It is implicit, for the purpose of fairness, in every adjudicatory process that a court of law cannot be one of first instance as well as that of last resort. The general appellate jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal is conferred on it by Section 240 of the Constitution of The Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (As Amended).
On the 30th of June, 2017, the Supreme Court of Nigeria Per Chime Centus Nweze, JSC delivered a landmark judgment in the now famous case of Skye Bank Plc V. Victor Anaemem Iwu on the Appellate jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal over the decisions of the National Industrial Court (NIC), which before now was unclear and confusing for litigants and their Counsel. . The issue of ‘finality’ of the decisions of NIC had generated a lot of controversy in the legal profession among litigants, employees, employers of labour and the academia resulting in conflicting decisions by the Court of Appeal in various divisions, with several appeals awaiting the outcome of the decision of the Supreme Court on the vexed issue that only the Supreme Court being the apex Court could resolve with finality considering that:
“The Supreme Court is the highest Court in the land. By virtue of section 235 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 its decisions are final. In other words, a decision of the apex Court settles the position of the law in respect of a particular issue and becomes a binding precedent for all Courts of record in Nigeria…” - Kekere-Ekun Justice of the Supreme Court in the case of ODEDO V OGUEBEGO (2015) 13 NWLR (PT. 1476) 229 @ 271.
It would appear that the decision in Skye Bank Plc V. Victor Anaemem Iwu has resolved the uncertainties regarding the extent of the powers of the Court of Appeal to ‘review’ decisions of the National Industrial Court of Appeal so as so to engender stability, order and certainty in civil causes and matters relating to or connected with labour, employment, trade unions, industrial relations, condition of service, etc.
Prior to the introduction of the 3rd Alteration Act, 2010, the NIC did not enjoy the status of a Court of Record under the 1999 Constitution. With the alteration, the NICwas added to the list of a Court of Record having the same powers as a High Court. It is instructive to state that while section 240 of the 1999 Constitution confers a right of appeal from decisions of lower Courts (including the National Industrial Court) to the Court of Appeal; on the other hand, section 243 (4) provides:
“without prejudice to the provisions of section 254(C) of this Act, the decision of the Court of Appeal in respect of any appeal arising from any civil jurisdiction of the National Industrial Court SHALL BE FINAL” (Emphasis supplied).
Thus, a judicial interpretation by the apex Court became imperative so as to ensure that the Court of Appeal, legal practitioners and litigants could clear beyond conjecture the course of action in the event of dissatisfaction with the decisions or part of the decisions of the National Industrial Court.
BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE FACTS
On the 22nd day of February, 2012, Victor Anaemem Iwu (the Respondent at the Supreme Court) filed an action at the National Industrial Court sitting in Lagos against the then Afribank Nigeria Plc (now extinct). His claims were, inter alia, wrongful termination of his employment; unpaid accrued salaries and allowances and pension allegedly due to him in the course of his employment with the said bank. Afribank was later acquired by Skye Bank and necessary changes were effected as to the name of the Defendant in the Suit. Pleadings were filed and exchanged in accordance with the Rules of the National Industrial Court. Thereafter, the Defendant raised a preliminary objection to the jurisdiction of the trial court to hear the matter. The objection was dismissed by the court, per Obaseki-Osaghae, J.
Aggrieved by the ruling, the bank filed an appeal at the Court of Appeal sitting in Lagos. Subsequently, the bank applied to the Court of Appeal for leave to amend its notice of appeal. The Respondent (Victor Iwu) through his counsel raised objection to the application to amend the notice of appeal and queried the court’s jurisdiction to entertain the appeal in the first place. The Court of Appeal thereafter ordered the parties to file written addresses. The addresses were filed in compliance with the order of court.
The kernel of the Respondent’s objection was that, a party who is aggrieved by a decision of the National Industrial Court could not appeal the said decision, (whether as of right or with leave) to the Court of Appeal. He argued that the Court of Appeal had no jurisdiction to entertain the appeal and consequently cannot entertain the application to amend the notice of appeal sought to be amended. He cited sections 241(1)(a)-(f), (i)-(v) and (2)(a)-(c); 242(1) and 243(1) of the 1999 Constitution in support of his argument. He therefore expressed the view that the appellate jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal on labour and industrial matters was limited to issues of fundamental rights and criminal matters only.
He submitted that from the provisions of Sections 243(2)-(4) and 254C (6) read side by side with the earlier cited provisions of the 1999 Constitution, the intention of the framers of the Constitution was to make decisions of the National Industrial Court final except those touching on fundamental rights and criminal matters. The Respondent was represented by Fes Eze Eke.
Dr. Charles Mekwunye, learned counsel for the Appellant also filed his written address in reaction to the Respondent’s objection. The addresses were duly adopted and the Court of Appeal adjourned the matter for ruling. While the ruling was being awaited, counsel for the Appellant approached the Court of Appeal and prayed the court to state a case to the Supreme Court for the apex court’s opinion on the knotty constitutional issue of jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal over decisions of the National Industrial Court. The Court of Appeal found merit in the application and accordingly forwarded the matter to the Supreme Court.
