Six Things That Everybody Must Know About The Nigerian Law

Six Things That Everybody Must Know About The Nigerian Law

Many Nigerians never think it is important for them to know certain things about their country’s law until an event compels them to do so. Can you imagine that some people are in prison out of ignorance? While some others’ rights have been or are being violated without them knowing at all and even when they know, they do not know what to do in order to obtain legal redress.
I paid a visit to one of the prisons in Oyo State about 9 years ago (2008) and what I heard from some of the prison inmates startled me. At least 10 of the prisoners said it was the Police (i.e. Police prosecutors) who asked them to plead guilty to the alleged offence so that the Magistrate could release them on compassionate grounds. But that information turned out to be false because none of them ought to have been jailed if what the Police had told them was correct in law. So, to avoid this kind of situations and so many other legal blunders that an average non-lawyer commits in his/her daily transactions, note the following things that I am going to discuss below:

  • The Nature of the Nigerian Law

This is divided into two: 

  1. Types of law 
  2. Sources of law.

1. Types of law- there are two essential types of law in Nigeria and these are:  a. Civil Law and, b. Criminal Law.

a. Civil law- note that every action you perform which has legal implication is either civil or criminal. For instance, let us assume you owe another person some money in respect of a business transaction involving both of you- this is just a contract and it is civil law. The fact that you are owing and unable to pay yet does not warrant the Police to arrest you because you have not committed any crime.
Civil law encompasses legal actions that cannot give rise to imprisonment, fine, or any penal consequence at all. Examples of civil actions are breach of contract, defamation, wrongful termination of employment, landlord and tenant matter, dispute over ownership of land and many others. The legal principles, making up the civil law, can be found in statutes and judicial decisions (also known as Case Law).

b. Criminal law, on the other hand, deals with crimes. No action is a crime unless that action has been defined as an offence in a written law and there is a punishment attached to it. Actions like attempted murder, rape, stealing, murder, manslaughter, attempted suicide, kidnapping, corruption, bribery, 419 (otherwise known as obtaining money under false pretence), forgery, bigamy, perjury, armed robbery, robbery, vandalization, examination malpractices, cultism and so on are classified as crimes.

So, it is not enough to say somebody has committed a crime but also important to let the person know which law he/she has broken. Every Nigerian has a right to ask a Police officer to be informed of which law he has breached in any given situation. If you are arrested by the Police, ask for the offence you have committed and if you are asked to write a statement at the Police Station, politely insist to be informed of your offence before you write such statement. However, you shouldn’t refuse Police arrest. If you are arrested wrongly, you can initiate a court action subsequently against the Police to enforce your right.

Criminal law is governed principally by two laws- the Criminal and Penal Codes. The Criminal Code is used in the Southern part of this country, while the Penal Code applies in the North.

     ii. sources of law- given the political history of Nigeria, the Nigerian law therefore has three colours. It is Foreign, Local and Religious.
          Foreign: The Received English Law
                           The Nigerian legislation
                    Judicial Precedent/ Case Law
                           The Constitution
                           International treaties                 
         Local:      Native Law and Customs
         Religious: Sharia Law

Every legal transaction or issue in Nigeria can fall under any of these laws. The only exception to this is that the Native Law and Customs do not deal with crimes. The Constitution requires every act which constitutes a crime to be defined in a written law but the Native Law and Customs (i.e. Customary law) are unwritten.

2.  The Ministry of Justice, the Police and the Private Legal Practice

These three institutions play important roles in the dispensation of Justice, and unless you are told, you may not know certain things about each of them.

  i. The Ministry of Justice: this ministry is actually “The Ministry of Government Lawyers”. These government lawyers are popularly referred to as “State Counsel” or “Legal Officers”. Anytime a crime is committed, whether a minor or serious crime, it is taken to be a crime against the government/the State (i.e. the society as a whole). So, it is the responsibility of the government to handle it. Assuming your phone is stolen, you are expected to report it at a Police Station. The Police will investigate and if necessary, commence prosecution against the perpetrator of such crime in a Magistrate’s Court. Where, however, a serious offence like murder or rape is committed, the matter must come to the Ministry of Justice after the Police investigation must have been concluded for the rendering of legal advice and possible prosecution in a High Court. Instead of a Police prosecutor, a lawyer will appear in court to prosecute the alleged rapist or murderer.

The Ministry of Justice has many departments but two of these departments stand out. They are the Public Prosecutions Department and Civil Litigations Department. When a matter is criminal, it goes to the Public Prosecutions Department while Civil Litigations Department handles any civil matter in which the government is suing or being sued as a party. Lawyers working in Ministries of Justice, whether States or Federal, do not represent private individuals in their civil cases nor do they defend accused persons in criminal trials. They only prosecute in criminal cases. The head of the Public Prosecutions Department is called Director of the Public Prosecutions (usually shortened as DPP).

    ii.   The Police- the Police are usually involved in criminal matters because that constitute their primary mandate. The primary duty of the Police is to protect lives and property. To do this, their duty is further divided into three i.e. 1, to prevent the commission of crimes; 2, where a crime is already committed, to detect alleged perpetrator (s) through investigation; and, 3, to prosecute offenders. Now, note that the Police usually prosecute minor offences at the Magistrate Court level, while the Ministry of Justice handles serious crimes at a State or Federal High Court level as well as other superior courts. The Police rarely prosecute beyond the Magistrate’s Court level. As a matter of law, the Police are not supposed to be involved in civil matters. Take, for instance, the use of the Police to arrest and molest a debtor so as to assist a creditor retrieve his/her money is against the law. The courts have ruled severally that the Police are not debt collectors.

   iii. The Private Legal Practice: while lawyers who represent government’s interests in the Ministry of Justice are regarded as government employees, lawyers who operate their own firms are called Private Legal Practitioners. Whenever you have a civil case and you need a lawyer, they are the ones you are supposed to consult. They are also the ones who can also defend an offender being prosecuted either by the Police or the Ministry.

