Competence of Court to Assume Jurisdiction to Entertain An Application for the Enforcement of Fundamental Human Rights

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INTRODUCTION:

It is the law that for a Court to be competent to assume jurisdiction to entertain an application for the enforcement of fundamental rights under the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, the enforcement of the fundamental right should be the applicant’s main claim and not an ancillary claim. This was expressed by the Supreme Court per ONNOGHEN, J.S.C. while delivering the judgment in NWACHUKWU v. NWACHUKWU & ANOR (2018) LPELR-44696(SC), that “It is settled  law that for a matter to be instituted under the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 1979 to enforce the constitutionally guaranteed rights under Chapter IV of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended, the enforcement of such right(s) must be the main/substantive claim before the Court – not ancillary.”

FACTS:

This is an appeal against the judgment of the Court of Appeal, in which the Court set aside the Ruling of the High Court of Imo State, in which the Court granted the reliefs claimed by the applicant under the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 1979.

The appellant, who was the applicant at the trial Court, brought the suit under the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 1979. There was a preliminary objection against the suit as commenced under the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 1979 on the ground that the suit was incompetent and lacking in merit based on the fact that it was a  matrimonial matter and cannot be enforced through fundamental rights process. At the end of the trial, the trial Court incorporated its ruling on the preliminary objection in the trial Court’s judgment on the merit of the application. The trial Court ruled against the preliminary objection and proceeded to grant all the reliefs claimed by the applicant. This resulted in the respondent’s appeal to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and in upturning the trial Court’s judgment, held that the trial Court had no jurisdiction to entertain the matter as constituted.

Aggrieved by the decision of the Court of Appeal, the Appellant has filed this Appeal.  

ISSUES FOR DETERMINATION:

There was a lone issue raised for the determination of this Appeal viz:

  1. Whether the claims of the appellant is suited for ventilation under the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules 1979.

HELD

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The Supreme Court found no merit in the lone issue raised by the appellant. It therefore resolved the appeal against the appellant and dismissed the appeal. The judgment of the Court of Appeal was affirmed.

RATIO DECIDENDI

  1. CONSTITUTIONAL LAW – ENFORCEMENT OF FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHT(S): Whether the enforcement of fundamental right should be the main claim in an application brought under the Fundamental Rights Enforcement Rules “It is also settled law that for a matter to be instituted under the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 1979 to enforce the constitutionally guaranteed rights under Chapter IV of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended, the enforcement of such right(s) must be the main/substantive claim before the Court – not ancillary. In the case of TUKUR v. GOVERNMENT OF TARABA STATE (1997) NWLR (pt. 510) 549 at 574 – 575, this Court stated the law as follows: “When an application is brought under the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 1979, a condition Precedent to the exercise of the Court’s jurisdiction is that the enforcement of fundamental rights or the security of the enforcement thereof should be the main claim and not an accessory claim. Enforcement of fundamental right or securing the enforcement thereof should, from the applicant’s claim as presented, be the principal or fundamental claim as presented, and not accessory claim. See THE FEDERAL MINISTER OF INTERNAL AFFAIRS & ORS v. SHUGABA ABDULRAHMAN DARMAN (1982) 2 NCLR 915 in which the principal or main claim was a declaration that the order …… was ultra vires and that the same constituted a violation of his fundamental rights to personal liberty, privacy and freedom to move freely throughout Nigeria …… However, where the main or principal claim is not the enforcement or securing the enforcement of a fundamental right, the jurisdiction of the Court cannot as has been pointed out above, be properly exercised, as it will be incompetent by reason of the foregoing feature of the case. “Per ONNOGHEN, J.S.C. (Pp. 11-12, Paras. D-F).
  2. CONSTITUTIONAL LAW – ENFORCEMENT OF FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHT(S): Whether the enforcement of fundamental right should be the main claim in an application brought under the Fundamental Rights Enforcement Rules

“For a Court to be competent to assume jurisdiction to entertain an application for the enforcement of fundamental rights under the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, it is settled law that the enforcement of the fundamental right should be the main claim and not an accessory claim. See: Tukur v. Govt. of Taraba State (1997) 6 NWLR (Pt. 510) 549 @ 576 – 577 H – F; Jack v. University of Agriculture (2004) 1 SC (Reprint) (Pt. ii) 100 @ 112 Lines 5 – 23; Tukur v. Govt. of Gongola State (1989) 4 NWLR (Pt. 117) 517 @ 548; Emeka v. Okoroafor & Ors (2017) 11 NWLR (Pt. 1577) 411. I agree entirely with the Court below that a careful perusal of the reliefs sought and the averments in the verifying affidavit in support of the application, which have been reproduced in detail in the lead judgment, reveals that the main claim is for the respondent to be restored to her matrimonial home and for a restoration of her rights in the property and business jointly owned with her husband, the 1st respondent. As rightly held by the lower Court, the appropriate procedure to ventilate her grievances is a petition under the Matrimonial Causes Act or any other appropriate procedure. I agree that the suit as constituted under the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 1979 was incompetent and the trial Court lacked the jurisdiction to entertain it. It was rightly struck out by the Court below. I find no merit in this appeal. It is hereby dismissed. The judgment of the Court of Appeal, Owerri Division delivered on 10/1/2013 is affirmed. The parties shall bear their respective costs in the appeal.”Per KEKERE-EKUN, J.S.C. (Pp. 29-30, Paras. B-D)

  1. COURT – JURISDICTION: Importance of jurisdiction of Court; what determines whether a court has jurisdiction

“It is now settled law that jurisdiction is the life blood of adjudication in that any decision by a Court that lacks jurisdiction to hear and determine a matter is a nullity no matter how well conducted – see Madukolu v. Nkemdilim 1962 NSCC 374 at 379 – 380. When can it be said that a Court has jurisdiction to hear and determine a case? As stated earlier, the Supreme Court in the above cited case decided that for a Court to have the requisite jurisdiction to hear a matter: (a) the Court must be properly constituted as regard numbers and qualifications of members of the bench, and no member is disqualified for one reason or another; (b) the subject matter of the case is within the jurisdiction of the Court and there is no feature in the case that prevents the Court from exercising its jurisdiction; and (c) the case comes before the Court initiated by due process of the law, and upon fulfilment of any condition precedent to the exercise of jurisdiction.” Per ONNOGHEN, J.S.C. (Pp. 10-11, Paras. E-D)

  1. COURT – JURISDICTION: Effect of a Court hearing a matter where it has no jurisdiction; conditions precedent to exercise of jurisdiction by the Court

“I agree with both counsel that a Court must have jurisdiction over an action before proceeding to determine the issue the action agitates. In assuming jurisdiction where it has none, the Court will be embarking on a fruitless exercise. It is settled that no matter how well conducted a Court’s proceedings, once taken in the absence of jurisdiction, they are null and void ab initio. See Onyema & Ors v. Oputa & Ors (1987) 6 SC 362, Adeyemi v. Opeyori (1976) 9-10 SC 31, CBN & Ors v. Okojie (2015) LPELR-24740 (SC). In Madukolu v. Nkemdilim (1962) 1 ALNLR 587, a Court is said to have jurisdiction over a matter when: (a) When the subject matter of the case is within the Court’s jurisdiction. (b) When there is no feature of the case which prevents the Court from exercising its jurisdiction and (c) When it is properly constituted as regards its members and their qualification. See also Amobi v. Nzegwu & Others (2013) LPELR-21853 (SC).” Per MUHAMMAD, J.S.C. (P. 27, Paras. B-G).

NWACHUKWU v. NWACHUKWU & ANOR (2018) LPELR-44696(SC)

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