AN INSPECTION OF THE LEGAL TUSSLE BETWEEN TECHNICALITIES AND SUBSTANTIAL JUSTICE: A NEED FOR BALANCE
Perhaps one of the most conspicuous legal controversies that has sparked intellectual arguments over a long span is the continual reliance on technical rules above the interest of justice. There has been an abundance of dicta expressing disdain for sacrificing justice on the altar of technicalities and it has become a somewhat religious anthem among judges to state their preference for substantial justice. However, there have been many rising contentions on the stance of the judiciary in the matter due to the rigid view of the Court on defaulting original processes as exemplified in the infamous case of Okafor v Nweke and recent election petition decisions in Zamfara and Imo State. This article seeks to review the contention between substantial justice and technicalities by adopting an analytical view on the subject matter in a bid to proffer balance in the dispensation of justice in the Nigerian legal system.
The article is one that borders on conflicting ideologies as to what form of justice should take prevalence. It is therefore pertinent to demystify the meaning of the subject matter explored in this article: technicalities and substantial justice.
According to the 9th edition of the Black’s Law Dictionary, substantial justice is defined as “Justice fairly administered according to the rules of substantive law, regardless of any procedural errors not affecting the litigant’s substantive rights; a fair trial on the merits.”
It is thus apposite to also define technicalities. In Benedict Orji v Ozo Nne Illoputaife & Ors,[i] the Court of Appeal, relying on the 6th edition of Black’s Law Dictionary, defined technicality to mean “immaterial, not affecting the substantial rights, without substance.” Thus, any matter that does not stress on the substantive right of a party should be viewed as technicalities.
The underlying question is this: what really should take pre-eminence in the dispensation of justice? Should the courts, in attempting to achieve justice, eviscerate the procedures in substantive and strictly adhere to the anthem of justice? These questions do not just border on the facts of cases but are questions of law only to be decided by the ingenuity and discretion of the judges. Many lawyers and critics have continually nailed the decisions of the court for crucifixion for asserting judicial activism in reckless ways, particularly when it comes to issues of adopting technicalities.
The spirit of substantial justice is rooted in the Latin maxim fiat justitia ruat caelum, which means “let justice be done though the heaven falls.” In fact, English poet and philosopher Walter Savage Landor wrote many years ago, “when law becomes a science and system, it ceases to be justice.” This form of ideology has offended the law enthusiasts, who are of the opinion that the rules are integral parts of the law and any attempt to downplay the rules will make the law lifeless and susceptible to the whims and caprices of any judge. It follows that litigants should accept judgement willy-nilly without undue grievances. This article therefore seeks to strike a balance between these two conflicting ideologies and proffer possible recommendations.
2.0 SUBSTANTIVE JUSTICE VERSUS TECHNICALITIES: A TALE OF ENDLESS CONTROVERSIES
As earlier noted, there is an abundance of dicta by Nigerian judges pitching their tent and solidarity with the spirit of the law as opposed to its form. The astute English legal luminary, Lord Denning, has expressed this position in the following words:
My root belief is that the proper role of the judge is to do justice, if there is any rule of law which impairs the doing of justice, then it is the province of the judge to do all he legitimately can to avoid the rule, even to change it, so as to do justice in the instant case before him.
As an addendum to this position of Lord Denning, there are various dicta similar to these that have been pronounced in the Supreme Court. In the popular constitutional case law authority of Dapianlong v Dariye[ii] the erstwhile Chief Justice, Walter Onnoghen J.S.C (as he then was) wittingly stated “The reign of technical justice is over, on the throne now sits substantial justice, long may you reign, substantial justice.”
The above position, however, has been subject to many contentions and controversies. There have been various arguments and academic dissertations rendering some Supreme Court decisions on the matter as imponderable and a far departure from their stance on the interest of justice.