3. The Constitution

Though the Constitution is one of the sources of the Nigerian Law, it is the fundamental law and the fountain of all laws in the country. Here are TEN things that every Nigerian must know about the country’s constitution:
i. the Nigeria Constitution is federal, written and rigid. A constitution is written when it can be found in a single document and, rigid, when it is difficult to amend.
ii. any law or provision of a law that is contrary to any provision of the Nigerian Constitution is null and void.
iii. the Constitution is binding on every person both the ruled and the ruler. It is the supreme law of the land.
iv. the Nigerian Constitution has 8 chapters and 320 sections.
v. it spells out the Nigerians’ fundamental rights.
vi. it defines who is a citizen of Nigeria and his duties.
vii. it cannot be made by the National Assembly or the Houses of Assembly. These bodies can only amend it.
viii. the constitution was made by a body (usually christened the Constituent Assembly) set up prior to May 29, 1999.
ix. the constitution derives its authority from the Nigerian people as a whole.
x. it divides powers  among the three arms of government i.e. the Legislature, the Judiciary and the Executive. It also distributes powers among the three tiers of government i.e. the Federal, State, and Local Governments.

4. Court System

In Nigeria, there is a well-established hierarchy of courts. There are two categories of court: i, Superior Courts and ii, Inferior Courts.

i. Superior Courts: courts in this category are the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, State High Court, Federal High Court, Sharia Court of Appeal, Customary Court of Appeal and National Industrial Court.

These Courts are also called Superior Courts of Records because the practice of judicial precedent operates in these courts. By judicial precedent is meant a practice of judging a present case in the light of a previous case. To put it in the language of a layman, judicial precedent means ‘’treating like-cases alike’’.

Another important thing to note about this court system in Nigeria is the issue of jurisdiction. Unless a court is empowered to handle a matter, whatever that court does, when it does not, in actual fact and law, have jurisdiction, is of no effect, null and void.

Take, for instance, where a case between one state and another state is taken before a High Court. Such a case is bound to fail because cases involving two states or more must commence and end at the Supreme Court.

Another instance is to file a divorce case before a Federal High Court; this is also doomed to fail. Divorce cases in respect of marriages celebrated under the Marriage Act must be commenced at a State High Court.

ii. Inferior Courts: courts regarded as Inferior Courts are Magistrate’s Court, Customary Court, Area Court and Sharia Court. These courts are called inferior courts because the practice of judicial precedent does not apply to their proceedings. Again, there are matters that these courts cannot handle. For instance, where a case of breach of contract involves an amount of money in the range of N2M, these courts cannot entertain it, though this depends on individual state in Nigeria. Only a High Court has jurisdiction. Even though reported cases are cited (judicial precedent) in the Magistrate’s Courts, their own judgements are not usually reported to be used as precedent before any courts.

5. Presumption of Innocence

Under the Nigerian Constitution, every person accused of a crime is presumed innocent. Even if a person is found committing a crime, the law still confers on that person the presumption of innocence.

In a plain language, presumption of innocence means that every person alleged to have committed a crime must be first tried and be found guilty before he can be punished or be regarded a criminal.
The only exception to this presumption of innocence is when a person pleads guilty in a court of law and in that situation; the court is allowed to impose punishment at that point. However, a court may not be able to impose any punishment outright where the crime committed is a capital one, i.e. an offence whose punishment is death such as murder and armed robbery. The court must still go into full trial before any punishment can be imposed, that is, if he is found guilty.

Presumption of innocence is a delight of the suspect but a plague to the members of the public, especially victims of an offence. People suspected to have committed a crime are always presumed innocent until the contrary is proved and this provides an attractive cover for the criminally minded. The members of the public, on the other hand, appear to detest hearing that cliche “every person is presumed innocent until the contrary is proved.” The perception of the public is that this doctrine confers too much protection and
privilege on the offender.

6. Litigation and Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanisms (simply referred to as ADRs)

Under the law, the traditional method of resolving disputes has always been a resort to legal actions (litigations). However, the trend is changing in recent times as more and more people, especially the business-people, are making use of the Alternative Dispute Resolution options. The ADRs is loosely and generally referred to as AMICABLE RESOLUTION of disputes.

In Nigeria now, many states have amended their laws to accommodate ADRs. The Federal Government has equally done the same. The ADRs hastens up the process of resolving disputes and also preserves relationship, unlike litigation where people come out of courts more embittered and worse enemies.

What Does ADRs Stand For?

ADRS (Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanisms) represents the following alternative options of resolving conflicts:
i. Arbitration
ii. Mediation
iii. Negotiation, and
iv. Conciliation.

Of all the four listed above, it is only Arbitration that is a bit close to litigation; others are far from it. In Arbitration, there must be an arbitrator (or arbitrators in some cases) but he/she does not have to be a legally-trained person and does not have to follow traditional court procedures in his/her proceedings. Most times, parties must have provided for the use of arbitration in their agreements before they can resort to it.

Other ADR options i.e. mediation, negotiation and conciliation are much more informal. Parties can make use of them at any time whether they have previously provided for them in their agreements or not.

However, it must be said that the use of ADRs does not apply to conflicts that have elements of criminality. Offenders must be taken before a regular court for trial.