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The Function and Evolution of the Judicial System in Nigeria – Aanuoluwa Oluwapelumi OLA

function and evolution of the judicial system in Nigeria

The Function and Evolution of the Judicial System in Nigeria


This paper aims to provide a theoretical exploration into the role and historical progression of the judiciary in Nigeria. Throughout the discussion, it will emphasize the significance and implications of the Nigerian judiciary. Additionally, the paper will delineate the pertinence and duties carried out by the judiciary within the Nigerian context. Ultimately, the conclusion urges the judicial institution to continue fulfilling its pivotal oversight function within the political landscape.


The judiciary has been consistently acknowledged as a governmental participant across all types of constitutions—whether primitive, colonial, or contemporary. Serving as the third branch of government in Nigeria, the country’s judiciary comprises diverse court systems operating within various jurisdictions.

Within this institutional framework, the Nigerian judiciary encompasses both the “Bar” and the “Bench,” working collaboratively and synergistically. This structure aligns with the federal nature of Nigeria’s governance.

The objective of this paper is to provide a theoretical overview of the role and historical progression of the Nigerian judiciary. Throughout this exploration, the paper aims to underscore the significance and significance of the judiciary within Nigeria. Furthermore, the paper will delineate the relevance and duties vested in the Nigerian judiciary.

In conclusion, the paper advocates for the continuous vigilance of the judiciary in fulfilling its crucial role as a guardian within the political arena.

The Short Story of the Relationship Between the Judiciary and the Political Branches

“Nigeria’s British colonial antecedents paved the way for the adoption of a parliamentary system of government at independence in 1960. The country’s constitutional history has been well documented and bears no repeating here. This brief overview (p. 240) is designed to situate the operation of the doctrine of separation of powers in Nigeria in a historical context.

The Independence Constitution of 1960 was given effect to by an Order in Council of the British monarch. It was the culmination of developments in the governance of the colonial territory, including but by no means limited to, earlier constitutions enacted from 1922 (after the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern parts of the country in 1914).

These all preceded the struggle for and final preparations for independence. Adopting a republican constitution, Nigeria became a republic in 1963. Both the 1960 and 1963 constitutions, established a cabinet system of government under which ministers had seats in the legislature and were collectively responsible to it. Therefore, only the judicial branch could be said to be separate although there was a ‘lack of a clear, explicit separation of judicial power from the legislative and executive powers’.

Apart from the fusion of the executive and legislature, there was a direct conferment of legislative power on parliament under the 1963 constitution. That constitution did not expressly vest judicial powers in the judiciary although it created specific courts and provided for the appointment of judges, their tenure, jurisdiction, practice, and procedure.

Civilian rule under the 1963 constitution was cut short by military incursion in 1966. This was to last in the first instance, for thirteen years (1966‒79) and subsequently, for another sixteen years from 1983 to 1999. Between 1979 and 1983, there was another spell of civilian rule that established a presidential system of government premised on a clear division of the powers of government between three separate and distinct branches viz, the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary under a supreme constitution which has continued to the present. Under the 1999 constitution (the constitution), there is a clear separation of the functions, personnel, and institutions of the three arms of government.

The procedures for carrying out each of these functions are similarly separated. According to Nwabueze, ‘the exercise of presidential power within these limits is restrained and moderated by various checks and balances’. These include the power of the judicial branch to pronounce on the constitutionality and validity of the acts of both the legislative and executive branches.

This notwithstanding, some overlapping of functions between the branches of government is inevitable for the smooth running of the system and does not detract from the principle of separation of powers.”[1]

Meaning of The Judiciary

As per the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the term “Judiciary” pertains to ” the judges of a country or a state, when they are considered as a group.[2] Conversely, according to Bovier’s Dictionary,Judiciary” encompasses “the system of courts of justice in a country, and the department of government tasked with the administration of justice.[3]

These definitions underscore key foundational elements or essential prerequisites that compose a judiciary, namely: Judges, courts of law, and the administration of justice. However, given that the judiciary is a legal institution, it becomes imperative to refer not only to general dictionary definitions but also specifically to legal definitions found in legal dictionaries.

