Judicial Precedent In Nigeria: History, Doctrine And Types

The Doctrine Of Binding Precedent

Judicial precedent forms another residue of the sources of Nigerian law. It refers to the laws derived from court decisions and it is appropriately called case law. Primary knowledge of the theory of separation of powers vests law making in the legislature. The judiciary i.e the judges have the duty of interpreting the laws made by the legislature, while it is the duty of the executive to execute these laws.

The theory of case law proceeds from the premiss that though judges do not make laws but merely declare and apply laws to the sets of facts brought before them in particular cases. They however in practice widen the law while so interpreting same. In the early stages of legal development, a judge in a judicial system can not refuse to decide a matter brought before him on the ground that there was no authority covering the issues to be determined. Even where the law situation is not covered precisely by old principles, the existing principles could be readapted or extended in reaching a solution in deciding the new circumstance.

The doctrine of binding decedent or stare decisis is a necessary judicial practice in any legal system that operates the common law. It postulates that decisions of superior courts in the system are biding and must be followed. Put differently it requires that lower courts are bound to follow the decisions of higher courts in similar circumstances.

The special characteristics of the doctrine is the obligation of the judges to follow previous decisions in appropriate circumstances even when they have what they consider to be good reasons for not doing so. When it is said that a decision is binding on a court, it means that the judge is under obligation to apply the ratio decidend of the case to the facts of the case before him.

Hierarchy Of Courts In Nigeria

1. The Supreme Court: The supreme court is the highest and final court in the country and its decisions absolutely bind all other courts in Nigeria, but it is not absolutely bound by its own previous decisions. Thus the Supreme court has the power to depart from or over rule its previous decision.

2. Court Of Appeal: The court of Appeal is next to the Supreme Court in the hierarchy of Courts in Nigeria. Appeals lie from the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court.

3. Federal High Court And State High Courts: The federal High court has special jurisdiction over matters relating to revenue of Government in Nigeria, E.g taxation, customs and excise, copyright etc.

4. Sharia Court Of Appeal And Customary: These courts were first provided for in the 1979 constitution of Nigeria. The Sharia court of Appeal has appellate and supervisory jurisdiction over Sharia Courts in civil matters or proceedings involving questions of Islamic personal law such as marriages, succession etc.

5. Tribunal Of Inquiry: This is constituted pursuant of the Tribunals of Inquiry Act 1966. The Act as it is presently constituted applies to the various states of the Federation having been held inapplicable to the Federal Government. Tribunals of Inquiry was reflected in the relevant provisions of the schedule of the 1963 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as item No. 25 and item No. 39 in the exclusive and concurrent legislative list respectively.

A Tribunal of Inquiry in the ordinary sense, it has been held, is a body up to inform the person or body setting it up on any matter irrespective of any legislative authorisation.

6. Court Martial: This is a special court having jurisdiction over persons subject to Military or service laws in Nigeria. The civilian populace of the country are excluded from the jurisdiction of court materials. Its jurisdiction therefore spans over the service personnels of any arm of the Armed Forces of Nigeria i.e the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. Civilian employees of any arm of these forces are excluded from military laws and the jurisdiction of court martials.

7. National Industrial Court: This is another of the specialized courts within the court system in Nigeria. It occupies a separate hierarchy from the regular courts. Within its own hierarchy, it operates as an apex court just like the supreme court.

8. Magistrates Courts And District: Magistrate Courts and District courts of a State are bound by decisions of High Court of the State by virtue of their positions in the hierarchy of courts. However Magistrate Courts and District Courts are not bound by their previous decisions.