In a bid to provide quick access to justice and justice delivery while also promoting businesses and investment in Nigeria, the Lagos State judiciary on 23rd April, 2018, established special courts known as the Small Claims
Courts. Small Claims Courts generally are courts with limited jurisdiction to hear civil cases in disputes that do not involve large amounts of money.
The Small Claims Courts established in Lagos are to operate in the magisterial districts of the magistrate courts and adjudicate on claims not exceeding Five Million Naira, excluding interest and costs. Fifteen magistrate courts have been designated as Small Claims Courts within the five judicial divisions in the State.
The objective of the courts is to provide easy access to an informal, inexpensive and speedy resolution of simple debt recovery disputes in the Magistrates’ Courts and to fast track justice delivery in commercial disputes involving small claims.
The Lagos State Small Claims Court Practice Directions 2018 (Practice Directions) have been published in respect of these courts stipulating the procedures to follow in instituting an action. The Practice Directions are to apply in these Small Claims Courts and also in the High Court when sitting over appeals from the decisions of the Small Claims Court. Article 12 (2) of the Practice Directions provides for the time frame of 60 days for the entire period of proceedings from the first hearing date till judgment is delivered. Such a time frame ensures a fast and efficient system with sanctions for default.
The procedure for commencing an action in the Small Claims Court is simple and inexpensive. This is due to the fact that the procedure has been reduced into forms simply to be filled and filed. The Practice Directions also provide that the litigants can represent themselves.
Where a party is aggrieved and wishes to challenge the decision of a Small Claims Court, he is to appeal to the High Court of Lagos State.
In view of the provisions of the Practice Directions, questions arise as to whether a claimant is compelled to file his claim in the small claims court even if the claim falls within the threshold of Five Million Naira.
Again, would a Claimant be allowed to reduce his actual claim to fit the requirements of this venue? Where a Claimant is willing to accept less than the full amount he would have claimed, can such a case be brought to the Small Claims Court?
The tenor of Article 2(1) of the Practice Directions does not seem to compel a Claimant to bring an action in the small claims court even if his claim falls within the limit. This is because Article 2(1) of the Practice Directions uses the word “may” to describe the circumstances under which a claim can be filed in the small claims court. These include the circumstance where the claim is for “a liquidated monetary demand in a sum not exceeding N5,000,000 (Five Million Naira), excluding interest and costs”
The implication of this is that a Claimant need not bring an action in the Small Claims Court even though his claim is for Five Million Naira or a lesser sum. Such an action could still be brought in the regular Magistrate Court without necessarily being brought before the Small Claims Court.
Moreso, in view of the provision of Article 6(2) of the Practice Directions that allows a Counterclaimant to bring a counterclaim which does not exceed N10,000,000 (the general limit of Magistrate courts) in a small claims action as well as the provision of Order 8 Rule 4 of the Magistrates’ Courts (Civil Procedure) Rules that allows a claimant to abandon part of his claim, it may be open to a Claimant with a claim higher than N5,000,000 to abandon a part of it for the purpose of bringing his claim within the purview of the small claims court.
In conclusion, Lagos State has this year been in the forefront in terms of judicial reforms, first with the Rape and Sexual Offences Court established earlier in the year and more recently, the Small Claims Court. It is hoped that other States in the Federation will see these as examples worthy of emulation in order to accelerate the dispensation of justice.