Rule of Law and Access to Justice


Presented By Kehinde ADEGBITE Esq, Principal Partner, Kehinde Adegbite & Co., People’s Chambers, Ibadan at the Two-Day Advocacy Training on Corruption, Accountability and Access to Justice Focusing on SDG 16 Held at Diplomat Hotel, 18 Oduduwa Street, GRA, Ikeja, Lagos, Between 15-18 August, 2017


We need to remind ourselves that the “new” global developmental agenda aptly captured as “Sustainable Developmental Goals”, SDGs, will be two years old in about four months’ time. It is new only in comparison with the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, which was introduced by the United Nations General Assembly in the year 2000 and came to an end in 2015. It is new also because it is a fifteen year plan and still has thirteen years and few months to run. However, we need to note that we do not have the luxury of time. Year 2030 will come and go but only countries which are able to achieve the laudable programmes of this global agenda will rejoice and be reckoned with. If Nigeria will be one of such countries, what we do now as a people matters a lot. Like the MDGs, SDGs is a developmental agenda designed by the United Nations General Assembly to last for fifteen years, that is, 2015 - 2030.

Unlike the MDGs, SDGs recognises the unique dynamism of Law as a tool for social engineering and change, hence the inclusion of Goal 16 as one of the seventeen goals which make up the global agenda. Goal 16 is titled “Access to Justice for all” and provides further thus, 

“Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

Goal 16, like other goals, has targets. Its target 16.3 reads, “Promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all”. This target shall form the focal point of this lecture, while cursory attention will be given to Goals 5, 10, 11, and 17 as much as possible. But as a matter of fact, none of the other goals is achievable, if Goal 16, with its emphasis on the rule of law and access to justice, is neglected.

It is therefore imperative to properly understand the twin concepts of rule of law and access to justice from the onset. What do they mean?


Professor A. V. Dicey, in his book titled, Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, 1885, defined the rule of law, thus:

“First it means the absolute supremacy or predominance of regular law as opposed to the influence of arbitrary power and excludes the existence of arbitrary power and excludes the existence of arbitrariness of prerogative or even of wide discretion by any authority on the part of the government. Englishmen are ruled by the law and law alone, a man may with us be punished for a breach of the law but he can be punished for nothing else.
Secondly it means equality before the law or equal subjection of all classes to the ordinary law of the land administered by the ordinary law courts.
Thirdly the rule of law may be used as a formula for expressing the fact that with us the laws of the constitution, the rules which in foreign countries naturally form part of a constitution code are not the source but the consequence of the rights of individuals as defined and enforced by the courts.”

Justice Olu Ayoola, (of blessed memory) in his book, Fifty Years in the Law: (1946 - 1996), at page 94, quoted Honourable S. R. Das, former Chief Justice of India, on the rule of law, thus,

“The true concept of the Rule of Law as I conceive it transcends all periods, races, religion, creeds and countries. It prescribes a Code of Conduct alike for the individuals as for the states and is designed to protect and uphold the liberties of the individuals not only against their fellow men but also as against the State. It seeks to uphold and protect the fundamental human rights and liberties which alone make life worth living, liberty in matters of conscience and religion, freedom of speech, thought and expression, right of free association and movement, right to participate in and regulate the activities of one’s own country, and other similar rights which ensure for the all round well being of human societies.”

In plain language, rule of law simply represents a culture of governance and political administration in accordance with the laid-down rules and regulations to which everybody is subject irrespective of individual social, economic or political status in a particular society. In other words, it forbids rule of force or rule of man. 

Some years back, Nigerian courts were faced with a serious challenge to the rule of law in a dispute that was already turned to court and courts proudly rose to the occasion to register certain remarkable and indelible pronouncements. This was in the case of the Governor of Lagos State vs. Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu (1986) 1 NWLR Pt. 18, 621 where late Chief Ojukwu, former Biafran warlord, sued the Lagos State Government in respect of a landed property but while the matter was still pending in court, the then military government of Lagos State took law into its hands by unlawfully ejecting Chief Ojukwu out of the property in dispute.

