LIMITATION OF ACTION IN NIGERIA
In Nigeria, there are limitations applicable to various litigation, so it is necessary to understand the statute of limitations before going to court. The statute of limitations is a law that defines the period during which a lawsuit can be brought in court. And when the period specified in any statute of limitations has passed, it means that the lawsuit will no longer be filed because it will become prohibited by law.
The statute of limitations (where applicable) invalidates a person’s right to seek legal redress.
In the case of Mercantile Bank of Nig. Plc. v. FETECO (Nig) Ltd. (1998) 2 NWLR (PT. 540) 143 at 156-157, Tobi JCA explained the matter lucidly thus:
“A Statute on Limitation of action is designed to stop or avoid situations where a plaintiff can commence action any time he feels like doing so, even when human memory would have normally faded and therefore failed. Putting it in another language, by the Statutes of limitation, a plaintiff has not the freedom of the air to sleep or slumber and wake up at his own time to commence an action against a defendant. The different Statutes of Limitation which are essentially founded on the principles of equity and fair play will not avail such a sleeping or slumbering plaintiff. He will be stopped from commencing the action and that is a just and fair situation. A plaintiff who suddenly wakes up from a very deep sleep only to remember that the defendant had wronged him, can, I think, be rightly ‘greeted’ by the defendant with the appropriate limitation statute, waving same to him as a basis for redress…….”
The importance of having a limitation is to ensure that all claims are made diligently and in a timely manner while the evidence is still available, and the memory of the witness is still fresh.
- HOW TO DETERMINE IF AN ACTION IS STATUTE BARRED AND THE PERIOD OF LIMITATION
In INEC v. Ogbadibo Local Government & Ors (2015) LPELR-24839 (SC), the Supreme Court set out the yardstick for determining whether an action is statute-barred thus:
- The date when the cause of action accrued;
- The date of commencement of the suit as indicated in the writ of summons;
- Period of time prescribed to bring an action to be ascertained from the statute in question
- CLAIMS AND LIMITATION PERIODS.
The limitation period is the creation of regulations, so the limitation laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The statute of limitations for each state stipulates the time frame within which actions can be initiated.
Each state’s statute of limitations stipulates the time frame within which actions can be taken, and each subject has its own statute of limitations.
Below are some of the limitation periods for subject matters and the law applicable to same in Lagos and Abuja.
- Action founded on simple contract: It must be commenced within 6 (six) years of its occurrence
See the Section 7 Limitation Act, Abuja and Section 8(1)(a) Limitation Law, Lagos.
- Action for damages for negligence: It must be commenced within 3 (three) years of its occurrence
See Section 8(1), Limitation Act, Abuja and Section 9 Limitation Law, Lagos.
- Action for damages for slander: It must be commenced within 3 (three) years of its occurrence. See Section 9, Limitation Act, Abuja and Section 10, Limitation Law, Lagos
- Action upon instrument under seal: It must be commenced within 12 (twelve) years of its occurrence. This is provided for Section 11, Limitation Act, Abuja and Section 12, Limitation Law, Lagos
- Action by the state authority to recover land: It must be commenced within 20 (twenty) years by virtue of Section 16, limitation law Lagos. Such an action must be commenced within 12 (twelve) years in Abuja by virtue of Section 15 Limitation Act Abuja.
However, Section 68 of Limitations Law of Lagos State Ch. L.84, Laws of Lagos State of Nigeria provides as follows:
“Subject to the provisions of subsection (2) of this section, this Law will not apply to actions in respect of any matter which, immediately before the commencement of this Law, was regulated by customary law.“
In essence, Section 68 (1) of Limitations Law of Lagos State Ch. L.84, Laws of Lagos State of Nigeria appears to exclude the application of limitation law to land held under customary law.
- Actions for recovery of land (Individual): It must be commenced within 12 (twelve) years.
- Actions against public officers: It must be commenced within 3 (three) months by virtue of Section 2(a) Public Officers Protection Act.
The provision of the law for commencing an action against a public officer within 3 months was affirmed in the case of PODO V GOMBE STATE GOVERNMENT AND OTHERS (CA/J/231/2014 ) NGCA 33 where the Court of Appeal held as follows:
“From the above it follows that Plaintiff’s suit whatever its merit may in fact be, is caught by Section 2(a) of the Public Officers (Protection) Law having filed more than three months after the act complained of. The Preliminary Objection is therefore upheld and the suit struck out for want of Jurisdiction”
- Political cases
Pursuant to the Section 2 (9) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Fourth Alteration), “every pre-election matter shall be filed not later than 14 days from the date of the occurrence of the event, decision or action complained of in the suit”.
Consequent to the above provision of the Constitution, any lawsuit in respect of pre-election matters must be filed within 14 days of such event or act.
An appeal from pre-election matter shall be filed within 14 days from the date of delivery of judgement in accordance with Section 2 (11) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Fourth Alteration).
Furthermore, by virtue of Section 285 (5) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended): “an action petition shall be filed within 21days after the date of the declaration of result of the elections”.
By virtue of the above provisions of law, any election petition not filed 14 days after the declaration of result shall become statute-barred; it implies it can no longer be filed again.
The Section 285 (5) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) further provides that an appeal arising from the decision of any Election Tribunal shall also be filed, heard and disposed of within 60 days from the date of the delivery of the judgement of the tribunal or Court of Appeal.
- EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE OF CLAIMS AND LIMITATION PERIODS
It is trite law as illustrated in the case of Aremo Ii v. Adehenye (2004) 42 WRN 1 at 21, that:
“Legal principles are not always inflexible. Sometime they admit of certain exceptions. The Law of Limitation of action recognizes some exception, Thus where there has been continuance of the damage, a fresh case of action arises from time to time as often as damage is caused…”
The most common exceptions to the limitation periods are:
- In cases of fraud,
- Where there appears to be a mistake or error,
- Where an infant was involved as the time the cause of action arose,
- Where the party involved is in a state of unsound mind,
- Where the legal action is regulated by customary law.
Knowing the statute of limitation of an action before its commencement in court will save an individual from stress, time and having his matter thrown out of court before its commencement.
The basis for implementing the Limitation of Actions law is to ensure any person whose right has been breached and require a legal redress do so timeously, and not when human memory would have ordinarily faded in respect of such matter.
Furthermore, some limitation laws are put in place to limit number of lawsuits, especially as it affects public officials and agencies.
By Litigation Law Team at Resolution Law Firm