Many Nigerians never think it is important for them to know certain things about their country’s law until an event compels them to do so. Can you imagine that some people are in prison out of ignorance?
I paid a visit to one of the prisons about 4 years ago and what I heard from some of the prison inmates startled me. At least 10 of the prisoners said it was the police (i.e. police prosecutor) that told them to plead guilty to the alleged offence so that the magistrate could release them on sympathy. But that information turned out to be a lie because none of them ought to have been jailed if what the police had told them was correct in law. So to avoid this kind of situation and so many other legal blunders that an average non-lawyer commits in his daily transactions, note the following things I’m going to discuss below:
1. The Nature of the Nigerian Law: this should be divided into 2: i, types of law and ii, sources of law.
i. types of law- there are 2 essential types of law in Nigeria and these are: a. Civil Law and, b. Criminal Law.
Every action you perform which has legal implication is either civil or criminal. For instance, assuming you’re owing another person some money in respect of a contract that both of you have had-this is just a contract and it is civil. The fact that you’re owing and unable to pay yet does not warrant the police to arrest you because you’ve not committed any crime.
a. Civil law. This encompasses legal actions that cannot give rise to imprisonment, fine, or any punishment at all. Examples of civil actions are breach of contract, defamation, termination of employment, landlord and tenant matter, dispute over ownership of land and many others.
b. Criminal law, on the other hand, deals with crimes. No action is a crime unless that action has been defined as an offence in a written law and there is a punishment attached to it. Actions like attempted murder, rape, stealing, murder, manslaughter, attempted suicide, kidnapping, corruption, bribery, 419 (otherwise known as obtaining money under false pretence), forgery, bigamy, perjury, armed robbery, robbery, vandalization, examination malpractices, cultism and so on are classified as crimes.
So it is not enough to say somebody has committed a crime but also important to let the person know which law he/she has broken.
Criminal law is governed principally by 2 laws- the Criminal and Penal Codes. The Criminal Code is used in the Southern part of this country, while the Penal Code applies in the North.
ii. sources of law- because of the Nigerian history, the Nigerian law therefore has 3 colours. It is Foreign, Local and Religious.
Foreign: the English Law
the Nigerian legislation
Local: Native Law and Customs
Religious: Sharia Law
Every legal transaction in Nigeria can fall under any of these laws. The only exception to this is that both the Native Law and Customs and Sharia Law are not allowed to deal with crimes. Nigeria is a secular state.
For a clear illustration of this point, read up my article:
2. The Ministry of Justice, the Police and the Private Legal Practice: these 3 institutions play important roles in the dispensation of Justice, and unless you’re told, you may not know certain things about each of them.
i. The Ministry of Justice: this ministry is actually “The Ministry of Government Lawyers”. Anytime crimes are committed, whether a minor or serious crime, it is taken to be a crime against the government (i.e. the society as a whole). So it is the responsibility of the government to handle it. Assuming your phone is stolen, you’re expected to report at the Police Station. Where it is an offence like murder or rape, the matter must end up at the Ministry of Justice where the government lawyers will appear in court to prosecute the alleged rapist or murderer.
The Ministry of Justice has many departments but two of these departments stand out. They are the Public Prosecutions Department and Civil Litigations Department. When a matter is criminal, it goes to the Public Prosecutions Department while Civil Litigations Department handles any civil matter in which the government is suing or being sued as a party.
ii The Police- the police is usually involved in criminal matters because that is their primary mandate. The primary duty of the police is to protect lives and property. To do this, their duty is further divided into 3 i.e. 1, to prevent crime, 2, where it is already committed to detect through investigation and, 3, to prosecute offenders. Now, note that the police only prosecute minor offences at the Magistrate Court level, while the Ministry of Justice handles serious crimes. As a matter of law, the police are not supposed to be involved in civil matters. Take, for instance, the use of the police to arrest and molest a debtor so as to assist a creditor retrieve his money is against the law. The courts have ruled severally that the police are not a debt collector.
iii. The Private Legal Practice: while lawyers who practice for government in the Ministry of Justice are regarded as government employees, lawyers who operate their own chambers are called Private Legal Practitioners. Whenever you have a civil case and you need a lawyer, they’re the ones you’re supposed to consult. They’re the ones that can also defend an offender being prosecuted either by the police or the ministry.
3. The Constitution: though the Constitution is one of the sources of the Nigerian Law, it is the fundamental law and the fountain of all laws in the country. Here are 10 things that every Nigerian must know about the country’s constitution:
i. the Nigeria Constitution is federal, written and rigid. A constitution is written when it can be found in a single document and, rigid, when it is difficult to amend.
ii. any law or provision of a law that is contrary to any provision of the constitution is null and void.
iii. the constitution is binding on every person both the ruled and the ruler. It is the supreme law of the land.
iv. it has 8 chapters and 321 sections.
v. it spells out the Nigerians’ fundamental rights.
Vi. it defines who is a citizen of Nigeria and his duties.
vii. it cannot be made by the National Assembly or the Houses of Assembly. These bodies can only amend it.
viii. the constitution was made by a body set up prior to May 29, 1999.
ix. it derives its authority from the Nigerian people as a whole.
x. it divides powers among the 3 arms of government i.e. the Legislature, the Judiciary and the Executive. It also distributes powers among the 3 tiers of government i.e. the Federal, State, and Local Governments.
If you’ll return to this blog another time, I promise to conclude this topic in my next post. For more tips to avoid common legal mistakes, visit my blog at http://www.lawforeverybody.com.
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