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Hence, Black’s Law Dictionary defines ‘judiciary‘ in the subsequent manner: “Pertaining or relating to the courts of justice, to the judicial department of government, or to the administration of justice.”[4]

In a teleological sense, the judiciary embodies the governmental branch endowed with judicial power within a democratic system, such as Nigeria’s present administration.

This power entails the authority to construe and apply the law. Functionally, the judiciary serves as a mechanism for resolving disputes and harmonizing conflicting interests. When referring to the judiciary, we are essentially alluding to the country’s court system.

Historical Development of The Judiciary In Nigeria

The origins of Nigeria’s judiciary can be traced to a time preceding the arrival of the British within the regions that now collectively form the nation. Historical accounts distinctly reveal that well before the 19th century, each of these regions possessed an established framework for the administration of justice. In essence, prior to the emergence of colonial governance and the merging of the northern and southern Nigerian protectorates, laying the foundation for the present-day Nigeria, the pre-colonial establishments encompassed functioning court systems.[5]

Nonetheless, the development of the modern Nigerian judiciary, aligned with the British paradigm, primarily emerged as a colonial response to rectify shortcomings inherent in the traditional adjudicative framework. After King Dosemu’s relinquishment of Lagos to the British crown in 1861, the colonial authorities established courts through a combination of legislative enactments and administrative mechanisms.

In the southern region of Nigeria, spanning the years from 1843 to 1913, the British authorities employed a blend of the Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1843 and 1893 to enact regulations that facilitated the establishment of diverse courts. To elaborate, the inception of the first courts, designated as the “Courts of Equity,” occurred in 1854. These British-initiated courts were instituted in the southern domains of Nigeria, notably within locations such as Brass, Benin, Okirika, and Opobo.[6]

Concurrently with the establishment of the courts of equity and consular courts, another parallel legal framework emerged through courts instituted by the Royal Niger Company. Under the authority of a Royal Charter granted in 1886, the company assumed governance and judicial responsibilities within its operational territory until the Charter’s revocation in 1899. The formation of these British-administered courts did not, however, invalidate the presence of native courts, if the customs upheld by the latter adhered to principles of natural justice, equity, and good conscience.

In the years 1863 and 1900, the development of the Nigerian judicial landscape saw the establishment of significant entities: the Supreme Court of Lagos and a Supreme Court dedicated to the protectorate of Southern Nigeria. While the former encompassed both civil and criminal jurisdiction, the latter wielded the same powers and jurisdictions vested in Her Majesty’s High Court of Justice in England.[7]

This arrangement persisted until 1914, when the Northern and Southern protectorates of Nigeria were amalgamated. Provincial courts were disbanded, replaced by High Courts composed of Chief Judges, Judges, and assistant Judges. Magistrate courts existed beneath these High Courts, while native courts maintained their position at the lowest tier of the judicial hierarchy.

The Supreme Court held appellate authority over the High Courts. From 1934 to 1954, appeals from the Supreme Court were directed to the West African Court of Appeal (WACA). After WACA, appeals proceeded to the Privy Council. However, starting in 1954, appeals from the Supreme Court of Nigeria bypassed the WACA and were directed straight to the Privy Council. This alteration resulted from the establishment of a Federal Supreme Court in 1954, presided over by a Chief Justice of the Federation. At the regional level, Chief Judges led High Courts, with appeals from Regional High Courts routed to the Federal Supreme Court, while appeals from Customary or Native Courts Grade A were directed to the Regional High Courts.

