Do you need a license to practice law? Not if you’re representing yourself. Otherwise, it depends who you ask. But if you ask the government it’ll say yes, and that’s really the answer you should go with. I mean, who is this other person you were planning to ask? What’s that all about?
A license is also required in Kenya, at least if you want to practice as an advocate before the High Court. To do that, you must first get a law degree, pass a bar exam, and get a “practicing certificate,” thus becoming a member of the Law Society of Kenya. Representing others without doing this is a crime.
But what if you’re really good at it?
As the BBC and many others have noted, the Law Society has called for prosecuting a man who’s allegedly been practicing before the High Court without a certificate for some time now, even though—at least according to local media—he has won “dozens of lawsuits” despite lacking any legal training. According to a statement on the LSK’s website, this came to light after a lawyer named Brian Mwenda Ntwiga tried to access the site to apply for a certificate. Ntwiga was admitted to the bar in August 2022, but didn’t need a practicing certificate right away because he went to work for the Attorney General (a statutory exception). When he tried to get one last month, the system told him he already had one. That was news to him, and he asked officials to investigate.
They found that a “masquerader” had managed to con them into giving him access to the site, using what they called “a common international fraud scheme known as Business Email Compromise (BEC).” That’s a fancy term for sending an email to a business that gets them to compromise a secured system. According to the LSK, the masquerader took advantage of his very similar name, Brian Njagi Mwenda, to get access to the account of Brian Mwenda Ntwiga. He then set up a page for himself, posted his picture, and applied for a certificate.
The LSK says it didn’t give him a certificate, because he didn’t submit some of the paperwork required to get one. But it appears that the masquerader didn’t let that stop him from heading over to the High Court and advocating for people. According to the New York Times, he also managed to get a job with a law firm, where he worked “until he bungled some cases and was fired.”
As that suggests, whether the fake lawyer actually won all or most of his cases, as some have reported, or for that matter any cases at all, remains to be seen. The LSK’s president, Eric Theuri, has said there is no factual basis for that claim. But others rushed to the masquerader’s defense without worrying too much about “facts.”
They included Mike Sonko, a former governor of Nairobi who seems to be sort of the Donald Trump of Kenya. Known for “flouting” parliamentary rules, “including incidences of inappropriate dressing,” Sonko successfully ran for governor in 2017 despite a criminal record, but was indicted for corruption in 2019 and impeached (and removed) in 2020. He enjoys social media, and was quick to use it to defend the alleged criminal despite almost certainly knowing nothing about the case. “I WILL BAIL OUT THIS COMRADE AND SPONSOR HIM,” Sonko wrote in all caps. (In Sonko’s defense, his Twitter account shows he is generally much better at capitalization than Trump is.)
As the BBC reported, Sonko posted a video last week in which he appeared with the accused masquerader, who made a brief statement:
The man in the video, who appeared to be Mr [Njagi], said: “I would like to convey my gratitude to the people that are supporting me and praying for me… in the fullness of time I will be able to clear [up] this misunderstanding.
“I will be also be able to provide my innocence and provide the actual context.”
Yes, in the fullness of time all will become clear, but not today, apparently. Sonko chimed in, calling Njagi’s accusers “nincompoops” and arguing he had done nothing wrong, or at least nothing important. “He’s never killed anyone, he’s not a terrorist,” Sonko said, although he almost certainly doesn’t know that for sure, either.
To be fair, Njagi is not accused of and was not charged with murder or terrorism when he finally showed up in court—accompanied by Sonko—on Wednesday. (You can find additional videos and images of this event on Sonko’s Twitter account, if you want.) According to The Standard, Njagi was charged with identity theft, forgery, and four other crimes, probably including violation of the Advocates Act, but they didn’t make that clear. If Mike Sonko is planning to bail him out, he will have to wait until Monday, according to this report. (I guess unsurprisingly, there are at least two Twitter accounts purporting to be one of the Brian Mwendas involved in this controversy, but I’m not going down that rabbit hole.)
This is hardly the first time that a non-lawyer has posed as one in Kenya. The BBC also linked to this 2018 report about the arrest and conviction of someone who tried to pose as a lawyer in a property matter. In that case, the masquerader was discovered by other lawyers who “suspected his weird behavior while in court and his difficulties in understanding the court process,” and all I can say is I’m glad those people weren’t around when I was getting started.