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WHERE INTERPRETATION IS CAPABLE OF TWO MEANINGS, ADOPT A NON-DEFEATIST APPROACH

Dictum

It is settled that where in the interpretation of a word appearing in a particular piece of legislation, such word is capable of two meanings, the court has a duty to adopt an interpretation which would not defeat the intention of the law makers. See Mandara v. Attorney-General, Federation (1984) NSCC 221; Yabugbe v. C.O.P. (1992) 4 SCNJ 116; Lawal v. G. B. Ollivant (1972) 3 SC 124.

— Galadima, JSC. Wike Nyesom v. Peterside, APC, INEC, PDP (SC. 718/2015, 27 Oct 2015)

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INTERPRETATION OF THE WORD “MAY”

In ADESOLA V. ABIDOYE (1999) 14 NWLR (Pt. 637) 28 @ p. 56, where the Supreme Court per Karibi-Whyte J.S.C., “The construction of the word “may” in provisions of statutes has always raised difficulties. This is not because of the impression of the word … because the word “may” assumes a technical meaning depending upon the intendment of the statutory provision in which it is used. Although the etymological meaning of “may” is permissive and facultative and seldom can mean “must” and imperative it assumes this last-mentioned character; when there is anything in the provision that makes it the duty on the person on whom the power is conferred to exercise that power. When the exercise of the power is coupled with a duty on the person to whom it is given to exercise it, then it is imperative. In the instant case, there is a duty on the aggrieved who desires to set aside the decision of the prescribed authority to make his representation to the Commissioner for Chieftaincy Affairs within twenty-one days of the decision. The use of the expression ‘may’ in this situation is not merely facultative, but mandatory. There is no alternative.The aggrieved has no choice of action in the remedy provided for him….Accordingly, the word ‘may’ in Section 22(5) of the Chiefs Law of Oyo State, 1978 should be construed as imperative; the exercise of the right not being optional.”

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PROVISIONS OF STATUTE MUST BE GIVEN THEIR SIMPLE & PLAIN MEANING

The cardinal principle of law of interpretation is that a court when interpreting a provision of a statute must give the words and the language used their simple and ordinary meaning, and not to venture outside it by introducing extraneous matters that may lead to circumventing or giving the provision an entirely different interpretation to what the law maker intended it to be. – A.M. Mukhtar, JSC. Unipetrol v. Edo State Internal Revenue (2006) – S.C. 286/2001

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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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HEADINGS OF A STATUTE SHOULD BE LOOKED AT TO CLARIFY AMBIGUITY

My Lords, I am persuaded that we must look at the heading of both sections of the statute to clarify any ambiguity. See OGBONNA v. A. G. IMO STATE (1992) 1 NWLR Pt. 220 Pg. 647, OYO STATE BOARD OF INTERNAL REVENUE v. UNIVERSITY OF IBADAN (2013) LPELR 2215.

— H.M. Ogunwumiju, JSC. UBA v Triedent Consulting Ltd. (SC.CV/405/2013, July 07, 2023)

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MARGINAL NOTES IN STATUTES

Marginal notes, otherwise known as side notes or section heads are short notations appearing above or beside each section of a statute or regulation. While marginal notes are not part of a statute, they provide an interpretative aid to Courts and are useful in considering the purpose of a section and the mischief at which it is aimed. See per Eso, JSC in OLOYO V. ALEGBE (1983) 2 S.C.N.L.R. 35 AT 57; Per Idigbe, JSC in UWAIFO V. AG BENDEL STATE (1982) 7 SC 124 AT 187 188, OSIEC & ANOR V. AC & ORS (2010) LPELR-2818 (SC), INAKOJU & ORS V. ADELEKE & ORS (2007) LPELR 1510 (SC), YABUGBE V. C.O.P (1992) LPELR 3505 (SC).

— A. JAURO, JSC. UBA v Triedent Consulting Ltd. (SC.CV/405/2013, July 07, 2023)

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EFFECT ORDINARY MEANING WHERE WORDS OF STATUTES ARE CLEAR

The law is settled that where the words of a statute are clear, precise and unambiguous; the law mandates the Court to give such words their ordinary and literal meaning without any interpolation as there is nothing to interpret. The rationale behind this being that the cardinal function of the Courts is to declare the law and not to make law – jus dicere not jus dare. See Nwude V FRN (2015) 5 NWLR (Pt. 1506) 471; Raji v State (2012) LPELR-7968(CA) 75-78, paras F-F; Amoshima V State (2011) 4 NWLR (Pt. 1268) 530; & Tanko V State (2009) 4 NWLR (Pt. 1131) 430.

— J.H. Sankey, JCA. Brila Energy Ltd. v. FRN (2018) – CA/L/658CA/2017

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