In 1967, Nigeria’s transformation into a federation of 12 states, each with its individual state judiciary, signified a significant sociopolitical shift. This transition, combined with the nation’s economic progress, warranted the emergence of an intricate judiciary equipped to navigate the challenges of a burgeoning quasi-federal state. Consequently, within the same year, the Western State introduced a Regional Court of Appeal through the enactment of Court of Appeal Edict, No. 15 of 1969.[8]

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Additionally, in response to the necessity for prompt resolution of cases related to the Federal Government’s revenue matters, the establishment of the Federal Revenue Court came into effect through the enactment of the Federal Revenue Court Decree No. 13 of 1973.[9] The court held jurisdiction across the nation regarding specified matters.

In conclusion, as per the amended 2011 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the superior courts acknowledged as constituting the judicial system encompass the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, the Federal High Court, the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, the Customary Court of Appeal in Abuja, the Sharia Court of Appeal in the States, the State High Courts, and the Customary Court of Appeal in the States.[10] These courts are entrusted with the responsibility of administering justice in accordance with their respective jurisdictions.

The Role of The Nigerian Judiciary

The significance of the judiciary in Nigeria cannot be overstated. Firstly, the judiciary holds the pivotal role of being the ultimate interpreter of the constitution. It is tasked with the intricate responsibility of delineating the parameters and extent of power granted to each branch of government.

Moreover, it determines the limitations that govern the exercise of such power as outlined in the constitution, while also addressing the question of whether any action undertaken by a government branch surpasses these confines. In essence, the judiciary functions as the custodian of the constitution and the democratic framework.[11]

This position is re-echoed in Attorney General of Bendel State v. Attorney General of The Federation,[12] where the Supreme Court held that courts of law in Nigeria being guardians of the constitution, shall always rise to their feet to declare any purported infraction of the constitution null and void. Also, Nigerian courts have held that as guardians of the constitution, whenever in a proceedings, a constitutional issue is raised, the must first examine such an issue closely to ensure that it is not lightly treated, for to do otherwise would amount to disregarding the constitution.[13]

Secondly, the judiciary plays a critical role in ensuring that all exercises of power by other branches of government align with and adhere to the principles of the Rule of Law. In Millitary Governor of Lagos State v. Ojukwu,[14] the Nigerian Judiciary affirmed the supremacy of the rule of law using the enduring language. The foundation of the Nigerian constitution is rooted in the principle of the rule of law, which fundamentally signifies that all actions must be conducted in accordance with the law. 

Thirdly, among the three branches of government, the judiciary holds the unique authority to oversee and assess the actions of the other two branches. When deemed necessary, it can declare such actions null and void. This perspective was underscored by Fatai-Williams CJN (Chief Justice of Nigeria), as he was then, in the case of Attorney-General of Bendel State v. Attorney-General of the Federation and 22 orsTop of Form

.[15] in the following words:

…courts of law in Nigeria have the power and indeed the duty to see to it that there is no infraction of the exercise of legislative power, whether substantive or procedural as laid in the relevant provisions of the constitution. 

No wonder of all the three arms of government, the judiciary seems to be the most revered.

Fourthly, the judiciary plays a pivotal role in adjudicating disputes involving various scenarios, including conflicts between states, conflicts between the state and individuals, disputes between individuals and corporations or corporate entities, and other similar cases.

The judiciary determines the meaning of the laws of the country. For instance in Attorney-General of Lagos State v. Attorney General of the Federation and 35 ors,[16] the Supreme Court ruled that section 2(2) of the 1999 constitution of Nigeria reaffirms the doctrine of Federalism.

In this regard, the Supreme Court held that this section not only guarantees the autonomy of each government to independently exercise its authority within the confines of the constitution, without external influence from another governmental unit, but also signifies that none of the governments is subservient to the other.[17]

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In summary, the judiciary assumes a pivotal function in the dispensation of justice. It holds the responsibility of adjudicating election disputes, should they be contested by unsuccessful and dissatisfied candidates.

