An Overview of Administration of Justice under Nigerian Legal System
By Leesi Ebenezer Mitee
The Doctrine of Separation of Powers
The Doctrine of Separation of Powers was propounded by the French sociological jurist, Montesquieu (1689 – 1755), in one of his popular works – De l’Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws) in 1748. Professor Lloyd comments on his legal philosophy in The Spirit of the Laws as follows:
For Montesquieu mankind was influenced by a variety of factors: climate, religion, laws, maxims of government, morals and customs. The structure of a society thus hinged on the workings of many factors. He saw the individual as merely the instrument of historical change, “a passive element within a system conceived as the ceaseless interaction of moral and physical forces. . . Montesquieu argued that law was the product of numerous factors, for example local manners, custom, physical environment: a good law, he maintained, conformed to the spirit of society. 
The philosophy underlying the Doctrine of Separation of Powers is that the liberty of the individual is secure only if the three primary functions of the State (legislative, executive, and judicial) are exercised by distinct and independent organs.”  The Constitution of the United States of America  and those of many other countries (including the Nigerian Constitution) are based on this Doctrine.
Sections 4, 5, and 6 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 define legislative, executive, and judicial powers, respectively. Sections 47 – 129 (Chapter V) provide for the Legislature, sections 130 – 229 (Chapter VI) provide for the Executive, while sections 230 – 296 (Chapter VII) provide for the Judicature.
Judicial Powers of Courts
We have already appreciated the fact that a legal system is also concerned with the system of administration of justice. Administration of justice is the basic function of the Judiciary, which is usually one of the three arms of Government in a democratic setting. The other arms of Government are the Executive and the Legislature.
The courts are empowered to resolve disputes through the dispensation of justice guaranteed under section 6 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, which confers judicial powers on them:
6. (1) The judicial powers of the Federation shall be vested in the courts to which this section relates, being courts established for the Federation.
(2) The judicial powers of a State shall be vested in the courts to which this section relates, being courts established, subject as provided by this Constitution, for a State.
(3) The courts to which this section relates, established by this Constitution for the Federation and for the States, specified in subsection (5)(a) to (i) of this section shall be the only superior courts of record in Nigeria; and save as otherwise prescribed by the National Assembly or by the House of Assembly of a State, each court shall have all the powers of a superior court of record.
(4) Nothing in the foregoing provisions of this section shall be construed as precluding –
(a) the National Assembly or any House of Assembly from establishing courts, other than those to which this section relates, with subordinate jurisdiction to that of a High Court;
(b) the National Assembly or any House of Assembly, which does not require it, from abolishing any court which it has power to establish or which it has brought into being.
(5) This section relates to –
(a) the Supreme Court of Nigeria;
(b) the Court of Appeal;
(c) the Federal High Court;
(d) the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja;
(e) a High Court of a State;
(f) the Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja;
(g) a Sharia Court of Appeal of a State;
(h) the Customary Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja;
(i) a Customary Court of Appeal of a State;
(j) such other courts as may be authorised by law to exercise jurisdiction on matters with respect to which the National Assembly may make laws; and
(k) such other courts as may be authorised by law to exercise jurisdiction at first instance or on appeal on matters with respect to which a House of Assembly may make laws.
(6) The judicial powers vested in accordance with the foregoing provisions of this section –
(a) shall extend, notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this Constitution, to all inherent powers and sanctions of a court of law;
(b) shall extend to all matters between persons, or between government or authority and to any person in Nigeria, and to all actions and proceedings relating thereto, for the determination of any question as to the civil rights and obligations of that person;
(c) shall not, except as otherwise provided by this Constitution, extend to any issue or question as to whether any act or omission by any authority or person or as to whether any law or any judicial decision is in conformity with the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy set out in Chapter II of this Constitution;
(d) shall not, as from the date when this section comes into force, extend to any action or proceedings relating to any existing law made on or after 15th January, 1966 for determining any issue or question as to the competence of any authority or person to make any such law.
