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THREE RULES OF STATUTORY INTERPRETATION

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Specifically, there are three main rules of statutory interpretation: (a) the Literal Rule: where the words are plain and unambiguous, they must be given their natural and ordinary meaning, unless to do so would lead to absurdity. The plain words used by the legislature provide the best guide to their intention. See:Adewumi & Anor. Vs A.G. Ekiti State (2002) 2 NWLR (Pt.751) 474; A.G. Lagos State Vs Eko Hotels & Anor. (2006) 18 NWLR (Pt.1011) 378; Ojokolobo Vs Alamu (1987) 3 NWLR (Pt.61) 377; Sani Vs The President FRN & Anor (2020) LPELR – 50990 (SC) @ 22 – 23 D -A. (b) The Golden Rule: Where the use of the Literal Rule would lead to absurdity, repugnance or inconsistency with the rest of the statute, the ordinary sense of the words may be modified so as to avoid the absurdity or inconsistency, but no further. See: General Cotton Mill Ltd. Vs Travellers Palace Hotel (supra); Grey Vs Pearson (1857) 6 HLC 61 @ 106; PDP & Anor Vs INEC (1999) 7 SC (Pt. II) 30; Saraki Vs FRN (2016) 1 – 2 SC (Pt. V) 59. (c) The Mischief Rule: Formulated and laid down in Heydon’s Case 3 Co. Rep. 7a @ 7b as follows: (i) “What was the common law before the making of the Act? (ji) What was the mischief and defect for which the common law did not provide? (iii) What remedy the Parliament hath resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the commonwealth? and (iv) The true reason of the remedy; and then the office of all the judges is always to make such construction as shall suppress the mischief and advance the remedy …”

— K.M.O. Kekere-Ekun JSC. Umeano v. Anaekwe (SC.323/2008, Friday January 28 2022)

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“MAY” MEAN “SHALL” WHERE THERE IS AN OBLIGATION IMPOSED

OMOMZUAWO & ANOR v. UGBODAGA & ORS (2021) JELR 107021 (CA): “it is now trite in law that where the word ‘may’ is used but a right or obligation is thereby conferred, then the word ‘may’ is to be interpreted as ‘shall’ and is taken as mandatory. In the instant appeal looking holistically at the provisions of Section 19 of the said law conferring an obligation or duty as well as rights on the Appellants, I hold that the use of ‘may’ in that sub – Section (2) of Section 19 of the said law amounts to ‘shall’ and is therefore, mandatory.”

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IF A STATUTE IS PLAIN, THE DUTY OF INTERPRETATION DOES NOT ARISE

In CAMINETTI V. UNITED STATES, 242 U.S. 470 (1917), the Court while applying the Literal rule of interpretation in its reasoning held thus: “It is elementary that the meaning of a statute must, in the first instance, be sought in the language in which the act is framed, and if that is plain… the sole function of the courts is to enforce it according to its terms.” And if a statute’s language is plain and clear, the Court further warned that “the duty of interpretation does not arise, and the rules which are to aid doubtful meanings need no discussion.”

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DEFINITION OF “JUDICIAL” AND “JUDICIOUS”

The terms “Judicial” and “Judicious” were defined by the Supreme Court in the case of ERONINI v IHEUKO (1989) 2 NWLR (101) 46 at 60 and 61as follows: “Acting judicially imports the consideration of the interest of both sides weighing them in order to arrive at a just or fair decision. Judicious means:(a) proceeding from or showing sound judgment; (b) having or exercising sound judgment; (c) marked by discretion, wisdom and good sense.”

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INTERPRETATION OF CONSTITUTION IS DIFFERENT FROM INTERPRETATION OF STATUTES

