The Supreme Court will on December 15, 2017 deliver a landmark judgment in relation to the practice of law, especially as it concerns legal practitioners and the filing and signing of court processes.
In the appeal pending before the court, the issue of proper person to sign processes to be filed in court has come up for review and determination. The appellants in this case are seeking to set aside the judgment of the court of appeal, on the grounds, amongst others, that the notice of appeal was not properly signed by a legal practitioner known to law, in that it was signed “& Co.”
In many of its decisions starting from the case of Okafor v Nweke, the Supreme Court has maintained that only a legal practitioner, whose name appears on the Roll of the Supreme Court, can competently sign any process to be filed in court.
Upon being served with the appellants’ brief in this case, settled by Afolabi Kuti, Esq., the respondent, thorough his counsel, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, Esq., requested for the convening of the Full Court of the Supreme Court, to determine the crucial issues arising in the appeal.
The respondent urged the Supreme Court to depart from all its previous decisions on the point, on a number of grounds. First it was contended that a 1968 decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Cole v Martins was not adverted to, in the case of Okafor v Nweke, and indeed in many of the decisions that followed it. In that said case, it was held that a process signed by “Lardner & Co.” cannot be said to be defective when the author was sufficiently identifiable and traceable and no possible doubt or confusion can arise from his description as such.
It is also being contended further, by the respondent, that section 2 of the Legal Practitioners Act has been wrongly interpreted to guide the practice and procedure of the courts, especially in relation to the filing of court processes, whereas the purport of the Act is simply to regulate legal practice outside and beyond the courts.
In the alternative, the respondent is urging the court to consider the effect of section 4(9) of the 1999 Constitution, which prohibits retroactive legislation, to apply it to judicial proceedings, and thereby limit the application of Okafor v Nweke and the cases following it, to the dates of those cases, instead of the current practice whereby these cases are being deployed to wake up dead and concluded cases from their well deserved judicial graves.
The respondent is also seeking departure on the ground that these decisions are contrary to public policy of not permitting the trade practice of lawyers to affect the innocent litigants, who are not conversant with the style and procedure of signing and filing of court processes.
When the appeal came up for hearing on September 26, 2017, the Supreme Court panel of seven justices, led by the Honourable Justice Mary Odili, JSC, granted leave to Mr Afolabi Kuti to amend his notice of appeal and the appellants’ brief, to incorporate the issue of jurisdiction newly raised, whilst Mr Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa was granted leave to also amend the respondent’s brief.
After taking arguments from counsel to the parties, the court reserved its judgment till 15th December, 2017.
By Chinyere Obia