Jurisdiction of Courts and Cases in Nigeria

Jurisdiction of Courts and Cases in Nigeria

The jurisdiction of a Court over cases in Nigeria cannot be assumed or implied. The Constitution or the enabling statute establishing the court provides its powers and jurisdiction. The aim of this article is to examine the Jurisdiction of courts and cases in Nigeria.

What is jurisdiction?

Generally, the word “jurisdiction” means the authority which a Court has to decide matters that are before it or take cognizance of matters before it in a formal way for its decision. See; Mobil Production Nigeria Limited v. Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency & Ors. (2002) 14 SCM 167 at 179.

The rule of jurisdiction of a Court has it that nothing is intended to be beyond the jurisdiction of a superior Court, such as the Court below, unless specifically stated otherwise by the Constitution and/or statute creating/vesting the superior Court with jurisdiction vide the old English cases of The Mayoretc of London v. cox (1867) 2 L.R.H.L. 239 at 259.

Nature of jurisdiction of Court and jurisdictional limits

Jurisdiction is the authority which a Court has to decide matters that are before it or take cognizance of matters in a formal way for its decision. It is the power of the Court to decide a matter in controversy and presupposes the existence of a duly constituted Court with control over the subject matter and the parties.

Jurisdiction defines the power of Courts to inquire into facts, apply the law, make decisions and declare judgment. It is the legal right by which Judges exercise their authority. It is trite that jurisdiction is a hard matter of law that can only be determined in the light of the enabling statute.- UBA STOCKBROKERS LTD & ANOR v. UGWU (2021) LPELR-53189(CA)

A Court of law cannot add to or subtract from the provisions of a statute. As a matter of law, a Court must blindly follow and apply the jurisdictional limits and limitations as contained or provided in a statute.

In this and other situations, the statute is the master and all that a Court of law can do is to interpret the provisions of a statute to obtain or achieve the clear intentions of the lawmaker. A Court cannot do more than this – Anibi Vs Shotimehin (1993) 3 NWLR (Pt 282) 46.

Basis of jurisdiction of Court

In considering whether a Court has jurisdiction to entertain a matter, it has to be borne in mind that jurisdiction of a Court is not assumed, but must be based on the provisions of a statute. The jurisdiction of the Court does not derive from the sky or to put it in the Latinism, in nubibus. It is statutory. See IKECHUKWU vs. FRN (2015) LPELR (24445) 1 at 16. The jurisdiction of a Court is not something you employ a searchlight to discover, it must be plain for all to see. OBI vs. INEC (2007) 11 NWLR (PT 1046) 565 at 669.

Guiding principles for the exercise of jurisdiction

The jurisdiction of a Court is confined, limited and circumscribed by these creating laws. Courts in essence cannot give themselves or expand their jurisdictional horizon by misappropriating or misconstruing the law(s) that created them. Jurisdiction cannot be compromised. So also parties cannot by consent or agreement confer jurisdiction on a Court where a Court has none.

The competence of a Court to adjudicate upon a matter is therefore a legal and constitutional prerequisite without which a Court is lame duck. Our law reports are replete with a plethora of authorities on these legal principles.

Furthermore, in determining the jurisdiction of a Court, the court has to look at the law vesting jurisdiction on the Court and the reliefs.

If the reliefs sought come within the jurisdiction of the Court, as portrayed by the facts of the reliefs sought, the Court shall assume jurisdiction as it then has jurisdiction in the matter. On the contrary, if the reliefs sought do not come within the jurisdiction of the Court as portrayed by the facts thereof, the Court must decline adjudication as it has no jurisdiction in the matter.

Meaning of the term “Court of competent jurisdiction

A Court of competent jurisdiction denotes a Court that has the power or authority to adjudicate upon a particular act (matter). That is to say, a Court duly recognized by law as possessing the right, power or authority to adjudicate a dispute or controversy.

A Court devoid of jurisdictional competence may be likened to a ‘Kangaroo Court’ properly so-called. Most interestingly, it is trite that a Kangaroo Court is a caricature, self appointed tribunal or mock Court in which the rules of law and justice are wantonly disregarded, perverted, or parodied.

Kangaroo Courts may be assembled by various groups, such as prisoners in a jail (to settle disputes between inmates) and players on a baseball team (to “punish” team mates who commit fielding errors). … A Court or tribunal characterized by unauthorized or irregular procedures, especially so as to render a fair possible proceeding impossible … A sham legal proceeding.-MUYIDEEN v. NBA & ANOR (2021) LPELR-55885(SC).