The Court of Appeal submitted three questions for the determination of the Supreme Court:
(i) Whether the Court of Appeal as an appellate court created by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) has the jurisdiction to the exclusion of any other court of law in Nigeria to hear and determine all appeals arising from the decisions of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria
(ii) The second issue for determination was whether there exists any constitutional provision which expressly divested the Court of Appeal of its appellate jurisdiction over all decisions on civil matters emanating from the National Industrial Court of Nigeria
(iii) Another germane issue was the third issue: Whether the Court of Appeal’s jurisdiction to hear civil appeals from the decisions of the National Industrial Court is limited to only questions of Fundamental rights.
In the lead judgment delivered by Nweze, JSC, his lordship stated thus ’I find and hold that, on a harmonious construction of Sections 240, 242(1), 243(1)(a) and 243(4) of the 1999 Constitution, a litigant who is aggrieved by a decision of the trial court [National Industrial Court] in other civil matters, can exercise a right of appeal with the leave of the Court of Appeal. The only innovation in this regard is that it makes the Court of Appeal the final court with respect to such appeal; Section 243(4).’’
Therefore in view of the above, the court held that decisions from the National Industrial Court in respect of matters bothering on fundamental rights and criminal matters are appealable as of right to the court of appeal. The implication of this is that all other decisions not falling under the above two are appealable subject to the leave of the Court of Appeal.
His Lordship further reasoned thus, ’In all, on a holistic interpretation of Section 240 and 243(1) of the 1999 Constitution, appeal lies from the trial court [National Industrial Court] to the Court of Appeal, that is, all decisions of the trial court are appealable to the Court of Appeal as of right in criminal matters [Section 254C(5) and (6)], and fundamental rights cases, [Section 243(2)];and with the leave of the Court of Appeal, in all other civil matters where the trial court has exercised its jurisdiction, Sections 240 read conjunctively with Section 243(1) and (4)’’
His Lordship further held that ‘’The answers to the questions posed to this court in this case stated are: (a) the Court of Appeal has the jurisdiction, to the exclusion of any other court in Nigeria, to hear and determine all appeals arising from the decisions of the National Industrial Court; (b) no constitutional provisions expressly divested the said Court of Appeal of its appellate jurisdiction over all decisions on civil matters emanating from the National Industrial Court, and (c)as a corollary, the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal to hear and determine civil appeals from the decisions of the National Industrial Court is not limited only to fundamental rights matters.’’
According to Per Justice Mary-Odili ‘’ [T]he appellate jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal is not foreclosed within matters only related to fundamental rights, rather, the appeals from the National Industrial Court all can go on appeal to the Court of Appeal as of right in the case of fundamental rights but by leave of the appellate Court when the matter is in relation to other circumstances.’’
It can be gleaned from the above that decisions from the National Industrial Court in respect of matters bothering on fundamental rights and criminal matters are appealable as of right to the court of appeal. The implication of this is that all other decisions not falling under the above two are appealable subject to the leave of the Court of Appeal. Furthermore, from the judgment of the Supreme Court, it is clear that the National Industrial Court is not a final court on labor and industrial matters. Like every other court subordinate to the Court of Appeal in the architecture of judicial hierarchy in Nigeria, the decisions of the National Industrial Court are subject to review by the Court of Appeal.
It is trite, that in interpreting constitutional provisions, primary attention must be given to discovering the intention of the lawmaker which is to be deduced from the language used. The Supreme Court upheld this position per K. M. O. KEKERE-EKUN J.S.C in the case of Dr. Olubukola Abubakar Saraki V. Federal Republic of Nigeria (SC. 852/2015) wherein the Court held that “the main object of statutory interpretation is to discover the intention of the lawmaker, which is to be deduced from the language used.” The Court in addition held that when interpreting the provisions of a statute the court must not ascribe meanings to clear, plain and unambiguous provisions in order to make such provisions conform to the court's view of their meaning or what they ought to be.
The intention of the National Assembly in enacting the Third Alteration Act to the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 was to elevate the National Industrial Court to a superior court of record, ranking in hierarchy with the High Courts. It is also clear from the words used in the enactment that the draftsman did not intend that the said court, upon its elevation would navigate out of the Court of Appeal’s appellate constitutional jurisdiction over all the courts. Furthermore it is unlikely that the draftsman would have contemplated that the said court’s elevation would wreak havoc on the settled notion of hierarchy of courts under the constitution. It is therefore a great relief to see the Supreme Court uphold the principle of fairness enshrined in the appellate system of the judicature while also preserving the hierarchy established by the constitution.
Individuals and corporate entities who have instituted matters at the National Industrial Court or plan to approach the Court on labour issues may therefore be guided by the ruling of the Supreme Court.
It would also appear that the Court of Appeal lost a golden opportunity to clear the air as to whether or not it is the final Court with respect to labour or labour related matters. There must be an end to litigation and it will serve parties and their legal representatives well if the air had been cleared as to whether an aggrieved party may accept the pronouncement of the Court of Appeal as final or continue an arduous sojourn to the Supreme Court.
However, it would appear to us that anyone aggrieved with the decisions of the Court of Appeal may in turn proceed to the Supreme Court to contest the propriety and or otherwise of the decision against it thereat.
For clarification and further guidance on the issues considered in this newsletter, affected persons may contact any of our offices through the various channels of communication provided.