In deprecating the attack on the rule of law, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa (JSC as he then was) in the Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu case made these pronouncements,

“The rule of law presupposes:
(i) That the state including Lagos State Government is subject to the Law.
(ii) That the judiciary is a necessary agency of the rule of law.
(iii) The government including the Lagos State Government should respect the right of individual citizen under the rule of law and by our constitution the determination of ‘ALL NATIONS’ and proceedings relating to matters in dispute between persons or between government or between government in authority and any person in Nigeria.

I can safely say that here in Nigeria even under the Military Government the law is no respecter of persons, principalities, governments or persons and that the courts stand between the citizens and government alert to see that the state or government is bound by the law and respect the law. ”

Having laid bare the basic tenets of the rule of law, it is necessary to discuss the concept of access of justice as it can safely be asserted that the former is meaningless in an environment where the latter is non-existent and vice versa.


Professor Muhammed Ladan, in his article, “Enhancing Access to Justice in Criminal Matters: Possible Areas for Reform in Nigeria” published in the Nigerian Bar Journal, Vol. 7, No1, August 2011, defined access to justice thus,

“The expression ‘access to justice’ envisages people in need of help finding effective solutions available from justice systems which are accessible, affordable, comprehensible to ordinary people, and which dispense justice fairly, speedily and without discrimination, fear or favour and a greater role for alternative dispute resolution.”

In other words, access to justice refers to a legal system that is easily amenable to citizens’ aspirations. It is readily accessible and promotes people’s happiness and makes their lives fulfilling in all ramifications.

The question to be asked at this juncture is – how do the concepts of rule of law and access to justice promote good governance, accountability, and transparency and ensure equality as encapsulated in the SDGs?

It is axiomatic that a human society can only function effectively and optimally in an atmosphere where the rule of law is held supreme and sacrosanct and access to justice guaranteed. In relation to the rule of law in particular, to determine whether the rule of law occupies its pride of place in any society, certain parameters have to be in place. 


A. Protect and Respect Human Rights

The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria under its Chapter IV provides for the following as rights which Nigerian citizens and other nationals can enjoy and enforce, if they are about to be, are being or already breached:

i. Right to life – section 33
ii. Right to dignity of human person – section 34
iii. Right to personal liberty – section 35
iv. Right to fair hearing – section 36
v. Right to private and family life – section 37
vi. Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – section 38
vii. Right to freedom of expression and the press – section 39
viii. Right to peaceful assembly and association – section 40
ix. Right to freedom of movement – section 41
x. Right to freedom from discrimination – section 42
xi. Right to acquire and own immovable property anywhere in Nigeria – section 43
xii. Right to compulsory acquisition of property – section 44
xiii. Right of access to court – section 46

B. Obedience of court orders

No claim can be laid to the rule of law, if court orders are treated with disdain and are not obeyed. An order made by a court, even if made without jurisdiction must be complied with until set aside.
Ubaezonu JCA (as he then was) in Nigerian Army vs. Mowarin (1992) 4 NWLR Pt. 235 at 345 made the following pronouncement –

“An order of court must be obeyed, even if such an order is perverse, until such a time that the order is set aside by a competent court. The Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary are partners in the due governance of the country, each performing its functions clearly defined by the Constitution of the land. A flagrant flouting of an order of the Court by the Executive is an invitation to anarchy.”

C. Enactment of just laws

It has been said that as much as it is desirable that the rule of law prevails, laws themselves must be just and non-discriminatory. For instance, apartheid legislation is no better than a complete state of lawlessness because it is an unjust law.

Nigeria is a country blessed with an array of good and just laws but the problem lies essentially in the faithful and committed implementation of laws. Some of the good laws enacted in recent times in Nigeria include the Violence Against Persons Act, 2015, Freedom of Information Act, 2011, Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015, and National Health Act, 2014. 

