An extract from The Tax Disputes and Litigation Review, 8th Edition

The courts and tribunals

In practice, administrative channels within the RTA are usually the first step for resolution of tax disputes. Unresolved disputes proceed to the TAT or FHC, or where the tax is a state tax, to the state High Court. The High Courts at the federal and state levels, magistrates' courts and customary courts within states have jurisdiction to hear tax disputes. The TAT is the only tribunal set up under the FIRS Act to hear tax disputes over federal taxes on the conditions earlier set out above. We shall provide a description of these courts and their jurisdiction.

Customary, magistrates' and state High Courts are the venue for disputes arising from levies and taxes imposed by local government authorities and taxes under state tax laws. Claims below 600,000 naira lie before the customary court in the state the transaction occurred. Claims in excess of 600,000 naira but less than 10 million naira may be commenced before the magistrates' court. Claims for taxes imposed by state laws, in excess of 10 million naira are commenced before the state High Courts, which are courts of unlimited jurisdiction. The customary, magistrates' and state High Courts are composed of a single judge for the determination of disputes. Appeals from the decision of the customary or magistrates' courts lie to the state High Courts, while an appeal from a decision of the state High Courts lie to the Court of Appeal.

The Tax Appeal Tribunal is vested with jurisdiction to hear disputes arising from the operations of the FIRS, which includes the Companies Income Tax Act (CITA), Petroleum Profits Tax Act, Personal Income Tax Act (PITA), Capital Gains Tax Act and Value Added Tax Act (VAT Act), and any other federal enactment. The jurisdiction of the TAT over PITA is restricted to the taxation of persons employed in the Nigerian Army, Nigerian Navy, Nigerian Air Force, Nigerian Police Force, officers of the Nigerian Foreign Service and persons resident outside Nigeria who derive income or profit from Nigeria. The TAT is composed of tax commissioners appointed by the Minister of Finance. The TAT has eight zones, each headed by a chairman and four commissioners. The proceedings of the TAT are conducted by a minimum of three commissioners, and where there is need for a full panel of the Tribunal, five Commissioners. Most tax disputes are resolved at the TAT. Appeals from the decision of the TAT lie as of right to the FHC on questions of law.

The FHC has exclusive jurisdiction in any dispute pertaining to taxation of companies, bodies established or carrying on business in Nigeria and all other persons subject to federal taxation. The FHC has a single jurisdiction across the federation and is composed of a single judge. An action may be commenced before the FHC at first instance once its jurisdiction is rightly invoked. Appeals lie to the FHC from the decision of the TAT on questions of law. It is equally possible to apply to the FHC to quash the directive or decision of the TAT through the prerogative writs of certiorari, prohibition and mandamus. Appeals from the decision of the FHC lie to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal has appellate jurisdiction over tax disputes from the FHC and state High Courts. Tax appeals lie as of right to the Court of Appeal where they are final decisions; the ground of appeal involves questions of law alone and questions as to the interpretation of the Constitution. In all other cases, leave of court must be obtained to appeal. The Court of Appeal is composed of not less than three justices. Appeals from the Court of Appeal lie to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is the apex and final court in Nigeria. Tax appeals from the decisions of the Court of Appeal lie to the Supreme Court as of right where they are on questions of law alone and on questions as to the interpretation of the Constitution. The Supreme Court is duly constituted if it consists of not less than five justices, provided that in cases involving the court's original jurisdiction or actions relating to the interpretation of the Constitution, the court shall be constituted by seven justices.

In the authors' experience, time spent on litigating tax disputes increases with each level of appeal. Tax disputes at the TAT are resolved in a much shorter time (sometimes within the year of commencement) than the higher courts. The Supreme Court takes the longest, with appeals taking over five years to be resolved.

The various court hierarchies and the TAT are independent of the tax authorities, and their decisions are equally binding on the tax authorities as on the taxpayers.