The quagmire surrounding the issue heightened after the controversial case of Okafor v Nweke.[iii] In that case, the applicant filed a motion in court and signed the processes in the name of a law firm, “J.H.C. OKOLO SAN AND CO.”, as opposed to the name of a legal practitioner. The respondents quickly cashed in on the supposed lacuna and filed a counter motion on the basis that a conjoined interpretation of section 2 and section 24 of the Legal Practitioners Act (LPA) makes it mandatory for a legal practitioner to sign the processes, thus rendering the processes null and void for failure to comply. The Supreme Court accepted the position of the respondents, holding that the signature was invalid, and expressed the need to uphold the sanctity of the high standards of the noble profession and save it from unusual irregularities. The pain of many who have criticized this judgment is the fact that the Supreme Court in the case had given credence to the document emanating from the hallowed chambers of a legal practitioner. Would it not have been reasonable to examine the merits of the case rather than dwell on a mistake that could be rectified?
The furore of the Supreme Court’s decision heightened further when litigants who took noticeable defects in the signature of their opponents’ documents bombarded the court with preliminary objections, thereby defeating the essence of substantial justice, as the merits of the cases were sacrificed on such basis. In the case of SLB Consortium v NNPC,[iv] the issue of technicalities escalated. In that case, there was a contractual dispute in which the respondents were awarded damages by the trial court on June 2000. On appeal, the issue of jurisdiction was raised and the court held that the Federal High Court lacked the jurisdiction to entertain the matter. However, by April 2011 when the case came before the Supreme Court, the matter had become statute barred. This invariably meant that the respondents’ case could no longer be the subject of a legal action. Notwithstanding, the respondents went on to challenge the competence of the appellant’s originating summons signed in the name of a law firm, “ADEWALE ADESOKAN AND CO”. The Supreme Court applied the reasoning in Okafor v Nweke and held that originating processes signed by a law firm as opposed to a legal practitioner is null and void. The crusaders of substantial justice would have heaved a sigh of relief when in a similar case before the Supreme Court, Unity Bank v Denclag,[v] Honourable Justice Mary Odilli held that a litigant should not be made to suffer from the inadvertence of a counsel, as it was against the tenets of substantial justice. However, this decision was short lived, as the case of FBN v Maiwada[vi] put rest to the issue with a host of amicus curiae enlisted, and a seven-man panel. The court adopted the reasoning in Okafor v Nweke and held that there was nothing technical in applying the provision of Section 2(1) and Section 24 of the Legal practitioners Act as it is drafted by the legislature, and that originating processes signed in the name of a law firm should be found incompetent. The decision sparked many wails among concerned persons and left many unanswered questions. It has been argued that the signing of a document is completely procedural and should not be a determinant in the merits of the case; on the contrary, it has been argued that equity only follows the law and for equity to prevail, the law must be fulfilled in its entirety.
The controversy of supposed technicalities does not only exist in originating processes issues, but also in election matters. In May 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that non-compliance with INEC guidelines and directives on the date for submission of candidates disabled the APC from legally participating in the elections in Zamfara state. Also, in Imo state, the reign of Honourable Emeka Ihedioha was cut short when the Supreme Court awarded a whopping number of rejected votes to the opposition party. The rationale behind the decision was purely on technicalities, which many Nigerians have termed as a wrong application of judicial activism. Election matters are considered delicate as issues of such affect the entire populace; it became a worrisome thing for issues of technicalities to grace the field on such important issues. Many questions and debates with conflicting thoughts and opinions have garnished the issue. The critical question that should be asked is this: what should be the balancing factor in all these scenarios where law and justice seem to disagree?
3.0 BALANCING THE LEGAL TUSSLE
The need for balance between substantial justice and technicalities cannot be overemphasized. The imbroglio already generated from the decisions of the Supreme Court have cast doubts on the judiciary as the last hope of the common man and has questioned her stance on the interest of justice. It is therefore imperative that a balance is put in place.
In the locus classicus case on jurisdiction, Madukolu v Nkemdilim,[vii] the Supreme Court laid down four ingredients for a court to possess jurisdiction to entertain a suit.
- a) It is properly constituted with respect to the number and qualifications of its members;
- b) The subject matter of the action is within the jurisdiction of the court;
- c) The action is initiated by due process of the law;
- d) Any condition precedent to the exercise of the jurisdiction is fulfilled.
