Funmilayo Odude, Legal Practitioner, Damod Law Practice

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The shameful misreporting of court ruling on marriages 14 Jan 2022

Last December, the media was awash with headlines that the Federal High Court had declared all marriages conducted in Ikoyi Registry in Lagos State and other federal marriage registries invalid. This was troubling for at least two reasons. The idea that the court, in one fell swoop, would invalidate millions of marriages without any consequential, preservative order was inconceivable. Moreover, the issue had already been subject of a judgment of the same court several years back. It, therefore, looked like yet another scenario of conflicting orders emanating from the same court.

The befuddling media report necessitated a statement from the Permanent Secretary and Principal Registrar of Marriages in the Federal Ministry of Interior, Shuaib Belgore. He referred to the earlier judgment and stated that “the current decision of the Federal High Court delivered by Hon. Justice D.E. Osiagor of Court 6, cannot set aside a previous decision of the same Court, which is of coordinate jurisdiction, as that would amount to the court sitting on appeal over its own judgment.” He further stated: “In the circumstances, the Federal Government through the Ministry of Interior, has applied for a certified true copy of the judgment and will take appropriate further action including but not limited to filing an appeal in respect of this conflicting and confusing decision, in line with the provisions of the Constitution.”

But as it turned out, even the Federal Ministry of Interior was misled by the headlines and news stories. The judgment in question actually held the opposite of what the media, including shamefully some legal blogs and websites, reported.

Before correcting the impact of the judgment in discourse, it is important to highlight that the role of the press in a democracy is so important that it is the only profession, outside of state organs, constitutionally recognized with its own duties in the fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy in the Constitution. Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) provides, “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people.”

We have always emphasized the importance of a free press, especially in a democracy like Nigeria’s where media practitioners are still subject to human rights violations and tyrannical maltreatments from state actors because of their work. It is, however, also important to highlight the importance of a skilled press. The media’s role in the development of our democracy is two-fold: providing the information required by the polity to make responsible and informed decisions; and in the words of the Constitution, upholding the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people. The media requires not just freedom but competence to achieve this.

One of the most popular aphorisms in legal jurisprudence is attributed to Lord Hewart, the then-Lord Chief Justice of England in the case of Rex v. Sussex Justices, [1924] 1 KB 256 where he said justice must not only be done but must also be seen to be done. One of the tests of the health of any democracy is the level of trust its citizens have in its judicial process. Citizens must see justice done to believe that they would get justice when they have their own in court. The reportage of the proceedings in the courts is, therefore, as important as the proceedings themselves.

Nigeria’s judicial process no doubt needs a lot of work to inspire confidence in its citizens, and while the judiciary cannot by any means be exculpated from responsibility for its current state (it does issue conflicting judgments and orders after all), the media’s role in accurately stating the decisions and activities of the courts cannot be over-emphasized. This is particularly the case in a country like Nigeria where a huge part of the population is illiterate or semi-literate and is prone to conspiracy theories.

On the state of marriages in Nigeria, in a judgment delivered by the Federal High Court on the 8th of June 2004 in the case of Prince L. Haastrup v. Eti-Osa Local Government Council, the Court had decided on whether it is only the local authorities which are to contract and register marriages to the exclusion of any other authority delegated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The Court held from its interpretation of the Marriage Act, the Marriage Act (Delegation of Powers) Notice, Legal Notice 44 of 1973 and the 1999 Constitution (as amended), that “…the power to issue or grant license to marry which was within the exclusive power of the Minister for Internal Affairs can now be carried out by the Director-General of the Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Director-General of a State Government and any officer in either the Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs or a State Ministry charged with the responsibility of marriage… Thus any marriage contracted or celebrated under the licence issued by any of the persons above are valid marriages and they carry the same weight.”

The court thus recognized three classes of authorities that can celebrate or contract marriages for intending couples: Registrars in places designated as an office; Recognized ministers of religion in a licensed place of worship; and marriage contracted under the license granted by the Director-General Ministry of Internal Affairs, Director-General of a state government in charge of marriages, any officer in the aforestated ministries and the Minister of Internal Affairs.

