THE JURISDICTION OF THE NATIONAL INDUSTRIAL COURT IN NIGERIA REVIEWED

THE JURISDICTION OF THE NATIONAL INDUSTRIAL COURT IN NIGERIA REVIEWED

It is nearly inevitable that there would be disputes between workers (employees) and employers in a work environment. This necessarily flows from the fact that, where two or more people relate, it is highly likely that disputes would arise. Thus, no matter what machinery is put in place to avoid disagreements in the workplace, such machinery would unavoidably fail. What should concern the mind of all and sundry is how the disputes would be amicably resolved and peacefully settled in the event of disputes and conflicts? The preoccupation of all should be; what are the machineries provided by the law for the resolution of labour disputes, industrial conflicts and employment disagreements? This piece will simply examine the scope of the jurisdiction of the National Industrial Court (NIC) within the 1999 Constitutional framework and conclusively emphasize on the need for the court to stamp its authority as a foremost dispute resolution body with respect of labour disputes and conflicts within the Nigerian labour environment.

Be that as it may be, the law therefore established judicial institutions and bodies that would see to the amicable and functional settlement of industrial disputes by virtue of the enactment of the Trade Disputes Act.  Pursuant to the Trade Disputes (Amendment) Decree No. 47 of 1992, the National Industrial Court, a foremost industrial dispute resolution institution, was established. Furthermore, the establishment of the National Industrial Court was strengthened with the promulgation of the National Industrial Court Act 2006, which made it a superior court of record (see s1(3)(a)) and clothed it with the equivalent powers of a High Court (see S.1(3)(b))

These particular provisions of the National Industrial Court Act 2006 were in clear violation of Section6 (4)(a) and Section 6(5) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended). Section 6(4)(a) of the 1999 Constitution enables the National Assembly or state House of Assembly to establish a court with subordinate jurisdiction to that of a High Court while Section 6(5) contains a list of Nigeria’s superior courts of record, of which the National Industrial court was not one of them. As a result of this, there arose a question as to the clear standing and status of the court vis-à-vis the constitutionally-created superior courts of record and this question was resolved against the National Industrial Court by the Supreme Court in National Union of Electricity Employees v.  Bureau of Public Enterprises (2010) 7 NWLR (PT. 1194) 538. By that judgement, the National Industrial Court could not claim any exclusive jurisdiction on any matter to the exclusion of other superior courts of record because it was not recognised as ranking in any co-ordinate jurisdiction with any of the constitutionally-created superior courts of the land.

It was in these circumstances that the 1999 Constitution was amended to accommodate the National Industrial Court as one of the superior courts of record with co-ordinate jurisdiction with the High Court by virtue of Section 2 and Section 5(c) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Third Alteration) Act 2010. As a result of the alteration to the Constitution of Nigeria, the issue of the legality and constitutionality both as a superior court of record as well as a court with the equivalent powers of a High Court has been laid to rest.

The above background seems apposite with a view to laying down the appropriate foundation for discussing the jurisdiction of the National Industrial Court. Having done that, it is very apt to consider now the jurisdiction of the National Industrial Court as provided under the statutes and the Constitution. Initially,  the National Industrial Court by virtue of Section 7(1) of the National Industrial Court Act 2006 was vested with the exclusive jurisdiction in civil causes and matters relating inter alia to:

“labour, including trade unions and industrial relations…environment and conditions of work, health, safety and welfare  of  labour, and matters incidental thereof…the grant of any order to restrain person or body from taking part in any strike, lock-out or any industrial action or any conduct in contemplation or in furtherance of strike, lock-out or any industrial action…determination of any question as to the interpretation of any collective agreement…any award made by an arbitral tribunal in respect of a labour dispute or an organisational dispute…the terms of settlement of any labour, organisational dispute as may be recorded in any memorandum of settlement…any trade union constitution, and …any award of judgement of the court”.

This was the extent of the jurisdiction conferred upon the National Industrial Court (NIC) by the previous enabling National Industrial Court Act 2006. However, the jurisdiction of the court was taken over, overhauled and expanded pursuant to the amendment to the Constitution. Now, Section 254(c) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) stipulates that:

“…in addition to such other jurisdiction as may be conferred upon it by an Act of the National Assembly, the National Industrial Court shall have and exercise jurisdiction to the exclusion of any other court in civil causes and matters…relating to or connected with any labour, employment, trade unions, industrial relations and matters arising from workplace, the conditions of service, including health, safety, welfare of labour, employee, worker and matters incidental thereto or connected therewith…”

Apart from the matters specifically stated above, the National Industrial Court also retains exclusive jurisdiction in other subject matters as provided in Section 254(c) of the 1999 Constitution. It possesses jurisdiction in civil causes and matters pertaining to or connected with the following matters:

