There had been much debate as to whether litigants who were dissatisfied with decisions of the National Industrial Court (NIC) in respect of civil matters that were not rooted in any breach of their constitutional fundamental rights, could have recourse to Nigerian appellate courts to have such decisions reviewed. This uncertainty was caused by an apparent ambiguity as to the meaning of Sections 240 and 243 (1) – (4) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) (the Constitution). The Supreme Court waded into the issue and settled with finality the position of the law on the point in its recent decision in the case of SKYE BANK PLC v. VICTOR ANAEMEM IWU decided on 30th June, 2017.
In that case Iwu, a former staff of Afribank Nigeria Plc was dismissed from his employment for gross misconduct. He subsequently instituted an action at the NIC in Lagos State against Mainstreet Bank Limited, the successor-in-title to Afribank Plc and subsequently Skye Bank Plc (the Bank) for wrongful termination of his employment amongst other reliefs. The Bank challenged the jurisdiction of the NIC to hear the action but lost. It therefore appealed to the Court of Appeal against the decision of the NIC on jurisdiction. During the pendency of the appeal, the Bank applied to amend its Notice of Appeal but was opposed by Iwu who contended that the Court of Appeal lacked the jurisdiction to entertain the appeal and consequently could not entertain the application to amend the notice of appeal. Iwu’s basis for the opposition was that the right of appeal from decisions of the NIC to the Court of Appeal was limited to fundamental rights issues and the Bank’s appeal did not come within that purview. The Bank as a result urged the Court of Appeal to refer, for interpretation by the Supreme Court, the question of its jurisdiction in respect of appeals from NIC.
The reference was necessitated by the conflicting interpretations, by two Divisions of the Court of Appeal, of Sections 240 and 243(1)-(4) of the Constitution as regards the appellate jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal to hear and determine appeals emanating from the decisions of the NIC. The Supreme Court in its judgment extensively reviewed the history of the NIC which culminated in the Third Alteration of the Constitution. The Supreme Court stated that by the third alteration to the Constitution, the appellate jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal was expanded, “subject to the provisions of the Constitution,” to include the hearing and determination of appeals from, among other Courts, the NIC. The Supreme Court further decided that on a holistic interpretation of Sections 240 and 243 (1) of the 1999 Constitution, all decisions of the NIC are appealable to the Court of Appeal: as of right in criminal matters and fundamental rights cases but with the leave of the Court of Appeal, in all other civil matters where the NIC has exercised its jurisdiction. The rationale for this is to prevent certain decisions of the NIC from being final for all purposes, as that would place the NIC on the same pedestal as the Supreme Court, contrary to the established hierarchy of the Nigerian judicial system.