Book Review: The Nigerian Legal System in Context (First Edition)
Author: Professor Theodore Okonkwo
Hardcover: ISBN 978-978-790-942-3
Number of Pages: 498
Name of Reviewer: Abubakar Sani Esq
One of the finest recent additions to our legal literature is “The Nigerian Legal System In Context” by Professor Theodore Okonkwo: He needs no introduction: currently the Dean of Law and Provost, College of Law Novena University, Ogume, Delta State, he was, for many years, a Senior Lecturer in Public Law at both the Enugu State University of Science and Technology and the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State. The two-volume tome reflects all of Professor Okonkwo’s 35 years post-call experience (he was called to the Bar in 1987).
Given that the book’s subject-matter is not exactly an unbeaten track, you might wonder “What is the point?”. I assure you, however, that Prof Okonkwo does not try to re-invent the wheel. Absolutely not. On the contrary, he offers a fresh perspective and insight on the subject. The book’s appeal is its style of presentation, diction and, above all, depth. He manages to achieve – in the book’s 498 pages – that rarest of feats: to be readable, without sacrificing scholarship. However, don’t take my word for it, glean through it. Accordingly, here’s a foretaste of what the book has to offer. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.
In its two parts – spread over sixteen chapters – the book painstakingly deconstructs the superstructure of our law. Starting with Part 1 which sets the background, namely the book’s fundamental theme (indeed, that is its title), the six chapters which it covers are copiously and comprehensively rendered as summarised below.
Chapter 1, “The Idea of a Legal System”, examines the raison d’etre of a legal system. It asks the question of “What is a Legal System?” and goes ahead to discuss the various types of legal systems across the world, particularly the common law legal system which Nigeria inherited from the British, its features, history and evolution. The Civil Law Legal System is not left out, and it receives a similar treatment as its common law counterpart. The Chapter then, appropriately, examines the main purpose of a legal system, the basic features of the Nigerian Legal System, the Principles which underpin it as well as its focus.
Chapter 2 takes us on a historical excursion into the Background of the Nigerian Legal System, starting from the period before 1862, thence up to the year 1899, and, thereafter, up to the present.
Chapter 3, titled the “Nature and Function of Law”, is a ‘must read’ for newcomers to the study of law, both students and the plain curious or casual reader. It contains everything you need to know about law as a discipline, and starts by posing the most basic but fundamental question of all: What is law? It proceeds to explore it through the opinions of various Schools of Thought: Idealists, Positivists, Historians, Sociologists, Realists, Naturalists, and Relativists. It is a compelling exposé of the jurisprudence of law, and is followed by a discussion of the nature, functions and evolution of law and – in the case of the latter – with an examination of Christianity and law, sovereignty and law and law in contemporary times. It then concludes with the poser: “Whether Laws are necessary”, and a discussion of the role of courts in using law to effect social change.
Chapter 4 is concerned with the Classification of Law, which it recognises in the following order: Imperative Law; Physical/Scientific Law; Practical/Technical Law; Natural Law (Divine Law; Law of Reason; Unwritten Law; Eternal Law and Moral Law); Convential Law; Customary Law; Civil Law; International Law; Public/Private Law; Substantial/Procedural Law; Written/Unwritten Law; Common Law & Equity; Statutory Law; Primary/Secondary Legislation; English Law, Municipal Law; Military Law; it closes with a discussion of the conflict of laws.
Chapter 5 examines the Sources of Nigerian Law, such as: Legislation (including Ordinances, Acts, Laws, Decrees, Edicts, Principal Legislation, Enabling Laws, Delegated Legislation, Bye-Law); Received/Extended English Law (the Common Law, Equity, Statutes of General Application); Customary Law; Islamic/Sharia Law; Judicial Precedent/Case Law; Military Law & Public International Law. It closes with what it calls ‘Secondary Sources of Law’.