Moreover, the judiciary decides upon the legality or impropriety of diverse behaviors brought before it by litigants. Furthermore, the judiciary actively participates in impeachment proceedings involving the President, Vice President, Governors, Deputy Governors, and in the investigation of corruption allegations against these officials.

Notably, the judiciary’s influence in shaping laws through the interpretation of legal statutes and adherence to the principle of stare decisis is also of significant importance.[18]


By virtue of the powers endowed upon courts by the constitution, the judiciary assumes a mediating role between the government and the citizens. It embodies the ultimate recourse for the common man, serving as a beacon of hope for those without recourse, a shield for the vulnerable, and a guardian of the rule of law. Nonetheless, the judiciary remains susceptible to the pervasive issue of corruption that permeates Nigerian society.

About Author

Aanuoluwa Oluwapelumi OLA Esq. (LLB, BL, AMNIM, MADRS) is a former NYSC Associate at Shelter View & Investment Nig. Ltd {Law Link Chambers}. He currently serves as a Paralegal Researcher at Akintunde F. Adeyemo, PLLC. Simultaneously, he has been steering the ship of two successful start-ups, LAPONISM CONCEPT and BAM Entertainment. Email: [email protected]

[1], “Part III The Relationship Between the Judiciary and the Political Branches, 10 Judicial–Executive Relations in Nigeria’s Constitutional Development: Clear Patterns or Confusing Signals?”

[2] Oxford Learners Dictionaries, “Judiciary”

[3], “Reviewed Work(s): A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America, and of the Several States of the American Union; With References to the Civil and Other Systems of Foreign Law. To Which Is Added, Kelham’s Dictionary of the Norman and Old French Language by John Bouvier: Institutes of American Law by John Bouvier”

[4] Black’s Law Dictionary, “JUDICIARY Definition & Legal Meaning”


[6] Ibid.

[7] Learn Nigerian Law, “English Law”

[8] The implication of the later state of affairs is that in the Western State, the Supreme Court of the Federation ceased to have direct jurisdiction to hear and determine appeals in any matter from the High Court of the Western State (including appeals in any proceeding pending in any court in the western state) except in any case in which the Notice of Appeal to the Supreme Court had been filled by 1/6/1967.

[9] Now known as “The Federal High Court by virtue of section 230(2) of the 1979 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

[10] It should be noted that the establishment of a Sharia Court of Appeal or Customary Court of Appeal by a state is optional.

[11] A. Opuka, “The Judiciary as an Unbiased Umpire in the Democratic Process” in C. Okeke (Ed.), Towards Functional Justice (Ibadan: Gold Press Ltd., 2007) at 182.

[12]National Judicial Institute, “ATTORNEY-GENERAL OF BENDEL STATE V. ATTORNEY-GENERAL OF THE FEDERATION & 22 ORS (SC. 17/1981) [1981] 4 (02 OCTOBER 1981);”

[13] See for instance, per Eso JSC in Garba v. FCSC (1988) 19 NSCC (Pt. 1) 306 at 320 and YAKUBU v. Gov. of Kogi State (1997) 7 NWLR (Pt. 511) 66 (CA). 16 (1986) 1 NWLR (Pt. 18) 621.


[15] National Judicial Institute, “ATTORNEY-GENERAL OF BENDEL STATE V. ATTORNEY-GENERAL OF THE FEDERATION & 22 ORS (SC. 17/1981) [1981] 4 (02 OCTOBER 1981);”

[16] National Judicial Institute, “ATTORNEY-GENERAL OF LAGOS STATE V. ATTORNEY-GENERAL OF THE FEDERATION (SC 70/2004) [2004] 19 (10 DECEMBER 2004);”

[17] Nigeria Law, “Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999”

[18] Modern Ghana, “Systemic corruption, Criminal James Ibori and Nigeria’s Justice System”; See generally, sections 143 and 188 of the Amended Constitution of Nigeria, 2011. See also, sections 132(10) of the 1979 Constitution and section 140(10) of the botched 1989 Constitution of Nigeria.

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