Sometimes you just assume that people understand legal terminologies that you use. You get so carried away that you forget that not everyone understands words like “jurisdiction”, “Cause of Action”, “Locus Standi”, “Ratio” and many others. I recently spoke with someone who, after the regular jokes on how I’m supposedly always acing it in Court, made a statement about Courts in Nigeria. He knows lawyers have to interact with Courts/Judges but then he was not quite sure how this works. He assumed there was only one Court to address legal issues in Nigeria. Even after I had mentioned two different Courts around the same vicinity, I’m not quite sure he understood why there is a difference and why only one Court has to be chosen per time.

In light of this, I’ve decided to write on the position of Nigerian Law on Courts in Nigeria. This will start right from the authority that creates the Court system in Nigeria, the name of each Court, the functions of each Court, why you choose one Court over another in different circumstances, and even the rules guiding the functions of each Court and oh yes, who heads each Court too. This will give you an understanding of the Nigerian Court System and how it works.

The judicial powers of Nigeria are conferred on the Courts. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) expressly recognizes the following Courts as superior courts of records in Nigeria:

  • The Supreme Court
  • The Court of Appeal
  • The Federal High Court
  • The High court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja
  • A High Court of a State
  • The National Industrial Court
  • The Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja
  • Sharia Court of Appeal of a State
  • The customary court of appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja
  • A customary court of Appeal of a State

This arrangement is in order of hierarchy. So, the Supreme Court is the highest Court in Nigeria. Let’s start with the lowest Court in the hierarchy so that there is a basic understanding of this before we get to the highest Court. Even though the Customary Court of Appeal of a State features as the lowest on the rung, there are other Courts which are not superior courts but are courts nonetheless. Let’s start with them.

Customary Court: The Customary court has jurisdiction over persons who are subject to customary law. There are various Customary Court Laws across the states in Nigeria. Customary courts are constituted by these laws. They have powers with respect to Bye-laws of local government, Contempt in face of the court and powers that are expressly conferred upon them.

Magistrates’ Court: There are different Magistrates’ Court laws of different states. These laws establish the Magistrates’ Courts for each state. In Lagos, we have the Magistrates’ Courts Law of Lagos, 2009. The Lagos State Judicial Service Commission establishes Magistrates’ Courts as it considers expedient to meet the needs of the state. The Magistrates’ Courts are headed by Magistrates who, before being appointed, were legal practitioners, called to the Nigerian bar at least five years before their appointment.

Now, the following matters may be appropriately brought before a Magistrates’ Court in Lagos:

  • Personal actions arising from contract, tort (a civil wrong done to a person) where you seek to claim a debt owed to you or damages (monetary compensation for a wrong done to you). However, the debt or damage should not be more than ten million naira. Where it exceeds ten million Naira, the Magistrates’ Court no longer has the power to preside over the matter.
  • Actions between Landlords and Tenants in whatever respect (be it for residential, business or even agricultural purposes). Also, the annual rental value should not exceed ten million Naira.
  • Appointment of Guardian ad litem and make orders pertaining to this appointment.
  • Granting ancillary orders to give effect to matters already before the Court. So, they can make orders to the effect that while a matter is pending before the Court, certain actions should not be taken so as to prevent the proceedings in Court from being futile.
  • Handling appeals from Customary Court

Matters over which the Magistrate’s Court has no power:

  • Where the matter involves title to land or any other interest in land
  • Matters relating to gifts or property bequeathed under a will
  • Matters upon which other Courts (which will be mentioned subsequently) have exclusive jurisdiction.

Note that it is not that those matters over which the Magistrates’ Court has powers are exclusive to the Magistrates’ Court. However, it is more expedient to start at the Magistrates’ Court where the amount involved does not exceed ten million naira. This is better and faster than instituting every action at the High Court.

Furthermore, Magistrates’ Courts have jurisdiction over all types of offences excluding Capital Offences. Capital offences are offences which are punishable by death. A Magistrate cannot mete out a death sentence.  There is also a caveat that a Magistrate in Lagos cannot sentence a convicted criminal to more than 14 years imprisonment. This means that whatever punishments that will be mete out to Convicts can be fourteen years or less. So, where a particular offence carries a mandatory punishment exceeding fourteen years imprisonment, even though the Magistrate may adjudicate on that offence, he may refer the matter to a high court to prescribe a more serious punishment reflecting the mandatory sentencing.

**Court of record: This basically means that proceedings in the Court are recorded to serve as evidence of facts. These proceedings as recorded bind the parties in Court. Superior Courts of record means that the Courts are presided over by Judges as opposed to Magistrates.

**Jurisdiction: Official power of the Courts to make legally binding decisions and judgments

**Guardian ad Litem: This is a guardian appointed by the Court to protect the interest and well-being of infants, minors or mentally incompetent people. The guardian is appointed during the pendency of the matter in Court.