Hierarchy of courts in Nigerian legal system

Hierarchy of Courts In Nigeria: The Superiority of Courts in Nigeria Explained

It is evident that the Nigerian Legal system does not support a single court system. Consequently, courts in the federation are structured in a hierarchical order. The hierarchy of courts in Nigeria is very important because it determines the kind of matters that can be brought before any court. Take for instance, matters concerning land or women inheritance right cannot be brought under the original jurisdiction of the supreme court because those kinds of matters are under the original jurisdiction of customary courts. As we continue, i will comprehensively explain the hierarchy of courts in Nigeria.

First and foremost, it is apparent that the Judicial powers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is vested in the Courts and provided for in section 6 subsection 1 and 2 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria. These courts are courts of superior records. While some are courts of co ordinate jurisdictions in a horizontal scale, they can also be ranked on a vertical scale showing courts that are superior to the other in terms of decisions.

The consequences is that a higher court can hear appeal from a court below it and can also override the decisions made in error by the later. This article discusses the various courts of record in Nigeria according to their superiority, with the Supreme Court being the court of last resort and highest court in Nigeria.

hierarchy of courts in Nigeria

hierarchy of courts in Nigeria

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Hierarchy of courts in Nigeria

Section 6 of the constitution of the Federation Republic of Nigeria under subsection 5, listed the courts in Nigeria in a hierarchical order. They include:

  1. Supreme Court of Nigeria
  2. Court of appeal
  3. National industrial Court
  4. Federal high Court, High Court of the Federal Capital Territory and High Court of state.
  5. Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja and Sharia Court of Appeal of a State;
  6. Customary Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja and Customary Court of Appeal of a state.
  7. Magistrate Courts and District Courts (Not provided for in the above section)

There you have the hierarchy of courts in Nigeria. As we continue, the above listed courts will be discussing in their hierarchical order. I enjoin you to continue reading because you are not going to regret reading this information.

1. Supreme Court of Nigeria:

In Nigeria, we only have one Supreme Court which is located in Abuja, the federal capital territory. According to Section 230, subsection 2 paragraph (a) and (b) of the constitution, it is headed by a chief justice of Nigeria who is appointed by the president on the recommendation of the National judicial council subject to the approval of the senate. 1see section 231 subsection 1 of the constitution

The total number of justices of the Supreme Court is twenty one (21) and such number of justices as prescribed by the national assembly. It must be noted that the decisions of the Supreme Court are final, it’s decisions stands and cannot be quarried even if it was held in error. In Jev. Iyortom, the Supreme Court has expressly stated that by Order 8 rule 16 and by virtue of Section 235 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), the Supreme Court cannot sit on appeal over its own judgment.

The provision gives a stamp of nality to any decision of the Supreme Court. Therefore, attempts by Ihedioha, the former governor elect of Imo state to persuade the Supreme Court to review its own decisions failed on this ground. The only thing reasonable for the Supreme Court to do is to overrule itself in another case.

Also read: Can the supreme court overrule itself own decision? See answer here

2. Court of Appeal

There are various locations of court of appeal in Nigeria. The most important thing is that the decision of the court of appeal binds a  court of appeal in another state. It is headed by the president of the court of appeal who is appointed by the president of the Nigeria on the recommendation of the national judicial council subject to the ratification of the Senate. 2see Generally section 237 and 238 of the Constitution

The court of appeal is superior to the federal high Court, election tribunals, various state high courts and the national industrial court. It means that it can overrule their decisions if it was in error. But the court of appeal is subordinate to the Supreme Court.

It means that the decisions of the Supreme Court is binding on it. The court of appeal has original jurisdiction to hear matters of elections into the office of the president, vice president, governor, deputy governor and issues from the national industrial court. It is currently made up of forty nine (49) judges.

3. The National industrial court of Nigeria

Under the third Alteration Act to the 1999 Constitution, the national industrial court is headed by the president of the national industrial court is appointed by the president on the recommendation of the national judicial council subject to confirmation by the senate.

