NIC decisions are appealable

ALL decisions of the National Industrial Court are appealable to the Court of Appeal.

 

Skye Bank Plc v. Iwu [2017] 16 NWLR (Pt. 1590) 24 at 105-106, paras. H-E, per Nweze, JSC:

“In all, then, on a holistic interpretation of sections 240 and 243(1) of the 1999 Constitution, appeals lie from the trial court (National Industrial Court) to the lower court (Court of Appeal), that is, all decisions of the trial court are appealable to the lower court: as of right in criminal matters, [section 254c(5) and (6)] and fundamental right cases, [section 243(2)]; and with the leave of the lower court, in all civil matters where the trial court has exercised its jurisdiction, sections 240 read conjunctively with sections 243(1) and (4). The answers to the questions posed to this court in this case statement, therefore are: (a) the lower court, that is the Court of Appeal, has the jurisdiction, to the exclusion of any other court in Nigeria, to hear and determine all appeals arising from the decisions of the trial court, that is, the National Industrial Court; (b) no constitutional provisions expressly divested the said Court of Appeal of its appellate jurisdiction over all decisions on civil matters emanating from the trial court, the National Industrial Court; and (c) as a corollary, the jurisdiction of the Court to hear and determine civil appeals from the decisions of the National Industrial Court is not limited, only, to fundamental rights matters.”

Blogger’s Note:

The above epoch-making decision of the Supreme Court has laid to rest the controversies surrounding the legal status of the decisions of the National Industrial Court (NIC). Taken that presently, many are already aware of this decision, we shall here highlight the deducible rationale behind the majority decision and the reasoning of the Supreme Court (in no particular order). However, prior to that, it is worthy to mention the special circumstance that set the stage for the apex Court’s consideration of the burning constitutional issue. The Respondent had instituted an action at the NIC against the Appellant. The Appellant challenged the jurisdiction of the NIC vide a preliminary objection which was dismissed by the trial Court. The Appellant then appealed to the Court of Appeal. At the Court of Appeal, the Respondent queried the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal to entertain the appeal. While the Court of Appeal was yet to deliver a ruling on the Respondent’s objection, the Appellant’s Counsel, (being conversant with the existing controversy in case law especially as it relates to the conflicting decisions of the Court of Appeal on the subject), urged the Court of Appeal to state a case for the Supreme Court’s opinion on the constitutional issues. Consequently, the Court of Appeal referred the issues to the Supreme Court. Thus, the decision of the Supreme Court above was its binding opinion on the Case Stated and not necessarily a decision based on any appeal per se.

Supreme Court of Nigeria

Rationale for the Supreme Court’s decision:

  • The NIC was created by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Third Alteration) Act, [Act No. 3], 2010 (“Third Alteration Act”) so as to elevate it to the status of a Superior Court of Record, ranking in hierarchy with the High Courts (the major difference being that in the case of the NIC, the Court of Appeal is the final appellate court). Thus, having being so elevated, the NIC naturally comes under the appellate jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal. Any contrary interpretation would wreck havoc to the hierarchy of courts under the Constitution. The Long Title to the Third Alteration Act supports this reasoning. Nweze, JSC reasoned:

From my earlier survey of the mischief which the Third Alteration was intended to suppress, I had taken the humble view that the draftsperson intended to pluck the trial Court from the juridical nadir of inferiority to the superior status enjoyed by the pantheon of Courts in Section 6(3) and (5)(a)-(i). Thus, as shown above, the purpose of enacting the Third Alteration was to elevate the National Industrial Court to the status of a superior Court, ranking in judicial hierarchy with the High Courts. The draftsperson did not therefore intend that the said Court, upon its elevation, would navigate out of the lower court’s circumambient appellate constitutional jurisdiction over all the courts now consecrated in section 240 [as altered by Section 4 of the Third Alteration].

See pp. 103; 96-97. See also Kekere-Ekun, JSC at 143.

  • It was not the intendment of the draftsperson to concede rights of appeal to litigants in one section of the Constitution, and then strip them of the same in another section of the Constitution. The draftsperson of the Constitution is not an author of confusion. According to Nweze, JSC:

Above all, I even take the view that, since the Constitution has conceded rights of appeal to litigants in one section, the draftsperson could not have been minded to strip them of such rights in another section of the Constitution. In effect, Sections 243 (2) and (3) cannot validly, strip litigants of the rights, expressly, conferred on them by Sections 240 and 243 (4) without an express provision to wreak that kind of, unjustifiable, denudation of the latter right, that is, the right in Section 240 and 243 (4) (supra).

See p. 100.

In the American-Nigerian construct of constitutional interpretation, the draftsperson has never been known as an exponent of contrarieties or contradictory results.

See p. 98.

  • The Constitution must not be narrowly construed. Interpretation of constitutional provisions in isolation must be avoided. Nweze, JSC reasoned:

Above all [rules of constitutional and statutory interpretation], the rationale of all binding authorities is that a narrow interpretation that would do violence to its provisions and fail to achieve the goal set by the Constitution must be avoided. Thus where alternative constructions are equally open, it is the construction that is consistent with the smooth working of the system, which the Constitution read as a whole has set out to regulate is to be preferred. Dapianlong v. Dariye (2007) 8 NWLR (Pt. 1036) 239. The principle that underlies this construction technique is that the Legislature would legislate only for the purpose of bringing about an effective result… This approach is consistent with the “living tree” doctrine of constitutional interpretation enunciated in Edward v. Canada (1932) AC 124 which postulates that the Constitution “must be capable of growth to meet the future.

