The Equity of Territorial Jurisdiction Laws

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Jurisdiction can be simply be defined as the courts power to determine a case. It is so fundamental that it is a condition precedent to be fulfilled before any action can be brought before a court. In the decided case of shelim v. Gobang it was held a court is said to be competent when: 1. it is properly constituted with respect to its members and qualifications b. subject matter of the action is within its jurisdiction 3. The action is initiated by due process of law d. any condition precedent for the exercise of its jurisdiction has been fulfilled ; non-compliance with the above requirements would be fatal to the competence of the court as lack of jurisdiction results in the nullity of any decision. It’s important to note that jurisdiction may be divided into substantive jurisdiction and territorial jurisdiction. Substantive jurisdiction is based on the subject-matter brought before the court which is usually prescribed by the statute creating the court for example matter relating to while territorial jurisdiction deals with territory i.e. place which is usually determined by the administrative convenience. Territorial jurisdiction usually rises based on the area where the parties reside and where the cause of action occurred. The jurisdiction of a court may be restricted by law based on its territory. Territorial jurisdiction refers to jurisdiction over cases arising in or involving persons residing within a defined territory. Areas of jurisdiction apply to local, state and federal laws which means that, for instance, a violation of state law is tried in that states court. There is only one Federal High Court in Nigeria but for the purpose of convenience the court has been divided into judicial divisions situated in the various states of the federation. The essence of stating this position is to lend credence to the fact that the Federal High Court is not bound by territorial jurisdiction. The question now is, is this position only held in theory or is it really the case in practice?

It is trite law (laws that are of common knowledge) that courts are bound by territories. Therefore, a court will usually only entertain a suit on a subject matter of which a significant part of it occurred within the locality over which the court exercises jurisdiction. While trying to describe the territories of court in Nigeria. The Supreme Court held in Adetona & Ors v. Igele General Enterprises Ltd. that, “The matters of jurisdiction in our courts, is generally approached from three dimensions: territorial, subject matter and jurisdiction on persons. On territorial jurisdiction the Federal High Court enjoys nationwide jurisdiction whereas a state high court is confined to the territory of a state and that of the federal capital territory to the federal capital territory, Abuja.”

The rules of the Federal High Court provide inter alia that matters relating to taxation shall be instituted where the person subject to taxation resides or carries on business, while actions against public officers shall be carried out in the judicial division where the cause of action arose. Similar provisions are found in order 9 of the High Court Civil Procedure Rules of the Federal Capital territory. In James Onanefe Ibori v. Federal Republic of Nigeria, Augie JCA espoused the concept of territorial jurisdiction where he stated that;

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Territorial or geographical jurisdiction refers to the geographical area in which matters brought before the courts for adjudication arose. Courts are usually not seized of matters that occur outside the territory. Thus, where ingredients of an offence occur outside the territorial jurisdiction of the court asked to adjudicate over the matter, such a court will not assume jurisdiction over the offence for apparent lack of jurisdiction.

Section 19 of the Federal High Court Act provides that;

  • The court shall have and exercise jurisdiction throughout the federation, and for that purpose the whole area of the federation shall be divided by the Chief Judge into such number of judicial divisions (not less than four) as he may, from time to time, specify and he may designate any such judicial division or part thereof by such name as he may think fit.
  • For the more convenient dispatch of business, the court may sit in any one or more judicial divisions as the chief judge may direct, and he may also direct one or more judges to sit in any one or more judicial divisions.
  • The Chief Judge shall determine the distribution of the business before the court amongst the judges thereof and may assign any judicial function to any judge or judges or in respect of a particular cause or matter in a judicial division.

These sections of the Act aids in driving home the point that there is only one Federal High Court. Section 2 of the Act states that the Chief Judge of the Federation can, for the purpose of administrative convenience, divide the court into judicial divisions. It should be noted that this division in no way reduces the jurisdiction of the court. This means that a division of the Federal High Court in Zamfara for instance, is not restricted by territory as that division of the High court can as well hear cases that arose in Lagos state provided the subject matter falls within the stipulated matters in section 251 of the Constitution. This goes to show that the limitation placed on the Federal High Court by section 251 of the Constitution is only as it relates to subject matter and persons and not as it relates to territory.

Section 254 of the constitution gives the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court the power to make rules for regulating the practice and procedure of the Federal High Court. In exercising the power conferred on it by the constitution, the Chief Judge divided the courts into judicial divisions. The Federal High Court Civil Procedure Rules require that actions should be commenced either in the judicial division where the transactions leading to the action took place or in the judicial division where the defendant resides. Rules 2, 3 and 4 of Order 1 of the Federal High Court Civil Procedure Rules provides that;

  1. If there are more defendants than one resident in different judicial divisions, the suit may be commenced in any one of those judicial divisions, the suit may be commenced in any one of those judicial divisions, subject, however, to any order which the court may, upon the application of any of the parties, or on its own motion, think fit to make with the view to the most convenient arrangement for the trial of the suit.
  2. Where a suit is commenced in any other judicial division of the court than that in which it ought to have commenced, it may, notwithstanding, be tried in the judicial division in which it has been commenced, unless the court otherwise directs or the defendant pleads specially in objection to the jurisdiction before or at the time when he is required to state his answer or to plead in the cause.
  3. No proceeding which has been taken before the plea in objection shall be in any way affected thereby, but the judge may order that the cause be transferred to the judicial division to which it is proved to his satisfaction, to belong or, failing such proof, order that it be retained and proceeded with within the court in which it has been commenced.

Due to the fact that equity acts in personam, a court of equity is not confined to this territorial limitations as such an equitable decision will hold against a defendant who is within the jurisdiction of the court. In the leading case of Penn v. lord Baltimore it was held that an English court could issue an order of specific performance of a contract of sale of land of in America since the defendant was within its jurisdiction. As such since Nigerian courts can administer both law and equity a similar decision was held in the decided case of British Bata shoe v. melikan jibowu Ag. F.C.J., held that the high court of Lagos had the power to issue an order of specific performance of a contract against the defendant within its jurisdiction even though the land in dispute was in aba, outside its territorial jurisdiction. In ayinule v. abimbola the high court of Lagos issued an injunction, restraining the defendant from doing an act outside the court’s jurisdiction. Thus Dickson j remarked in Ijaola v. Banjo that: equity acts in personam over person’s resident within its jurisdiction and in certain cases the courts would entertain an action respecting foreign land. It is important to note that the exercise of this equitable jurisdiction is dependent on the contract between the parties, or a conduct that a court of equity would consider unconscionable i.e. the plaintiff has an equitable right against the defendant. It is immaterial if the act complained of occurred outside the jurisdiction of the court.

Thus, the principle the equity acts in personam have been embodied into Nigerian high court laws. section 22 of high court of eastern states provides; (1) that the court shall have jurisdiction to hear and determine any suit for the specific performance or any suit founded upon a breach of contract if the contract was made within the jurisdiction though the contract though the breach occurred elsewhere or if the breach occurred within the jurisdiction though the contract was made somewhere else, or if the contract ought to have been performer within the jurisdiction or if the defendants or one of the defendants resides within the jurisdiction. (2) The court shall have jurisdiction to hear and determine any civil cause or matter other than one referred to in sub-section (1) in which the defendant or one of the defendants resides or carries on business within the jurisdiction of the court. However, it is trite law that the Lex situs of the land determines the title to a land and the physical control of the land is within the power of the country the land is situate. It’s a well-established principle of law that no court in Nigeria has jurisdiction to entertain an action in which the matter in dispute is to determine the title to, or ownership of land which is situated outside the court’s territorial jurisdiction.

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