By Henry Ojelu
INTERPRETING what someone else has written is no mean job especially when the writer and the interpreter have no common meeting point but that is exactly what law courts do every day. Justices, judges and magistrates sit in their hallowed chambers on daily basis to interpret the constitution and other laws made by the legislature to govern the proper conduct of people in society.
This is in line with the constitution which has laid out the functions and role of each of the three arms of government-Executive, Judiciary and Legislature. While these arms of government work together to ensure peaceful co-existence among the citizenry, the role of the judiciary and by extension, the court is however unique in the sense, that the task of interpreting what the laws of the land means, rests squarely on its shoulders.
In carrying out this function, the judiciary must among other things, understand the true intentions of the lawmakers. The court, must as a matter of necessity interpret the constitution and statutes in sync with the intention of the lawmakers who enacted such laws.
Hard as the legislature tries to ensure that possible loopholes are avoided and that the language of statutes is unequivocal, ambiguities are sometimes unavoidable. In the resolution of disputes and determination of rights, situations arise where words employed by legislators are ambiguous or sometimes of different meaning. In deciding several cases, courts have had to determine the meaning of such words like may, shall, from, on and within, in deciding the true intentions and proper interpretation of the law.
Numerous approaches in interpreting the law
Over time, courts have adopted numerous approaches in interpreting the law and arriving at far reaching judgments.
These approaches are however relatively unknown to parties especially as the court does not owe parties any explanation as to the particular approach it adopted in arriving at its decisions. Perhaps it is in response to this challenge, that former Chief Judge, Federal High Court, Justice Rose.N Ukeje undertook the task of examining and elucidating the numerous approaches adopted by the courts in interpreting the constitution and statutes.
From a general assessment, this book “Intrinsic and extrinsic aids to interpretation of the constitution and statutes” could not have come at a better time when the challenge of proper interpretation and application of certain aspects of the constitution continues to dominate public discourse. With 13 years of early experience as a legal draftswoman and over 40 years of experience as a judge, there is no better authority to speak on the approaches and methods of interpreting the constitution and statutes than Justice Ukeje.
The author unarguably brings her wealth of local and international experience as a jurist to bear on the book. Reading through the 225-page book, one is thrilled about the dexterity and expertise with which every issue is treated with references to decided cases which further reinforces the points being made.
The first chapter of the book gives a general understanding of the process of making laws, statutes and contractual document and cited several cases to buttress the point that all that law courts do is to interpret the laws as intended by the law makers.
The author emphasized that the purpose of interpreting the words of a statute is to seek to ascertain the intention of the legislature and to provide a key to unlock the elusive and obscure intention of the legislature in inserting the clause. Citing various pronouncements from several erudite jurists, the author stressed that it is not the business of the court to input its own meaning to the wording and letters of any legislation but to uphold the true intention of law makers.
The historical evolution of the Nigerian constitution remains one of the most common subjects written on by academic authors. Perhaps, mindful of this, the author in chapter two, employs a completely different narrative is retelling the Nigerian constitution evolution history. She not only undertook a voyage of Clifford, Richard, Macpherson, Lyttleton constitutions but she also disserted the spirit and intention of the Independent, Republican, Presidential and the current 1999 constitution. Reading through the author’s captivating recast of constitutional history, elicits nostalgia of the nation’s quest for a true constitution.
Chapter three of the book considers the fundamental canons of interpretation, which are the literal rules, the golden rule, the mischief rule and ejusdem generis rule. Aside explaining each of the rules and giving copious instances where courts have applied same in resolving numerous disputes, the book also examines the basic assumptions that should guide every court in construing statutes.
In this respect, the book presents such assumptions against existing laws, repeal, strict criminal liabilities, deprivation of property, ouster of jurisdiction and retrospectivity. Also in this chapter, the reader is introduced for the first time, to the core theme of the book: intrinsic and extrinsic materials available to the court for interpretation of various provisions of the law.
To give readers a practical understanding of application of the various procedures of interpretation of the constitution, the book in chapter four, examines a cursory look into various approaches adopted by jurists in interpreting particular sections of the 1999 constitution.
Using the classical case of A.G Lagos State v. A.G Federation where two constitutional issues as to whether the Lagos State Government had the power to create new local government and whether the President can withhold the statutory allocation from the federation account, arose for determination before the Supreme Court.
The book revealed how Justice Kutigi J.S.C in giving a liberal interpretation of the relevant provision of the constitution, held that nowhere in the constitution is the president expressly or impliedly authorized to suspend or withhold the statutory allocation payable to Lagos State Government. Scores of similar cases in which the court adopted numerous approaches in interpreting the wordings of the constitution for the purpose of deciding various suits that bordered on serious constitutional issues were adequately disserted.
In chapters five and six of the book, interpretation of specific statutes, subsidiary legislation, bye-laws, contractual agreements and deeds are examined. In the last chapter of the book, the author examines over 50 technical and knotty words which often clog the wheel of effective interpretation of statutes in Nigeria. She puts into perspective the definition and interpretation of those words with the hope of aiding the courts in the interpretation of the provisions of contractual agreements, subsidiary legislation, statutes and the constitution.
The book is unique in several aspects. Foremost, its scope covers a number of complex legal issues. Secondly, it also deftly examines the use of the Interpretation Act (Cap LFN 1999) and Evidence Act in the interpretation of constitutional and statutory provisions. The book also runs a full commentary on the constitution with a view of providing the reader with not only an at-a-glance overview of the provisions of the constitution and statutes, but also the philosophy behind the making of legislative rules.
Unlike other authors writing on same subject matter, Justice Ukeje did not attempt to engage in the legalism or inappropriateness of any of the approaches of interpretation of the constitution. Like a teacher of law, she merely educated the readers on the approaches judges adopt in giving meaning to the wording of the constitution and statutes.
In the foreword of the book written by Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen, GCON, the erudite jurist had this to say.” ….perhaps the most intriguing part of the book apart from its title is the apt use of constitutional, statutory and judicial authorities to emphasize and support the judicial opinions stated in the book.
The book kept me thinking that lawyers and constitutional law stakeholders (and others of course) who will have the opportunity of referring to the book in their daily work, will perforce, have access to a wealth of information relating to the history and interpretation of the constitution and diverse statutes. I congratulate Hon. Justice R.N Ukeje, OFR, for providing this rich erudite work that would, in my opinion, occupy a kingly position in every scholarly library.”
The book, which is highly recommended for every court, legislative chambers, law schools and department, students and even lay men who continually seek knowledge to become more enlightened about issues of law, especially the aspect of interpretation will be launched tomorrow in Abuja.