A Critique of the Application of the Principles of Natural Justice in Disciplinary Action in Nigerian Universities

A Critique of the Application of the Principles of Natural Justice in Disciplinary Action in Nigerian Universities

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The requirement of the principles of natural justice in the Universities disciplinary action has received much attention from the Courts in the recent time. The Court interventionin the administrative determination of the Universities hascreated a lot of uncertainties and confusion. In fact, the extent, scope and limit of the Universities‟ power to punish student for misconduct is mostly unclear. This problem is so far-reaching that the University decision-makers are often confused as to practical steps to follow or what standard of natural justice they should observe in their disciplinary process.Objectives of the work include theappraisal of the University disciplinary jurisdiction vis-à-vis court of competent jurisdiction in trying University students for misconduct. This work is motivated by the unusual raise in the student-university litigations in Nigeria. The study focused on the importance of University disciplinary system and remedies as a much better way of resolving University disciplinary matters. It employed the doctrinal method of research to critically examine the application of the principles of natural justice in disciplinary action in Nigerian Universities and its effect on the institutional administrative expediency and efficiency. This research produced a number of findings:the application of the principles of natural justice to the University disciplinary actions are too demanding for the University Disciplinary Authorities;students and staff, despite the internal redress mechanism in the University forum, still resort to the court of law for redress. Based on the findings, it is recommended that the observation of the basic principles of natural justice should be sine qua non to discipline of student in Nigerian Universities. It is no longer sufficient for a University to discipline a student where it appears to the Vice-chancellor that such a student has been guilty of misconduct. Any student facing a disciplinary penalty, must know the case against him/her, the student must be given an opportunity to correct or contradict the evidence that have been made in support of the case, the University authority must make its decision without a reasonable apprehension of bias. In order to avoid the cost and minimize the number of lawsuits mushrooming in our Universities, it is crucial that University administrators understand the law, disciplinary due                                       process              and                          follow               it.



1.1 Background to the Study

Disciplinary action of whatever nature must be carried out according to the dictate of law. This is

one of the pillars of the rule of law. Statutes always provide procedures to be followed before a

person is disciplined. These procedural requirements are provided in the statutes to enable the

authority exercising the power under such statutereach a conclusion that is fair, justand reasonable.

Where these procedures are ignored, irrespective of the fairness of the power exercised, the court

will hold that the law has not been obeyed andthe power exercised, is a nullity.1

One of the legal requirements for a valid exercise of disciplinary action is the observation of

natural justice principles. The doctrine of Natural justice has, over the years, crystalized into two

maxims: Audi alteram partem meaning that nobody should be condemned unheard. Nemo judex in

causa sua which means that a man should not be a judge in his own cause. The most frequent

cause of judicial interference with the exercise of administrative powers is a disregard of these

principles of natural justice. Many of the cases of disciplinary actions in Nigerian Universities

were often reviewed against the Universities by the courts, consequently nullified as a result of

their failure to recognise and observe the principles of natural justice.

Natural justice, apart from being the “law of GOD”2, has alsofound expression in the Constitution

of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999 Constitution).Section 36 (1) provides:

In the determination of his civil rights and obligations, including any question or determination by or against any government or authority, a person shall be entitled

1Board of Inland Revenue vs Joseph Rezcallah and Sons Ltd. (1961) W.N.L.R. 32, see also the dictum of Oputa JSC at page 618 in the case of Garba & Ors. vs University of Maiduguri & Ors. (1986) 1 NWLR (Pt.18) 550

2R vs Cambridge University(Dr Bentley's Case)(1723) 1 Stra. 557 where Fortescue, J said: “The laws of God and man both give the party an opportunity to make his defence. If he has any. I remember to have heard it observed by a very learned man upon such occasion, that even God himself did not pass sentence upon Adam, (say God) where art thou? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou should not eat? And the same question was put to Eve too.‟‟


to a fair hearing within a reasonable time by a court or other tribunal established by law and constituted in such manner as to secure its independence and impartiality.

The effect of this provision is that, even where there is no statutory provision allowing a person,

who is under „trial‟ to be heard in an institution‟s law, such person must nonetheless, be given the

opportunity to present his case and be heard in accordance with the provision of the Constitution. It

has long been established that administrative authorities/tribunals are bound to observe the

principle of natural justice and right to fair hearing in the discharge of their judicial and quasi-

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