The history of the Nigerian Legal System can be traced to the latter half of the 19th century and the origin is deeply engrained in the English Legal System.
History of the Nigerian Legal System
Before Lagos became a British Colony and subsequently the rest of Nigeria, the natives used a system of traditional adjudication which was designed to ensure the stability of the society and maintenance of the social equilibrium.
At this point, the crucial objective of this system was to promote communal welfare by reconciling the divergent and competing interests of the different people
But when Lagos became a British colony and the rest of what is today called Nigeria, this system wasn’t adequate to cope with the life and commerce of the new colony.
This led to the British Administration in Lagos introducing a workable system of law and legal institutions like criminal and dui attorney firms.
In 1862, a Police Court was established in Lagos to deal with cases related to the growing commercial transactions in the colony.
A year later, the Supreme Court Ordinance of 1863 was promulgated. This constituted part of the Supreme Court of Her Majesty Settlement of Lagos with effect from 9th April 1863.
Between 1863 and 1874, nine other Courts were constituted including
- the Petty Debt Court,
- the Court of Civil and Criminal Justice and
- the Court of Request.
Despite the proliferation of these courts, there existed a desperate shortage of suitable personnel to run the Courts and to perform the duties of advocate and solicitor. Similarly, if you are charged with Driving Under Restraint (DUR) or Driving Under Suspension (DUS), you’ll need the services of an experienced Denver driving under suspension attorney, For more details,
Also, of the fourteen who served as Police Magistrates, four were merchants; six were military officers and one a Deputy Collector of Customs.
This was why there was no qualified practising lawyer until August 1880 when Christopher Alexander Sapara Williams first appeared at the Supreme Court.
In order to solve this problem, provisions were made in the Supreme Court Ordinance of 1876 for the admission of persons to practise as a legal practitioner in Nigeria.
In this post, we have divided the legal system in Nigeria into three periods which have been elaborated below:
Between 1876 and 1914
During this period, the Supreme Court Ordinance of 1876 earlier mentioned provided for three classes of persons to practice law in Nigeria namely.
- Professionally Qualified Legal Practitioners
Section 71 of the Supreme Court Ordinance empowered the Chief Justice to approve, admit and enroll to practise as Barristers and Solicitors
such persons who have been called to the Bar or admitted as Solicitors in England, Scotland and Ireland.
2. Those who had served articles, that is, those who had worked in the chambers under lawyers’ supervision
Section 73 of the Supreme Court Ordinance empowered the Chief Justice to admit as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court any person
- who had served five years continuously in the Office of practising Barrister or Solicitor residing within Jurisdiction of the Court and
- who had passed such examinations of the Principles and Practice of Law before such persons as the Chief Justice (CJ) may from time to time appoint.
This provision was intended to create the first opportunity for legal training for the Legal profession. However, there is no record that advantage was ever taken of it.
- The Local Attorneys
Section 74 of the Supreme Court Ordinance empowered the Chief Justice to admit temporarily, as was necessary, other fit and proper persons to act as Barristers, Solicitors and Proctors.
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Order 8, Rule 1 of the Supreme Court Civil Procedure Rules made under the Supreme Court Ordinance, 1876 provided that their admission shall be by licence and shall entitle a person to enroll them for six months.
The licence was renewable before or on the expiration of six months. By virtue of this provision, a few not professionally qualified were admitted to practice and were called “local attorneys”.
The Chief Justice could require appointees to sit for an examination to test their general education and knowledge as well as principles and practice of law, so lawyers as Kibbey Wagner could work the laws thanks to this. They were to be of good character attested by a judge or two district commissioners. The last of these local attorneys was enrolled in 1908.
Following the protest of professionally qualified lawyers in 1914, no further local attorneys were appointed.
The Period 1914 to 1962
During this period, the legal practice was restricted to formally trained lawyers. However, there were no institutions in Nigeria to train aspirants to the Bar and, therefore, persons desirous of becoming lawyers traveled to England for formal training.
In England, aspirants to the Bar were required to join one of the four Inns of the Court, namely:
- Inner Temple
- Middle Temple
- Grays Inn and
- Lincolns Inn.
The educational qualification was the West African School Certificate (WASC). The four Inns constituted the English Council of Legal Education. They arranged lectures for students on the subjects constituting the Bar Examination that is, Bar Part 1 and Bar Final. The lectures were, however, not compulsory and many students did not attend them opting instead for private tuition or the correspondence course.
The prescribed Dinning terms were compulsory and the candidates must keep 12 Dining terms of which there were four in one year.
A student who passed the examinations and kept the Dining Terms was entitled to be called to the Bar by the Benchers of his Inn.
Thereafter, he is formally enrolled at the Supreme Court in England. A three-month post-call practical course and one yearpupilage in a Law Chamber was also required for a Barrister who intended to practice in England.
Previously, s/he paid a fee of 100 Guineas to the Head of the Chamber but this is no longer the case. He, however, cannot earn any fee during the first six months of his pupilage.
- Graduate Barristers
Although a law degree was not required to be a Barrister, most English aspirants had University law degree.
A law degree with second-class honours exempted a student from Bar Part 1 examination.
Also, graduate Barristers in the Nigerian Civil Service had an advantage over non-graduate ones because they earn higher salaries.
To qualify as a Solicitor, a person was required to be articled to a firm of Solicitors in England for at least four years.
The educational qualification was WASC.
The Law Society which is the Governing Body for Solicitors organized Solicitors’ Part 1 and Final Examinations which a candidate must pass. A law degree was not required.
In 1922, a school was established to organize a course for Solicitors and attendance was mandatory.
From 1962 till date
In 1959, a committee was set up to investigate the legal education in Nigeria and the recommendations of the committee at that time were:
- Nigeria should establish its own system of Legal Education.
- A Faculty of Law should be established first at the University College, Ibadan and subsequently at any other university to be established in the future.
- A Law School to be known as “The Nigerian Law School” should be established in Lagos to provide vocational course.
- Qualification for admission for Legal practice in Nigeria should be:
- A law degree of a university whose course for the degree is organized or prescribed by the Council of Legal Education.
- The vocational course prescribed by the Council at the Law School established by it.
- Any person graduating in Law from a university which has not accepted the syllabus recommended by the Council should be required to take further take its examination as the Council may prescribe.
- The Council of Legal Education should be established.
Most of these recommendations were implemented through the Legal Education Act of 1963 and the Legal Practitioners Act of 1962. Also, the Law School was set up in 1962.
It ran a 3-month course in January to April 1963 for graduates who had been called to Bar in England while Law graduates who had not been called to Bar had to do a one-year Course starting from October 1963. And this has been the case ever since.
Overall, the current Nigerian Legal System (NLS) is based on the English Common Law and legal tradition by virtue of colonization and the attendant incidence of reception of English law through the process of legal transplant. English law has a tremendous influence on the Nigerian legal system, and it forms a substantial part of Nigerian law. Section 45 (1) of the Interpretation Act provides that, the common law of England and the doctrines of equity and the statutes of general application which were in force in England on 1st January, 1900 are applicable in Nigeria, only in so far as local jurisdiction and circumstances shall permit.
As a result, legal issues evolving from common law in England and codes of conduct of the medical profession and professional ethics as a whole, such as confidentiality, consent, maleficence, beneficence, duty of care are applicable in Nigeria even though they have not been legislated upon.
More on History in Nigeria
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