It is pertinent to state that unlike interpretation of statutes, the interpretation of Constitution has its own guiding principles. In FRN V NGANJIWA, which was cited by the Petitioners as SC/794/2019, but which is reported as FRN v NGANJIWA (2022) LPELR-58066(SC), the Supreme Court has succinctly reviewed decided cases on interpretation of the Constitution and outlined these guiding principles: ) In interpreting the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land, mere technical rules of interpretation of statutes should be avoided, so as not to defeat the principles of government enshrined therein. Hence a broader interpretation should be preferred, unless there is something in the text or in the rest of the Constitution to indicate that a narrower interpretation will best carry out the objects and purpose of the Constitution. (b) All Sections of the Constitution are to be construed together and not in isolation. (c) Where the words are clear and unambiguous, a literal interpretation will be applied, thus according the words their plain and grammatical meaning. (d) Where there is ambiguity in any Section, a holistic interpretation would be resorted to in order to arrive at the intention of its framers. (e) Since the draftsperson is not known to be extravagant with words or provisions, every section should be construed in such a manner as not to render other sections redundant or superfluous. (f) If the words are ambiguous, the law maker’s intention must be sought, first, in the Constitution itself, then in other legislation and contemporary circumstances and by resort to the mischief rule. (g) The proper approach to the construction of the Constitution should be one of liberalism and it is improper to construe any of the provisions of the Constitution as to defeat the obvious ends which the Constitution was designed to achieve. See also on this: NAFIU RABIU V STATE (1980) 8-11 S.C. 130 at 148; A.G. BENDEL STATE V A.G. FEDERATION & ORS (1981) N.S.C.C. 314 at 372 – 373; BUHARI v OBASANJO (2005) 13 NWLR (Pt. 941) 1 at 281; SAVANNAH BANK LTD v AJILO (1989) 1 NWLR (Pt. 97) 305 at 326; and A.G., ABIA STATE V A.G. FEDERATION (2005) All FWLR (Pt. 275) 414 at 450, which were also referred to by the Apex Court.

— H.S. Tsammani, JCA. Atiku v PDP (CA/PEPC/05/2023, 6th of September, 2023)

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WHERE WORDS ARE UNAMBIGUOUS

According to the canons of interpretation of statutes, it is a cardinal principle that, where the ordinary and plain meaning of words used are clear and unambiguous, effect must be given to those words in their natural and ordinary meaning or literal sense without resorting to any intrinsic aid.

– Tijjani Abubakar, JSC. Nwobike v. FRN (2021)

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DOCUMENTS SHOULD BE GIVEN THEIR ORDINARY MEANING

See SOLICITOR-GENERAL, WESTERN NIGERIA v. ADEBONOJO (1971) 1 All NLR 1978 – what happened in the case was that the 1st respondent was granted a scholarship by the Government of Western State of Nigeria. As a result he and his guarantors executed a bond in which he undertook that upon passing the relevant examinations he would serve the Government for a period of five years in any capacity considered appropriate by the Government. The respondent passed the relevant examination and returned to Nigeria but he was not given the necessary certificate because he had not spent the stipulated period on the course. The Government gave him an appointment which, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, was considered appropriate. He was not satisfied. He resigned the appointment before the expiration of five years. The Government consequently sued him and his guarantors for the refund of the amount spent on him pursuant to the grant of the scholarship.

The learned trial Judge found that the 1st respondent committed a breach of the bond by resigning his appointment before the expiration of the period stipulated in the agreement and entered judgment for the Government. On appeal to the then Western State Court of Appeal by the respondents, the court allowed the appeal and set aside the judgment of the learned trial Judge. The Western State Court of Appeal held, inter alia, that to be appropriate, any capacity in which the 1st respondent was called upon to serve by virtue of the relevant clause of the agreement must be reasonable. Dissatisfied with the judgment, the Government appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court allowed the appeal, set aside the judgment of the Western State Court of Appeal, and restored the judgment of the learned trial Judge. In allowing the appeal, the Supreme Court stated, inter alia, as follows: “Now we have already set out the provisions of clause 4(a) of exhibit C and in the events which had happened it is easy to see why a consideration of that clause has become a matter of paramount relevance. To us, this clause clearly stipulates that after qualification the first defendant could be offered employment by the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education, Western State in a capacity considered suitable by the regional government. In his consideration of that clause and his application of it to the facts of this case, Delumo, J. had held that according to the provision of the clause it is the regional government that would decide the capacity which is appropriate. On the other hand, the Western State Court of Appeal took the view that the word ”reasonable” and (the ”concept of reasonableness”) should be imported into the contracts of the parties for the purpose of construction. Neither of the parties to Exhibit C (and Exhibit H) contemplated that the word should be included in their agreement and throughout Exhibit C (and Exhibit H) that word was not even breathed. It is obvious from the confusion that arose in the Western State Court of Appeal itself that the court was in difficulty to ascertain the real position into which the word ‘reasonable’ could or should be fixed. It is the alphabet of his study to any lawyer that in the construction of documents the words must first be given their simple and ordinary meaning and that under no circumstances may new or additional words be imported into the text unless the documents would be by the absence of that which is imported impossible to understand.”

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