However, as good as these laws are, they remain essentially federal laws. Therefore, all Nigerian states need to replicate good laws such as the Freedom of Information Act, Child’s Rights Act, and Administration of Criminal Justice Act so that the positive impacts and best practices embedded in these laws will reflect and be felt throughout the length and breadth of the country and not be limited to the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja or few states that have adopted those enactments. Nigerian government need to have its national policy on the criminal justice system. 

For instance, the Administration of Criminal Justice Act is a law that aims to reform the criminal justice through speedy dispensation of criminal cases and giving more respect to the rights of suspects as well as the “accused persons”. Persons accused of criminal acts are no longer to be referred to as accused persons in courts but defendants. Again, suspects are now entitled to enjoy the presence of a lawyer of their choice, when making statements at police station. Women are now eligible to stand as surety for the bail of any person who is to be released on bail. All these are best international practices that must go round the country, if Nigeria desires to tow the path of sustainable development. All forms of discrimination based on gender, racial background, economic status or religion must be jettisoned in Nigeria.

It is hoped that the Nigerian law-makers, even if only in deference to the SDGs, particularly Goal 5 which addresses the issue of gender equality, will give the Gender Equality Bill another consideration after it was voted down sometime in 2016 on account of cultural and religious sentiments. Nigeria, in this age, cannot afford to continue to keep faith with anachronistic cultural practice which subjugates the womenfolk. Child marriage and child labour must stop as a matter of utmost urgency!

D. Independent judiciary

An independent judiciary is an indispensable component of the rule of law. Judicial officers must be insulated from any form of political or external interference while they discharge their sacred duty of dispensing justice without fear or favour.

E. Vigilant, vibrant and enlightened citizenry and civil society organisations

For the rule of law to endure, there is need for a vibrant and virile citizenry and civil society groups who continually and responsibly hold governments to account.

F. Failure of adherence to due process of law

All persons and authorities are bound by the law and therefore, due process of law must be observed in all activities of governments as well as citizens. The practice of deviating from the laid-down rules on the part of government officials or persons in authority must be jettisoned. Governments must stop overnight tinkering with the law in order to achieve an objective, no matter how altruistic such objective is.


Can we say that there is equal access to justice in Nigeria? A keen observer of the Nigerian situation will readily agree that there exists an avalanche of factors which militate against equal access to justice within the Nigerian space and if Nigeria wants to achieve the SDGs, those factors have to be seriously addressed. Some of the factors are now briefly considered below:

A. High level illiteracy/legal ignorance

There is high level of illiteracy and legal ignorance in Nigeria. Most laws, if not all, are written in English language and there is no deliberate attempt on the part of government to translate these laws into local dialects that the vast majority of Nigerians are familiar with. This situation therefore creates a disconnect between the people and the legal system that should regulate their lives and activities.
When new laws are passed, government has a duty to create sufficient awareness of such laws so as to engender widespread compliance. It is said that “ignorance of law is not an excuse” but how just is that in a largely illiterate environment like ours? Even in more literate and developed climes, governments still embark on awareness campaigns for newly passed legislation and therefore, Nigeria cannot afford of embracing any practice short of that.

B. Cost of litigation

The cost of instituting legal actions in courts for the protection of rights and other legal remedies is prohibitive and many Nigerians cannot afford it. Regrettably, the Legal Aid Scheme, an initiative of the federal government, which provides free legal services to the indigent and vulnerable people, is starved of sufficient funds and personnel to effectively deliver on its mandate.
Many of the awaiting trial inmates have been in custody for years simply because they lack legal representatives as they do not have the resources to secure their services. Pro bono legal services are scarce to come by in Nigeria and this is an important area that the government needs to look at and do something radically to arrest the ugly situation.

