Nigeria is home to Africa’s largest economy and population. To serve them, its legal system draws on diverse traditions. Most other countries do not have courts that apply British common law and Islamic Sharia law.

To learn more, I asked Chinedum Umeche, a litigator at the law firm Banwo & Ighodalo in Lagos to share information about his firm’s litigation practice.

Why should you read this post about litigation in Nigeria?

  • You’re interested in learning about the country’s “Customary Courts” that apply local customs and traditions when deciding disputes.

  • You’re interested in learning about Nigeria’s “frontloading” procedure of exchanging evidence in litigation.

  • You’re interested in the most detailed courtroom dress code this blog has published so far.

Chinedum Umeche is a litigator at Banwo & Ighodalo in Lagos, Nigeria. - This interview has been slightly edited

Chinedum Umeche is a litigator at Banwo & Ighodalo in Lagos, Nigeria.

This interview has been slightly edited.

Background

Can you tell me about the kinds of disputes you handle in your legal practice?

I handle commercial disputes, and these include breach of contract cases, employment matters and oil and gas matters. I also handle commercial arbitrations.      

What type of clients do you generally represent in disputes? 

Most of my clients are companies, especially, multinationals including ExxonMobil, Chevron and GSK. On occasion, I act for individuals.

Besides Microsoft Office, what software do you use in your practice?

We have a bespoke software called Banwo & Ighodalo Information System (BIIS), which helps us manage cases, times spent on each case as well as costs.

What books and websites do you use for legal research?

What books and websites do you use for legal research? We have a good physical library but rely more on online sources since people now have to work more from home due to the pandemic. We subscribe to Practical Law, Law Pavilion, Legalpedia, and Mondaq.

Nigerian Courts - Image source: https://www.fhc-ng.com/gallery.htm

Image credit: Nigerian Courts

Do Nigerian courts permit litigants to file documents electronically or must they go to the courthouse and deliver papers?

For the most part, pleadings are filed manually in Lagos – Nigeria’s commercial nerve centre. However, the Rivers States High Court has adopted e-filing following the outbreak of Covid-19. It’s working, but there are several teething problems. Most oil and gas companies have their operational base in Rivers State. In terms of legal practice, outside Lagos State, Rivers State is, arguably, the next busiest jurisdiction.

Generally speaking, how many pages are the complaints or initial pleadings you see in your work?

Because of the frontloading system adopted by courts in Nigeria, which requires parties to file all documentary evidence required for the case alongside the pleadings, the initial pleadings can get up to fifty pages.

And generally speaking, how long does it take for a case to go from complaint to judgment?

It can be as fast as six months and as slow as up to two years.

Several factors can affect timing. Cases commenced by an originating summons are determined quickly, because the case is determined on affidavit evidence. However, cases commenced by writ of summons involve the examination of witnesses and can take time to conclude. Note that the judge has three months to deliver a judgment after the conclusion of the hearing.

Are there specialized courts in Nigeria that only hear commercial cases?

Not quite. But the Lagos State High Court has a commercial law division within its structure.

Are commercial disputes in Nigeria decided by a judge or a jury?

The Judge. We do not operate a jury system in Nigeria.

Is it true that Nigeria has both Customary courts and Sharia courts?

Yes. Nigeria is a culturally diverse society.

Can you tell me about these courts?

Customary Courts are special courts that are set up primarily to resolve issues arising from customary laws. Matters are usually dealt with summarily following the traditional and acceptable standards of each culture brought before the court.  They are found mostly in the Southern part of Nigeria

Sharia courts resolve questions that bother on Islamic personal law, such as marriage, family relationships, gifts, wills, guardianship of infants, succession, maintenance or guardianship of a physically or mentally infirm Muslim.  They are found mostly in the northern part of Nigeria.

Do these courts handle commercial disputes?

Where the commercial disputes bother on customary law or Islamic personal law, the courts may handle such disputes.

Does your firm handle cases in these courts?

None for now.

Generally speaking, how is evidence exchanged between the parties before trial in Nigerian courts?

Parties are required to file along with their pleadings, a list of witnesses they intend to call, together with their statements on oath as well as copies of all documents they intend to rely on at the trial. This concept is known locally as “frontloading.”

Do you have the ability to interview opposing witnesses before trial?

No, we do not get to interview the opposing witnesses before trial. This concept is unknown to Nigeria.

If you win a commercial dispute, does the other side reimburse your attorneys’ fees?

A claim for reimbursement of attorney fees must be specifically sought for in the Statement of Claim and proved. The judge may or may not grant it. The courts tend to order parties to “bear their costs,” especially in keenly contested cases.

Do you believe that Nigerian courts have a particular strength for resolving commercial disputes?

Yes. But there is scope for improvement.

How about a weakness?

Unprecedented delays in the handling of cases and conflicting decisions. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the inadequacy of our courts in leveraging technology in the handling of cases. A poor broadband connection is also a major factor.

Are the Nigerian courts open to the public?

Yes, the Nigerian Courts are opened to the public with some minor exceptions, for example, where the case involves a minor.

Can ordinary people watch a commercial trial?

Yes, ordinary people can watch court proceedings. You need not be a party to the suit to access the court hearing.

How often do you go to the courthouse? 

Very Often. Sometimes, four times a week. 

When you are there, do you need to wear a special robe or wig?

Yes, when appearing before the High Court and other superior courts of record, counsel must be fully robed in his wig and gown. When appearing before a magistrate court, counsel must be robed in a dark colour smart suit and need not be robed in wig and gown. A counsel must be properly attired while appearing in court; abstain from any ornament or apparel likely to distract attention to the counsel, and prescribed dressing as follows:

  • For Superior Courts:

    • Men should wear a black or dark-blue two-piece or three-piece suit; a white collarless shirt; a white wing collar (the size should be bigger than shirt neck size, and two studs are required to hold the collar to the shirt); black shoes with black stockings; a white band (bib); and a wig and gown. 

    • Women should wear a black or dark blue straight dress or skirt and blouse or skirt and jacket with a white blouse; white collaret or ladies white band; black shoes; and a wig and gown.

  • For inferior courts:

    • Counsel need not wear a wig and gown, but they can wear any of the above-specified clothes.

Also, men may wear a white shirt and a long tie with a suit instead of a wing collar.