Jurisdiction is the fabric and soul of adjudication, it can be described as the “Fons et Origo” of adjudication, the totality of a judicial process raises and falls on the courts jurisdictional competence to entertain the matter, as the lack of jurisdiction will render the entire judicial process a nullity no-matter how well conducted the process was. The resultant effect is that, the entire process will fall like the biblical walls of Jerico.
Defining Jurisdiction, Justice Abiru of the Court of Appeal in his lead judgment in Ibrahmin v Jacob & Ors (2017) LPELR-43366 (CA) defined jurisdiction to mean: “the authority which a Court has to decide matters that are litigated before it, or take cognizance of matters presented in a formal way for its decision” reacting on the sacred importance of jurisdictional competence of a court to hear a matter, the Supreme Court in A.G Federation V A.G Anambra State 2017 stated thus: ”the issue of jurisdiction of a court to try a suit is a fundamental and threshold one, this is so because if a court has no jurisdiction to determine the subject matter of the suit or that the parties are not subject to the jurisdiction that court, the proceedings thereof are and remain a nullity, however well conducted and the judgment brilliantly written and eloquently delivered. It behooves every court including the Apex Court to carefully examine the issues in the statement of claim, to determine whether the issues sought to be ventilated before it are within its jurisdictional competence. In essence, jurisdiction is a radical and prerequisite for adjudication”.
What then defines a Court jurisdiction?
The determinates of a court jurisdiction were laid down succinctly in the Supreme Court case of Madukulu V Nkemdilim 1962 which today stands as the Locus Classicus on jurisdictional competence, in that case Justice Bairamian stated thus: a court is competent when:
“1. It is properly constituted as regards numbers and qualification of the members of the bench, and no member is disqualified for one reason or the another; and
- The subject matter of the case is within its jurisdiction, and there is no feature in the case which prevents the court from exercising its jurisdiction; and
- The case comes before the court initiated by due process of law, and upon fulfillment of any condition precedent to the exercise of jurisdiction.”
Any defect in competence is fatal, for the proceedings are a nullity however well adjudicated and decided. The defect is extrinsic to the adjudication.
It is important to know that these essential elements are cumulative and the absence of one will render the entire judicial process a nullity, all the items listed above must be present to clothe a Court with the necessary jurisdictional competence to adjudicate on a matter.
Courts are basically created by statutes, each court is established by an Act/Law and also the constitution as the case maybe. The enabling statute, also clothes the courts with jurisdiction to hear certain matters, therefore it can be stated here, that the jurisdictional competence of a court is vested in its enabling law. In line with this position, section 251(a-r) of the 1999 constitution, clothed the Federal high Court with jurisdiction to hear matters enumerated in the above section. The effect of this is the Federal High Court by this very section becomes a court of enumerated jurisdiction and cannot hear matters aside the ones listed in section 251. The problem arising from this section however, is that almost all areas with respect to Federal Agencies and Agents of the Federal government seem covered by this section, hence the presumption and conclusion given by lawyers, to the effect that section 251 of the constitution had covered the field with respect to where to sue for actions against Agents and Agencies of the Federal Government, as the answer widely given is The Federal High Court.
It was on this ground that the case of Ibrahim V Jacob & Ors(Supra) was appealed to the court of Appeal for determination, the contention of the appellant was that being a Federal Agent and Agencies, the 2nd to 4th respondents in this case, that is; 2nd Respondent; Presidential implementation committee, on Federal Government landed properties, 3rd Respondent; Federal ministry of Works and Housing, 4th Respondent; Attorney General of the Federation. Falls within the jurisdictional competence of the Federal High Court, to this end the decision reached by the Borno State High Court be set aside and declared a nullity for lack of jurisdiction.
It is settled law that jurisdiction been a vital matter to adjudication, can be raised at any time and even for the first time on appeal, once raised, must be settled before the court can hear the substantive matter before it. And parties cannot on their own accord by consent confer jurisdiction on a court. Jurisdiction in this case was the first ground for the appeal.
At arriving at their decision, the court cited the leading and time honored principle as enumerated in Madukulu V Nkemdilim, which was reiterated in the Supreme Court case of A. G Anambra State V Uba (2005) ALL FWLR (pt 277) 909.
The case as decided by the Borno State High Court and appealed against here, is one that seeks a declaration of title to Land and Award of damages for trespass if possible against the respondents, in its entirety it was a land case, which falls within the jurisdictional competence of the state high court. Furthermore among the items listed in Section 251 Land matters was not one, The general presumption that cases against Agents and Agencies of the Federal Government must commenced at the Federal High Court took center stage and served as the first and most important ground for the appeal.
Justice Abiru observed thus: “the court does not look at the faces, designation or duties of the parties in a suit to determine whether or not it has jurisdiction”. Furthermore “where the course of action of a plaintiff does not fit into one of the enumerated areas of jurisdiction of the federal high court as stated in section 251(1) of the constitution, the fact that one of the parties to the action is the federal government or an agency of the federal government is irrelevant and it cannot give the federal high court jurisdiction over the subject matter”. The position in Ahmed V Ahmed (2013) 15 NWLR pt (1317) 274 that “the writ of summons and elaborated in the statement of claim or any other originating process determines the jurisdiction of the court”, comes handy here too.
The subject matter as succinctly stated by Justice Bairaman in Madukulu V Nkemdilim is express and all embracing, the mere fact that the case is one against an agent of the Federal Government or an Agency, does not suo moto withdraw jurisdiction from the State High Court, except where the subject matter is not one that is within the jurisdictional competence of the State High Court. Where the subject matter is one provided for by section 251 of the constitution or any other statute, withholding from the state high court jurisdiction to hear the matter, any exercise taken by the State High Court will be adjudged a nullity, no matter how well conducted and the judgment eloquently delivered. See A.G Federation V A.G Anambra state Supra.
Cases against Agents and agencies of the federal government can be instituted at the High Court of a State, provided it is one where the subject matter falls within the jurisdictional competence of the state high court, to presume otherwise is no longer legally correct, and also without moral foundation. To aid my academic sincerity is the 2017 decided case of Ibrahim V Jacob & Ors, which stands correctly as the authority for this position of the law.
Tamunotonye Alapu Babbo, Faculty of Law University of Calabar, Calabar.08165139629Email: Tonyetheadvocate@gmail.com