Costly litigation: Any hope for the common man?

The Osun State judiciary penultimate week experienced a shutdown, as the state chapter of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) called for a boycott of courts over hike in filing charges. OLUWOLE IGE and YEJIDE GBENGA-OGUNDARE in this report explore the issues raised during the protests, the legality of the boycott and the effect of the hike on lawyers and litigants.

The road to justice for litigants in Osun State may be very far with the recent protest by legal practitioners in the state over the recent hike in filing fees and other charges by the Chief Registrar of the High Court.

A majority of the litigants and other categories of people who have instituted civil or criminal matters in various courts in the state were suddenly caught in their strides about two weeks ago  when lawyers under the platform of Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Osun State chapter, boycotted courts to protest what they termed arbitrary increase in filing fees.

From Ile-Ife, Ilesa, Ikirun to Osogbo, lawyers mobilised themselves to block entrances to courts’ premises in their bid to force the state government to reverse the increase.

Some of the protesting lawyers described the upward review of charges as arbitrary and a ploy to make justice inaccessible to the people, adding that they were not carried along before the decision was made.

In a memorandum, dated February 24, 2016, and signed by Mr Taiwo Jacob, a Principal Registrar, the Chief Registrar had directed the State High Court, Customary Courts of Appeal, Customary Courts and the State Ministry of Justice, to comply with the upward review in fees payable to courts. The state government had increased writ of summon from N4,000 to N40,000, while a divorce petition has also jumped from N3,000 to N25,000, and oath fees were jerked up from N200 to N1000. This development drew the ire of the lawyers.

The protest, which commenced in Ile-Ife and Ilesa on Monday, paralysed social and economic activities in various courts as legal practitioners locked up courts gates, while copy typists within the courts complexes and stationery vendors lamented their losses as a result of  the lawyers demonstration

The state branch of the Nigerian bar Association, however, has not taking things lying low. Chairman of the Osogbo branch of the NBA, Mr Ashafa Sanusi, immediately instructed his colleagues not to file any process following the development.

“I have instructed legal practitioners under my umbrella not to allow any process to be filed on the heels of the ongoing protest against hike in filing charges,” Sanusi said.

His counterpart in Ile-Ife, Mr Murtala Agboola, also led fellow legal practitioners to embark on an indefinite boycott of courts in the city.

“We are protesting against the increment in filing fees. For there to be accessibility to justice, it must be affordable to all. If the government does not carry us along, it means definitely, they don’t want us to be part of the decision. But they can’t just impose a decision on us,” he said.

The protest, however, took a new dimension on the March 2, 2017, when protesting lawyers prevented the state Chief Judge, Justice Adepele Ojo,  from entering the premises of the State High Court.

Justice Ojo’s vehicle was stopped by the lawyers who had locked the entrance gate of the Osun State High Court around 11.00am. Perturbed by their action, she instructed the lawyers to open the gate, but the legal practitioners declined, a development that drew the anger of the Chief Judge.

In her effort to let peace reign, she advised the lawyers to address their grievances through appropriate channel, instead of harassing judicial officers. She appealed to the lawyers to allow workers, who were already in the court before the gate was locked, to get out.

The Chief Registrar of the High Court, Mr Lawrence Arojo, implored  the lawyers to be calm, explaining that the CJ is an administrative officer of the judiciary, whose duties include seeking the welfare of the judicial officers.He explained that the lawyers should have explored several other mechanisms before resorting to shutting the court’s gates.

Speaking over the protest, the chairman of Ile-Ife branch of NBA, Mr Muritala Agboola, said the boycott of courts by lawyers is to express their displeasures over the increase in filing fees, adding that the protest would continue until government reverses it.

“For there to be accessibility to justice, it must be affordable to all. If the government does not carry us along, definitely they don’t want us to be part of the decision, but then, they can’t just impose a decision on us,” he told Sunday Tribune.

While contending that NBA would not accept such act from the state government, Agboola said the association was a stakeholder and nothing should be done without its consent.

He queried: “How can the present administration send a circular without NBA’s consent when we are not morons and think that we would accept it? It is totally unfair.

“The filing fees were increased from N5,000 to N40,000, and fees  for other processes have been increased from N3,000 to N30,000”.

Though Osun State judiciary is not the first to hike filing charges, it seems to be the first in recent times where the decision had led to protests by lawyers. Now, their counterparts from other states across the country are encouraging the lawyers not to relent in fighting for this cause as they believe it is in the interest of litigants.

This unflinching support from lawyers in other states raises some questions; is it legal for filing charges to increase? Who has the right to order the increase? Who pays filing charges? How does it affect litigants? Does it affect lawyers’ fees and how do lawyers charge clients?

Sunday Tribune found out that the judiciary can increase filing fees, though all stakeholders should be involved in the decision-making.

Further, litigants pay filing charges, not lawyers, so there is a tendency for litigants to find the increase burdensome as many find it difficult to even pay lawyers’ fees, which vary based on specific conditions.

Emeka Ozoani told Sunday Tribune that the judiciary has not erred in increasing fees as it is the constitutional duty of the Chief Judge to do this, adding that if the amount fixed is too high, the NBA has the right to take it up with the appropriate authorities, not through protests, especially since fees are paid by litigants.

