Is Customary Arbitration the Solution to Congestion of Cases in Courts?

It is no longer news that determination of disputes especially commercial disputes before Nigerian courts is not time efficient. The courts are usually congested and cases are subjected to too many adjournments. A litigant cannot reasonably predict the term of a case in court. Presently, the courts are not sitting because judiciary workers are on strike to demand financial autonomy for the judiciary. It is clear that the delay in resolving disputes in court makes the English model court system to be ineffective in meeting the demands for justice in Nigeria in the 21st century.

Customary arbitration was used to reach peaceful resolution of disputes in pre-colonial Nigerian societies. This made it easier for business and social relationships to be maintained in that era. The reason for this is that customary arbitration encouraged amicable settlement of disputes and the need to restore cordiality amongst members of the society. The rights and liabilities of the parties were not interpreted in isolation like in the current English system of litigation. The rights and liabilities of the parties were interpreted in accordance with the general social good of the society.

Interestingly, recently in Umeadi v Chibunze (2020) 10 NWLR (Pt. 1733) 405, the Supreme Court found that where parties who believe in the efficacy of juju, resort to oath-taking to settle a dispute, they are bound by the result and so the common law principles in respect of proof of title to land no longer applies since the proof of ownership of title to land will be based on the rules set out by the traditional arbitration resulting in oath-taking. The Court further stated that where customary arbitration is pleaded and proved, it is binding on the parties and capable of constituting estoppels.

The main difference between customary and modern arbitration is that while the former cannot be enforced as a judgment of court, the later can be enforced as a judgment with leave of court. However, if a customary arbitration award is pleaded and proved before a court of law, the parties cannot resile from it as it will be binding on them and create estoppel.

Customary arbitration is indigenous to Nigerian societies and has been part of our dispute resolution mechanism since time immemorial. It is more effective than the acrimonious and technical English model of litigation. Hence, the Bill before the National Assembly to amend the Arbitration and Conciliation Act should take cognisance of the benefits of customary arbitration and make provisions for it to coexist with domestic and international commercial arbitration.

In order to ensure its efficacy, a customary arbitration award should not be subjected to the principles of English law by the court testing whether the decision of the customary tribunal meets English law standards. This is because the history and composition of the English system of adjudication is different from customary arbitration in Nigeria.

It is settled law that parties are bound by the terms of their agreement. Litigants do not need to go to conventional courts to resolve all their disputes. If parties to a dispute subject themselves to customary arbitration before a religious or traditional leader, clan or village head or other persons they trust, they should naturally be bound by the decision of the person who they choose to resolve their dispute. This will in no small way decongest the courts, promptly resolve disputes and give Nigerians a sense of fulfilment in the justice delivery system in the country.

Indeed, the Supreme Court decision in Umeadi v Chibunze (supra) is a breath of fresh air and a welcome development. It is also a clarion call for Nigeria to go back to its roots and develop its own customary arbitration and indigenous dispute resolution mechanisms, culture and principles which will better serve the demands of Nigerians for a justice system which will serve them promptly and efficiently.

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