The general trend is to campaign for free and unhindered access to the court, as a veritable means of resolving disputes. This is indeed the focus of section 6 (6) (b) of the Constitution when it states that ‘the judicial powers vested in accordance with the foregoing provisions of this section shall extend to all matters between persons, or between government or authority and to any person in Nigeria, and to all actions and proceedings relating thereto, for the determination of any question as to the civil rights and obligations of that person’. Which is why it is often said that the court is the last hope of the common man, if at all this can still be relied upon as the truth, in the light of all that we experience nowadays. In practice however, the right of access to court is not automatic, as over the years, the courts themselves have developed some rules that must be fulfilled by all potential litigants, before they could be granted access to the court to ventilate their grievances.
Lawyers describe it as condition precedent, or at times they robe it in the technical term of jurisdiction, as was aptly captured in the famous case of Madukolu v Nkemdilim, that you can only approach the court when there are no features in your case that may disqualify you or prevent the case from being heard. The Supreme Court held as follows, in that case:
“A court is competent when:
(a) It is properly constituted with respect to the number and qualification of its members;
(b) The subject-matter of the action is within its jurisdiction; and
(c) The action is initiated by due process of law and any condition precedent to the exercise of its jurisdiction has been fulfilled.”
These pre-conditions are conjunctive and the non-fulfillment or absence of any of them automatically robs the court of the jurisdiction to hear and determine the suit. One of these conditions is to be sure that the case is not caught by limitation of statutes or that it has not been barred or prohibited by any existing law.
Generally, a statute of limitation is a law passed by the legislature to set the maximum time after an event, within which legal proceedings may be initiated. When a case is not initiated within the time stipulated, then it is considered dead in law, save in few exceptional circumstances, such as where the cause of action is continuous or is a subject of pending litigation. The principle underlining this concept is that no one should be vexed in perpetuity, especially in civil and private causes, where the litigant may be held to have waived or slept upon his rights. The objective of such law is to require diligent prosecution of claims so as to provide finality or predictability in legal matters and to ensure that claims will be resolved while evidence is still available and fresh. Limitation laws, where applicable, void a person’s right to seek redress for a wrong and the plaintiff is regrettably but unavoidably left with a bare and unenforceable cause of action. This is not so in criminal matters however, as it is against public policy to waive or prohibit the prosecution of crimes. The concept of limitation was well explained in the case of Mercantile Bank of Nig. PLC v. FETECO (Nig) Ltd., wherein the court held thus:
“A Statute of Limitation of action is designed to stop or avoid situations where a plaintiff can commence action any time he feels like doing so, even when human memory would have normally faded and therefore failed. Putting it in another language, by the Statutes of limitation, a plaintiff has not the freedom of the air to sleep or slumber and wake up at his own time to commence an action against a defendant. The different Statutes of Limitation which are essentially founded on the principles of equity and fair play will not avail such a sleeping or slumbering plaintiff. He will be stopped from commencing the action and that is a just and fair situation. A plaintiff who suddenly wakes up from a very deep sleep only to remember that the defendant had wronged him, can, I think, be rightly ‘greeted’ by the defendant with the appropriate limitation statute, waving same to him as a basis for redress …”
The statutory limitations placed upon court cases come in varying forms, depending on the nature of the subject matter of the case. The Limitation Laws of the various States across the country are very similar in their contents and application. Let us now examine the cases one after the other.
Under and by virtue of section 8 (1) of the Limitation Law of Lagos State, the following actions will not be brought after the expiration of six (6) years from the date on which the cause of action accrued –
(a) actions founded on simple contract;
(b) actions founded on quasi-contract.
This is very common in daily transactions where two or three people agree together to do certain things upon certain conditions, for instance for sale of goods, to render one service or the other, or a contract of employment, etc. This section extends to recognisances, penalties, or forfeitures, interests and even an action for an account. So, if a person covenants to supply goods to you upon payment, and he fails to deliver the said goods after payment, you can only claim your rights against him within six years of the time when he failed to deliver. The same thing applies to loan transactions and other simple contracts or quasi-contracts, all of which can only be enforced within six years of the accrual of the cause of action, that is the period when the breach occurred or when your right matures.
Now, it can be very painful to watch a debtor escape payment of his indebtedness just due to the negligence or carelessness of the creditor. Agreed that many people are not aware of this law, and even when they are aware, there are several hindrances, such as culture and religion, both of which forbid strife and prolonged dispute. Indeed, it is commonly said in Yoruba tradition of South-West Nigeria, that you don’t drag yourselves to court and expect to become friends thereafter. Most people love to avoid the hostilities and animosity associated with court proceedings, especially when everything is exhumed, in order to undo one party against the other. Repeatedly however, the courts have maintained the position that ignorance of the law cannot be an excuse against its enforcement, as in that case, almost everyone will plead ignorance and no law will ever be effective to hold society together predictably and peacefully.
So, if your boss suddenly terminates your appointment, you have only six years to challenge the termination or make any claims that you consider yourself entitled to, under the contract of employment. If you paid for a car and it is not supplied as agreed after payment, you have six years within which to make any claim in respect of the said car, after which you are deemed to have forfeited your rights absolutely.
A tort is a civil wrong for which a remedy may be obtained, often described as damages. It involves some form of breach of duty that the law imposes on everyone in the same relation to one another, as those involved in a given transaction. The bottlers of all manner of soft drinks or even water, are all well aware that their customers believe that the contents of those bottles are good and suitable for consumption. It is a duty of care that they owe to all their customers and indeed the whole world. However, if you are unlucky to buy a bottled drink that contains a dead cockroach or a fly and you were not careful to examine it before opening and guzzling it and your health became threatened thereby, then the law permits you to seek damages against the bottler for a breach of duty of care. It is however not a right in perpetuity.
To this end, section 9 (1) and (2) of the Limitation Law of Lagos State provides as follows:
“(1) This section applies to actions claiming damages for negligence, nuisance, or breach of duty (whether the duty exists by virtue of a contract or of a provision made by or under any enactment or independently of any contract or of any such provision), where the damages claimed by the plaintiff for the negligence, nuisance, or breach of duty consist of or include damages in respect of personal injuries to any person.
(2) Subject to the provisions of this section, no action to which this section applies will be brought after the expiration of three years from the date on which the cause of action accrued.”
Where you have been battered or assaulted by any person physically, where your reputation has been injured through a false publication, where your neighbor has placed the silencer of his generator right beside your bedroom in such a way that you can hardly sleep at night or where you have become the object of unwarranted ridicule on social media, you have only three years to ventilate your claims before any court, otherwise you may remain silent on it forever. In summary, whereas the court is open to all persons to make one claim or the other, law will only and always act in favour of the diligent litigant.