Understanding the Nigerian Court system

First things first, in Nigeria there are no juries in Nigerian courts. Nigeria uses a bench trial system instead, and this is where one person (or in the case of an appeal court, more than one person) sits to hear a case and listens to arguments from both sides and gives a judgement based on the conclusion reached.

So, let’s find out about the courts we have in Nigeria:

Inferior courts of record in the Nigerian Court system

The first set of courts are the inferior courts of record. Inferior courts are not inferior because they are substandard or low quality, they are inferior in the legal sense of the word because they are courts that are established by laws other than the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Area and Customary Courts

These are the courts that are established by individual States to apply to native law and custom prevailing within their judicial districts. In the Southern part of Nigeria, the courts are known as Customary while in the Northern part of Nigeria, they are called Area Courts.

Magistrate/District Courts

Magistrate courts and district courts are regarded as courts of inferior jurisdiction because they are bound by decisions of the higher courts, but their own decisions do not bind any court, and they are not bound by their own previous decisions. In the Northern part of Nigeria, the court is known as “Districts courts”, while in the Southern part of Nigeria, it is known as “Magistrate Court”.


Superior courts of record in the Nigerian Court system

The next set of courts are the superior courts of record, they have all been established by the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

State High Court.

The State High Court has the widest jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters. The High Courts have appellate jurisdiction over decisions of Magistrate Courts and District Courts. The jurisdiction of the State High Court is unlimited except for matters within the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court.

Federal High Court

The Federal High Court is a court of enumerated jurisdiction. Matters listed under section 251(1) of the Nigerian Constitution are within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal High Court. This includes jurisdiction over things like any legal action between one bank and another, any action by or against the Central Bank of Nigeria arising from banking, any action arising from the operation of the Companies and Allied Matters Act, any immigration offences etc.

*The High Courts are referred to as courts of co-ordinate jurisdiction and they are not explicitly bound by previous decisions of another High Court. At best, the decision of a High Court is persuasive on another High Court. However, it is not usual for a High Court to depart from another High Court’s decision, except where there is good cause to do so.

Sharia Court of Appeal and Customary Court of Appeal

The Sharia Court of Appeal hears appeals on matters of citizens that concern Islamic personal rights, and the Customary Court of Appeal hears appeals concerning civil proceedings that relate to customary law. The Customary and Sharia Courts of Appeal are not bound by judicial precedent as they are not of common law origin.

Court of Appeal

There is only one Court of Appeal in Nigeria, but it has a number of divisions across the country. The Court of Appeal is bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court. In civil matters, when dealing with a decision of the Court of Appeal in another division, the Court of Appeal is bound to a certain extent by that decision. However, in criminal matters, the Court of Appeal is not bound to follow the decisions of other divisions of the Court of Appeal, as each criminal case must be treated on its own merits.

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the highest court in Nigeria and its decisions are final and binding on all other courts throughout the country. The Supreme Court is not bound by the previous decisions of any other court. However, it follows its own previous decisions to maintain certainty and uniformity in the administration of justice. The Supreme Court can, however, choose to depart from its own previous decisions.

Specialist courts in the Nigerian Court system

We also have some specialist courts, which are courts created for specific areas, this is because the courts require judges with special knowledge of the issues that come up with that specific court.

  • National Industrial Court – The National Industrial Court of Nigeria is a court empowered to adjudicate trade disputes and labour practices.
  • Court Martial. This is a court established for the trial of members of the armed forces.
  • Coroners’ Court – This a court conducts an inquest into the cause of death of a person where the death is sudden or unnatural or occurs in a public place.
  • Juvenile Courts – The Juvenile Courts try young persons who are less than 18 years of age and are alleged to have committed a criminal offence.


Quasi-judicial bodies

Quasi-judicial refers to a proceeding conducted by an administrative or executive official or organization that is similar to a court proceeding, these include Tribunals and Commissions.

  • Tax Appeal Tribunal (TAT) – adjudicates on all tax disputes arising from the application of the various tax laws. Appeals from the TAT go to the Federal High Court.
  • Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT). – is responsible for hearing complaints of corruption by public servants for breaches of the Code of Conduct Bureau Tribunal Act (CCBTA). The CCBTA creates the offences of, and sanctions for, official corruption and other acts in breach of prescribed ethics for public officers. Appeals from the CCT go to the Court of Appeal.
  • Investment and Securities Tribunal (IST) – it adjudicates on all capital market and investments civil disputes as specified under the Investments and Securities Act. Appeals from this body go to the Court of Appeal.
  • Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Commission (LPDC) – is charged with the duty of considering and determining any case where it is alleged that a lawyer is guilty of professional misconduct. Appeals from the LPDC go to the Supreme Court.
  • Election Tribunals – they have jurisdiction to hear and determine petitions concerning whether a person has been validly elected into certain offices. Appeals from the Election Tribunals go to the Court of Appeal.


So there you have it, an explainer of the court system in Nigeria. Want to find out how to become a Judge? Read our article here – How to become a Judge in Nigeria



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