It should be noted that section 6(6) thereof specifies the extent of the judicial powers of the courts. The Court of Appeal, in Ladejobi v Oguntayo (2001) FWLR (Part 45) 780 at 793, defined judicial power as “the authority vested in courts and Judges to hear and decide cases and to make binding judgments on them; the power to construe and apply the law when controversies arise over what has been done or not done.” 
Basic Function of Courts
We may summarise the nature of the function of courts in the most succinct words of Eweluka, which we now quote in extenso:
“Generally, the courts have the last and the most authoritative say in the determination and pronouncement of what justice demands in every situation involving claims and counter-claims to legal rights and duties, but the justice meted out by the courts is human and not divine. It therefore lacks the perfection of divine justice based on the omniscience and absolute or unfailing wisdom of the Almighty. It is a product of a fair, impartial and consistent application of human laws to facts in dispute as adduced in evidence by the parties. No court has the divine gift of knowing precisely and accurately all the facts involved in any dispute or how best to resolve the dispute to ensure that each party gets his due. Therefore, it usually depends upon the parties to a dispute to prove their cases by furnishing it with all the facts in issue which it weighs and sifts, identifying and declaring those of them it has accepted to be true, material, and relevant. It also receives from the parties’ legal representatives legal arguments on the law applicable to the facts in issue as well as on the proper meaning and application of such law, selecting and indicating which of the arguments it has accepted to be valid. Finally, it disposes of the issues in dispute by applying the law selected, and as interpreted by it, to the facts accepted to be true, material and relevant.
In the exercise of these functions, the courts have a wide range of choices to make in each case; they are therefore vested with a great deal of discretionary powers. But as a human institution partaking of all the weaknesses and frailties of human nature, the courts can be biased, influenced, unreasonable or mistaken in the exercise of the discretion. As a result, guidelines are usually provided to control and regulate their choice of law and facts; they are expected to follow well-known and accepted principles of statutory construction and to accept the binding authority of judicial precedents . . .” 
The Supreme Court reiterated the proper function of courts in Sagay v Sajere (2000) 4 SC (Part 1) 187 at 193 where it held that the decision of a court must be based on the evidence and on reason. It should not be based on the intuition of the Judge or conjecture or what the Judge, untrammelled by the evidence, conceives to be a fair conclusion. When a Judge who, guided by the pleadings, has heard evidence in a case but has in his judgment failed to give a fair summary of the cases presented by the parties and to summarise the evidence and make findings of fact on the various material issues raised in the pleadings, he cannot be seen to have discharged his judicial function properly.
In Layinka v Makinde (2002) FWLR (Part 109) 1557 at 1570, the Supreme Court emphasized the point that a trial court has the primary function of assessing the quality of the evidence received by it, by giving credence to, or expressing doubt about, witnesses whom it had the advantage of seeing and hearing testify, weighing the evidence of one witness against that of another where appropriate, making findings of fact, and finally deciding on the matter. In Ikyernum v Iorkumbur (2002) FWLR (Part 110) 1908 the Court of Appeal overturned the decision of the High Court because it was lopsided.
 Lloyd’s Introduction to Jurisprudence (1986), pp. 123, 549.
 A Concise Dictionary of Law (1990), p. 378.
 The Doctrine is enshrined in Articles I – III of the Constitution of the United States of America: Article I (Legislative Powers); Article II (Executive Power); and Article III (Judicial Powers).
 The Court adopted the definition of Black’s Law Dictionary (1999), p. 851.
 Introduction to Nigerian Law (1980), pp. 54 – 55.
A Concise Dictionary of Law, Second Edition. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990.
Black’s Law Dictionary, 6th Edition – Centennial Edition (1891 – 1991). Publisher’s Editorial Staff and Nolan, Joseph R. et al. (ed.). St Paul, Minnesota, West Publishing Co., 1991.
Lord Lloyd of Hampstead; Freeman, M. D. A. Lloyd’s Introduction to Jurisprudence, ELBS Edition. London, Steven’s & Sons Ltd., 1986.
Okonkwo, C. O. (ed.). Introduction to Nigerian Law. London, Sweet & Maxwell, 1980.