Legal Nigeria

Are migistrates’ courts inferior?

By Titilola Akinlawon, SAN

Are “Such other courts” inferior courts and do they dispense inferior justice?”

This, to my mind, is the summation of this novel book written by an erudite Jurist, Chief Magistrate Kikelomo Ayeye of the Lagos State Judiciary.

This book titled: Such Other Court’: Inferior Court? Inferior Justice printed and published by LifeGate Publishing Co. Ltd, has about 160 pages starting with the beautiful glossy black covered page with the gold lettering, a Dedication page where the author dedicated the book to God Almighty, all Nigerian Lower Court Judges and Justices retired or still serving, tirelessly and righteously in the temple of justice as well as all ministers in the Nigerian temple of justice.

Of course, as expected of a seasoned jurist, the next page contains a disclaimer from any liability for errors, inaccuracies, omissions, or any inconsistencies in the book.
The next page is the foreword written by Festus Keyamo, SAN, Minister of State, Labour and Employment who wrote: “The author of this book has drawn from her experiences as a Magistrate, who has presided these other courts to x-ray the personnel, infrastructural and funding challenges of these courts. It is obvious that our judicial system is in dire need of reform… I must commend the author for daring to venture into this often forgotten area of our jurisprudence…”

The author gave us a peep into what inspired her under the heading: My Inspiration which is stated as follows: “I think the first duty of society is justice. -Alexander Hamilton.

The next page is the table of contents. The book has a Preface at page XI titled: My passion for justice and a Prologue: My unforgettable encounter with inferior Courts on Page XIV.
These two write-ups by the author before the substantive writing allows the reader to see what drives the author to strive to dispense justice in her courtroom without fear or favour and as an “impartial judge” as best as she can be.

In relating her history, the author stated that she was fascinated by her visits to Magistrate Courts during her compulsory Law Office Attachment by the Nigerian Law School in 1992, where even though the building, housing the courts were ancient with unkempt furniture, she was amazed that the courts were filled with real people with real issues.
Having found that it takes a serious person to judge right and that it is a godly calling, she applied and was appointed a Magistrate in the Lagos State Judiciary in 1999.

The book has only three chapters, but each chapter is divided into parts, Chapter 1 with the heading: Understanding Courts of Limited Jurisdiction, has four parts under the following subheadings:

Part One: Historical underpinnings of the Court System in Nigeria. Part Two: Constitutional Underpinning of the Court and Judicial System in Nigeria. Part Three: Nigeria’s such other Courts. Part Four: Judicial Independence.
Chapter 2 titled: Access to Justice with only one part referred to as Part five with the heading: Accessing Justice before Courts of Limited Jurisdiction in Nigeria.
Chapter 3 carries the title: Call for Reform with three parts.
Part Six: Philosophy behind Reform of Courts of Limited Jurisdiction in Nigeria.
Part Seven: Nigerian Judicature Reform.
Part Eight: Summary and Conclusion.

Thereafter, the book has its Epilogue, Quotes, Table of Statutes, Table of Cases, List of Abbreviations, Bibliography, Articles and Journals, Internet resources, an appendix as well as Graphs. Chapter 1, Part 1 gave a graphic history of the Court System in England after the Norman conquest of 1066. The local customs governed most matters, which led to the evolution of the Common Law. It was only in the 12th Century that the very first judges were court officials advising the King but gradually gained independence from the Monarch.

The seeds of the modern justice system were sown by Henry II (1154 – 1189) with the creation of the King’s Bench after the King’s Council, then the Court of Exchequer.
A new type of Court began to evolve – Magistrate Court – which official birth came in 1285 when good and lawful men were commissioned to keep the King’s Peace. With the promulgation of the Judicature Act of 1873, the Common Law and Equity were fused together. So, all Courts in England administer both equity and Common Law.

The author drew very interesting distinctions between England, the USA, and Nigerian Court Systems after which she traced the history of the creation of the Lagos Crown Colony Magistrate Court which is the oldest continuously existing institution in Nigeria.
Part 2 traces the judicial powers as provided for by Section 6 of the 1999 Constitution. Section 6 (5) of the 1999 Constitution listed the Courts of record from a – j, while (k) & (j) provides for “Such Other Courts” by the National Assembly and States Houses of Assembly respectively.

“Such Other Courts”, established by the National Assembly or any State House of Assembly other than those to which the section relates, are only given subordinate jurisdiction (that is inferior or minor to that of a High Court of a State). The Magistracy of any state, like Lagos State, which has appellate jurisdiction from decisions of Customary Courts, is of equal status as the Courts itemised after the High Court in the Constitution i.e: a) A Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory. b) A Sharia Court of Appeal of a State. c) The Customary Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory. d) Customary Court of Appeal of a state.

The Lagos State Magistrate Courts have appellate jurisdictions over appeals emanating from Customary Courts, yet the Courts are referred to as “inferior” and not given the same status as a Customary Court of Appeal of a State.

The “Such Other Courts” created by the National Assembly or State Houses of Assembly can be abolished, recreated, or renamed at the pleasure of the Houses of Assembly
The funding of Judges of Superior Courts listed in the Constitution is contained in the “Certain Political, Public and Judicial Office Holders (Salaries and Allowances, etc (Amendment) Act 2008.

