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How to escape lawsuits, jail terms

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By Barrister Carl Umegboro

Many a time, people carelessly suffer as a result of being ignorant of the laws until after offences or crimes have been committed. Majority only get to discover they have committed an offence at a Police station or other law enforcement facilities after being arrested. In their defence, it is always – “I don’t know it’s a crime”. Incidentally, ignorance of the laws is not an excuse. For instance, recently, Idris Okuneye, widely known as Bobrisky, a controversial transgender was arraigned in the Federal High Court in Lagos for money laundering and abuse of naira notes. He was convicted and in allocutus, pleaded ‘ignorance of the law. Of course, the law accordingly took its course. During the sentencing, the court handed him a 6-month jail term without option of fine. What an avoidable predicament!

This defence has also been the lot of many people on trial or convicted already by our courts. The reason is that societies are guided by laws and when broken, knowingly or unknowingly, the law takes its cause in wrath. It’s immaterial if the offender is aware of the law or not as long as it has become operative. So, many learn from these bitter experiences which shouldn’t be so. This oversight also affects most business owners who simply register a business name or incorporate a company but don’t know their mandatory civic obligations on such a venture. For example, there are statutory annual returns business-owners are duty bound to file yearly which may result in striking out the company or business name from CAC (Corporate Affairs Commission) alongside other sanctions. To make it worse, the law empowers another person to acquire, register and use any business names or company names struck out from the CAC register as a new business. Imagine your business name or company name for decades suddenly acquired by another person, maybe your competitor.

Presently, the federal government is putting actions together to go against such defaulters. In the United States, former President Donald Trump has been in court to clear himself from the charges of tax evasion. So, it is a conventional standard practice. In a nutshell, it is dangerous to register a business or own a company but not file the statutory returns yearly. As we speak, thousands of business and company owners are liable to this. Some are not even aware of these obligations as many were probably not thoroughly briefed about registering a business name or owning a company. This is among the risks of not engaging a legal practitioner.

So, this is where engaging a legal practitioner for legal advice and opinion comes to bare. It could be by retainer or periodic consultancy. Engaging a lawyer will prevent the ‘ignorance of law’ defences. It saves from distress and prevents a lot of problems. Legal retainership refers to a contractual relationship between a lawyer/law firm and a client (individual or corporation) either on a general or special retainer basis. A retainer agreement is useful for people and business enterprises, particularly small ones that need regular legal work or assistance but do not need a full-time attorney on staff.

Many small-business owners and some individuals retain a lawyer/law firm on a monthly fee, so the attorney is available whenever needed. It saves a lot for the business enterprise or individual as the retainership makes an attorney available for legal advice and directions. By ‘rule of law’, it implies the law rules; therefore, having a lawyer or law firm retainer cannot be a bad idea. It is noteworthy that all aspects of life endeavours are subject to the positions laid down by laws. There are other compelling reasons to consider seeking legal opinion and advice.

Second is that lawyers by their training understand better and know how to negotiate settlements and plea bargains. A lawyer sees what a non-lawyer cannot see as a practicing lawyer knows and follows the law. An experienced lawyer probably has seen or handled a similar case, and therefore in a better position to make calculated guesses about how it might end in trial. Above all, as laws are prominently, superlatively made by the courts by case laws and judicial precedent in the course of its statutory duty of interpreting the laws made by the legislatures, it is advisable that while everyone should endeavor to know the enacted laws, a lawyer should be consulted to know the ultimate position beyond the enacted laws from the case laws.

Furthermore, the Law is complicated. It can be complicated for practicing lawyers as each area has its unique procedures to scale through. Even experienced lawyers typically do not represent themselves in court despite the fact they are not restricted. Then, imagine a non-lawyer taking some vital actions without being guided by a lawyer that has a good understanding of the area. It is in the light of this that lawyers tend to specialize in one or more legal practice areas such as criminal, civil, constitutional, human rights, family, corporate, property, maritime, tax law, etc.

Finally is that hiring a lawyer to guide in most undertakings will help you avoid potential legal headaches. For instance, do you really understand the fine print of that contract you are signing and what it will mean for you down the road? A lawyer will. Many from record have ignorantly signed agreements that ended up not in their favour or did not represent their interest as hoped. Let a lawyer guide you before taking any serious action that affects another person, company or governments. This is because virtually all actions are regulated by laws. One funny sticker in bold letters displays; ‘Wetin lawyers dey do sef?’ which translates to “what do lawyers even do?” Don’t allow yourself to fall victim, only to plead ‘ignorance of the law’. A stitch in time, they say, saves nine.

Umegboro, ACIArb is a Counsel at Professor Mike Ozekhome (SAN) Chambers, and reachable on 08023184542, 08173184542.

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