicity” by reason of a publication in a weekly newspaper, the “WEST AFRICA’, dated 23rd March 1981.
However, Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007 does not forbid outright advertising and soliciting provided it is fair and proper in all circumstances and complies with the provisions of the Rules, yet Ogunde’s letter appears to have violated the provisions in section 39(2) (a) (b) (c) and (d) of the 26-page Rule book.
The letter to the company, Ogunde disclosed, was the outcome of a weekend research she did on a number of complex cases on-going in various law courts in Nigeria where she felt the services of Olanipekun & Co, where she is a partner, could be required. In the Saipem case, Rivers State Government had filed criminal information against the foreign firm of conspiring to cheat and with intent to defraud it of the sum of $130 million being advance payment for the construction of the OCGT power plant in Port Harcourt, Rivers state.
The charge was filed at the registry of the state High Court in Port Harcourt by an Abuja-based lawyer, Chief Godwin Obla, SAN, on behalf of Rivers State Government on November 19, 2021.The law firm of a former Minister of Petroleum, Ajumogobia & Okeke, was briefed by the foreign firm and thus, represented Saipem SPA (first defendant), Saipem Contracting Nigeria Limited (second defendant), Mr. Walter Peviana (third defendant) and Vitto Testaguzza (6th defendant) in the case.
The opposing parties in the matter did not waste the time of the court as they agreed to settle the case out of court in April, 2022 or thereabouts.
Apparently unaware of this development, Ms. Ogunde in June 2022, after the case had been settled and long dead sent the “satanic mail”.
She wrote arguing that a quick research about Wole Olanipekun & Co would reveal that the law firm was actually the leading litigation firm in the country with the track record of helping multinationals in sensitive and highly political matters in the past, adding: “The presence of our lead partner, Chief Olanipekun, SAN, OFR, in the matter will significantly switch things in favour of Saipem.”According to her: “Chief Olanipekun, SAN, OFR is currently the Chairman of the Body of Benchers which is the highest ruling body in the Nigerian legal profession, made up of Supreme Court judges, Presiding Justices of the Court of Appeal and Chief Judges of all State High Courts including the Rivers State High Court. In other words, Chief Olanipekun, SAN, OFR is the Head of the entire legal profession in Nigeria.
She listed few famous cases including MTN tax dispute, Shell Petroleum, and the Equinox (former Statoil) dispute, where her principal had demonstrated such capacity in the past adding that; “We are aware that another law firm is currently in the matter but you will agree that highly sensitive and political matter requires more influence,” she added.
Saipem sent Ms Ogunde’s mail to their counsel and former Minister of Petroleum, Chief Odein Ajumogobia, SAN, and this triggered a chain of reactions. The former Minister’s reaction was predictable. It was like holding a naked electricity wire with bare hands or trying to take a cub from a nursing lioness. In 77 hours after receiving the mail from Saipem, he fired a well loaded eight- paragraph mail to his friend of over three decades, Chief Olanipekun.
It reads: “I am shocked and appalled at the content of the letter written by one Adekumbi Ogunde who describes herself in the letter as a partner in your firm. “I must also express my extreme disappointment and utter disillusionment that a letter of this nature should emanate from your chambers, given your stature at the bar generally and as the current Chairman of the Body of Benchers, in particular.
“My sentiments about the unfortunate but unmistakable allusion to ‘influence’ with “Justices of the Supreme Court, Presiding Justices of the Court of Appeal and Chief Judges” with whom you happen to serve on certain bodies in the legal profession, with regard to a matter before a Court, is better left unsaid. Suffice it to say that the attached letter is in my opinion tantamount to gross misconduct of the worst kind.
“For the record, our mandatory Rules of Professional Conduct expressly prohibit self-advertising and solicitation by Nigerian legal practitioners! “Rule 39 expressly provides that “A lawyer shall not engage or be involved in any advertising or promotion of his practice of the law which makes comparison with or criticizes other lawyers or includes any statement about the quality of the lawyer’s work, the size or success of his practice or his success rate.
“The email from your firm could not be more egregious in its breach of this essential mandatory rule, especially in its acknowledgment that the defendant companies had already retained counsel.
That I and my firm of Ajumogobia & Okeke were retained in the matter, was a matter of public record and was personally known to you and your firm, since you had asked me about the matter during our Unilag Law Faculty Alumni dinner at Harbour Point in February.
“The attached email from your firm also contains false and misleading statements with several defamatory imputations of and concerning myself and my firm. “In the circumstances, we demand within seven days of the date of this letter, a written apology to the firm of Ajumogobia & Okeke from Wole Olanipekun & Co, for this most deplorable conduct of Adekumbi Ogunde and your firm.
“In addition, we demand that Wole Olanipekun & Co sends a letter to Saipem top management to retract your said letter. The retraction and a copy of the apology to my firm must be copied to the top management of Saipem SA and the same recipients as the original email, namely: Caio Francesco <Francesco.Caio@ Saipem.com> Cc: Merlo Silvia <Silvia.Merlo@saipem.com>; Puliti Alessandro <Alessandro.Puliti@saipem.com>; CHINI SIMONE <SIMONE.CHINI@saipem.com>“I trust that your firm will comply with our demand forthwith,” he stressed.
In less than 24 hours after receipt of the letter from the former Minister, Chief Olanipekun complied and retracted the offensive document. He copied same to Saipem management staff with a promise that the matter would be handled appropriately by his chambers. Two Associate Counsel in Olanipekun law firm, Messrs. James Adesulu and Quam Bisiriyu, also issued a disclaimer dated June 24,2022 addressed to Mr Caio and reiterated the fact that the letter by Ms Ogunde was written “without the instruction, authority, mandate and approval of Wole Olanipekun & Co.”
