The Supreme Court, by its majority decision, held that the Court of Appeal has the jurisdiction to hear and determine all civil appeals arising from the decisions of the National Industrial Court, either as of right, or with leave, and this jurisdiction is not limited, only to fundamental rights matters.
On Friday, the 30th Day of June, 2017
Before Their Lordships
Mary Ukaego Peter-Odili
Musa Dattijo Muhammad
Clara Bata Ogunbiyi
Kumai Bayang Aka’ahs Kudirat
Motonmori Olatokunbo Kekere-Ekun
Chima Centus Nweze
Justices, Supreme Court
Skye Bank Plc……. Appellant
Victor Anaemem Iwu……..Respondent
Lead Judgement delivered by Hon. Chima Centus Nweze, JSC
The Respondent instituted an action against the now defunct Afribank Nigeria Plc, at the National Industrial Court (NIC). He claimed that his employment had been wrongfully terminated by the Appellant and thus, sought unpaid accrued salaries and other benefits, allegedly due to him in the course of his employment. MainStreet Bank Ltd, the successor-in-title of Afribank, filed a Notice of Preliminary Objection, challenging the jurisdiction of the Court to entertain the suit. After hearing arguments on the said Preliminary Objection, the trial court dismissed it, and ruled that it had the jurisdiction to hear and determine the matter.
Aggrieved by the ruling, the Appellant appealed to the Court of Appeal. Thereafter, it filed an application seeking to amend its Notice of Appeal. However, the Respondent raised an objection to the Applicant’s application to amend the Notice of Appeal, challenging the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal to entertain the appeal. While ruling on the said application that was pend- ing before the Court of Appeal, the Appellant filed an application praying the Appellate Court to state a Case before the Supreme Court, for its opinion on the constitutional issue as regards the scope of the jurisdic- tion of the Court of Appeal in appeals emanating from the National Industrial Court. This is to guide the Court of Appeal in determining the appeal before it.
Question Stated for Determination
The application was granted and the three questions were stated for consideration by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court however, adopted the question below: Whether the Court of Appeal as an appellate Court cre- ated by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) has the jurisdiction to the exclusion of any other court of law in Nigeria to hear and determine all appeals arising from the decisions of the National Industrial Court?
Submission of Counsel
Parties filed and exchanged their briefs of arguments. Counsel for the Appellant, argued that on a holistic interpretation of Sections 240, 242 and 243 of the 1999 Constitution, all decisions of the National Industrial Court (NIC) are appealable to the Court of Appeal. He argued that there is no constitutional provision, which divests the Court of Appeal of its appellate jurisdiction over all civil decisions of the NIC, and submitted that a right of appeal can only be curtailed as approved by the Constitution. He posited that all a prospective Appellant needs to do, is to amble within the compass of the Court of Appeal Act and its Rules, which set out the procedure of appeals either as of right or with the leave of Court.
He submitted that since the Constitution recognises appeals from the NIC to the Court of Appeal by virtue of Sections 240 and 243(4), a prospective Appellant’s right of appeal, ought to be protected rather than being impeded or curtailed. The Respondent on the other hand, argued that the intention of the framers of the 1999 Constitution, was to make the decisions of the National Industrial Court, final, safe for matters involving fundamental rights under chapter IV of the Constitution and criminal matters in labour/employment matters as provided in Section 254(c) (6). He also drew attention to Section 243(3) on the power of the National Assembly to make laws for the exercise of the Court of Appeal’s jurisdiction over decisions of the National Industrial Court. He submitted that the Court of Appeal can therefore, only exercise appellate jurisdiction over the NIC’s decision on questions of fundamental rights, appeals pursuant to specific appellate jurisdiction contingent on the conferment of such jurisdiction by an Act of the National Assembly and appeals as of right in criminal matters. The Respondent submitted that, in the event of any conflict between Section 240 which in his view deals with the general appellate jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal and Sections 243(2)-(4), the latter would prevail. He cited ABUBAKAR v NASAMU (NO. 2) (2012) 17 NWLR (PT. 1330) 523, 587. He urged the Court to hold that, a community interpretation of Sections 240, 241(1)(a)- (f) (i)-(v) and 243(2)-(4), would show that the Court of Appeal has been expressly divested of its appellate jurisdiction over all civil decisions of the NIC.
