Tame Rogue Lawyers Subverting Justice
"A lawyer armed with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns”
— Don Vito Corleone , character in the epic novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Don Vito Corleone, the main character in Mario Puzo’s fiction novel, The Godfather, tells his son this to convince him not to follow his (father’s) footsteps into a life of crime. Now, Don Corleone happens to be a very successful Mafia don whose word was not just law, but meant life or death to anyone who crossed him in the New York of 1950s. He is telling his son that “ a lawyer armed with a briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns ” because he genuinely believes that the future belongs to the educated lawyer who will be able to manipulate the system in his favour with minimal risk to himself.
A story I read in the newspapers early this week made me stop taking Don Corleone’s words as a rather cynical outlook on life. This was the bizarre story of a 38-year old unemployed man who lost an arm in an industrial accident and now finds himself on the verge of losing to his lawyer and a mortuary (yes!) all the proceeds awarded to him by court. It happens that when David Sanguli— a former machine operator in a sisal factory in Taita Taveta— lost his arm he successfully sued his employer in 2008 and was awarded KShs 1.4million.
And that is when life took a rather strange turn for the father of four. Rather than sympathising with him for the loss of his arm in the course of work, the sisal factory had him fired. Chances are that at this point Sanguli did not mind too much because after all the court had awarded him what, in a Kenyan rural setting, amounted to a significant amount of money.
Sanguli was looking forward to starting a new life. Using the proceeds from the court award, he would perhaps set up an undemanding business in Taveta town and live happily ever after together with his family. But this was not to be. First, he had lawyers to pay. And although lawyers don’t come cheap, Sanguli’s lawyer in this matter charged him a leg and an arm—almost literally.
Out of the KShs 1.4million, the lawyer took the lion’s cut of KShs 900,000—now this works out to be 64.28% of the total awarded. You would think the lawyer had suffered more damages than his client in the machine accident! But Sanguli’s troubles were not over yet. Not by a long shot. When he went to the local district hospital mortuary where his severed arm had been stored (under police instructions) pending investigations, Sanguli was hit with another huge bill!
The mortuary wanted a cool half a million shillings as arm storage charges! Now, simple maths shows that KShs 900,000 plus KShs 500,000 adds up to KShs 1.4million. How much had been total award Sanguli had received from the court? KShs 1.4million. Granted, lawyers have to ‘ eat’ (and I use that term in all its possible meanings—especially slang). Mortuaries too have bills to pay and expenses to meet. But it smacks of absolute immorality when a man loses an arm; his lawyer decides to ‘ take his other arm’ (how else do you describe the decapitating effect of the exorbitant legal fees?) and a mortuary wants to run away with his legs.
It was good that the media highlighted Sanguli’s case. But that is not enough. Publicity will not necessarily make the lawyer charge Sanguli more reasonable fees. What Sanguli ought to do is to go to court and seek taxation of the bill (legal jargon for asking court to assess the fees charged against the work done). And sadly, Sanguli’s is not the only case where lawyers end up making more money out of their clients’ misfortunes and driving the clients into life of absolute poverty or endless litigation.
There are many unreported incidents of lawyers pocketing insurance payments for accident victims; —the dead, the injured and the living. Unfortunately, these cases are not as bizarre and sensational as that of Sanguli and his lost arm. Therefore, the victims of such cases of injustice—from the very people who are supposed to be custodians of law— end up suffering in silence with no one to turn to. The Law Society of Kenya (LSK), the Judiciary and human rights bodies should find ways of taming these rogue lawyers because their actions subvert justice more than anything else.
Left unchecked, such lawyers will make clients believe as absolute truth the cynical assessment of lawyers versus criminals by Don Corleone that “a lawyer armed with a briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.” As it is now, if you asked David Sanguli whom he would have preferred meeting in a dark corner between a lawyer and a group of men with guns, most likely he will go for the men with guns because they are likely to sympathise with a one armed poor fellow!