The National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN) is one of the specialised courts in Nigeria with 26 judicial divisions. While the argument can be made that each case is determined on its own facts, a disturbing trend currently permeates recent decisions of the NICN:(1) conflicting judgments on similar issues relating to employment terminations by the Court in its different divisions.(2)
As a court of coordinate jurisdiction, NICN decisions are binding with those of other superior courts of record.(3) The doctrine of stare decisis provides that the decisions of higher courts are binding on lower courts and that a court is bound by its own previous decision and those of courts of coordinate jurisdiction.(4)
There have been numerous instances of conflicting NICN judgments. For example, the NICN took opposing views on the issue of reinstatement in Bello Ibrahim v Ecobank(5) and Clement Abayomi Onitiju v Lekki Concession Company Limited.(6) In both cases, the claimant's employment was terminated for no reason and the Court agreed that the termination was unfair and wrong.
However, in the Bello case, coram Justice Sanusi Kado (sitting in Abuja) ordered the claimant's reinstatement, but one year earlier in Lekki, coram Justice BB. Kanyip PhD (sitting in Lagos) had taken the opposite view and held that although the termination was wrongful, the claimant's employment had been terminated in line with the common law position. In the more recent case of Emana I Edet v Fidelity Bank Plc, which was incidentally delivered the same day as the Bello judgment albeit by a different judge,(7) the NICN declined to reinstate the claimant or award exemplary damages.
In Coca-Cola Nigeria Limited v Mrs Titilayo Akisanya(8) and Batelitwin Global Services Limited v Mr John Muir,(9) the Court of Appeal significantly reduced the damages that the NICN had awarded to each of the respondents, which were equal to a one-month salary in lieu of notice, on the grounds that the damages had no basis in law and were contrary to the common law position on awarding damages for wrongful termination of employment. In subsequent cases, the NICN has taken different views, some of which have applied the common law position,(10) and others that have continued to award general and/or special damages for wrongful termination.(11)
Similarly, in Adigwe v FBN Mortgages Limited,(12) the NICN clarified the employee's right to resign, even in the face of express stipulations that contradicted the employer's handbook. However, it reached an opposing view in Fajuyitan v Guinea Insurance Plc,(13) where the employee had tendered a letter of resignation while facing a disciplinary hearing, which was also contrary to the stipulations of the handbook.
This doctrine of stare decisis rests a priori on the premise that there must be certainty and that parties should be able to know where they stand at a certain time. Given the NCIN's divergent decisions in similar cases, it becomes difficult to determine the law and inform clients on where they stand.
It is arguable that the NICN's pro-employee decisions are invariably paving the way for employment security. However, the question is whether the Court of Appeal will uphold the decisions of the NICN if they are appealed; more so as the Court of Appeal is now the final court on labour matters in Nigeria. So far, and despite the conflicting judicial pronouncements of the NICN, it has declined to affirm any decision that deviates from or disregards the established common law principles of labour. It is, therefore, uncertain whether the NICN's judicial pronouncements will ultimately succeed in rewriting Nigeria's labour law jurisprudence and, where reliance is placed on appellate decisions, whether the benefits of time-tested common law principles of labour will remain.
For further information on this topic please contact Tonye Krukrubo or Duunebari Seth-Nzor at Aluko & Oyebode by telephone (+234 1 462 8360 71) or email (t[email protected]or [email protected]). The Aluko & Oyebode website can be accessed at www.aluko-oyebode.com.
(1) This article is the third in a three-part series on how decisions of the NICN could potentially rewrite national labour law jurisprudence. For the first article in the series, please see "Innovative NICN judgments could rewrite labour law jurisprudence"; for the second, please see "Attitude of appellate courts to employment cases".
(2) Such judgments have been issued despite the fact that decisions of all divisions of the NICN are always uploaded to its official website and app.
(3) Nkwocha v MTN Nigeria Communications Ltd (2008) LPELR-CA/A/207/05.
(4) Global Transport Oceanico SA v Free Enterprises Nigeria Ltd (2001) LPELR-SC.146/1998.
(5) Unreported suit No. NICN/ABJ/144/2018, delivered on 12 December 2019.
(6) Unreported suit No. NICN/LA/130/2011, delivered on 11 December 2018.
(7) Unreported suit No. NICN/LA/276/2014, delivered on 17 December 2019.
(8) (2017) 17 NWLR (PART 1593) 74.
(9) Unreported Appeal No. CA/L/566/2013, delivered on 3 November 2016.
(10) Clement Abayomi Onitiju v Lekki Concession Company Limited, unreported suit No. NICN/LA/130/2011, delivered on 11 December 2018; and ThankGod Albert v Leisure Investment Ltd, unreported suit No. NICN/ABJ/382/2017.
(11) Onuhikemi v Smridu Nigeria Ltd, unreported suit No. NICN/LA/265/2015.
(12) Unreported suit No. NICN/LA/526/2016, delivered on 9 July 2019.
(13) Unreported suit No. NICN/LA/209/2012, delivered on 21 March 2019.