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Nigerian Law

Nigerian Legal System

particular political entity, and creates the machinery and institutions for the administration, dispensation and enforcement of justice therein.”  From the foregoing definition, it is obvious that legal systems differ from one sovereign State to the other. Thus, different legal systems exist, for instance, in the United States of America, Britain, Nigeria, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Australia.

 A Legal system, like other systems, has several components, which include the following:

  1. the totality of extant laws, rules, and regulations enacted by the legislature; prevailing organic customs; and judicial precedents developed by the courts;
  2. the judicial machinery by which courts settle disputes and define the rights and duties of legal persons;
  3. rules and regulations governing the Legal profession, especially the educational/professional training, and practice of Lawyers;
  4. the machinery for maintenance and enforcement of law and order in the society, e.g. the police force; and
  5. institutions for the punishment and rehabilitation of adjudged criminal offenders, e.g. prisons, Borstal institutions, children’s approved schools or reformatories, and lunatic asylums.


Nigerian legal system is a relic of the century-old British imperialism that brought about the imposition of alien English legal system on our traditional legal structures and institutions. Our organic norms and values were thus largely displaced. Lagos was created a British colony in 1862. In that same year, a court was established there, and five statutes (called “Ordinances”) were applicable to the colony. The ordinances were:

(1) Customs Duties Ordinance No. 1 of 1862;

(2) Harbour Regulations Ordinance No. 2 of 1862;

(3) Harbour Sanitary Regulations Ordinance No. 3 of 1862;

(4) Currency Ordinance No. 4 of 1862; and

(5) Use of Official Seal Ordinance No. 5 of 1862.

True to their mission, the first five laws enacted for the governance of the Colony of Lagos were solely for economic exploitation of a virgin community. And until today, nearly 140 years afterwards, British exploitative tendencies are self-evident in Nigeria.

In 1863, one year later, English law was established in the Colony of Lagos with 25 Ordinances, chief among which were:

(1) Applying Laws of England to the Settlement Ordinance No. 3 of  1863;

(2) Supreme Court Ordinance No. 11 of 1863;

(3) Petty Debt Court Ordinance No. 12A of 1863; and

(4) Supreme Court Ordinance No. 13 of 1863.

Between 1864 – 1865, the following Ordinances, which related to the legal profession and administration of justice, were made for the Settlement of Lagos:

 (1) Supreme Court Ordinance No. 1 of 1864;

 (2) Supreme Court Ordinance No. 9 of 1864;

 (3) Slave Commission Court Ordinance No. 13 of 1864; and

 (4) Supreme Court Ordinance No. 5 of 1865.

Today, that colonial history still wields an abiding, nay, compelling influence on every aspect our legal system. The independence Nigeria got on 1 October 1960 is yet to be perfected in the legal domain. The situation is humiliating, ridiculous, and retrogressive. For instance, certain obsolete English statutes that were in force on 1 January 1900 (more than 100 years ago) styled “statutes of general application” constitute a source of Nigerian law today!

 The basis for determining which English statutes are those of general application is purely conjectural, and may depend on the whims and caprices of Judges. In Attorney-General v John Holt & Co. (1910) 2 NLR 1, Osborne CJ made an attempt to articulate factors that may determine which English statutes are those of general application, and declared thus:

No definition has been attempted of what is a statute of general application . . . and each case has to be decided on the merits of the particular statute sought to be enforced. Two preliminary questions can, however, be put by way of a rough, but not infallible test, viz: (1) by what courts is the statute applied in England? and (2) to what classes of the community in England does it ap-ply? If, on January 1, 1900, an Act of Parliament were applied by all civil or criminal courts, as the case may be, to all classes of the community, there is a strong likelihood that it is in force within the jurisdiction. If, on the other hand, it were applied only by certain courts, (e.g. a Statute regulating procedure), only to certain classes of the community (e.g. an Act regulating a particular trade), the probability is that it would not be held to be locally applicable.

The dilemma therefore compels us to resort to judicial declarations on particular statutes. Thus, according to Professor Ezejiofor, the following English statutes are among those that have been declared by Nigerian courts as statutes of general application:     


  1. Statute of Frauds 1677: Molomo v Olusola (1954) 21 NLR 1.
  2. Wills Act 1837: Thomas v De Souza (1929) 9 NLR 81.
  3. Infants Relief Act 1874: Labinjoh v Abake (1912) 5 NLR 33.
  4. Conveyancing Act 1881: Sanusi v Daniel (1956) 1 FSC 93.
  5. Sale of Goods Act 1893: Khami v McCaul & Co. Ltd. (1956) LLR 32.
  6. Fraudulent Conveyances Act: Braithwaite v Folarin (1938) 4 WACA 76.
  7. Settled Lands Act 1882 (as amended): Thomas v Nabham (1947) 12 WACA 229.
  8. Land Transfer Act 1897: Young v Abina (1940) 6 WACA 180.
  9. Partition Acts 1868 and 1876: Sule v Ajisegiri (1937) 13 NLR 1.
  10. Limitation Acts (Real Property Limitation Act 1833, as amended in 1874): Koney v U. A. C. Ltd (1934) 2 WACA 188.

(k)  Fatal Accidents Acts 1846 and 1864: Lawal v Younan (1961) All NLR 245.


It is high time we completely “nigerianised” every facet of our legal system. We must do so now, because we surely can. It is most interesting to note that although Britain was under Roman rule for more than three hundred years,  English law did not receive Roman law,  in contradistinction to our continued disgraceful, and often wholesale, reception of English law, especially obsolete, archaic English statutes styled “statutes of general application” some of which are more than two hundred years old!

The Concept of Legal System

By Leesi Ebenezer Mitee


We may define a legal system as “the entire organised structure or framework which determines, and defines the body of law, rules and regulations applicable in a