Ifeanyi Okeke Esq. v. Wale Ogunade Esq. Suit No. NICN/LA/432/2014, per Amadi J:
“This case once again shows the pain, hardship and difficulty which some young lawyers undergo in the hand of some senior colleagues, who ordinarily should encourage them. I commend the tenacity and dexterity of the Claimant in pursuing justice in this matter since 2012 up to this stage. In the same vein, I condemn the conduct of the Defendant in trying to wish away the earned salary of the Claimant in this suit.”
Sadly, the hardship young lawyers face in Nigeria in the hands of senior colleagues is now judicially noticed. This pain and hardship manifest in various forms ranging from incredibly and ridiculously low earnings to massive exploitation of human skills, time and energy. Thus, even some firms who pay fairly good salaries more or less ask for the ‘blood’ of the associates working for them, in a manner clearly suggestive of acute ‘noble’ slavery. This runs against all internationally recognised labour standards and best practices. Taken that the practice of law is largely rigorous and that young lawyers must pay their ‘dues’ (whatever that means) in the course of being trained on the job, this should not be a general excuse for subjecting young lawyers to a working condition that totally rob them of reasonably fair and decent living.
The situation has become critical and deserves serious attention. The Nigerian Bar Association should have this on the priority list.
There are few lessons to learn from the case at hand. The facts are that on 15/4/2012, the Claimant was employed as a legal practitioner by the Defendant under some form of oral agreement, on a monthly salary of N30,000 (Thirty Thousand Naira). The case of the Claimant was that the Defendant never paid his salaries as at when due and that this continued until the end of September, 2012. Consequently, on 8/10/2012, the Claimant informed the Defendant of his intention to stop work on 12/10/2012. The Claimant stopped work as indicated. However, the Defendant refused to pay the Claimant his September, 2012 salary in spite of repeated oral and written demands. The Claimant wrote a letter to the then Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, Ikeja Branch to intervene but the Defendant remained adamant, leading to the filing of this suit.
The case of the Defendant is that he is a legal practitioner and human rights activist whose practice is basically in litigation and mostly pro bono services. He claimed he was reluctant to employ the Claimant because of the type of practice he runs but that the Claimant persuaded him to employ him and that he was ready to bear whatever inconveniences in order to be able to learn under him, including possible irregularity in the payment of salaries. The Defendant argued that the Claimant was bound by this understanding and is therefore not entitled to complain. The Defendant further contended that since there was no pre-agreed length of notice, the Claimant was bound to give 1 week notice (instead of the 4 days notice given) by virtue of Section 11(2)(b) of the Labour Act. As a result, since the Claimant was in default, he cannot claim rights.
The learned trial Judge, Hon. Justice K. I. Amadi, took time to consider the facts and circumstances as well as the arguments. On the issue of whether or not the Claimant accepted, as part of the arrangement, irregularity in the payment of salaries, Amadi J. held:
“…The Claimant neither confirmed nor acknowledged irregular payment of his salary as part of his contract of employment with the Defendant. Even at that, such an agreement will certainly amount to an unfair labour practice in which case this court will not enforce it. In view of that, I hold that this defence is a ruse and it has failed.”
See page 9 of the Judgment.
On the issue of length of notice of termination, the learned trial Judge held:
“…The Claimant was employed in his professional capacity as a legal practitioner to perform professional legal services; he is consequently clearly excluded by the definition of a worker by Section 91 of the Labour Act. The said Section 11 of the Labour Act heavily relied upon by the Defendant are therefore inapplicable to the Claimant as he was not employed in the category of workers covered by the Labour Act which are limited to workers engaged in manual and clerical work, see the case of Evans Brothers (Nig.) Publishing Ltd v. Falaiye (2003) 13 NWLR (Pt. 838) 564. In view of the foregoing, this ground which is the foundation of the defence of the Defendant is bound to collapse and it has collapsed. In cases where the Labour Act is inapplicable and the contract of service is silent on the requisite notice of termination, the law is settled that a reasonable notice will be implied. See the cases of Maiduguri Flour Mills Ltd v. Abba (1996) 9 NWLR (Pt. 437) 506 at 511 and Alraine (Nig.) Ltd. v. M. A. Eshiet (1977) 1 SC.”
See page 9-10 of the Judgment.
The Court therefore held that the forfeited prorated salary for the month of October, 2012 was waived by the Claimant in lieu of notice and that coupled with the 4 days notice which was given, the Claimant gave adequate and reasonable notice.
Upon rightly upholding the case of the Claimant, the Court granted his claim for the September, 2012 salary (N30,000) and awarded the cost of N80,000 against the Defendant.