Conditions for the assumption of jurisdiction by the court

Court of law has jurisdiction to hear a matter when:

  1. it is properly constituted as regards numbers and qualifications of members of the bench, and no member is disqualified for one reason or another; and
  2. the subject matter of the case is within its jurisdiction, and there is no feature in the case which prevents the Court from exercising its jurisdiction; and
  3. the case comes before the Court initiated by due process of law, and upon fulfillment of any condition precedent to the exercise of jurisdiction. see Madukolu v. Nkemdilim (2006) 2 LC 2081961) NSCC (vol. 2) 374 at 379.

The three ingredients must co-exist in order to infuse jurisdiction in a Court. Where a Court is does not have jurisdiction to handle a matter, the proceedings, no matter the quantum of industry, artistry, dexterity or transparency will be a nullity, see Agbiti v. Nigeria Navy (2011) 4 NWLR (Pt. 1236) 175

In Barclays Bank of Nig. v. Central Bank of Nigeria (1976) 6 SC 175 at 188 this Court said: “Moreover, there is a clear distinction between stating that the Court has no jurisdiction to hear a case, and stating that that Court has no jurisdiction to determine whether or not it has jurisdiction to hear the case. Thus, a Court may, by statute, lack jurisdiction to deal with a particular matter, but it has jurisdiction to decide whether or not it has jurisdiction to deal with such matters.

Importance of jurisdiction and effect of proceedings where Court lacks jurisdiction

Jurisdiction is the life-wire of any adjudication. Where there is no jurisdiction to hear and determine a matter, everything done in such want of jurisdiction is a nullity.-CORNELIUS & ANOR v. NWAJAH & ORS (2021) LPELR-55357(CA)

As such, the issue of jurisdiction is very paramount and can be raised at any stage of proceedings and even on appeal for the very first time. – See the cases of NURTW & ORS. V. RTEAN & ORS. (2012) LPELR-7840 (SC).

It is matters of substantive jurisdiction that can be raised at anytime and either viva voce or by motion and by the Court itself suo motu and which if resolved against a party renders the entire proceedings a nullity, not matters of procedural jurisdiction. See Odu’a Investment Co. Ltd Vs Talabi (1997) 10 NWLR (Pt 523) 1.

The fundamental nature of jurisdiction is that it does not exist in vacuum because all Courts of law derive their jurisdiction from the Constitution or other enabling statutes. Therefore, the issue of jurisdiction goes to the root of the matter and sustains or nullifies the decision of the Court on the matter.

Types of jurisdiction

There are also different kinds of jurisdiction. There is the Original jurisdiction of Court, Appellate jurisdiction, concurrent jurisdiction, exclusive jurisdiction, limited jurisdiction, unlimited jurisdiction, subject matter jurisdiction, territorial jurisdiction amongst others.-PROCON GROUP AFRICA LTD v. AYUBA (2020) LPELR-51189(CA)

What territorial jurisdiction implies

Territorial jurisdiction implies a geographical area within which the authority of the Court may be exercised and outside which the Court has no power to act. Jurisdiction, territorial or otherwise, is statutory.

Territorial jurisdiction may mean jurisdiction that a Court may exercise over persons residing or carrying on business within a defined area, or in respect of a contract where its terms bring it within the area. Or it may be administrative, governing which Court or which of its divisions may exercise jurisdiction over a matter.

Usually, criminal jurisdiction is dependent on the enabling law setting out the jurisdiction of the Court against the charge preferred against the accused person. In order to have jurisdiction, the Court must therefore be sure that the offence or crime is directly within the jurisdiction of the Court in the enabling law; Onwudiwe v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2006) LPELR-2715(SC). The Court cannot exercise jurisdiction where the offence or crime is outside the enabling law;Bakkat v FRN (2013) LPELR-22817(CA).

Criminal jurisdiction may also be exercised by a Court where elements of an alleged crime have been committed within the territorial jurisdiction of the Court; Njovens v State (1973) LPELR-2042(SC), (1973) All NLR 371

Determinant of territorial jurisdiction

Territorial jurisdiction of a court can be by the following: (a) The place of contract execution  (b) The place of contract performance (c) Where the defendant resides.-ARJAY LTD. & ORS v. A.M.S. Ltd (2003) LPELR-555(SC).

Whether parties can confer jurisdiction on the Court

Submitting to jurisdiction of a Court is no answer to want of jurisdiction. This must be so for a total want of jurisdiction cannot be by the assent of the parties.

