A call for the repeal of Statutes of General Application in Nigeria

By: Oyafajo Ridwan Ayodeji, Obafemi Awolowo University


Most legal systems in the world over have, in varying degrees, been influenced by others. The main question to answer here is: Should the Statutes of General Application (SOGA) still be applied in Nigeria after independence? Should they (statutes of general application) have been abrogated or reviewed by the legislatures in the states (besides Ogun, Osun, Ondo, Oyo, Ekiti and Delta) in which they were received? These are the questions that will be looked into in this paper.

It is important to define what a statute means before we start. A statute according to Merriam-Webster is ‘a law enacted by the legislative branch of a government’. We can infer from this that the Statutes of General Application are laws enacted by the British legislature and are applied to Nigeria. Examples of these statutes as applicable in Nigeria are:

  • Infant Relief Act 1874
  • Trustees Act 1888
  • Limitation Act (Real Property) 1874
  • Statutes of Frauds 1677

Although the term “Statutes of General Application” was not clearly explained by the legislature, many tests have been applied to determine what a Statute of General Application really means and one of them is the case law. Judges have construed it the way they see it and an example is the rough but infallible by Osborne Jsc in Attorney General v John Holt & Co Limited where His Lordship stated as follows:

‘… two preliminary questions, can however be put by way of a rough but not infallible test, viz: (1) by what courts is the statute applied in England? And (2) to what   classes of community in England does it apply? …’

These two tests have seen criticism because of their restrictive nature and have been subjected as fallible. The West African Court of Appeal has also construed the statutes of general application in their decided cases and an example is when, in the case of Young v Abina, the court overruled the decisions in the Dede and Re Estate of Sholu cases as wrongly decided and that the Land transfer Act of 1897 was a statute of general application. Other tests for determining the application of these statutes in Nigeria include: the ‘of general application’ test, ‘matter of statute’ test, ‘local circumstances’ test  and the ‘formal verbal alterations’ test.

Problems would not have arisen in construing the meaning of these statutes if the legislature had adequately determined the meaning. We could infer from the definition of statutes that the sole work of the legislature is to make laws – but they intentionally left them to be general because they didn’t want to go through the stress of repealing the laws, so they therefore accepted them and applied them. That is why the then western region legislatures have to be commended for their brave act of substitution of regional laws for such of these statutes of general application in force in England on 1st of January, 1900, and as such in force in the region, as were deemed appropriate to … and dealt with as matters within the competence of its legislature.

Accordingly, the law of England (Application) Law was enacted, forbidding the further enforcement of all ‘Imperial Acts hitherto in force within the region’. These statutes bordering on matters outside the legislative competence of the region remained in force alongside the rules of Common Law and doctrines of Equity which were untouched. The legacy of this regional exercise has been inherited in the respective states that subsequently emerged from the old Western Region.

Nigeria is now a sovereign state. It is no longer the baby it used to be under the spell of the imperialists during the early stages of colonization. The legislature should know what is good for the country. That is why they are the law-making organ, instead of making good laws, the legislators are there because of the money they get from the House and cause some illegalities like embezzling public funds and quarrelling in the House.

The Nigerian culture is almost, if not totally, different from the British way of life and it is wondered why we still have to practice their laws, although, we could still tap from a few of their laws. If for example, the reason why the legislature enacted the Interpretation Act then was because of their naivety or inexperience, the legislature is presumed to now be mature and should use its discretion to infer what is best for it. Is it not laughable that a fifty-four year old man still follows the dictates of his father and cannot make a decision on his own?

Another sad thing is that most of these laws which were in force in England in 1900 and still practiced by the federal, eastern and northern legislatures have been repealed by the British legislature; an example is the Land Transfer Act (1897) repealed in 1925. It is absurd that a repealed English Statute is still in force in Nigeria (a former colony) because of the reception which was the direct and exclusive volition of the colonialists.

W.C Daniel was not wrong when he said:

‘‘The words ‘statutes of general application’ are a slovenly expression made use of by the legislature to save itself of the trouble of explicitly declaring what the actual law of the colony shall be.’’

It will be necessary for the federal, northern and eastern legislature to imbibe the bold step of the then Western Region Legislature to repeal the unnecessary statutes of general application, abrogate the reception clause, and enact new Nigerian laws for the inhabitants of Nigeria in order to sustain and create Nigeria’s common law in a view to have a stable legal system in Nigeria.

 

References

Introduction to Nigerian Legal Method, Edited by Abiol Sanni (pages 248-249)

Introduction to Nigerian Legal System, J.O Asein (pages 100-113)

A document on sources of law in Nigeria by Dr Fayokun (pages 1-45)

 

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