See p. 88-89.

  • It cannot be envisaged that the National Assembly can make a law, purportedly pursuant to section 243(3) of the Constitution, depriving the Court of Appeal appellate jurisdiction to hear appeals from NIC or limiting the Court of Appeal’s appellate jurisdiction in that regard. Eko, JSC reasoned:

I think it is reasonable to construe subsection (3) of section 243 to mean additional jurisdiction and the procedure for the exercise of the right of appeal already donated by section 240. I cannot envisage a situation where the National Assembly, pursuant to section 243 (3) of the Constitution, would enact an Act depriving the Court of Appeal appellate jurisdiction to hear and determine appeals from the National Industrial Court unless such appeal is only on questions of fundamental rights. Such an Act would be in conflict with section 240 and therefore void to the extent of its inconsistency in view of section 1 of the Constitution. Such absurdity is not intended by the Constitution.

See p. 158.

  • Some section(s) of the Constitution should not be interpreted in such a way as to render other section(s) useless. Nweze, JSC explained:

Indeed, I agree with Dr. Mekwunye, for the appellant, that the legislature could not have intended that Section 243(2) – (3) could validly curtail or circumscribe the right, expressly, consecrated by Section 240 and 243 (4) for to do so would mean that its intendment was to render the latter provisions redundant and ineffectual: a state of affairs which is anathematic in Anglo-Nigerian jurisprudence.

See p. 99.

  • To say that the decision of the NIC is final on any issue violates the cardinal principle as to the right to resort to an appellate court to review the decision of a lower court. The principal was set up in order to avoid injustice. Nweze, JSC stressed:

A fortiori, such an approach (literal interpretation) would surely, be violative of a cardinal principle in Anglo-Nigerian jurisprudence, namely, the right to resort to a higher court to review the decision of a lower court with a view to determining whether, on the facts placed before it, and applying the relevant and applicable law, the lower court came to a right or wrong decision… This formidable principle stems from the avowed concern to avoid injustice if trial Court decisions were to be final.

See p. 97.

  • There is nothing in the Act or Constitution that provides that the NIC shall be a final Court in respect of any matter before it. Peter-Odili, JSC quoted, with approval, the decision of Onyemenam, JCA in Local Government Service Commission Ekiti State & Anor. v. Mr. M. K. Bamisaye (2013) LPER-20407:

There is nothing both in the Act or Constitution that provides that the National Industrial Court shall be a final Court in respect of any matter before it… A court of law can only be expressly made a final court by the statute that created it or by any other law where necessary. No court can be a final court by mere implication.

See p. 122.

  • The Constitution cannot be interpreted to create the NIC as another Supreme Court by implication. Ogunbiyi, JSC was illustrative, he alluded to the Bible:

It will be against logical reasoning therefore that a child, who is the last in the family, should seek to take over birthright of those who are elders and without any reason and explanation so expressly stated. The Biblical situation of Esau and Jacob, where the younger took over the birthright of the older, is well explained and with reason. It was not borne out of imagination or from nowhere. The Supreme Court is the Highest Court in the land, while all other Courts are subordinate to it. The Constitution cannot be interpreted to create by implication (NIC) as another Supreme Court in certain areas.

See p. 133.

  • There is already an Act of the National Assembly that caters for the procedure for appeals, either as of right or with the leave of the Court of Appeal – section 24 (1) of the Court of Appeal Act and Order 7 Rules 5 and 10 (1) of the Court of Appeal Rules 2011. This suffices as no future Act of the National Assembly is required before an appeal against the decision of the NIC can be lodged at the Court of Appeal. Nweze, JSC observed:

In effect, within the framework of the extant enactment, namely, section 24 (1) of the Court of Appeal Act (supra) and Order 7 Rules 5 and 10 (1) of the Court of Appeal Rules, an aggrieved litigant can exercise the right of appeal against, inter alia, the trial Court, the National Industrial Court.

See p. 105.

  • Denying litigants right to appeal NIC decisions is akin to denying them right of access to court. Ogunbiyi, JSC, (drawing inspiration from the decision in Local Government Service Commission, Ekiti State & Anor v. Mr. M. A. Jegede (2013) LPELR-21131 at 20) explained:

Suffice it to say also that an appeal is a continuation of its litigation process. It is akin to the right of access to Court which is constitutionally guaranteed under Section 36 of the Constitution. In other words, the right of access to Court does not end with access to the trial Court only. The right so guaranteed is substantive and continues right through to the appeal process. The right is not dependent on whether the appeal is of right or with leave.

See p. 132.

NB: It is perhaps important to mention that the Supreme Court’s decision was on the basis of a majority of 6 to 1. Aka’ahs, JSC dissented. I read through the dissenting opinion. With the greatest respect, I was not convinced by the reasoning of his Lordship. The crux of the position of his Lordship was that, according to him, “the decisions of the National Industrial Court in relation to matters spelt out in section 254C (2), (3) and (4) of the Constitution should be final because it is a specialised court and is meant to cater for special interests and foster economic development.” I most respectfully disagree. The Federal High Court, for instance, is also a specialised court but it does not wear the toga of finality. There is nothing in the entire Constitution that convincingly supports the dissenting view expressed.

Decisions of National Industrial Court can be appealed

In all, I commend the majority of the Supreme Court, especially, Nweze, JSC (who read the leading Judgment) for his erudite delivery.

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