Chapter 6 is a discussion of “Interpretation of Statutes”. Starting with the various theories applicable in unravelling them, judicial presumptions adopted in relation to the meaning of specific words and the various aids to interpretation, such as the Interpretation Act (applicable to Federal laws), and the seven broad rules judicially applied in interpreting statutes, including the Literal Rule; the Golden Rule, the Mischief Rule, the Ejusdem Generis Rule; the Expressio Unius Est Exclusio Alterius Rule, the Noscitur a Sociis Rule and the Purposive Rule. It closes with the attitude of courts to constitutional interpretation.
Chapter 7 focuses on the conflict of laws – specifically between Customary Law, the Received English Law and between different systems of Customary Law – the latter with emphasis on land matters and succession or inheritance.
The relatively short Chapter 8 discusses Judicial Institutions with particular emphasis on the history and evolution of Courts, and the obviously important role the Judiciary plays within the system. This neatly dovetails into the subject-matter of Chapter 9, which is the type and jurisdiction of Courts. It outlines the two broad types of courts: superior court and ‘inferior’ courts – everything from the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, High Courts, the National Industrial Court, Customary Courts, Magistrate Courts, District Courts, Sharia Courts, Juvenile Courts, Tribunals, Court Martial, etc. It then examines the relationship between them in terms of control time limits for delivery of verdicts (in case of Superior Courts) under the Constitution, and references of substantial questions of law by one court to another. The Chapter concludes with the all-important issue of judicial independence, which it examines under three broad sub-topics: financial independence (or lack of it), executive interference in the removal of Judges and decisional independence (or lack of it).
While Chapter 10 discusses the relatively new phenomenon of the Multi-Door Court House as an alternative to the shortcomings in our traditional civil justice delivery system, Chapter 11 (which ought to have followed Chapter 9 given the similarity of their subject-matter) focuses on judicial recruitment, tenure and removal. It considers applicable precepts and provisions, such as the Latimer House Principles and the 1999 Constitution.
The grandly titled Chapter 12 (“The Legal Profession”) could not have been otherwise. Its remit is obvious, but so is its scope. Indeed, it could be a book all by itself, as it traces the history of the legal profession in Nigeria: including the outlines of legal education (the Law School, applicable legal provisions and organs, the Call to Bar) the Body of Benchers’ Privilege within the Bar, Sanctions for professional negligence, the Attorney-General of the Federation and of the States, Notaries Public, Professional Ethics, etc.
The focus of Chapter 13 is the adjectival law applicable in civil matters, that is, civil procedure. It is as comprehensive as can be, and outlines the sources of Civil Procedure; Parties; Jurisdiction; Form and Commencement of Action in the High Court; Service of Originating Processes; Appearance; Pleadings; Proceedings at the Trial; Joinder of Causes of Action, etc.
Chapter 14 is similar – albeit in relation to Criminal matters. It is also comprehensive, as it takes in everything from Pre-trial Investigation, Classification of Offences; the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015 and its goals; and the rights of suspects. While many of its provisions are not new, in many respects, ACJA is revolutionary and ground-breaking, particularly in its provision for plea bargain, non-custodial sentences and the like.
The subject of Chapter 15 is Legal Aid. This is obviously critical, as it is the law’s response to the challenge of indigent suspects and defendants. The relevant laws and structures (Legal Aid Council Act and the Legal Aid Council) are reviewed, and their evolution is x-rayed.
The book closes with Chapter 16, which discusses the practitioner’s indispensable tool: Law Reports. This is the record of the decisions of our courts, and they serve as precedents being authoritative guides to subsequent similar cases. They make or mar many a case, and no serious law library is complete without a comprehensive up-to-date set (or sets!).
The foregoing is just the tip of the ice-berg of the landscape so painstakingly and effortlessly painted by Prof Okonkwo in the book. I believe that this alone ought to commend it, as it far surpasses its predecessors in scope, depth and content. The industry invested in producing it shines through, as it leaves no stone unturned. Every possible relevant field is touched – even if briefly – while managing to do justice to it. The book is simply outstanding, and it is no exaggeration to say that it has covered the field of the Nigerian Legal System. To that extent, it is, possibly, the last word on the subject. To think that it is just the first volume, and that there is one more in the works! I can’t wait!