A.C. Abuah V. Legal Practitioners Committee (1962)
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On 29th January, 1962, an enquiry was held into the conduct of Alfred Chukwuemeka Abuah, a legal practitioner of this Court. The Legal Practitioners’ Committee set up under the Legal Practitioners Act, Cap. 101, which met that day to consider the conviction in the High Court of the Eastern Region of Mr. Abuah, decided that it would act in accordance with Section 31 of the Legal Practitioners Act without going into the facts of his case again; having satisfied itself from the proceedings in the High Court, as well as proceedings on an appeal to the Federal Supreme Court, that his behaviour amounts to professional misconduct and he should be brought up in this Court In accordance with the Legal Practitioner’s Act.
In the High Court of the Eastern Region, Mr. Abuah was convicted on three counts charging him with forgery, uttering and obtaining money by false pretences. The charges laid are as follows:
Count one- Forgery contrary to Section 467 of the Criminal Code in that they on the 27th day of May, 1960, at Abe in the Abe Judicial Division in the Umuahia Province forged a document purported to have been made by one Lawani Lucas Akande:
Count two – Uttering a false document contrary to Section 468 of the Criminal Code in that they on the 28th day of May, 1960, at Abe in the Aba Judicial Division in the Umuahia Province knowingly and fraudulently uttered a false document:
Count three – Obtaining money by false pretences contrary to Section 419 of the Criminal Code in that they on the 3rd day of June 1960 at Abe in the Abe Judicial Division in the Umuahia Province with intent to defraud induced A.U. Nweke, Acting Registrar, Magistrate Court, Abe, to deliver to them the sum of £100 by falsely pretending that they were authorized by Mr. Akande to collect the said £100.
The facts which gave rise to these charges are shortly this: Mr. Abuah appeared for one Akande in the Magistrates Court, Aba, in a matter under the Workmen’s Compensation Act. A sum of £100 was offered to Akande and on his behalf his counsel accepted it as a final settlement of the claim. The amount was paid into Court in favour of Akande who was prevented from drawing it from the Registrar of Court by various devices on the part of his Counsel Mr. Abuah. Meanwhile Mr. Abuah made efforts to draw the money, but the Registrar asked him to produce an authority from Akande. Thereupon Abuah got his typist, one Joseph Nzekudu, a boy of eighteen who was eventually charged with him, to produce a document to the Registrar purporting to have been signed by Akande and authorizing the payment to the Solicitor Abuah of the sum of £100. The money was eventually paid to Abuah and he issued a receipt. In fact this document by which the money was drawn was not made or signed by Akande; it was prepared on the instructions of Mr. Abuah who procured young Joseph Nzekudu to thumb impress it. Abuah then made a verification to the document and wrote the name of Akande on the thumb impressed portion.
It seems to us unnecessary to go further into the facts of the case against Mr. Abuah in the High Court because there was no argument before us that the case was wrongly decided or that certain factors were not taken into consideration by the trial Judge. The first point to consider therefore is whether conviction for a criminal offence is sufficient misconduct and a ground for striking a legal practitioner off the roll or suspend him temporarily from practice or reprimand him.
Mr. Moore, for Abuah, very properly threw his client at the mercy of the Court. He admitted that a conviction for such serious offences like forgery, uttering and obtaining money by false pretences constitute misconduct on the part of a legal practitioner. In mitigation, however, he prays that the Court should exercise leniency in the matter and should take into consideration that Abuah has been sufficiently punished by means of the convictions and sentences recorded against him. He has an aged mother and family who would be adversely affected if he were struck off the roll.
Where a legal practitioner is convicted of a criminal offence, prima facie, the conviction makes him unfit to continue as a practitioner. But the Court will always examine the nature of the crime and the circumstances surrounding it before deciding whether or not to strike the practitioner off the roll.
In the case In re a Solicitor. Ex Parte Incorporated Law Society, 61 L.T. 842, it was urged that where a solicitor had been convicted of a crime, it followed as a matter of course that he must be struck off; but it was held by Baron Pollock and Manisty, J. ‘that although his being convicted of a crime prima facie made him liable to be struck off the roll, the Court has a discretion and must enquire into what kind of a crime it is he has been convicted, and the Court may punish him to a less extent than if he had not been punished in the criminal proceeding.”
We think it is plain and it is commonsense that the Court is not bound to strike a man off the rolls unless it is satisfied that the criminal offence of which he has been convicted Is of such a nature as to make him unfit to practise without loss of self respect, or whether one can still consider him a fit and proper person to be entrusted with the grave responsibilities which are demanded of a member of the profession.
