The structure of the judiciary varies from country to country. Written constitutions usually contain provisions which provide for the structure of the judicial system and the jurisdiction of each court within it. The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, for example, even specifies the number of judges in each court. In spite of the differences in systems of law, every state organizes its courts in a hierarchical structure.
Structure of the Judicial System (Nigeria)
The structure and system of the Judiciary branch of government are explained below:
Courts of Summary Jurisdiction
The courts of summary jurisdiction are sometimes called minor courts. They are at the base of the hierarchy. The main function of the minor courts is to settle minor disputes and to try and pass sentence upon persons accused of minor offences such as assault and battery. The minor courts in Nigeria include magistrate courts, customary courts and sharia courts.
Courts Of General Jurisdiction
The next level of the court system consists of courts of general jurisdiction. These courts try persons accused of crimes and hear important civil cases. These are also called courts of record. This means that they keep complete and accurate statements of testimonies and proceedings, which may be reviewed by higher courts if a case is appealed.
The courts at this level may be specialized criminal, commercial, probate and other divisions.
The courts of general jurisdiction in Nigeria include the Federal High Court, High Court of the State, High court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, the Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, the Customary Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. the Sharia Court of Appeal of a state, the Customary Court of Appeal of a state and election tribunals.
Intermediate Appellate Courts
The intermediate appellate courts lie between the courts of record and the Supreme Court. These courts hear appeals and review the proceedings in cases originally tried and decided in courts of record. In all appellate courts, each case is heard by several judges e.g three or five or seven).
The Federal Court of Appeal of Nigeria is a superior court of record established on 1st October, 1976. The court comprises the President and at less than forty-nine Justices of the Court of Appeal.
At the apex of the judicial structure is the Supreme Court which has final jurisdiction to decide all cases which may be brought before it by appeal or otherwise. Most of the cases at the Supreme Court are brought before it by writ of certiorari (application for review of the decision of a lower court). Through its appellate jurisdiction, a Supreme Court maintains uniformity in the application of the law throughout the country.
The Supreme Court of Nigeria was first established under the 1963 Constitution. The 1999 Constitution provides for the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and not more than 21 other Justices of the Supreme Court. The appointment of the Chief Justice and the Justices of the Supreme Court is made by the President on the recommendaticns of the National Judicial Council and the appointment is subject to continuation by the Senate.
Appointment And Election Of Judges
There are two main ways by which judges are selected. These are by appointment and election. In liberal democratic countries like the USA, Britain, France and Germany, the government appoints judges. In Britain, the US and Nigeria, judges (those above magistrates) are appointed by the government from among the ranks of practising lawyers.
Appointment of judges may result in a partisan judiciary or a judiciary, which is ever ready to pander to the dictates of the executive. The independence of the judiciary is guaranteed both in theory and practice though judges may work to protest their class interests.
In the impeachment of the governors of Oyo, Ekiti, Plateau and Anambra States in 2006, for example, the Chief Judge of the respective states failed to exercise their discretion judiciously. The unnecessary delays, adjournment and frustration being experienced in the trial of corrupt poIiticians raises question about the method of appointment of judges and the effectiveness of the legal system itself.
Judges in the lower courts in some states in the USA are elected. In the former Soviet Union and some socialist states, judges were directly elected by the people. Since the electoral process in the socialist states is dominated by the Communist Party, the judiciary tends to be a mere passive agent of the government.
Election of judges may produce incompetent judges as candidates of proper calibre may be reluctant to submit themselves to election by voters who may have little or no knowledge of what the qualities of a judge should be. The system may weaken respect for judges.
It may however make the judiciary more responsive to the electorate or the particular group that controls the elections.