Emphasis should be placed on the third condition above, which is to the effect that an action must be initiated by due process. It would be no injustice for a court to refuse entertaining a matter if it defaults in following the required process of the law. This should not be viewed as an anomaly, as the rationale behind this condition is to ensure sanity and check in legal processes. If the court is not stringent on such, gross abuse of process and illegalities will become the order of the day. Thus, if a substantive law spells out due process to be followed, the litigants should not be so negligent as to neglect the rules and argue technicalities with innocent faces in court. This was the position of the Supreme Court in FBN v Maiwada, where Fabiyi J.S.C., in reaffirming the decision in Okafor v Nweke, stated that no one should talk of technicality when a substantial provision of the law has been rightly invoked. This position of the learned justice reflects due process. This captures the maxim vigilantibus et non dormentibus jura subveniunt, which is to the effect that the law will only help those who are watchful. Thus, counsels should not make critical mistakes that can cause fatalities to their case. Like the biblical analogy of “watch and pray,” counsels should not just prepare to undertake their case but be watchful to avoid dangerous mistakes to their cases.
Secondly, balance can only be achieved when the judiciary ensures that parties before the court get a fair hearing. In the Court of Appeal case of Omoniyi v Central Board,[viii] the Court of Appeal held that the true test of fair hearing is the impression of a reasonable person who was present at the trial and whether from his observation, justice had been done in the case. The judges in applying the rule of law to the facts of the case should have in mind that the end product of law is justice. Thus, they should be affirmed in all convictions that the trial was a fair one, whether controversial or not. The parameters for a fair judgment should be in line with section 36 of the CFRN 1999.
However, it is the opinion of the writer that the judges, in adhering to the principles of fair hearing, should bear in mind the rules, so as to avoid judicial tyranny and the omnipotence of judges.
The third balance explored in this article is an external factor independent of judicial decisions. The legislature should identify areas of possible contentions in law and seek to amend them with a view to achieving justice. The judges do not make laws, but instead interpret the laws. The controversies that have paraded the legal scene on the issue of technicalities has always lingered on the interpretation of statute. The lack of precision and clarity in legal frameworks may somewhat move the judges towards applying judicial activism in offensive ways. It therefore behoves the Nigerian legislature to begin thorough examinations of judicial decisions and proscribe amendments to the law where necessary.
Achieving a balance between substantial justice and technicalities is the ultimate safeguard for upholding the sanctity of the profession. If justice is to be invoked rightly, then the law should be its solid backbone. Law and justice are inseparable and none can exist without the other. The system of dispensing justice is in two phases. Firstly, an examination of the law, and then the application of the law to facts. The judges depend on law to dispense justice and justice needs good laws to prevail. The judges cannot derive evidence and law from the overt market or public opinion. For effective balance to be achieved in the system of justice, there should be constant legislative reviews and the judges should give thorough examinations to the laws to ascertain the minds of the legislature on any matter.
[i] Benedict Orji v Ozo Nne Illoputaife & Ors  LPELR-9199 (CA) 24, Para A-E.
[ii] Dapianlong v Dariye  8 NWLR (Part 1036) 332.
[iii] Okafor v Nweke  10 NWLR (Part 10430) 521.
[iv] SLB Consortium v NNPC  9 NWLR (PT 1252) 317.
[v] Unity Bank v Denclag  18 NWLR (PT 1332) 293.
[vi] FBN v Maiwada (2013) 5 NWLR (PT 1348) 444.
[vii] Madukolu v Nkemdilim  1 ALL NLR 287.
[viii] Omoniyi v Central Board  4 NWLR PT 89 p. 448.
About the Author
Joshua Ogochukwu Ogwu is a 400 Level undergraduate of the Faculty of Law, University of Benin, Edo State, Nigeria. He is the Head of the Charles Edosomwan Student Chambers, University of Benin Chapter and also serves as the Director of Research in both the Alternative dispute resolution society and the Tax club in the University of Benin. He is a writer and researcher with key interests in arbitration, taxation and the energy sector.