“In parenthesis, we dissociate ourselves from the letter under reference, as the writer was on her own,” adding: “the letter is hereby retracted unequivocally, in spite of the fact that it was unauthorised and done without our permission, authority or consent. The disclaimer, which was copied to Mr Ajumogobia, maintained that Olanipekun & Co had a high regard for him and his firm.
The lady in the eye of the storm, Ogunde, on her own sent a mail to Chief Ajumogobia to apologise for the gaffe while her father and former Ogun State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Wemimo Ogunde, SAN, apologised to Chief Ajumogobia. Ogunde also left the Chambers. Other well-meaning Nigerians also intervened and apologised to Chief Ajumogobia.
While the two Law firms were trying to handle the embarrassment caused by Ogunde’s memo to Saipem, the correspondences had leaked to the press and the attention of the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA was drawn to it.
The Nigerian Bar Association,NBA, acting on various media reports about the issue filed a petition against Ms Ogunde before the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee(LPDC).
In the petition marked BB/LPDC/901/2022, NBA called on the LPDC to: “on behalf of the Applicant that Adekunbi Ogunde of Wole Olanipekun & Co be required to answer to the allegations contained in the Statement/Affidavit.
The petition dated July 19,2022 was signed by Mr Aikpokpo-Martins on behalf of the Incorporated Trustees of the NBA. The Association said Ms Ogunde violated “the extant rules of professional conduct for legal practitioners (Rule 1 of the RPC) by soliciting for briefs and peddling the influence of the principal partner of her law firm, Chief Wole Olanipekun.”
He said members of the legal profession, particularly members of the NBA “were very disturbed by this infamous letter alleged to have originated from arguably one of the most successful, biggest, respected and most distinguished law firms in Nigeria.”
NBA says Ogunde’s letter puts the entire legal profession to national and international public ridicule and odium.
“The NBA stated that Ms. Ogunde is “expected to exhibit and maintain a very high standard of conduct, professionalism, respect for the integrity of court and the judicial process when discharging her professional duties and responsibilities to clients, the legal profession and members of the general public.
NBA demands Olanipekun step down as BoB Chairman.
Three days after the petition was filed, the NBA wrote Chief Olanipekun, the Chairman of Body of Benchers, (BOB), asking him to recuse himself from his position to pave the way for the investigation of a partner in his law firm, Ms. Adekunbi Ogunde. NBA President, Olumide Akpata gave the advice in a letter addressed to Chief Olanipekun dated July 22, 2022, and titled: Re: Petition Against Ms. Adekunbi Ogunde by The Nigerian Bar Association For Alleged Misconduct.
”Akpata stated that the LPDC, “a Standing Committee of the BoB whose processes come under the supervision of the Chairman” to consider whether the partners of the firm of Wole Olanipekun & Co. are not liable to be disciplined by this august body in view of the fact that the respondent, Ms Ogunde, has the ostensible authority to act as a partner and indeed acted for and on behalf of the said firm. “Against the backdrop of your partnership relationship with Ms. Ogunde, vis-a-vis the prosecution of the petition by the LPDC, it is clear, albeit unfortunate, that you have been put in a situation where your continued occupancy of the office during this period would conflict, or be reasonably interpreted to conflict, with or influence the processes of the LPDC, by fair-minded observers and right thinking members of the public, both within and outside our profession.
“By reason of your close professional ties and involvement with Ms. Ogunde, it would be an infraction of the salutary principles of natural justice for the said petition to be heard by the LPDC while you continue as Chairman of the BoB, of which the LPDC is a committee. “As Lord Denning put it: “Justice must be rooted in confidence; and confidence is destroyed when right-minded people go away thinking that the Judge is rooted in confidence; and confidence is destroyed when right-minded people go away thinking that the Judge is biased.
“Consequent to the above, I am constrained to invite you to recuse yourself from the chairmanship of the BoB henceforth and to allow for the emplacement of an interim leader of the BoB, in order to enable the LPDC to carry out this particular assignment, amongst others, without coming under an undue suspicion of impartiality,” the letter stated.
Chief Olanipekun said he did not receive the letter three days after it was allegedly leaked to the press and trending on social media. Olanipekun, in a chat with a Nigerian newspaper, said he would not understand why the President of the NBA, Mr Olumide Akpata would write him a letter requesting him to step down as chairman of BoB and leak same document to the media without serving him a copy more than 24 hours after same had become public.
Incidentally, that was one of the unfinished battles Akpata fought before leaving office as NBA President. His successor, however, inherited the battle which he activated on December 4,2022.
In a letter dated 4th December 2022 and addressed to Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN) titled a call to salvage the image, reputation & integrity of the Body of Benchers and the legal profession and for the Call to Bar ceremony schedule for 6 & 7 December 2022 to be presided by Hon. Justice Mary Peter Odili JSC rtd,the Vice Chairman Body of Benchers, Mr Maikyau reiterated his call that Chief Olanipekun steps down in view of the Ogunde saga.
This didn’t happen as Chief Olanipekun presided over the Call to Bar ceremony. In his address at the Call to Bar ceremony, Chief Olanipekun, SAN, Chairman, Body if Benchers maintained that though the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee, LPDC, is under his Chairmanship, he stressed that the Committee operates independently and “not controlled in any way or manner by either the Body or its Chairman”.
He said: “Howbeit, may I caution that proceedings before the LPDC should not be politicized, sensationalized, publicized and advertised in advance or while the proceedings are ongoing by Complainants for whatever reason howsoever, as so doing, negates the principle of fair hearing, which all lawyers subscribe to.
“This is apart from the fact that such steps might pre-empt and prejudice the proceedings band decisions of the LPDC”.
The next meeting of the BoB comes up in January, some observers of the legal profession believe that compromises would have been made before the next meeting.
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