Judicial Precedents and the Doctrine Of Stare Decisis in Nigerian Courts Jurisdiction

The Nigerian legal system is one of the legal systems based on common law. Under the common law system, the courts do not just decide dispute brought before them, before they do that they have to check to see if such dispute has been settled before i.e. case law. If there is, the present court will consider the quality of the court that gave that earlier decision. The court may then follow it or reject it depending on the hierarchy of the court that decided that earlier case. The previous case been followed is called Judicial Precedents and if the court is bound to follow it we say that the precedent is binding.

The doctrine that stipulates that binding precedents must be followed is called stare decisis. This feature of being bound by past precedent is one of the distinguishing elements between Common Law Jurisdiction and Civil Law Jurisdiction. This is not to say that civil law jurisdictions do not observe the Judicial Precedent for this is common to all developed systems. However, the doctrine of stare decisis is what is lacking in Civil Law jurisdictions.
Judicial precedence in itself basically depicts legal experience. Generally speaking, people rely on past experiences when embarking on any venture. These experiences are nothing but precedents. Leaders are always conscious of their actions so as not to lay bad precedent. It is not different with law especially under the Nigerian legal system. In effect the concept of judicial precedents in Nigeria is a decision establishing a principle of law that any other judicial body must or may follow when called upon to decide a case with similar issues.

Precedents can be binding or persuasive. Precedent that must be applied or followed is known as binding precedent. By definition, decisions of lower courts are not binding on courts higher in the hierarchy. Precedents are persuasive when the court is not under obligation to follow it. Persuasive precedents under Nigeria legal system arise out of a number of contexts:

(a) Decisions of lower courts are not binding on higher courts. They are at best persuasive.
(b) Decisions of the High Court are persuasive authority for later cases in the High Court.
(c) Recent decisions of the Supreme Court of United Kingdom
(c) Decisions of other courts within the Common Law world.

A precedent is said to be binding where it must be followed by a lower
court, while a precedent is persuasive if a court has an option or is
not under obligation to follow it. The binding part of the decision is
called the ratio decidendi and the other part not binding but optional
is called obiter dicta. The ratio decidendi simply means reason for
the decision or the rule of law upon which the decision is based. It is
precedent that gave birth to case law, that is the body of principles
and rules of law which over the years, have been formulated or
pronounced upon by the courts. The judgments of a higher court
must be followed by a lower court in the judicial hierarchy unless
such a decision can be successfully distinguished. A decision of a
court of a co-ordinate jurisdiction is of persuasive effect on another
court of similar or co-ordinate or concurrent jurisdiction.
In delivering the lead judgment in the case of Amobi v. Nzegwu & Ors
reported in (2013) vol. 12 MJSC Pt. 1 at page 1, K.M.O. Kekere-Ekun
JSC at page 38, paragraphs D-G stated interalia:
“Ratio Decidendi means ‘the reason for deciding’ or the
reasoning, principle or ground upon which a case is
decided. The legal principle formulated by the court, which
is necessary in the determination of the issues raised in
the case, in otherwords the binding part of the decision is
its ratio decidendi, as against the remaining part of the
judgment,whichmainly constitute obiter dicta.
An obiter dictum is a statement made in passing, which does not
reflect that the reasoning of the court or ground upon
which a case is decided.
The  doctrine  of  Stare  decisis  is  well  rooted  in  the  Nigeria jurisprudence.    It  is  a  well  settled  principle  of  judicial  policy  which must  be  strictly  adhered  to  by  all  lower  courts.  While  lower  courts may  depart  from  their  own  decisions  reached  per  incuriam,  they cannot  refuse  to  be  bound  by  decisions  of  higher  courts  even  if  those decisions  were  reached  per  incuriam.    The  implication  is  that  a  lower court  is  bound  by  the  decision  of  a  higher  court  even  where  that decision  was  given  erroneously.    The  Supreme  Court  speaking through  ESO  JSC  (as  he  then  was)  in  the  case  of    Isaac  Madubuago v.  Dr.  Mudiaga  Odje  &  Ors,  reported  in  (1985)  10  SC  267  at  pages 268 – 269 opined as follows:  “In  the  hierarchy  of  the  Courts  in  this  Country,  as  in  all other  free    Common  law  Countries,  one  thing  is  clear, however  learned  a  lower  court  considers  itself  to be and however  contemptuous  of  the  higher  Court  that  lower  court is,  the  lower  court  is  still  bound  by  the  decisions  of  the higher  court.  I  hope  it  will  never  happen  again  whereby the Court  of  Appeal  in  this  Country  or  any  lower  court  for  that matter,  would deliberately  go  against Court,  and  in  this  case,  even  to  the  extent  of  not considering  the  decisions  when  those  of  this  court  were brought  to  the  notice  of  that  court.    This  is  the  discipline  of the  law. That  is  what  makes  the law certain  and  prevents it from being an ass.”

This shows clearly how much the Supreme Court frowns at lower courts who purposely fail to adhere to the underlying principle in which Stare Decisis is built on.

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