The controversy generated by the query raised by former Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Lead Prosecutor, Mr. Jibrin Okutepa SAN on the legality of paying Bar Practice Fees via NBA portal may not go away very soon.

Okutepa had in a post he made on a CITY LAWYER WhatsAPP platform argued that there is no legal basis for NBA to receive BPF from lawyers, saying: “where does NBA derive its powers to collect practising from lawyers and direct that payment shall be online through portal created by NBA.”

In this piece made available to CITY LAWYER, former NBA presidential candidate and erstwhile Deputy Director-General at the Nigerian Law School, PROF. ERNEST OJUKWU SAN aligns with the NBA leadership, arguing that the association merely acts as a “cashier” for the Supreme Court in receiving BPF.

Below is the full text of his opinion.

I read the explanation of the Nigerian Bar Association on the payment of Bar Practicing Fee through a mandatory online portal. The NBA explanation was a response to the controversial discussions generated by the issues raised by distinguished member, JS. Okutepa SAN.

There is no legal impediment from the Legal Practitioners Act or any law to the use of NBA online portal for the payment of our practice fee. There is also no detriment except maybe the charge of nearly N500 by paystack for the service which the leadership of NBA should renegotiate urgently to not more than N100.

The legal basis for this position is that no law, including the LPA provides “how” to pay the practice fee. LPA only states “who” to pay to. And that “who” to pay to is not violated by the use of NBA online portal. The NBA explanation on this clearly states that “All BPF payments made through the Online Portal are,… paid directly to an already existing Supreme Court Bar Practicing Fee Account. The NBA, through the Online Payment Portal, only provides a gateway or platform for a seamless payment…” (emphasis mine).

That Supreme Court Bar Practice fee account is managed by the Registrar Supreme Court (and since about 2011 in conjunction with NBA). The NBA online portal does not “receive” money and keep it. The portal is only the CASHIER like the cashier-teller at the bank, who takes the money and hands over to the bank who now keeps the money. In the online system, the portal (cashier) does not even touch or see money. It only receives instructions that requests it to request the movement of money from one bank account to another account- in this case to the Supreme Court Bar Practice fee account.

Many years ago, payment of Bar Practice fee was to Cashiers at the Supreme Court. The Registrar was not given the money in his hand. The payment to cashiers was not provided in the LPA. It was solely based on the fact that the Registrar had delegated the collection of the fee to his staff- cashiers. Later the Registrar now asked banks to provide the cashiers at the Supreme Court. So, we moved from paying Registrar staff who were the cashiers to paying cashiers who worked directly with banks but had their kiosks at the Supreme Court premises. The delegation to bank cashiers was also not provided in the LPA. Then we moved to the next stage of allowing members to go to designated bank and pay directly into the bank account of the Registrar’s Supreme Court Bar Practicing fee account. So instead of travelling to Abuja and to the Supreme Court, members could pay to bank cashiers at the designated bank in any part of Nigeria. That mode of paying directly to the banks is also not in the LPA. In 2019/2020 the last NBA administration achieved the outcome of getting a hybrid payment mode- either by members going to the banks or making online transfer of our bar practice fee. Now we have conquered this low hanging fruit by making it one mode- pay online.

For an online payment to work, the signatory to the account must authorize it. It is therefore clear that the Registrar of the Supreme Court who is the signatory to the Supreme Court Bar Practice Fee account authorized this mode of receiving money by the bank where he keeps our money. Nobody can operate an online payment portal without authorizing it. No bank will operate it unless the signatories authorized it.

NBA does not primarily receive the bar practice fee paid by members except when accounts are reconciled, and the Registrar authorizes the percentage pay over to the Bar as stated in the LPA. That has not changed with the online payment mode.

Over the years the Registrar Supreme Court only prescribed who his cashiers were (are). The Registrar has just decided to make the online portal his cashier. Nothing spoil as we say.

We must commend the Registrar Supreme Court for implementing this best practice and the Nigerian Bar Association leadership and NEC for the bold step on providing a digital payment platform for the profession. This is one of the strongest measures for accountability! I hear that SPIDEL members can only now pay their membership dues online. I hear that NBA Lagos members can only pay their branch dues online. I was at the meeting of NBA Aba branch in September 2021 when they launched their POS for payment. Kudos, but they still need to move to online payment completely. What is happening with the other branches? Please take our branches out of the list of our profession’s weakest link!!!

2nd January 2022
Ernest Ojukwu

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