C. Failure of laws to be dynamic

In many countries of the world, law is an effective driver of growth and development in the social, economic, and political aspects of such places. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Nigeria. Many of our laws are not in tune with the challenges and demands of this age and much is not being done to update them. For instance, in spite of rising acceptance of e-commerce globally, the Nigerian law does not have requisite framework to take care and accommodate the development. 

D. Delays in the judicial process

While many Nigerians lack the knowledge or financial wherewithal to ventilate their grievances in a court of law, those who have the knowledge and possess the financial muscle are discouraged to approach the courts because of long time that court cases take to end. For instance, Nigerian judges still write in long-hand in this age and this slows them down seriously. Unlike many parts of the world, Nigeria is seriously lagging behind in taking advantage of modern technology to fast-track its judicial process.

E. Declining confidence in the justice system

For many reasons which include corruption, partiality, and contempt for court orders, some persons have lost confidence in the judiciary and such persons may prefer to seek justice in some other ways. Persons occupying judicial positions must be men and women of outstanding credibility, honesty and integrity. Recent happenings in our country where judges were found in some compromising circumstances should never be allowed to recur. Judges have a duty to do some internal house cleaning among themselves and redeem their battered image by ensuring that they are transparently fair, honest, and just in discharging their sacred official duties.

F. Incompetent judicial and administrative officials

If there is any sector that should recruit its staff squarely based on merits and integrity, it is the judiciary. Both judicial officers and supporting staff should be competent and have integrity to carry out their sacred duties. Appointing people on account of some extraneous considerations such as family relationship, faith, political or ethnic affiliation, and quota system will never be in anybody’s best interest.

G. Cumbersome process of dispute resolution

It is important to ease the process of dispute resolution as much as possible because doing so will enhance people’s confidence and interest in exploring the judicial process in resolving their conflicts instead of resorting to self-help or jungle justice.


The importance of a legal system that supports the citizens in the attainment of their goals and that makes the activities of government seamless cannot be over-emphasised. No efforts should be spared to ensure that the rule of law exists and that the citizens have equal access to justice irrespective of their social, economic or political status.

The Nigerian laws must guarantee to everyone an environment that is free of criminalities and even if crimes occur, justice must be done and be seen to have been done. Culture of impunity must not be allowed to thrive. Criminal justice system must work properly for everyone and not just the rich and the politically-exposed persons. A situation where prisons are crowded and in fact, over-crowded by the poor must become a thing of the past. Every person accused of a crime must be held to account. This is the only way to assure every Nigerian that there is law in the country and that it works for all. Nigerian law must remain the last hope of the common man as well as that of the “uncommon” man, if there is at all such a man.

Sustainable development remains a mirage where there is no rule of law and access to justice. In the present globalised world, no country can afford to be an Island. Nigerian laws must encourage and be inviting to foreign investors. Legal mechanisms for resolution of disputes must be effective, while our court system must be upgraded to the international standards.

As earlier submitted in this lecture, all the seventeen goals that make up the SDGs are connected to the workings of the legal system. Gender equality, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities and communities, and revitalised global partnership, in particular, are goals that require a good and effective legal system, like other goals, to evolve, endure, and thrive.

As Nigeria embarks on the journey towards the attainment of all the goals by the year, 2030, it must also be alive to its obligations under international treaties and conventions that it has ratified. Under international law, countries are enjoined to faithfully commit to the implementation of international obligations and therefore, Nigeria cannot afford to be an exception. In fact, it remains a sacred and inviolable principle of international law that countries are bound by their international obligations as captured by the maxim, pacta sunt servanda.

