The Judiciary: Meaning and Functions


The Judiciary: Meaning and Functions

The previous article examined the structure and types of the executive organ of government. It also highlighted the basic functions of the executive.

In this article, we shall examine the functions of the judiciary, as an important organ of the government, entrusted with the responsibility of interpreting the laws made by the Legislature and implemented by the executive.

However, for the judiciary to effectively discharge its basic functions of interpreting the laws and promoting justice, equity and fair-play, both the court and judges must be free from the influence of the government and powerful individuals.


Meaning of the Judiciary

Judiciary is defined as the branch of government responsible for interpreting the laws and administering justice. The foregoing definitions highlight certain essential attributes of the judiciary to include: Judges, courts of law and administration of justice.

The judiciary is the system of courts that adjudicates legal disputes/disagreements and interprets, defends, and applies the law in legal case.

Judiciary, branch of government whose task is the authoritative adjudication of controversies over the application of laws in specific situations.

Therefore, the judiciary is the arm of government that is vested with the judicial power - the power to construe and apply the law.

Functionally, the judiciary is a mechanism for the resolution of disputes and balancing of conflict of interests. 

By judiciary, we mean the court system of a country. The law-making power of the judiciary through the interpretation of the law and the principle of stare decision is also noteworthy.

In sum, the judiciary by the nature of powers vested in courts by the constitution stands between the government and the citizens. It is the last hope of the common man, the hope of the hopeless, the defender of the defenseless and upholder of the rule of law.

The Hierarchy of Courts in Nigeria

In Nigeria, a settled hierarchy of courts exists. Section 6 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) provides for the Nigerian judicial system as follows:

(i) The Supreme Court (the highest court in Nigeria).

(ii) The Court of Appeal, having as at present 17 Divisions in some states of the Federation.

(iii) Below the Court of Appeal are the following courts of co-ordinate jurisdiction: Federal High Court; High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja; National Industrial Court, Customary Court of Appeal and Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja; High Court of a State; Customary Court of Appeal and Sharia Court of Appeal of a State.

(iv) Below these courts are the Magistrates’ Courts and District Courts.

(v) The lowest courts are Customary and Area Courts. All the courts listed above are the regular courts.

There are also special courts like Courts-martial, Tribunals of Inquiry, Rent Tribunals, Coroners’ Courts, Juvenile Courts, etc. whose jurisdiction, rules, and operation are specially regulated by the laws establishing them.


Functions of the Judiciary

Important functions of the judiciary are contained in its definition i.e. justice administration and dispensation - is a minimum requirement of any government in maintaining law and order, peace and tranquility in the society.

However, depending on the political system, the followings could be itemized as the functions of the judiciary:

1. Adjudication

The judiciary adjudicates on disputes between states, between the state and individuals, between individuals and corporations or corporate entities, among others.

2. Interpretation of the Constitution

The judiciary is constituted as the ultimate interpreter of the constitution and to it is assigned to the delicate task of determining what is the extent and scope of the power conferred on each branch of government, what the limits on the exercise of such power under the constitution are and the determination of the question whether any action of any branch transgresses such limits. Precisely, the judiciary acts as the custodian of the constitution and the democratic process.

3. Judicial Review

Judiciary acts as checks on both executive and legislative arms of government in their actions/inactions of government or laws that are not consistent with the constitution to be declared as null and void.

For instance, President Olusegun Obasanjo signed into law a bill, which extended the tenure of elected local government councils, by one year, with retroactive effect. 

But the Supreme Court later annulled the Electoral Act with the effect that local councils were dissolved after the expiration of the statutory three-year tenure, as contained in the electoral Decree promulgated by the military, under which councils’ elections were conducted in 1999.


Judicial Independence

The independence of the judiciary means that the court and judges must be free from the influence of both the government and individuals in the discharge of their functions if justice is to be obtained.

However, in a state where judicial decisions are subject to the dictates of either the executive or legislative arms of government or both, there can hardly be justice.

Under this condition, it becomes difficult if not impossible for the citizens and non-citizens of the state to obtain justice.

Therefore, only courts, which are not tied to the whims and caprices of the executive; courts that are free from legislative pressure, political pressure, and even mob pressure can guarantee judicial independence.

Judicial independence, deducing from the preceding explanation, is when the judiciary is separated from the other arms of government and immune from partisanship or undue pressure from external bodies to impartially and expeditiously discharge, without fear or favour, its constitutional responsibilities.

To achieve this, the following conditions should prevail in the polity:

Security of Job

A secured and fixed tenure is very important for judges to make their appointment secured and free from unnecessary manipulation or intimidation by the Executive.

In Nigeria, a judge retires on the attainment of 65 years of age and their appointment is made on a permanent basis after meeting certain requirements.

Mode of Appointment

In some countries, judges are elected but this might make them liable to political pressures whimsicalities. But, in Nigeria and some other countries in the world, judicial officers are appointed by the president/governors on the recommendation of major stakeholders in the judiciary - National Judicial Council, and subject to ratification by the legislature.

Better Salaries/Emoluments

To ensure the independence of the judiciary, judges should be paid better salaries and allowances. This is not only to attract brilliant lawyers to the bench but also to distract them away from corruption and unethical practices.

In addition to this, salaries of the judiciary are to be charged on the first line i.e. consolidated fund, which no other arm of government could selfishly manipulate.


Read On: The Legislature: Origin, Types, Functions and Importance

Conclusion on the Judiciary: Meaning and Functions

The performance of justice administration and dispensation has rendered the judiciary an important organ in the organization of government. The courts of law have become the instruments through which the judiciary discharges its functions.

But for the judiciary to acquit itself creditably, the political environment within which it operates must be readily supportive, by providing the needed administrative and legal frameworks, as well as the requisite resources, without which the judiciary will suffer a deficit in both performance and credibility.

This article has examined the judiciary as a vital organ of government. We have in addition explained its role as an essential component in the organization of government, as well as the basic functions it variously performs.

The basic functions of the judiciary are justice administration and dispensation, which are the minimum requirements of any government in maintaining law and order, peace and security in the society.

Nonetheless, for the judiciary to perform its functions fairly and impartially, it must retain its independence from the other organs of government, although it is impossible to fully have it in absolute terms.

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