  1. Factories Act, Trade Disputes Act, Trade Unions Act, Labour Act, Employee’s Compensation Act or any other Act or Law relating to labour, employment , industrial relations, workplace or any other enactments replacing the Acts or Laws.
  2. The grant of any order restraining any person or body from taking part in any strike, lock-out or any other industrial action, or any conduct in contemplation or in furtherance of a strike, lock-out or any industrial action and matters connected therewith.
  3. Disputes over the Interpretation and application of the provisions of Chapter IV of this Constitution (containing Fundamental Human Rights) as it relates to any employment, labour, industrial relations, trade unionism, employers association or any other matter of which the court has jurisdiction to hear and determine.
  4. Disputes arising from National Minimum Wage for the Federation or any part thereof and matters connected therewith.
  5. Unfair labour practice or international best practices in labour, employment and industrial relation matters.
  6. Dispute arising from discrimination or sexual harassment at workplace.
  7. Application or interpretation of international labour standards.
  8. Child labour, child abuse, human trafficking or any other matter connected therewith or related thereto.
  9. Determination of any question as to the interpretation and application of any collective agreements, award or order of an arbitral tribunal in respect of  a trade dispute or trade union dispute, award or judgement of the court, term of settlement of any trade dispute, trade union dispute or employment dispute as may be recorded in a memorandum of settlement, trade union constitution, the constitution of an association of employers and any dispute arising from any free trade zone in the federation or any  part thereof.
  10. Dispute arising from payment or non-payment of salaries, wages, pensions, gratuities, allowances, benefits and any other entitlement of an employee, worker, political or public office holder, judicial officer or any civil or public servant in any part of the federation and matters incidental thereto.
  11. Appeals from the decisions of the Registrar of Trade Unions and from the decisions or recommendations of any administrative body or commission of enquiry arising from or connected with employment, labour, trade unions or industrial relations, and
  12. Registration of collective agreements.

In addition to the jurisdiction conferred upon the court as stated above, the court also “ shall have the jurisdiction and powers to deal with any matter connected with or pertaining to the application of any international convention, treaty or protocol of which Nigeria has  ratified relating to labour, employment, workplace, industrial relations or matters connected therewith”.  This is well provided for in Section 254 (c)(2)  of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999.

The above mentioned jurisdiction remains the exclusive preserve of the National Industrial Court. However, the court is also invested with supervisory and appellate powers and jurisdiction. The proviso to Section 254(c)(3) is to the effect that nothing shall preclude the National Industrial Court from entertaining and exercising appellate and supervisory jurisdiction over an arbitral tribunal or commission, administrative body or boards of inquiry in respect of any matter that the National Industrial Court has jurisdiction to entertain or any other matter as may be prescribed by the Act of the National Assembly or any other law in force in Nigeria. In line with the growing trend of adopting an Alternative Dispute Resolutions (ADR) method in  resolving disputes among parties,  the National Industrial Court is enjoined by the provisions of Section 254(C)(3) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) to establish an Alternative Disputes Resolutions Centre within the court premises on matters which jurisdiction is conferred on the court by this Constitution.

In addition, the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) also vested the court  with powers and jurisdiction to entertain criminal causes and matters arising from any cause or matter of which jurisdiction is conferred on the National Industrial Court by the Constitution or any other Act of the National Assembly or any other  law. This is provided for in Section 254(C) (5) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). The court shall also have and exercise jurisdiction and powers to entertain an application for the enforcement of the award, decision, ruling, or order made by an arbitral tribunal or commission, administrative body, or board of inquiry relating to, connected with, arising from or pertaining to any matter of which the National Industrial Court has the jurisdiction to entertain.

Any decision of the National Industrial Court is subject to appeal at the higher courts, that is, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court under certain circumstances. Section 243(2) of the Constitution stipulates that “an appeal shall lie from the decision of the National Industrial Court as of right to the Court of Appeal on questions of fundamental rights as contained in Chapter IV of this Constitution as it relates to matters upon which the National Industrial Court has jurisdiction”. Also, in respect of criminal causes and matters of which the National Industrial Court is conferred with jurisdiction, appeal shall lie as of right to the Court of Appeal.

Having examined the scope of jurisdiction exercisable as provided by the Constitution, it must be stated at this juncture that the National Industrial Court has come to stay as the foremost judicial institution and machinery for the resolution of all disputes relating to or connected with labour, employment, industrial relations and work environment. As a matter of fact, it has left the status of being a court with jurisdiction subordinate to other superior courts of record with quite limited jurisdiction as once conferred upon it by the enabling and establishing statute. As at now, it is constitutionally recognised as a superior court of record which ranks in parri passu with the Federal High Court possessing equal and co-ordinate jurisdiction with very wide and expanded original and appellate jurisdiction. In this sense, the court must forever stamp its authority on the Nigerian labour terrain as a very functional judicial body delivering monumental judicial pronouncements and laying ground-breaking precedents on novel cases which would ultimately form the bedrock and foundation of the labour law and practice in Nigeria. With the expanded jurisdiction conferred on it and the elevated status placed on it, it is hoped that the court will deliver on such great mandate and high expectations and ultimately become a reference point in the Nigerian judicial system.

Ojo Oluwaseun Viyon

Ojo Oluwaseun Viyon is a graduate of law from Lagos State University (LASU), Ojo, Nigeria