Respect in legal profession

A lawyer has a duty not to use offensive and insulting language on the court – Notable pronouncement by Sankey, JCA.

Maitumbi v. Baraya [2017] 2 NWLR (Pt. 1550) 347 at 409-410, paras. B-G, per Sankey, JCA:

“One last word before I am done. It is quite disheartening to note the brazen, insalubrious and un-warranted attack on this court by learned counsel for the appellants when referring to this court’s previous finding in the unreported case of Mamman v. Bwacha (supra). With due respect to counsel, it was distasteful and odious, and an action totally inappropriate and unbecoming of a member of this noble and decent profession. It is my view that even where counsel finds himself unable to agree with the findings of a court, it is only decent, polite and cultured, (to say the least), that he should use the power of persuasive/convincing arguments to make his point in the discharge of his duty to his client, while also balancing this with his role as a Minister in the hallowed temple of justice. It is however not expected that counsel should descend into abysmal depths to the extent of directing disrespectful and obnoxious language against the court… Hence, I decline the attempt by counsel to drag the court down from its lofty height to join in the dust of the battle, which, (counsel are at all times enjoined to keep in mind), is really between the opposing litigants, and not between counsel and the Bench, or even between opposing counsel. I therefore strongly deplore and deprecate the inclination by a few in this noble and dignified profession to blissfully and wittingly slide into the slime of the gutter (as it were) by use of offensive and base language. This court chooses to retain its serene position high above the arena of combat as an impartial and detached umpire/adjudicator, and remain in the corridor of professionalism, hard facts and cold law. It is not and should never be personal. Instead, it is a matter of cold clinical facts and the application of the law to same. Civility in spoken and written language is a lubricant that prevents law suits from degenerating into combat, and by which the participants emerge from our adversarial process without blisters and swollen faces. It is well for counsel to bear in mind that in a brief of argument, the author x-rays himself by his use of language and leaves same for present and future generations unborn. Distasteful use of language merely and needlessly distracts from the issues in contention. Offensive language does not improve advocacy, rather it destroys it. Insulting language also tells so much about the character of counsel. Judges are not happy with such language…”

Blogger’s Note:

The learned Justice of the Court of Appeal ended the above by saying that a word is enough for the wise. I agree.

Now, what happened in the above case was that an Election Petition filed at the National and State Houses of Assembly Election Tribunal of Taraba State was signed by an unindicated solicitor among named solicitors on behalf of the Appellants. The Election Tribunal struck out the Petition. The Appellants appealed.  In persuading the Court of Appeal to uphold the decision of  the Election Tribunal, the Respondents relied on the unreported case of Mamman v. Bwacha CA/YL/EPT/SEN/45/2015  where it was held (by the same Sankey, JCA) that the petition in that case was incompetent because it was signed by a person simply referred to as “Petitioner” without more; also, there were two petitioners and the signature didn’t indicate which of the unnamed “petitioners” signed.  The Appellants herein in response to the Respondents’ arguments called upon the Court of Appeal to overrule its decision in Mamman v. Bwacha. In making the call, the Appellants’ Counsel used what the Court found as offensive language. Sankey, JCA refused to answer the call and brilliantly distinguished the cases. The Court held that in the instant case, the solicitors were properly named and that there is a presumption that one of the named solicitors signed. It is left for the Respondents to rebut the presumption which they failed to do. (Read the Court’s holding in our earlier post). Interestingly, the learned Justice of the Court of Appeal allowed the Appeal of the Appellants notwithstanding the said use of offensive and insulting language.

May we use this opportunity to add here that while counsel must desist from use of offensive language, the Court must heed the advice too. We have seen some cases where courts address counsel with so much disrespect. Respect and honour must be preserved in the legal profession.

Again, the pronouncement of Sankey, JCA and his ultimate decision in the case is highly commendable.

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