The impact of Covid-19 on the legal profession in Nigeria
Christian B Denton
City Law Associates, Lagos
The outbreak of Covid-19 has had a tremendous impact on every aspect of the global economy. Many countries have fallen into recession due to the negative impact of the virus, which has ground all social and business activities to a halt.
In Nigeria, the impact of Covid-19 has been devastating across all sectors of society and the legal profession is been exempt from the fallout, where the pandemic has had a detrimental effect. Lawyers and law firms are grappling with how to continue to provide services for their clients.
In late March, the Nigerian President Mohammed Buhari announced a total lockdown of the federal capital Abuja and the commercial capital Lagos. The lockdown also included a neighbouring state to Lagos. All but essential movement was curtailed and flights were barred. Other states decided to follow suit, with varying degrees of restriction to stem the spread of the virus. Road travel between states was also prohibited. All bank branches were closed.
The lockdown was eased in certain named cities/states on 4 May 2020, with an overnight curfew put in place from 2000 to 0600 and businesses permitted to operate only between 0900 and 1500. On 1 June, there was a further relaxation of the overnight curfew, which was then imposed between 2200 and 0400. Businesses were also able to operate during normal hours. However, the damage had already been done to the economy during the lockdown period.
Lockdown meant that all non-essential businesses closed, including law firms. Law practice generally necessitates in-person meetings with the client. This is normally very prevalent in Nigeria but was impossible under the constraints of the lockdown. Consequently, lawyers could not conduct personal interviews with new clients or review matters with existing clients. Many clients (including prospective ones) were financially devastated by the pandemic, which led to an inability to pay professional fees or engage counsel.
The reluctance to engage counsel for low-cost items has increased with individuals resorting to self-help until the transaction becomes too complicated for them. Items that generate substantial income, such as M&A, have disappeared, as companies are actually shutting down or reducing costs, for example by laying off staff. The sum total of this is that counsel is sidelined.
As in many other jurisdictions, it was difficult, if not impossible, to conduct litigation. The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Muhammad Tanko, issued a directive that all courts would be closed until further notice (although some are now partially open). As a result, litigants were unable to continue or conclude ongoing matters, leaving many in a legal quagmire, as they could not know their fates until the courts reopened. In matters such as criminal cases the situation was worse, as many accused persons were held indefinitely in police custody until the courts resumed.
A significant number of Nigerian lawyers rely on court practice as a means of income and the court closures have directly impacted their accounts. The shelving of court appearances meant that many lawyers could not bill. This has hit many young lawyers hard, as a good number of young legal practitioners in Nigeria depend on court appearance fees as a source of income. A lot of small law firms and solo practitioners rely heavily on litigation as their primary (if not sole) livelihood, since the Nigerian legal sector is not as diverse and developed as those found in advanced countries such as Canada and the United States. The nature of legal education in the country compounds this issue, as most lawyers are taught to believe that litigation is the only way for them to make money
The Nigerian Law School, where Nigerian law graduates obtain their practice licence, closed to protect the health, wellbeing and safety of its staff and students. Universities are closed as well.
The pandemic has exposed the shortcomings of the Nigerian legal system with regard to the use of technology in court procedures. Over the years, the top management of the Nigerian Bar Association, the leading body for Nigerian lawyers, has not adequately championed the need to implement the use of technology in the way that law is practised in Nigeria. For example, most court processes are carried out in person. Also, payment of the lawyer’s practising fees is made in-person, via a bank teller, as opposed to electronically. It took a lot of effort from lawyers to get the Supreme Court and other Superior Courts to compile a centralised list of lawyers’ email addresses.
It is only logical that a practice directive should be issued to the various courts in the country to start taking court proceedings via electronic means such as Zoom, Skype and other programs, in order to resolve disputes amongst the parties. Most other jurisdictions have adopted such remote methods of practice.
Additionally the downturn in global trade has had a tremendous impact on the legal profession in Nigeria. A lot of law firms (especially the largest firms) rely heavily on foreign investment as a source of income. Some of these firms have China as their main client and have not been able to do business since the Chinese locked down their country in February. Many of these firms have a lot of international clientele who are unable to conduct business due to Covid-19 and the impending recession in many developed countries. A lot of international conferences have been cancelled. Many other organisations are conducting their conferences via webinars.
The strict prohibition of legal practitioners in Nigeria from advertising their services has made it even more difficult for lawyers to earn revenue during this pandemic. The Rules of Professional Conduct in Nigeria expressly forbids lawyers from advertising their legal expertise both digitally and physically. This limits what a lawyer can do.
Finally, the greatest impact that the epidemic will have on the legal profession in Nigeria is a high unemployment rate. It is too early to determine how bad the economic fall out will be; but many lawyers will be on furlough, as law firms and other organisations try to downsize and cut costs in response to the global pandemic. A lot of law firms will struggle to pay the salaries of their staff and, as a result, many lawyers will either be let go or take a salary cut. Other organisations such as banks, oil companies and construction companies will also downsize their staff, includes those in the legal department.
However, Covid-19 has brought about some positive developments in the profession. One of these developments is an increase in the use of webinars for conferences, meetings and settling disputes. As a result of the lockdown, a lot of Nigerian legal professionals are using webinar applications like Zoom as a medium to interact with their clients. Many conferences are also taking place via webinar. The Young Lawyers Association of the Nigerian Bar Association conducts a weekly session via webinars. Lawyers who could not travel out of the country for conferences are holding such conferences online. The largest law firms, governmental organisations such as Templars and NBA, and multinational organisations are also conducting their business via Zoom.
Another positive development as a result of the pandemic in Nigeria is the increase in online court hearings by the Superior Courts. On 4 May 2020 the Ikeja High Court held a virtual session in Nigeria, wherein it sentenced a man to death for the murder of the mother of his employer. The Judge of the Court, Justice Mojisola Dada, delivered the judgment via Zoom. The court proceedings, approved by the Chief Justice of Lagos State, Justice Kazeem Alogba, were in line with the Lagos State Judiciary Remote Hearing of Cases Covid-19 Pandemic Period Practice Direction.
The outbreak of Covid-19 has, in just a short period, made a huge impact on the Legal Profession in Nigeria. The profession has been having problems for years due to the inability of many law firms to embrace technology, modernise legal education and improve the salary structure for young lawyers. The pandemic has now exposed those problems, which have led to many young lawyers struggling to make ends meet and triggered their need to diversify their sources of income. On the other hand, this crisis has led to lawyers being more innovative and internet-savvy. Conferences, board meetings and, increasingly, court proceedings are all taking place online.
Mark Munro, Robert Maxim and Jacob Whiton, ‘The places a COVID-19 recession will likely hit hardest’, (Brookings, 17 March 2020), see www.brookings.edu/blog.the-avenue/2020/03/17/the-places-a-covid-19-recession-will-likely-hit-hardest/
Wandoo Sombo, ‘COVID-19: Lawyers commend CJN for suspending court sittings’ (NNN, 26 March 2020) https://nnn.com.ng/covid-19-lawyers-commend-cjn-for-suspending-court-sittings/
Mark Munro, Robert Maxim and Jacob Whiton, ‘The places a COVID-19 recession will likely hit hardest’, (Brookings, 17 March 2020), see www.brookings.edu/blog.the-avenue/2020/03/17/the-places-a-covid-19-recession-will-likely-hit-hardest/http://www.brookings.edu/blog.the-avenue/2020/03/17/the-places-a-covid-19-recession-will-likely-hit-hardest/