Jul 4, 2017

The Supreme Jurisdiction Of The National Industrial Court Of Nigeria | Vincent Oniga

The constitutional right of appeal and the well-entrenched principle of fair hearing are the foundation of modern legal systems across the globe. The principles as guaranteed under The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) as amended (“The Constitution”) ensure that in the conduct of judicial proceedings to determine the civil rights and/or obligations of the parties brought before any Court, the twin pillars of natural justice shall be adhered to and applied by the courts. 

The basic attributes of the twin principles of fair hearing and right of appeal includes: that a court shall hear both parties to a case fairly and without bias as is humanly possible, that a court gives or provide equal opportunity, treatment and consideration to the parties in presenting the issues relevant to their side of the case, the proceedings are held in public and all the parties shall be informed or notified of the upcoming proceedings, dates and have free access to the venue of the hearing, that a party aggrieved by the decision of a lower court is afforded the unfettered opportunity to challenge such a decision in a higher court, that the proceedings are conducted in accordance with all the legal rules formulated to ensure that justice is not only done, but manifestly seen to have been done to the parties in the case.

The National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NIC) was established in 1976 by the Trade Disputes Act, Cap 432, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990 and was in 2010 elevated to a superior court of record and of coordinate jurisdiction with the Federal High Court, the various State High Courts and other Courts of coordinate jurisdiction with a well-defined jurisdiction and powers as contained in The Constitution. 

This paper attempts a brief but critical appraisal of the seemingly unbridled jurisdiction vested in the Court vis-a-vis the litigant’s right of appeal and fair hearing. Section 254 (C) (1 – 4) of The Constitution, also known as the Third Alteration Act generally confers on the NIC the jurisdiction to the exclusion of other courts of coordinate jurisdiction to adjudicate over civil and criminal causes and matters relating to labour, industrial trade union and industrial relations and environment and conditions of work, health, safety and welfare of labor and matters related and incidental thereto amongst others. Section 243 (2) & (3) of The Constitution provides for the right and procedure for appeal decisions arising from the NIC. The said section was recently given judicial interpretation in the Case of Lagos Sheraton Hotel and Towers Vs. Hotels and Personal Services Senior Staff (2014) LPELR 23340 (CA) and affirmed by a full panel of the Court of Appeal in Coca-Cola (Nig) Ltd & 2 Ors Vs. Akisanya (2013) 1 ACELR 28. In both Cases, the Court of Appeal held that section 243 (2) & (3) only recognizes the right to criminal appeals and appeals on questions of fundamental human rights and that all other rights of appeal are subject to an Act of the National Assembly. The Court held further that since such Act does not exist, then the decision of the NIC is final on the issue. The effect of the above decisions is that an aggrieved litigant who intends to appeal on issues other than issues bordering on criminal appeals and appeals on questions of fundamental human rights have no constitutional right of appeal. 

The writer, with due respect, is of the view that the decision is contrary to the principle of fair hearing and amounts to an aberration of the notion of modern justice. This writer submits that it does not serve the cause of justice to allow a single Judge of the NIC to take matters to finality, thereby making the NIC a Court of first instance as well as a Supreme Court to itself at the same time. The proper approach to the interpretation of the constitution is that of liberalism. This implies not only that words of the constitution should be given their broad meanings, it also means that where alternative constructions are equally open, the court should prefer a broader construction which will bring about an effective result and is consistent with the intention of the legislature. This writer is of the opinion that Their Lordships ought to have given liberal interpretation to sections 240 and 254 (c) (5) & (6) of the same Constitution which vests in the Court of Appeal the general powers to hear and determine appeals from lower courts and resolve whatever perceived inconsistency and lacuna that may have resulted from Section 243 (2) & (3).

Furthermore, the Court of Appeal should have considered and applied the principle as expounded by the Supreme Court in Bamgboye vs University of Ilorin (1999) 10 NWLR, PT 622 @ 290 that “the right of a person to fair hearing is so fundamental to our concept of justice that it could not be waived nor taken away by a statute, whether expressly or by implication”. There is no court of first instance in Nigeria, save the Supreme Court of Nigeria when exercising its original jurisdiction under Section 232 of the Constitution, whose decision is final and not appealable; not even a court martial or other tribunals, or election tribunals (see Section 240 of the Constitution). 

This is after due consideration of the fact that the composition of the panel of the Supreme Court allows for a majority decision to prevail, whether the panel is composed of five (5) Justices or Seven (7) Justices as the case may arise under Section 234 of the Constitution. In concluding this discourse, the writer suggests that it is most imperative for the National Assembly to undertake a consideration of the provisions of Section 240 and other relevant sections of the Constitution and guarantee expressly therein, the right to appeal all decisions of the NIC at the Court of Appeal and finally at the Supreme Court. When a single Judge is allowed to possibly make a judicial error which is not subject to scrutiny or capable of reversal by a higher authority, it portends imminent danger for the actors in administration of Justice.

Undoubtedly, labour and industrial related disputes are serious issues in any nation. Labour disputes have had and will continue to have staggering effects on both the social and economy spheres of a country. Any form of neglect or the absence of checks and balances could result in low productivity, unemployment, wastage of human resources and many other problems, all of which can be avoided to a large extent by positive judicial activism.

Vincent Oniga
Associate at Odujinrin&Adefulu
Ed’s note – This article was first published here

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