It is on record that as far back as 1985, Nigeria ratified the Convention on the Eradication of all forms of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW, and 32 years after, gender-based discriminations are still visible everywhere. An example in particular is the prevalence of scarcity of women holding political positions in Nigeria which is clearly against the spirit and letters of the Convention. With the inception of the SDGs, it becomes much more imperative for Nigeria to comply with the provisions of the Convention and go a step further by domesticating it as required by Section 12 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. In Nigeria, for an international treaty to be binding on the country and be locally enforceable, such treaty must be domesticated by the Nigerian National Assembly. It is my opinion that this constitutional provision is not in consonance with the principle of pacta sunt servanda. The options before the country, in this regard, is either to expunge this provision from the constitution and therefore makes international treaties automatically enforceable once ratified or to amend the constitution in such a way that an international treaty automatically becomes “domesticable” and must be domesticated once ratified. The implication of the latter option is that Nigeria may not ratify a treaty that does not have certainly of being immediately domesticated upon ratification. Of course, of what use is it to ratify a treaty without the citizens being able to enjoy it locally or without the government being bound by its provisions?

Lastly, it must be stressed that Nigeria cannot be regarded a State where the rule of law exists, if the government is not bound by the laws that it has made on its own. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act is a typical reference point here. In compliance with Section 12 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as provided also under the 1979 Constitution), the Nigerian government had domesticated the Charter as far back as 1981, yet Nigerians cannot enjoy the socio-economic rights that the Charter guarantees.

This is 2017; the Nigerian government still does not see itself under an obligation to provide every Nigerian good education, quality medical care, employment, food, and housing and shelter as rights which citizens can enjoy. It remains the argument of the Nigerian government that these rights are not enforceable locally because the Constitution does not guarantee them as enforceable rights like those in the Chapter IV of the same Constitution. The question is – what about the Charter which the government had already domesticated and which guarantees these rights? One thing that is clear is that successive Nigerian governments find a plausible defence and excuse in Section 6 (6) (c) of the Constitution which pronounces all the similar socio-economic rights provided for under the Chapter II of the same Constitution as unenforceable. This is the precarious situation in our country. The Constitution provides for two different classes of rights – some in the Chapter II and some others in the Chapter IV. Those in the Chapter II (Sections 13 - 21) are tagged as “Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy” and those in Chapter IV (Sections 33 - 46) are called “Fundamental Rights”. Those in the Chapter II, like the Charter, are the socio-economic rights which the same Constitution renders unenforceable, meaning that if the government does not provide for them to be enjoyed by the citizens, the citizens cannot take the government to court for their enforcement. The Chapter IV, on the other hand, are enforceable; they are regarded as political rights. If, for instance, a police officer, as a representative of government, arrests and detains a citizen, when that citizen has not committed any crime, the citizen may file an action in court for unlawful arrest and detention against the government and obtain an order of damages, among others, against the government for the violation of his or her right to personal liberty as guaranteed by Section 35 of the Constitution. However, this is not the case with another Nigerian citizen who has, for instance, a terminal ailment and expects the government to take care of him or her through the provision of necessary medical care. Such citizen cannot sue the government in order to obtain an order against the government which will compel the latter to be responsible for his or her hospital bill.

But is Nigeria so poor that it cannot muster the financial resources to provide for those socio-economic rights? Nigeria, on account of natural, material, and human resources, is a rich nation but pervasive corruption, especially among the political office-holders, and lack of political will have stood on the way of Nigerians to the enjoyment of those rights. It has been argued by many that all those rights under the Chapter IV of the Nigerian Constitution are meaningless and unavailable to Nigerians as long as Nigerians do not have rights to food, health, education, and shelter. Of what meaning is right to life or movement to a hungry or sick man?

It is in the context of the above that a call is made again on the Nigerian government to wake up to its responsibilities towards its citizens. Laws of the land must be respected by the government as well as the citizens. There must not be sacred cows. If the Nigerian government is truly committed to the attainment of the SDGs, especially as the Federal Government demonstrated through the strategic breaking down of the goals into three phases, that is 2016 – 2020, 2021- 2025, and 2026 – 2030, for ease of success, it must also be demonstrated by the government both locally and internationally that its commitment to the rule of law and promotion of access to justice is beyond equivocation.