The importance of this is that the funding of the Superior Courts of record listed in the Constitution is reserved in the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federal Government, which is to be released to the National Judicial Council, while funding for the State-created Courts are States-based which is liable to undue executive control.

The Courts of limited jurisdiction are Courts created by the States’ legislation with a limited scope of jurisdiction. These Courts usually hear “less serious” or minor cases but they also handle most of the cases relating to Landlord/Tenant, traffic cases, debt matters, etc, and other specialised cases such as juvenile or family matters. These Courts help reduce the caseload heard by higher courts.

The author drew a fine distinction between Inferior Courts and Courts of limited jurisdiction in that the “Inferior” relates to the status of the presiding judge while limited relates to the scope of jurisdiction. A Court can be inferior because it has limited jurisdiction but Courts of limited jurisdiction are not necessarily inferior courts. The term inferior seems to be a carryover of colonialism, which should have no place in modern-day court hierarchy.

Such Other Courts include i. Magistrate Courts; ii. Customary/Area Courts; iii. Sharia Courts. Magistrate Courts are the first level of State-created Courts all over the Federation and are superior to Customary/Area/Sharia Courts at the State level.

The Magistrate Courts are presided over by the legal Practitioners in Lagos State who are civil servants/judicial officers who hear cases with general jurisdiction in all civil and criminal matters except capital offences. In England & Wales, however, Magistrates are the lowest level of Courts with limited jurisdiction presided over by officers without formal legal training while other Courts of limited jurisdiction presided over by lawyers are referred to as District, Country, Crown or Municipal Courts

Apart from the general civil and criminal jurisdictions of the Magistrate Courts, they hear appeals from Customary Courts in Lagos State. The author quoted extensively the jurisdiction of the Magistrate Courts in Lagos State and compared it with the UK Courts to justify why the terminology Magistrates in Nigeria should be changed to depict deserved status and suggested “District Judges” is most appropriate. The author concluded that the regular Magistrate in Lagos State is a lawyer, certified mediator-arbitrator, and holder of higher degrees in Law and other fields these officers are by no means inferior nor should be set up to dispense inferior justice.

The author went on to elaborate on the jurisdiction of the Customary Courts and Sharia Courts.

Part 4 has a comprehensive discussion on Judicial Independence starting with the doctrine of separation of powers and the rationale for judicial independence and that indeed there is a dearth of policies that address the independence of the officers presiding in Courts of limited jurisdiction.

Chapter 1 closed with the question “How accessible is justice in our lower Courts in Nigeria?
Chapter 2 sought to answer this question based on a robust discourse on access to justice in Courts of Limited Jurisdiction. In Part 5 the following questions were asked; “How speedily do these Courts dispense justice? How independent are the judges to perform their duties without undue influence? How insulated are judges from political interference? How are judges’ personal security and safety protected? In answering these questions, the author considered the quality of judges, infrastructural defects, large and diverse caseload, institutional failure, and judicial independence.

In considering the legal mechanism that enhances access to justice before Courts of limited jurisdiction, the author considered the Small Claims Courts, restorative justice in Lagos, domestic violence, and remand powers of Courts of limited jurisdiction.

Chapter 3 dealt with the call for reform. Part 6 expounded on the philosophy behind reforms of Courts of limited jurisdiction of particular importance is the author’s position that the status of inferiority attached to the office of a magistrate in Nigeria goes a long way to kill morale and quality output and that is depressing to be on the lower bench and be treated as inferior all through the career and even in retirement.

The author opines that it is time for this stigma of inferiority to be erased by a re-evolution of these Courts because the set-up, control funding, security of tenure of its judges invariably affect its efficiencies and the quality of justice it dispenses.

In part seven, the author came up with important blueprints for the reformation of the Court System in Nigeria. The first reform suggested is the constitutional reform followed by legislative reform, which should include a provision in the law that every magistrate, like other superior Court judges be given all the entitlements and privileges that are due for judicial officers without discrimination.

There are very more interesting and novel recommendations given by the author and I leave readers to check them out from page 103 of the book.

The author concluded this book in Part 8 by these very powerful words.

“We arrive at the conclusion that unless constitutional and statutory amendments are effected to restructure the set-up, control and administration of Courts of limited jurisdiction by experts in the field of law and protected by positive law as done in advanced democracies …. And also, the judges presiding over these Courts are protected and insulated from external influence or “punishment” as a result of unpopular judgments, it will be impossible to quantify the damage to good governance and dispensation of “Equal justice under the law” will be impossible”.A powerful epilogue and the quotes by eminent jurist brings the book to an end.

No doubt the book is most interesting and quite detailed on the history of the Courts in Nigeria, there are few typos and absence of required punctuation marks. The above notwithstanding the book is well researched and is filled with a very detailed account of the judicial system in the Magistrate Courts.

In the words of Festus Keyamo, SAN in the forward, which I now adopt as mine: “This book is a veritable resource and I do not hesitate to recommend it to legal practitioners, Magistrates, Law students, political and thought leaders as well as laymen”.

I, then, conclude that I would recommend this book to those in charge of Law Reforms as it would help greatly in their work.

Vanguard News Nigeria

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