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The Supreme Court of Nigeria

The Supreme Court of Nigeria By Leesi Ebenezer Mitee

Copyright © 2008 Leesi Ebenezer Mitee

Establishment and Composition of Nigerian Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of Nigeria was first established under the 1954 Constitution of Nigeria as a Federal Supreme Court. Under the Constitution of the Federation of Nigeria 1963, several important changes were made to the Federal Supreme Court. First, the Federal Supreme Court was renamed the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Second, the Court became the final Court of Appeal. Hitherto, appeals in some cases went to Her Majesty in Council (Privy Council). However, under the Constitution of the Federation of Nigeria 1963 all appeals to the Privy Council ceased, and the Supreme Court became the final Court of Appeal to reflect the national sovereignty of Nigeria. Section 230 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 provides thus:

230. (1) There shall be a Supreme Court of Nigeria.

(2) The Supreme Court of Nigeria shall consist of –

(a) the Chief Justice of Nigeria; and

(b) such number of Justices of the Supreme Court, not exceeding twenty-one as may be prescribed by an Act of the National Assembly.

Section 231(3) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 stipulates: “a person shall not be qualified to hold the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria or of a Justice of the Supreme Court, unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been so qualified for a period of not less than fifteen years.”

Jurisdiction of Nigerian Supreme Court

Under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, the Supreme Court has both original and appellate jurisdiction:

232. (1) The Supreme Court shall, to the exclusion of any other court, have original jurisdiction in any dispute between the Federation and a State or between States if any dispute involves any question (whether of law or fact) on which the existence or extent of a legal right depends.

(2) In addition to the jurisdiction conferred upon it by subsection (1) of this section, the Supreme Court shall have such original jurisdiction as may be conferred upon it by any Act of the National Assembly:

Provided that no original jurisdiction shall be conferred upon the Supreme Court with respect to any criminal matter.

233. (1) The Supreme Court shall have jurisdiction to the exclusion of any other court of law in Nigeria to hear and determine appeals from the Court of Appeal.

Constitution of Nigerian Supreme Court

Section 234 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 provides for the number of Justices required to properly constitute the Supreme Court:

234. For the purpose of exercising any jurisdiction conferred upon it by this Constitution or any law, the Supreme Court shall be duly constituted if it consists of not less than five Justices of the Supreme Court:

Provided that where the Supreme Court is sitting to consider an appeal brought under section 233(2)(b) or (c) of this Constitution, or to exercise its original jurisdiction in accordance with section 233 of this Constitution, the Court shall be constituted by seven Justices.

By virtue of the said proviso to the said section 234, the Supreme Court shall be constituted by seven Justices where:

(a) it sits over decisions in any civil or criminal proceedings on questions as to whether any of the provisions on Fundamental Human Rights has been, is being, or is likely to be, contravened in relation to any person;  or (b)  it sits over decisions in any civil or criminal proceedings on questions as to the interpretation or application of the Constitution; or

(c)  it sits to exercise its original jurisdiction in accordance with section 232 of the Constitution which states: “The Supreme Court shall, to the exclusion of any other court, have original jurisdiction in any dispute between the Federation and a State or between States if any dispute involves any question (whether of law or fact) on which the existence or extent of a legal right depends.”

Precedent in the Nigerian Supreme Court

The Supreme Court would normally treat its previous decisions and those of the Privy Council with great respect, but it would not hesitate to depart from a previous decision if it is of the opinion that the decision was wrong and that following it would lead to injustice: EperokunvUniversity of Lagos (1986).  Recently, UwaifoJSC delivering the lead judgment of the Supreme Court in Okulatev Awosanya  (2000) 1 SC 107 at 112 – 113, declared as follows:

It is true that this Court is entitled to depart from or overrule its earlier decision when called upon to do so in an appropriate situation. It will have to be convinced to take that course if it is shown:

(1) that the previous decision is clearly wrong and there is a real likelihood of injustice being perpetuated: see Bucknor-Macleanv Inlaks Ltd.(1980) 8 – 11 SC 1; or

(2) that the previous decision was given per incuriam: see Odiv Osafile(1985) 1 NSCC 14; (1985) 1 NWLR (Part 1) 17; or

(3) that a broad issue of public policy was involved: seeBronik MotorsLtd.v Wema Bank Ltd.(1983) 5 SC 158; (1983) 14 NSCC 226 citing Jonesv Secretary of State(1972) 1 All ER 145 at 149, per Lord Reid.

In Adisav Oyinola(2002) FWLR (Part 8) 1349; (2002) 10 NWLR (Part 674) 116, the full court of the Supreme Court was empanelled to consider the extent and scope of section 236(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1979 (the unlimited jurisdiction of the State High Court) in relation to sections 39 and 41 of the Land Use Act. That led to the Supreme Court to revisit and explain its decisions in Salati v Shehu (1986) 1 NWLR (Part 15) 198; Sadikwuv Dalori(1996) 5 NWLR (Part 447) and eventually overruled Oyeniranv Egbetola(1997) 5 NWLR (Part 504) 122 when it held that the unlimited jurisdiction given to the High Court under the said section 236(1) conferred on the State High Court concurrent jurisdiction with the Area Courts and Customary Courts to decide land matters involving customary right of occupancy granted by a Local Government under the Land Use Act. See OgedengbevBalogun(2002) FWLR (Part 107) 1256 at 1262 – 1263.

Obviously, as the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court is not bound by the decision of any other court whatsoever in the country. However, it may elect to adopt a previous decision by a lower court, which it considers appropriate.

Appointment of Justices of the Nigerian Supreme Court

Section 231 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 makes provision for the appointment of Justices of the Supreme Court:

231. (1) The appointment of a person to the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.

(2) The appointment of a person to the office of a Justice of the Supreme Court shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.

(3) A person shall not be qualified to hold the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria or of a Justice of the Supreme Court, unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been qualified for a period of less than fifteen years.

Law, Practice and Procedure of Nigerian Supreme Court

The main statutes on the establishment and status of the Supreme Court are the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (especially sections 230 – 236) and the Supreme Court Act 1960.

The rules regulating the practice and procedure of the Supreme Court are contained in the following subsidiary legislation:

(a) Supreme Court Rules 1985; and

(b) Supreme Court (Amendment) Rules 1991.

 Judicial Division of Nigerian Supreme Court

Unlike all other courts in Nigeria, the Supreme Court of Nigeria has no judicial division. There is only one Supreme Court existing in only one location, formerly in Lagos, but now in Abuja (the new Federal Capital Territory).

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