In the case of Re Hill, L.R. 3 Q.B. 543, it was held that the suggestion that the power to strike off the roll exists only where there has been some professional misconduct is clearly wrong and that that will be placing too narrow a limit on the powers the Court exercises over its officers.
And so, in the case In Re King (1845) 15 L.J. Q. B. 2 where an Attorney who was convicted upon an indictment for conspiracy to defraud had the judgment reversed on appeal on the ground of insufficiency of the indictment, he was nevertheless struck off the roll because the act of misconduct imputed to him was obvious from the evidence for the jury to convict and there was no specific denial of the offence. Delivering the judgment of the Court, Lord Denman, CA., said:
‘We have been pressed with the argument that as the judgment upon the indictment upon which this person has been found guilty, has been reversed, his conviction ought not to weigh with us in our decision upon the present application. But we are all of the opinion that the reversal of the judgment, because the indictment was held to be insufficient in form, ought not to determine the question.
We find it necessary, therefore, to revert to the principle laid down by Lord Mansfield in Ex Parts Brounsall, and to enquire whether after the conduct of this man, it is proper that he should continue a member of a profession which should stand free from all suspusion ……”
That case Ex parts Brounsall (2 Cowp.829) was an application to strike an Attorney off the roll having been convicted for stealing a sum of 21/-.
In the case, In Re Weare, (1893) 2 Q.B. 439, a solicitor was struck off the roll on the ground that he has been summarily convicted of allowing houses, of which he was the landlord, to be used by the tenants as brothels.
All these cases seem to me to have made it clear and to have authoritatively laid down that an Attorney may be struck off the roll for an offence committed by him, not his character as an Attorney or having relation to his character as an Attorney.
Now, what is the nature of the present offence for which Abuah was convicted, and in what circumstances was the offence committed? It is beyond any shadow of doubt that the offence was one committed by him in his character as a legal practitioner or in relation to his character as a legal practitioner. It was in his dealing with a client that he committed the three offences he was charged with. He did more than commit the offences himself but also procured a young lad to commit a very serious offence. His behaviour was one of dishonesty throughout. As Cockbum C.J. said in Re Hill L.R. 3 Q.B.D. 543,
“When an Attorney does that which involves dishonesty, it is for the interest of the suitors that the Court should interfere and prevent a man guilty of such misconduct from acting as an Attorney of the Court.”
Legal Practitioners are officers of the Court. It our bounden duty to see that officers of the Court are men of integrity who should be trusted not only by the Court but also by the public for whom they act. We are in this respect carrying out a sacred duty by acting as judges of their conduct. By enrolling them we present them to the public as men the public can with confidence employ to carry out the duties and responsibilities appertaining to their all important office. We therefore owe it to the public to see that members of the public are not exposed to risks in their dealings with these men. No one is more aware of the fact than this Court that not all cases of misconduct do find their ways to the Legal Practitioners Committee to be dealt with for misconduct, but wherever they are brought to the notice of this Court, we must do our duty. And this is not only in respect of cases like the present where the misconduct had been connected with the profession of the legal practitioner but also in cases where the conduct, though not so connected, is such as to make it obvious to us that the legal practitioner is no longer a fit and proper person and not of sufficient respectability to be entrusted with the duties which the honourable profession demands from its members and with which it enjoins them. We do not say that striking off the rolls should follow all cases of legal practitioners who have been convicted of criminal offences. Much will depend upon the nature of the crime.
There may be cases deserving only a suspension from practice for a fixed period or for which a reprimand would be a suitable and adequate punishment. We can imagine a case of assault of a trifling nature where the Court would think it is not its duty to interfere, or other such like minor offences where it will be inopportune to interfere.
We cannot say such is the case here; we cannot think of a worse case of dishonesty than the present and we will be failing in our duty if we do not treat the matter with the utmost severity it deserves.
It was urged upon us that striking off the name of this man from the roll will be meting out to him a second punishment after his conviction for the offences he was charged with. We cannot accept this. His name will not be struck off as a second punishment but because he is not a fit and proper person to continue in the practice of an honourable profession.
We therefore order that the name of Mr. Alfred Chukwuemeka Abuah be struck off the roll of Legal Practitioners in Nigeria, and that this be communicated to the Benchers of the Honourable Society in England to which he belongs.
Respondent’s name struck off the Roll of Legal Practitioners.
Other Citation: (1962) LCN/0994(SC)