Opinion of the Court on the Case Stated
The Supreme Court stated that, although the general rule of interpretation of statutes is that where the words used are clear and unambiguous, they must be given their literal interpretation; however, where the provisions are not clear, are ambiguous or have become controversial, in order to arrive at a reason- able construction, the Court is entitled to apply the mischief rule, which is to consider other provisions of the statute, how the law stood when the statute was passed, what the mischief was which the old law did not provide for, and the remedy which the new law has provided to cure that mischief. The Court relied on EGBE v ALHAJI & ORS. (1990) 1 NWLR (PT. 128) 546. The Court also referred to its decision in SARAKI v FRN (2016) 3 NWLR (Pt. 1500) 531, 631-632 and opined that it would be improper to construe any of the provisions of the Constitution as to defeat the obvious ends it was designed to serve, where another construction equally in accord and consistent with the words and sense of such provisions, will serve to enforce and protect such ends.
Their Lordships analysed the hierarchy of Courts, as contained in the Constitution. The Court stated that prior to the promulgation of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Third Alteration) Act No. 3 of 2010, the NIC was an inferior Court; however, by the Third Alteration Act, it was elevated to a Superior Court of Record. The Supreme Court referred to Section 2 of the Third Alteration Act which altered Section 6 of the 1999 Constitution to include in Section 6(5)(cc), the NIC among the Superior Courts of Record, and Section 254D(1) of the 1999 Constitution which provides that the NIC shall have all the powers of a High Court. The Court stated that it is clear that the NIC is of co-ordinate jurisdiction with the High Court of a State or High Court of the FCT and by the alteration made by the Third Alteration Act, the appellate jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal had been expanded, subject to the provisions of the Constitution, to include appeals emanating from the NIC.
On whether the litigant has an unlimited right of appeal to the Court of Appeal over all decisions of the NIC, the Court reproduced the provisions of Section 240 of the Constitution, which lists the NIC as one of the Courts over which the Court of Appeal has appellate jurisdiction. The Court also reproduced the provision of Section 243(2) and (3), which provides that the appellate jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal, is in respect of questions on fundamental rights as it relates to the jurisdiction of the NIC, and decisions from the NIC as may be prescribed by an Act of the National Assembly. The Court held that a literal interpretation of the said sections would lead to an ambiguity in the intention of the drafts person. Refer- ring to the long title of the Third Alteration Act which provides as follows “An Act to alter the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria Cap. 23, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, for the establishment of the National Industrial Court under the Constitution”, the Court held that a purposive interpretation which is consistent with the long title is that Sections 243(2) and (3) cannot by any stretch of interpretative logic supplant Sections 240 and 243(4). The purpose of enacting the Third Alteration Act was to elevate the NIC to the status of a Superior Court, ranking in judicial hierarchy with the High Courts and the draftsman did not therefore, intend that the NIC upon its elevation, would at the same time navigate out of the circumambient appellate constitutional jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal. Their Lordships held that the legislature could not have intended that Section 243(2)-(3) could val- idly curtail or circumscribe the right of appeal in respect of decisions of the NIC, expressly consecrated by Sections 240 and 243(4), because to do so would mean that its intendment was to render the latter provisions redundant and ineffectual.
On the whole, the Supreme Court, by its majority decision, held that the Court of Appeal has the jurisdiction to hear and determine all civil appeals arising from the decisions of the National Industrial Court, either as of right, or with leave, and this jurisdiction is not limited, only to fundamental rights matters.
The apex Court therefore, ordered that its opinion on the Case Stated before it, should be transmitted to the Court of Appeal for its guidance in determining the appeal before it.
Dr. Charles D. Mekwunye with S.M Emojeghware and Ekene Nwonu for the Appellant. Fes Eze Eke with S.C. Onuzurike for the Respondent.
Reported by Optimum Publishers Limited (Publishers of Nigerian Monthly Law Reports (NMLR)
This Report was originally published in the Thisday Newspaper of Tuesday 18th July 2017