The Controversies in the Interpretation of Section 251 of 1999 constitution
The Federal High Court has exclusive civil jurisdiction as confirmed by Section 251 (1) of the 1999 constitution as amended and Section 7 of the Federal High Court Act, though the provisions of the latter are however covered by the former.
The court shall also have civil jurisdiction as may be conferred on it by an Act of the National Assembly. Note that the jurisdiction conferred on the Federal High Court by Section 251 is exclusive and more or less a reproduction of Section 230 (1) of the 1979 constitution as Amended by Decree 107 of 1993.
It would be recalled that prior to 1993 the civil jurisdiction of the Federal High Court particularly as it relates to its exclusiveness was highly controversial. This controversy arose in the several cases, notably Savannah Bank v Pan Atlantic Shipping Transport Agency Ltd where the Supreme Court decided that the Federal High Court did not have exclusive jurisdiction but concurrent jurisdiction with the State High Court with respect to the matter that the Federal High Court is vested with the power by section 7 & 8 of the Federal High Court Act and section 230 of 1979 constitution.
Since those provisions were in conflict with section 236 of the 1979 constitution which had vested the State High Court with unlimited jurisdiction in all matters. This unlimited jurisdiction has engulfed the exclusive jurisdiction conferred on the Federal High Court in certain matters by section 7 & 8 of the Federal High Court Act and section 230 of the 1979 constitution this was until the position was settled by legislation through Decree 107 of 1993.
Under the 1999 constitution however, the word unlimited has been removed from the definition of the jurisdiction of the State High Court, Section 272 (1) of the 1999 CFRN provides subject to the provisions of section 251 and other provisions of the constitution, the High Court of a State shall have jurisdiction to hear and determine any civil proceedings in which the Existence or extent of a legal right, power, duty, liability, privilege interest, obligation or claim is in issue.
It follows that the State High Court under this provision cannot entertain matters in respect of which the Federal High Court is vested with exclusive jurisdiction under section 251 or in respect of which any other court is vested with exclusive jurisdiction under the constitution for example, the question of the validity of election of the President or the Vice President which the Court of Appeal has exclusive original jurisdiction to entertain under section 239 (1) 1999 CFRN.
It took the amendment of section 230 of the 1979 constitution by Decree 107 of 1993 to restore the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal High Court in those matters now granted by section 251(1) 1999 CFRN.
The major controversy that arises from the interpretation of section 251 of CFRN 1999 as amended is the exclusiveness of the jurisdiction with respect to the civil causes and matters as listed in section 251 (a) – (s). This controversy arises in instances where the State High Court assumes or intends to assume jurisdiction over the matters that are provided for in section 251 (1) (a) – (s).
In some cases, the controversy arises because the cause of action does not clearly fall under the category but partially relates to those mentioned in the section. In such circumstances, it takes the interpretation of the constitution by the court to determine whether the cause of action in question falls under the exclusiveness of the Federal High Court jurisdiction.
A typical example of this controversy is found in section 251 (i) – (p) which provides as follows ; Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this constitution and in addition to such other jurisdiction as may be conferred upon it by an Act of the National Assembly, the Federal High Court shall have and exercise jurisdiction to the exclusion of any other court in civil causes and matter (p) the administration or management and control of the Federal Government or any of its agencies.
In commencing an action against the Federal government or its agency it would be proper to commence same in a State High Court, but if the cause of action borders on the administration, or management and control of the said Federal government organ or agency then the jurisdiction is removed to the Federal High Court and not a State High Court.
In most cases it would take the pronouncement of the court to determine whether the said cause of action borders on administration or management and control. Furthermore, the provision to section 251 (1) raises some controversies in the commencement of action in State High Court by or against the Federal government or its agencies.
Having provided as follows provided that nothing in the provisions of paragraphs (p), (q) and (r) of this subsection shall prevent a person from seeking redress against the Federal Government or any of its agencies in an action for damages, injunction or specific performance where the action is based on any enactment, law or equity, it means; that any other court would have the jurisdiction to entertain a suit against the Federal government or its agencies where a claim for damages is involved or where an order for injunction is sought or where a party is seeking for an order compelling the Federal government or agencies to perform some specific performance. One may then wonder what is the intendment of the provision of section 251 of the 1999 constitution.
The Intendment of the constitution
Section 251 of the 1999 CFRN is provided for to cure the defect and mischief existed in the 1979 constitution where the State High Court was conferred with unlimited jurisdiction. The section therefore establishes the exclusiveness of the Federal High Court to entertain matter falling under the expressly states issues.
The intendment of the constitution is to remove any form of controversy or conflict between the State High court and the Federal High Court or any other court as to which court has the power to assume jurisdiction. The constitution is also intended to avoid the abuse of court process where one action would be commenced in two different courts.
Looking at the paragraphs of section 251 (1), we would be able to appreciate the niceties of the section. Section 251 (1)
(a) Suggests that the Federal High Court shall have exclusive jurisdiction in civil matters, which relates to the revenue of the Federal government, wherein the Federal government is a party to the suit. (b) Confers exclusive jurisdiction on the Federal High Court in all matters pertaining to the taxation of companies or carrying on business in Nigeria. (c) Delimits exclusive jurisdiction in matters affecting the Nigeria Custom Services, the members or officers in the course of their duties or relating to duties payable to the office. (d) In matters related to banking and financial institution where the suit is between two banks or between one bank and Central bank of Nigeria. (e) Matters that arises from the operations of the Companies and Allied Matters Act. (f) Matters relating to intellectual property. (g) Exclusive jurisdiction in admiralty matters. (h) In matters affecting the diplomats and consular staff. (i) Exclusive jurisdiction in matters concerning immigration and their ancillary duties. (j) In matters of bankruptcy & insolvency. (k) Exclusive jurisdiction in Aviation matters. (I) In matters relating to Arms, ammunitions and explosive. (m) Matters of drugs and poisons. (n) Exclusive jurisdiction in cases of mines and mineral exploration. (o) Matters of weights and measures. (p) Where the matter concerns the administration or the management and Control of the Federal government or any of its agencies. (q) The Federal High Court has the exclusive jurisdiction to interpreting the constitution as it concerns the Federal government of its agencies. (r) Exclusive jurisdiction to order for injunction or declaration affecting any executive or administrative action of the Federal government of its agencies. (s) Other jurisdiction civil or criminal as may be conferred upon the Federal High Court by the National Assembly.
In the areas of criminal jurisdiction of the Federal High Court, it is the intendment of the constitution that offences of treason, treasonable felony and allied offences are to be exclusively tried by the court, more so to have exclusive jurisdiction over any criminal matter that could arise from the civil matter or cases provided for in section 251 (1).