What determines jurisdiction of Court to entertain a cause/matter

In the determination of jurisdiction of a court, the court should look at the enabling law vesting jurisdiction and the reliefs the party is asking for. The moment the relief sought comes within the jurisdiction of the court as adumbrated by the facts, the court must assume jurisdiction as it has jurisdiction to do so. Of course, the reverse position is also correct and it is that the moment the relief sought does not come within the jurisdiction of the court, as adumbrated by the facts, the court must reject jurisdiction as it has no jurisdiction in the matter. To that extent, jurisdiction looks almost like an exact formula in calculus, although it is devoid of actual figures and numbers.-ONWUDIWE v. F.R.N (2006) LPELR-2715(SC).

Nature of the inherent jurisdiction of court as distinct from its statutory jurisdiction

To understand the nature of the inherent jurisdiction of the Court, it is necessary to distinguish it first from the general jurisdiction of the Court, and next from its statutory jurisdiction. The term ‘inherent jurisdiction of the Court’ does not mean the same thing as ‘the jurisdiction of the Court’ used without qualification or description: the two terms are not interchangeable, for the ‘inherent’ jurisdiction of the Court is only a part or an aspect of its general jurisdiction.-AJAYI v. ALARAB PROPERTIES LTD (2021) LPELR-56073(CA)

The general jurisdiction of the High Court as a superior Court of record is limitless in all matters of substantive law, both civil and criminal, unless there is statutory enactment to that effect. The High Court is not subject to supervisory control by any other Court except by due process of appeal, and it exercises the full plenitude of judicial power in all matters concerning the general administration of justice within its area. Its general jurisdiction thus includes the exercise of an inherent jurisdiction.

There is, nevertheless, an important difference between the nature of the inherent jurisdiction of the Court and its statutory jurisdiction. The source of the statutory jurisdiction of the Court is of course the statute itself, which will define the limits within which such jurisdiction is to be exercised, whereas the source of the inherent jurisdiction of the Court is derived from its nature as a Court of law, so that the limits of such jurisdiction are not easy to define, and indeed appear to elude definition.

What determines the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court to entertain a matter

Section 251 of the Constitution provides for the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court. The implication is that actions or proceedings for declaration and injunction which affects the validity of any executive or administrative action of the Federal Government or its agency, the Federal High Court has and can exercise jurisdiction. See Abdulraheem & Ors vs. Oduleye & Ors (2019) LPELR-48892 (SC).

This means if the actions do not relate to the executive or administrative action of the Federal Government or its agencies, the action cannot be within the exclusive preserve of the Federal High Court. It therefore means that even if the action involves the Federal Government or its agency, if it does not involve their executive or administrative act, the Federal High Court cannot exercise exclusive jurisdiction.

The mere fact that the Federal Government or its agency is a party does not necessarily deprive the High Court of a State jurisdiction in a matter. Apart from the parties, the subject matter is also relevant to determine the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court. This provision is clear by the proviso in Section 251(1)(s).

The subject matter is therefore very important in determining the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court. The same Constitution that states the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court in Section 251 also in Section 272 states the jurisdiction of the High Court of a State. See TSKJ (Nig) Ltd vs. Otochem (Nig) Ltd (2018) 11 NWLR (Pt.1630) 343

When the Court of Appeal can exercise its Appellate jurisdiction/powers to hear and determine appeals

The Court of Appeal can only exercise its appellate jurisdiction and powers to hear and determine appeals from Court or Tribunal only when an Appellant exercises his right of appeal in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution and Statutes conferring Appellate jurisdiction on this Court and in consonance with the relevant of applicable Rules or Procedure.

  1. In RALPH UWAZURIKE & ORS VS. ATTORNEY-GENERAL OF THE FEDERATION (2007) 8 NWLR (PART 1035) 1 AT 13 where OGBUAGU, JSC held: “It is not in doubt that appeals are creatures of statutes. So, the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal to adjudicate on any matter brought before it is statutory and also guided by the Rules of the Court. The failure by any Appellant or Appellants to comply with statutory provision or requirement by the relevant law/laws or Rules under which such appeals may be competent, will certainly deprive the Appellate Court jurisdiction to entertain and or adjudicate on the appeal.
  2. NONYE IWUNZE VS. THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA (2014) 6 NWLR (PART 1404) 500 at 596 D-E where the apex Court in the land per RHODES – VIVOUR JSC had this to say: “The Constitution confers on the Court of Appeal jurisdiction to hear and determine appeals. The jurisdiction is statutory and also controlled by the rules of Court. The Court of Appeal would lack jurisdiction to hear an appeal if an Appellant fails to comply with statutory provisions or the relevant rules of the Court.

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