In a case where an applicant brought an application for contempt of court urging the court to take the contempt proceeding committed in the face of the court, the court exercised its discretion by taking the committal proceeding.
Contempt of court is an affront or challenge to the authority and dignity of the court. It can be either contempt ex facie curiae or contempt in facie curiae and the court has different procedures for dealing with each type of contempt.
In certain situations, the court would be required to react swiftly and promptly in order to protect its dignity and to avoid damage caused by unnecessary delays. In this case, there was a threat to the dignity of the court.
Where an issue of jurisdiction is raised by a party, the court has a duty to settle that issue one way or the other before it proceeds to hear a case. The reason is that jurisdiction is a radical and crucial question of competence. Either the court has jurisdiction to hear the case or not. If it has no jurisdiction, the proceedings are and remain a nullity no matter how well conducted and brilliantly decided they might otherwise have been. Thus, a court should take up and deal expeditiously with an issue of jurisdiction before proceeding further in a case. However, where an act that would impugn the majesty of a court, and likely to bring the court to odium and disrespect is done, it is not just desirable but essential for the court to first look into the matter of contempt before proceeding on the issue of jurisdiction because it is the duty of the court, at all times, to guard jealously its powers and should give first consideration to committal proceedings even when it is faced with the question of its competence to adjudicate on a matter from which the contempt issue arose.
The court has the discretion whether or not to deal first with an issue of the jurisdiction where contempt of court is also alleged in a suit.
In Brittania-U (Nig.) Ltd. v. Seplat Pet. Dev. Co. Ltd. (2016) 4 NWLR (Pt. 1503) 541 at 610, paras. E-G, the Supreme Court held;
“A court is naked and exposed without jurisdiction. It is therefore the general rule to determine jurisdiction first whilst it is an exceptional rule to take steps in defending or protecting the authority of the court first before determining an issue of its jurisdiction.”
See also; John Ebhodaghe v. Mike Okoye (2004) 18 NWLR (Pt. 905) 472, S.C.
The Court of Appeal in Chukwuogor v. Chikwuogor (Nig.) Ltd. (2007) 17 NWLR (Pt. 1064) 589 at 604, paras. B-D also held;
“What would have been an exception to the general rule of giving priority to the question of jurisdiction is the entertainment of a contempt proceeding committed in the face of the court. The reason for allowing such priority in the case of contempt in the face of the court is to demonstrate to the public that the court, being the creature of the Constitution vested with the constitutional duty to decide cases between all manner of litigants, can protect its dignity and would not allow the legislative or the executive arm of government or a citizen to brazenly do an act that would diminish the powers of administration of justice duly vested by the Constitution and the common law in the court.
Consequently, paramountcy ought generally be given by way of priority of proceedings to contempt in the face of the court when the issue of contempt and jurisdiction collide for adjudication.”
The fact that there is no hard and fast rule as to how the court should handle the exception in such a situation but the circumstances of each case should determine which way the court should go is paramount.
LEGAL TIPS is anchored by Ms CIA Ofoegbunam, an Abuja-based lawyer who is passionate about legal practice.LEGAL TIPS offers quick hints on substantive law, as well as rules of practice and procedure, and serves as a handy reference guide to lawyers, especially in court.Published on a weekly basis, the LEGAL TIPS Series is CIA’s modest contribution to legal development in Nigeria.