IN BRIEF; THE NIGERIAN LEGAL SYSTEM
Nigeria has a well-developed legal system, partially inherited from its colonial past, with English common law forming the basis, combining with traditional customary and Islamic law in the realm of marriage and succession. Business enterprises range from limited companies of various forms, registration of business names, and partnerships. Trusts are recognised and land law is based on the Land Use Decree.
By virtue of Section 6 (1) of the Nigerian Constitution 1999, the following courts are established in the Federal Republic of Nigeria: the Supreme Court of Nigeria; the Court of Appeal; the Federal High Court; the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja; a High Court of a State; the Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja; a 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.
The Nigerian legal system is based on the English common law legal tradition. The sources of Nigerian law are: The Constitution, Legislation, English law, Customary law, Islamic law and Judicial precedents. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which came into operation on May 29, 1999, regulates the distribution of legislative business between the National Assembly, which has power to make laws for the Federation and the House of Assembly for each of the 36 states that make up the Federation.
At the federal level, the current legislation in force is largely contained in the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990 (LFN). Federal laws enacted under previous military administrations, known as Decrees, and state laws, known as Edicts, form the bulk the primary legislation. Each of the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Abuja has its own laws. Some states have in recent times undertaken law revision exercises to present their laws in a compact and comprehensive form to guarantee easy access.
The traditional classification of customary law is divided into Ethnic/Non-Moslem and Moslem law/ Sharia. In the states in the Southern part of the country, Moslem/Islamic law, where it exists, is integrated into and has always been treated as an aspect of the customary law. Since 1956, however, Islamic law has been administered in the Northern states as a separate and distinct system. Customary law is usually enforced in customary courts, presided over by non-legally trained personnel. The bulk of causes on the Cause List of customary courts, especially in South Western Nigeria, are matters relating to the dissolution of traditional marriages.
Islamic law, unlike ethnic customary law, is written. Its principles are clearly defined and articulated. This system of law is based on the Holy Koran and the teachings of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. Islamic law is being enforced in some states in the Northern part of Nigeria especially where populations are predominantly Moslem. The scope of operation of Islamic law has been broadened since the introduction of the Sharia legal system in a number of Northern states such as Zamfara, Kano, Kaduna, and Sokoto among others.
The Supreme Court is the highest court in Nigeria. It replaced the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1963 as the final court of appeal. The Court of Appeal was established in 1976 as a national penultimate court to entertain appeals from the High Courts, which are the trial courts of general jurisdiction. The Court of Appeal sits in 10 Judicial Divisions scattered throughout the country but is still a single court and is ordinarily bound by its own decisions. The Court of Appeal and all lower courts are bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court. The High Courts and other courts of coordinate and subordinate jurisdiction are equally bound by the decisions of the Court of Appeal. The doctrine of judicial precedents does not apply rigidly to certain courts like the customary/area courts and the Sharia courts in Nigeria.
Judicial proceedings are slow and inefficient. The courts are overloaded with lack of capacity caused by failure to invest adequately in technology and training. As a result many commercial litigants resort to arbitration and other ADR for resolving their differences. There are public registries for lands, companies, trade and service marks, designs and patents – although most require a major modernisation exercise.
Statutory protection of intellectual property rights exists and Nigeria is a signatory to the Paris and Berne Conventions, the TRIPS Agreement, the ARIPO (Harare) Protocol and the Madrid Agreement and Protocol. There is provision for enforcement in Nigeria of certain foreign judgments and arbitration awards. Nigeria is a signatory and has adopted the 1923 Protocol on arbitration clauses of the League of Nations and the 1958 New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards. The Arbitration Act 1995 embodies most of the provisions of the UNCITRAL model law.
The Council of Legal Education is the supervisory body responsible for the accreditation, control and management of legal education in Nigeria. The Council is in charge of the Nigerian Law School, a vocational institution responsible for the education and training of prospective legal practitioners in Nigeria. The Nigerian Law School’s headquarters is located in Abuja and there are other 3 campuses of the Nigerian Law School in Enugu, Kano and Lagos.
Persons wishing to practice law in Nigeria must first undergo undergraduate training in Nigerian universities for the award of a Bachelor’s degree in Law after which they proceed to the Nigerian Law School for practical training in any of its campuses. Successful candidates in the Bar Final examinations are called to the Nigerian Bar if they satisfy the Benchers that they are of good character. The Council of Legal Education also recognizes some foreign degree holders from accredited overseas institutions for purposes of admission.
It is by virtue of enrollment at the Supreme Court that an individual can become a legal practitioner and a member of the legal profession in Nigeria. Unlike in the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa, the legal profession in Nigeria is fused and a legal practitioner is enrolled both as a Solicitor and Barrister. The activities and conduct of members of the legal profession are regulated by statutory bodies like the General Council of the Bar and the Body of Benchers. These bodies are established by the Legal Practitioners Act of 1990.
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) is the foremost professional association in the legal profession. With a membership of about 55,000 lawyers, it is reputed to be the largest professional association in Africa. Though the NBA is not a statutory body, it is recognized by Statute and it appoints members to supervisory bodies in the legal profession. Through its Disciplinary Committee, the NBA conducts preliminary investigation into cases of professional misconduct brought against legal practitioners.