With respect to registration of marriages, however, the Court held that it is within the exclusive authority of the Registrar within the Marriage District (Local Government) in accordance with the provisions of section 30 (1) of the Marriage Act, Section 7(5) and paragraph 1(i) of the fourth schedule of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).

The judgment that was delivered on the 8th of December 2021 was in respect of a suit challenging the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Agreement entered between the Honourable Minister of Interior and a company called Anchor Dataware Solutions Limited, for the purpose of establishing marriage registries across the states of the Federation. Part of the obligations of the Minister of Interior under this agreement would be to direct the Nigerian Immigration Service to make the Federal Marriage Certificate an inclusive eligibility requirement for all married applicants for international passports.

The Minister of Interior had gone ahead to establish three federal marriage registries in Egor Local Government Council, Edo State; Owerri Municipal Local Government Council, Imo State; and Port-Harcourt City Local Government Council, Rivers State and had written to the Egor Local Government Council to obtain licences and approval from the Ministry of Interior. The Eti-Osa Local Government Council, Lagos State along with the three Local Government Councils where the new federal marriage registries were established therefore filed an action against the Minister of Interior alleging that his actions flouted the earlier judgment delivered on the 8th of June 2004. The Court, therefore, stated that the latter suit was “…not a re-litigation of the old issues or causes of action.” It was rather to enforce it.

Did the court invalidate any marriage licenses issued? No. The court held quite the opposite. First, the court condemned the actions of the Minister of Interior in attempting to centralize the conduct, contracting and registration of marriages as its exclusive repository as undermining the Constitution, flouting the earlier judgment of the court and an affront to the three tiers of Government that make up the Federation. The court, therefore, restrained the Minister of Interior from further contracting, celebrating, granting or issuing certificate of marriages and registering marriages under the Marriage Act within the Plaintiffs’ Local Government Council Areas except for marriages conducted in the Federal marriage registries in Ikoyi, Lagos State and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja as those registries predated the 1999 Constitution (as amended) and neither the Constitution nor any statute abrogated the then-existing Federal Marriage Registries structure.

It is ironic that the Ikoyi registry specifically mentioned by the court to be excluded made most of the headlines as the registry whose licenses were invalidated. In the quest to restore the dignity and faith in the courts and the system of administration of justice in the country, we must also consider how court proceedings are reported. Two immediate suggestions would be to make judgments of courts accessible to the public and to begin to hold clearly abhorrent misrepresentation of court proceedings as contempt of court.

Most law reports focus on appellate decisions, i.e., decisions of the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. High Courts and other lower courts can through technology make their judgments accessible, with or without a fee, on their virtual platforms. The National Industrial Court does this both virtually and physically. This serves as the tool for Nigerians who want to educate themselves on the true position in respect of any matter to have a valid source to do so. The Judiciary should have its own channels where it communicates with the public while still maintaining the decorum and conduct expected of judicial office.

Contempt proceedings are one of the most controversial proceedings in our legal jurisprudence, greatly affecting its effectiveness. Contempt of court goes beyond disobedience of court orders and includes any conduct that brings the authority and administration of justice into disrepute, scorn or disrespect. Our judicial authorities are agreed that it does not enure to the benefit of any society that is governed by the rule of law to allow the authority and dignity of the Courts to be eroded by unbecoming acts or behaviour.

Hence, the power to punish for contempt is inherent in courts of superior jurisdiction and it is quite independent of statutes. In this regard, there is a delicate balance to be struck between the freedom of the press to make fair comments, even criticisms on matters of public interest, on the one hand, and deliberate attempts to misrepresent and mischievously deceive the public on court proceedings with controversial headlines to get more readership, on the other. The jurisprudence will develop as we begin to dissuade the media malpractice.

The media must report with a keen understanding of its duty and role in building the faith of the citizens in the judicial process in Nigeria.

Funmilayo Odude is a Partner at Commercial and Energy Law Practice (CANDELP).