It should be noted that the national industrial court has both appellate and original jurisdictions. It’s original jurisdiction is in issues relating to employment, labour, trade, wages, salary, industrial matters etc.

Appeals from national industrial courts go directly to the court of appeal and the president of the court of appeal must be a legal practitioner who has been so qualified having been such for not less than ten years and cognate experience in labour, employment and industrial matters.

4. Federal high Court, various states high courts and high Court of the federal capital territory

The federal high Court, state high Court and the high Court of the federal capital territory are courts of Co-ordinate jurisdictions. This means that the decision of one is not binding on the other. The federal high Court enjoys a limited jurisdiction in issues that only concern federal matters set out in the part one of the second schedule to the constitution and section 251 subsection 1 of the 1999 Constitution.

The federal high Court is headed by a chief judge of the federal high Court appointed by the president on the recommendation of the NJC subject to ratification by the senate. The jurisdiction of the various state high courts are very wide and perhaps the widest jurisdiction both in criminal and civil matters. It enjoys superiority over magistrate, customary and Area courts.

It is headed by a chief judge of a state high court appointed by the Governor of a state on the recommendation of the state judicial commission subject to ratification of the state house of assembly.

Also read: 21 Leading Cases in the law of contract you must know

5. Sharia Court of Appeal

Sharia Court of Appeal is another important court in the hierarchy of courts in Nigeria. It is provided for in Section 260 of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. However, Section 275 of the same constitution made it discretionary for any state in Nigeria to establish its own Sharia Court of Appeal. The section provides as follows:

“There shall be for any State that requires it a Sharia Court of Appeal for that State. (b) such member of Kadi of the Sharia Court of Appeal as may be prescribed by the House of Assembly of the State.”

The constitution provides that the Sharia Court of Appeal is to be headed by the Grandi Kadi, which is to be prescribed by the House of Assembly of that state.

It is pertinent to note that Sharia Court of Appeal has supervisory and appellate jurisdiction in civil cases that has to do with Islamic personal law. Only in this instance, can appeal go to this court.

6. Customary Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja and Customary Court of Appeal of a state

There is a customary court of appeal in states and in the Federal Capital Territory. It is usually headed by the president of the customary Court of appeal and its major function is that of supervisory and to hear appeal in issues that concerns customary law.

Take for instance, in matters that concerns the ownership of land or inheritance right of Women like the case of Mojekwu v Mojekwu, the Customary courts have jurisdiction of such matters.

For a better understanding of the Jurisdiction of customary courts and their mode of establishment, you can check Section 265 of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This section of the constitution discusses customary courts in details.

Also read: Are lawyers liars? Find out the truth here

7. Magistrate Courts and District Courts

Apparently, Magistrate Courts and District Courts are not provided for in the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. These courts is the last in the hierarchy of court in Nigeria and is established by the House of Assembly of State. Most times Magistrate Courts and District Courts function as court of summary judgment. In the Southern part of Nigeria, these courts are referred to as magistrate court. Whereas they are referred to as District court in the North.

Since Magistrate Courts and District Courts are established by the House of Assembly of state, the Jurisdiction of the court is usually outlined in the rules of the court.

Also read:

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Historical constitutional development of Nigeria

Wrapping up:

Above I have explicitly outlined the hierarchy of in Nigeria. Just like I noted in the beginning of this article, the courts above have original and Appellate jurisdiction to handle certain matters. Thus, a matter that is supposed to be handled by the Supreme Court under Section 231 of the constitution of Nigeria, cannot be brought under the original jurisdiction of the court of appeal.

As a lawyer or law student in Nigeria, this is the most important thing you must understand because it is the foundation of legal practice in Nigeria.

Hope this article was helpful? I believe you now understand the structure of courts in Nigeria. Nonetheless, if there is any confusion on the hierarchy of courts above, don’t hesitate to point it out by commenting on the comment box below. I will try to make you understand.

References   [ + ]

1. see section 231 subsection 1 of the constitution
2. see Generally section 237 and 238 of the Constitution

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