Legal Nigeria

Harnessing the Vast Potential of Data for Matrimonial Causes in Customary Courts

By Oluwatomi A. Ajayi, Esq

Harnessing the Vast Potential of Data for Matrimonial Causes in Customary Courts By Oluwatomi A. Ajayi, Esq

1. Introduction

In the first insight series on the topic pertaining to Customary Court which was published in August 2023, we said Customary Courts have always been part of Nigeria’s history dating from the colonial days as the lowest level Court. We also said the word ‘Customary’ applies to what accords with the practices and conventions of an individual or his indigenous community. For example, the Lagos State Customary Court Law of 2015 provides that the Court has unlimited jurisdiction in matrimonial causesand matters particularly with regards to marriage contracted under Islamic Law or Customary Law.

Customary Courts are interconnected with community and culture and over the years, the Court hasplayed a key role in resolving/dissolving matrimonial cases at the grassroots level. However, Customary Courts are saddled with diverse labels. In the opinion of many, any Court which “proceeds without undue formality” or any Court where less attention is paid to the rules of evidence should only be seen as a Court of common sense lacking judicial weight. Up till date, many still regard Customary Courts as pre-colonial Courts where village elders sit together and resolve cases between community members. In cities, Customary Courts are dismissed as Courts of entertainment or humour. So, how can we correct the wrong impressions people have about Customary Courts? 

2. The Need for Data/Statistics

In this article, research data or statistics of matrimonial causes will be defined as the comprehensive information and findings pertaining to the series of proceedings or actions that encapsulates the processes and users of Customary Court, right from when the petition for dissolution of marriage is filed till when judgment is delivered.

Usually a research project is always a useful tool of information for end users, regulators and stakeholders of a subject matter. With regards to matrimonial proceedings conducted in Customary Courts, it is important that we gather comprehensive research on the operations of the Court and notrely on hearsay or act on the assumption which supports the widely-held view that litigants whoapproach Customary Courts are usually core local people. This could be because usually litigants who come to Customary Courts are usually litigants in person. A litigant in person is someone who goes to Court without legal representation. 

So, how do we get data involved? States’ Judicial Service Commission (JSC) can initiate thiscomprehensive data project that will be focused on peoples’ expectations of Customary Courts knowing fully well that creating a database will seek to find out how litigants and Lawyers interacted with the Customary Court. Statistics can be collected in both digital and physical formats to address research questions such as: How many litigants have once or more approached the Customary Courts? How many Lawyers have appeared before Customary Courts? What are their general impressions? Are there Lawyers who are not even interested in exploring how justice is dispensed at Customary Courts? How many judicial correspondents seriously visit the Customary Courts to report cases for their media? The research participants should also include the Customary Court staff and Local Government legal officers because they would have a trove of experiences or knowledge to share. In their own case, we would want to know: What challenges do Bailiffs encounter during service or execution of Court writson litigants and how many potential litigants have gone to make enquiries from each Customary Court Registrar on a monthly basis? In the same vein, we should not exclude vital demographics that are essential in civil and family cases such as the litigants’ age, gender, age of marriage, children of the marriage, preferred language in Court, states of origin, occupation and literacy level. What are the common or rare grounds for dissolution of marriages? How speedily was justice dispensed? Was due diligence conducted? Is technology integrated in their operation? Since the Law enjoins the Customary Courts to promote reconciliation among persons, as well as encourage and facilitate settlement of matters in an amicable manner, this shows that Customary Courts are advocates of social good. So how many marriages have been restored through the use of mediation? Do litigants come back to report non-compliance of Court Orders? Is there a need to assemble a research cluster in each Customary Court or appoint an independent study team for this data project? Do members of the public know they have right of access to Customary Courts? So many questions are begging for answers. A study of the records or proceedings of the Court is also another primary source of data. How qualitative and simplifying are the Court judgments?  Do the judgments satisfy the principles required by law? How doLawyers or litigants perceive Customary Court judgments? How many of the judgments have been made a subject of appeal to higher Courts? And are there other gaps that should be addressed?

Notwithstanding, we know collation of data is always an asset, for data clarify doubts and validate hypothesis. After data collection, the next stages are processing, review, analysis and then the findings will be published and made accessible to all. Indeed it will be interesting to read how research participants will reveal their experiences in various ways.

3. Advantages

Every proceedings pertaining to matrimonial causes conducted in Customary Courts are important for multiple reasons. For a start, a data finding forms the basis of evidence to prove or disprove claims. It is the benchmark for analysis, reviews, planning and awareness. In other words, data evidence enables usto place reliable information into the hands of those will use it. For instance, stakeholders will not only become familiar with the facts, they will also address fundamental questions thus enabling them to make proper planning that will provoke a robust public discourse. Definitely, the study will increaseour understanding of Customary Courts since the data feedback will be based on a systematic approach aimed at providing valuable insights. We will be able to identify the positive and the negative; the flaws and the areas of critiques that require improvements or actionable steps. Equally, the research will reveal the particular constraints facing each Court in their respective location. The result is that thecomprehensive database will be detailed and reliable to serve as a point of reference. The research output will produce empirical facts and proffer recommendations because the analysis will not only be limited to reports covered by the mainstream media.

Who says Customary Court matters cannot bring together academics, the Bar and Bench, policy makers including people that are versed in native law and custom matters? These stakeholders will be able to identify and discuss emerging trends in the field. For instance the input of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies which has done a lot of research in their curriculum titled ‘Restatement of Customary Laws’ will be of valuable assistance to all. In recent times, we have seen a Customary Court judgment like Reuben v. Reuben (2024) and the Lagos High Court ruling in Balogun v. The President &Members of Maroko Customary Court (2024) clearly setting the pace and redefining the purpose of Customary Law in this contemporary period. 

Basically, we are saying that the assessment of such research findings will further inform public appraisal and reform the justice sector; while implementing the data findings will likely propel skeptical and apathetic members of the public to have faith in the Customary Court level, because oftentimes, there is a lot of narrative out there which needs to be denounced. More importantly, all reports and conclusions will be saved to a database which will then become a secondary source of information to relevant government agencies and other national or international research organizations. The database also has the tendency to curb fake Court judgments flying all over the place within and outside the country.

4. Conclusion

While taking a closer look at the pivotal need, role and the impact of collection of statistics in Customary Courts, we are of the opinion that addressing challenges begins with recognising the challenges itself and understanding its complexities. This is why leveraging data will build public trust, yield better outcomes and generally trigger reforms in the justice sector. However, State governments should be prepared to create a budget for the data project and fund it. The government can also partnerwith national or international NGOs that are willing to support this project.

• Oluwatomi A. Ajayi, Esq. presides over a Customary Court in Lagos State. (April 2024)