“It was unnecessary for lawyers to embark on boycott of courts over filing fees. This is because it is the constitutional duty of the Chief Judge of the state to make rules of court and prescribe the filing fees payable for various categories of claims, pursuant to Section 274 of the Constitution of Nigeria 1999 as amended. After all, the fees are paid by litigants. “However, if there are issues arising from the amount of filing fees, it could be taken up with the Chief Judge and members of the Judicial Service Commission, who would then advise the Chief Judge appropriately,” Ozoani stated.

This line of thought was also expressed by the Chairman of the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Society in Oyo State, Mr Kole Ojo, who believes filing charges is not the business of lawyers.

“Honestly, why would a lawyer protest over filing fees? It is not his business. It is between the court and the client who are court users. If the court raises filing fees, this itself, will discourage unnecessary litigations and frivolous applications in cases, and lawyers will still be able to bill clients for their profit costs and disbursement. The judiciary should be encouraged to increase revenue,” he said.

Also backing this view, Abuja-based lawyer and activist, Barrister Ugochukwu Osuagwu, stated that, “there is no fixed scale for charging a client in Nigeria. Though some actions like human rights have fixed filing fees, heads of courts are free to increase filing fees to meet inflation trends and generate revenue. The strike by Osun lawyers is uncalled for,” Osuagwu concluded.

Gbenga Makinde, a barrister while speaking with Sunday Tribune, said though the judiciary has a right to increase filing charges, they must, however, carry stakeholders along.

“Filing fees is quite different and distinct from professional fees. No doubt, the government is expected to make the courts accessible to the common man, filing fees shouldn’t be jerked up arbitrarily without necessary consultations with the stakeholders; the NBA.

“Regarding charges, lawyers levy clients. Several factors determine this; the nature of the case, what it involves, level of legal expertise required to execute it, the distance (a matter may be in Abuja and the lawyer in Ibadan), age/ level of the lawyer at the bar, sometimes the sensitivity/nature of the case etc.

All these determine the lawyer’s fees. If costs are arbitrarily fixed, then the litigant will bear the brunt along with the earlier mentioned factors,” Makinde stated.

The former chairman of Nigeria Bar association (NBA), Ikeja, Dave Ajetomobi, however, believes that though the judiciary has the rights to fix costs, lawyers also have the right to fight against anomalies targeted against the people.

According to him, “the increase in cost may just be out of the reach of the common man, especially in a poor state like Osun. I believe the action of the lawyers is in order.

We are the voice of the voiceless. Ikeja did it in 2003, when similar situation happened in Lagos. If the judiciary is the last hope of the common man, it must remain accessible to the common man.

“Commercialisation of justice must be resisted by lawyers. It is a pity that Lagos state branches are not as vibrant as they used to be. The Ikeja Bar, known for activism, has been plunged into crises by the powers that be, hence it can do nothing about the recent commercialisation of judiciary archives in the state.

“I support the Osun branches in the quest for justice for the underprivileged citizens of Osun State. If the cost is transferred to clients, can they pay in these times of recession? Given the fact that Osun is not industrialised, like Lagos, I have practiced there – it is not easy to survive.

“What we charge at Magistrate’s court in Lagos cannot be charged at High Court there. Many cases are handled on family and friend basis, high fees will make such difficult. You charge based on reality of his environment,” Ajetomobi said.

Another legal practitioner, Kunle Kamisi, also holds this belief. All professional bodies are more or less pressure groups with defined purposes in the society. Lawyers in particular, and by virtue of their callings, are advocates for the masses. Anything or any government policy, or action that is capable of limiting access to justice will be frowned on by lawyers,” he said.

“Unreasonable increase in filing fees is an action contrary to the need to make access to justice easier for the people. The society needs justice and it should not be curtailed. It should be available like air we breathe. Without justice, there would be anarchy. Yes, lawyers can charge fees, but more often they have to contend with the ability of their client to pay.

“Apart from professional fees, the client is responsible for the filing fees, hence the need to make it reasonable, and not based on economic advantage or profit,” he said.

Also speaking, lawyer Ikechukwu Ikeji stated that “the protest is well founded. Increasing filing fees unilaterally without input from lawyers is inimical to the growth of the legal profession. Some clients may not understand if you increase the fees you charge them. Yes, such fees can be passed to the client but it may be an unnecessary burden on clients that are already scared of paying lawyers,” Ikeji said.

In his opinion, lawyer Taoheed Asudemade, said court charges are outrageous. The increase is on the lawyer, but it will eventually bounce back on the client. A charge of N2, 000 that is increased to N5, 000 for example, will mean that the lawyer will further transfer the burden to the client by increasing his own fees.  Filing fees are not covered by lawyer’s fees.

The lawyer’s professional fee is his own, while the court gets filing fee,” he said.

Also supporting the Osun State lawyers, Mr Shuaib Alaran said, “The boycott is in order. If the court is meant to be the hope of the common man, then the cost of litigation should not be made to be extraordinarily exorbitant. It is true that these fees are meant to be charged together with the professional fees a lawyer is charging his client, but once it is too high, the clients gets discouraged. The effect is that the client finds it difficult to seek remedies for his injuries and the number of cases coming to a lawyer becomes lower as a result. We should not forget practice is a trade,” he said.

Barrister Kayode Ajayi believes that, “sudden increase in filling fees is a way of shutting the doors of justice on the common man and the argument that lawyers will include it in his fees will not hold waters as access to justice will become prohibitive, which the down-trodden will not be aable to afford.”