Meaning & Scope of the Inherent Powers of a Court of Law


By Sylvester Udemezue

The origin of the doctrine of “inherent jurisdiction/powers” dates back to 1840, when Baron Alderson declared in the English case of Cocker v. Tempest (1841) 7 M & W 502, 503-504 that, “the power of each court over its own processes is unlimited; it is a power incident to all courts, inferior as well as superior; were it not so, the court would be obliged to sit still and see its own process abused for the purpose of injustice.” Then, in Halsbury’s Laws of England, “inherent jurisdiction/powers” is described as a residual source of powers, which the court may draw upon as necessary whenever it is just or equitable to do so. On its part, Wikipedia defines the term, “inherent jurisdiction of a superior court” as follows:

“a doctrine of the English common law that a superior court has the jurisdiction to hear any matter that comes before it, unless a statute or rule limits that authority or grants exclusive jurisdiction to some other court or tribunal. ……..:”

In the English case of Bremer Vulkan Schiffbau und Maschinenfabrik v. South India Shipping Corporation Ltd, Lord Diplock described the court’s inherent jurisdiction as a general power to control its own procedure so as to prevent its being used to achieve injustice. Inherent jurisdiction appears to apply to an almost limitless set of circumstances. …. the exercise of inherent jurisdiction is a broad doctrine allowing a court to control its own processes and to control the procedures before it. The power stems not from any particular statute or legislation, but rather from inherent powers invested in a court to control the proceedings brought before it.

In Nigeria, the doctrine is codified in section 6(6)(a) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended which provides that “the judicial powers vested in accordance with the foregoing provisions of this section – (a) shall extend, notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this constitution, to all inherent powers and sanctions of a court of law.” In Akilu v. Fawehinmi (No 2), His Lordship, Hon Justice Nnaemeka-Agu. J.S.C. explained the meaning and scope of “inherent jurisdiction” in the following words: “…. What is the nature of inherent power of a Court of law? When will it be rightly invoked? In my judgment inherent jurisdiction or inherent power (as it is more commonly called) of Court is that which is not expressly spelt out by the Constitution, or in any statute or rule but which can, of necessity, be invoked by any court of record to supplement its express jurisdiction and powers. It is a most valuable adjunct to the express jurisdiction or powers conferred on our courts of record by the Constitution, any law, or rule of court. … an inherent power, nebulous as it usually is, does not extend the jurisdiction of a court of record. Rather it practically lubricates its statutory jurisdiction and makes it work. Lord Morris summarized the rationale of it all in Connelly V. D. P. P. (1964) A.C. 1254 at 1301 where he stated: There can be no doubt that a Court which is endowed with a particular jurisdiction has powers which are necessary to enable it to act effectively within such jurisdiction. Courts, in proper cases, use their inherent jurisdiction to control persons, say, in cases of contempt of court; to control processes, such as when they strike out actions which are frivolous or vexatious or an abuse of process (see Palmer V Stooke & Anor. (1953)14 W.A.C.A. 333; and to control inferior courts and tribunals, say, when they order stay of proceedings. Cases in which the courts have rightly exercised their inherent powers are galore. See e.g. Reichel V Magrath 14 App. Cas. 665; Metropolitan Bank V Pooley 10 App. Cas. 210; Electrical Development Co. V A-G. for Ontario (1919) A.C. 687; Foifie V Seifah (1958) A.C. 59, at p.67…. Section 6(6)(a) deals with inherent powers (often called inherent jurisdiction) of courts of record.

As for their nature, it is helpful to refer to an article by I.H. Jacob of the University College, London, titled “The Inherent Jurisdiction of the Court” in Volume 23 of Current Legal Problems 1970″, which I believe throws some lucid light on the problem. He stated: In many spheres of the administration of justice, the High Court of Justice in England exercises a jurisdiction which has the distinctive description of being called ‘inherent’. The inherent jurisdiction of the court may be invoked in an apparently inexhaustible variety of circumstances and may be exercised in different ways. This peculiar concept is indeed so amorphous and ubiquitous and so pervasive in its operation that it seems to defy the challenge to determine its quality and to establish its limits. ….

To understand the nature of the inherent jurisdiction of the court, it is necessary to distinguish it first from the general jurisdiction of the court, and next from its statutory jurisdiction. The term ‘inherent jurisdiction of the Court’ does not mean the same thing as ‘the jurisdiction of the court’ used without qualification or description: the two terms are not interchangeable, for the ‘inherent’ jurisdiction of the court is only a part or an aspect of its general jurisdiction. The general jurisdiction of the High Court as a superior court of records is, broadly speaking unrestricted and unlimited in all matters of substantive law, both civil and criminal, except in so far as that has been taken away in unequivocal terms by statutory enactment. The High Court is not subject to supervisory control by any other court except by due process of appeal, and it exercises the full plenitude of judicial power in all matters concerning the general administration of justice within its area. Its general jurisdiction thus includes the exercise of an inherent jurisdiction.

Moreover, the term ‘inherent jurisdiction of the court’ is not used in contra-distinction to the jurisdiction conferred on the court by statute. The contrast is not between the common law jurisdiction of the court on the one hand and its statutory jurisdiction on the other, for the court may exercise its inherent jurisdiction even in respect of matters which are regulated by statute or by rule of Court, so long as it can do so without contravening any statutory provision. There is, nevertheless an important difference between the nature of the inherent jurisdiction of the court and its statutory jurisdiction. The source of the statutory jurisdiction of the court is of course the statute itself which will define the limits within which such jurisdiction is to be exercised, whereas the source of the inherent jurisdiction of the court is derived from its nature as a court of law, so that the limits of such jurisdiction are not easy to define, and indeed appear to elude definition.

(Italics mine).” (
©Culled from the article, “Revisiting Seniority & Order of Precedence in The Legal Profession”

By Sylvester Udemezue; 31 October 2019 <> accessed 26 April 2023.

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