The Nigerian judicial system is a fundamental pillar of the country's democratic governance, tasked with upholding the rule of law and dispensing justice. However, the system has been plagued by concerns regarding the overemphasis on technicalities, which has often led to delays in the administration of justice and, in some cases, the miscarriage of justice. By examining relevant research, scholarly articles and notable examples of justice miscarriages resulting from judicial sleight of hand. 

The Nigerian court has faced numerous issues, including a lack of trust, corruption, and political meddling. The priority of technicalities over justice is one of the main concerns affecting the legal system. This essay will delve into the root causes of these technicalities and assess whether they stem from incompetence or corruption within the judiciary; and examines the concept of judicial activism in Nigeria and how it might be utilized to solve the issue of technicalities over justice in the country by examining some recent decisions of Nigeria's Apex Court, where much reliance has been placed on technicalities.


To begin with, it is essential to understand what is meant by "technicalities”, both its ordinary meaning and its meaning in the context of the Nigerian judicial system. In the former, "technicalities” refers to a small detail in a rule, law, etc., and especially one that forces an unwanted or unexpected result (The Britannica Dictionary, n.d.).

In the latter, technicalities refer to procedural rules, legal formalities, and strict adherence to legal technicalities that may sometimes take precedence over substantive justice. These technicalities are often invoked by legal practitioners as a means of challenging the validity of legal proceedings, evidence, or the jurisdiction of the court. While technicalities serve the purpose of ensuring fair and just legal processes, their overzealous application can impede the expeditious resolution of cases and erode public confidence in the judiciary.

It is settled law that there are two forms of technicalities: mere technicalities and substantial technicalities Egolum v. Obasanjo (1999). The difference between both of these concepts was aptly elucidated by Justice Niki Tobi (as he then was) in Yusuf v. Adegoke & Anor (2007): " must be borne in mind that as much as law is designed to dispense justice, there are safeguards provided by law to ensure its certainty and purity. When such safeguards are violated, justice cannot be dispensed (substantial technicality). This is different from “mere technicality”. Thus, it is a mere technicality where a procedural irregularity can be cured without causing any injustice to the adverse party (Femi, 2020).


The issue of placing technicalities over substantive justice is not a new one; it has been happening since the first republic. State v. Awolowo (1963) was one of the first cases that highlighted the negative impact of technicalities on the legal system. In this case, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a prominent Nigerian politician, was charged with treasonable felony. The trial judge dismissed the case on a technicality, ruling that the indictment was defective. This decision was widely criticized, as it was seen as a miscarriage of justice. To this day, lawyers, well-meaning members of society, and even judges themselves—it has become almost routine for CJNs to caution judges against over-reliance on technicalities (Punch Editorial, 2022)—have all raised their voices against this phenomenon. Why, then, has nothing changed? It is as such crucial for us to delve into the reasons behind why Nigerian judges seem to obsess over them.

Historical Factor

Before jumping into the assumption of incompetence and or corruption of judges, it is important that we explore any influence historical development of the legal profession in Nigeria might have on this issue. The country's legal system, inherited from its colonial past, places great emphasis on procedural rules and technicalities. This emphasis has been ingrained in legal training and practice, leading to a culture where judges feel compelled to adhere strictly to these rules. Furthermore, the fear of being overturned on appeal or facing disciplinary action for procedural irregularities may also contribute to this obsession with technicalities. However, it is important to note that while some judges genuinely prioritize procedural correctness to ensure justice, others may exploit technicalities as a means of avoiding substantive issues or engaging in corrupt practices. By examining relevant case laws, we can gain a deeper understanding of whether this obsession with technicalities is driven by incompetence or corruption within the Nigerian judicial system.

The Role of Incompetence in the Prevalence of Technicalities

Another plausible explanation for the prevalence of technicalities within the Nigerian judicial system pertains to the issue of incompetence among legal practitioners and judicial officers. This incompetence may manifest in various ways, such as a deficient understanding of procedural laws, a failure to conduct thorough legal research, and an inability to effectively represent clients. The absence of competence can lead legal practitioners to resort to technicalities as a strategy to circumvent their own shortcomings or exploit loopholes within the legal framework.

Moreover, judicial officers lacking the requisite expertise may inadvertently permit technicalities to overshadow the merits of a case, thereby contributing to unjust outcomes. The deficiency in legal education and training among many professionals in the field has resulted in a limited grasp of substantive law, which governs the rights and obligations of individuals and organizations. Without a comprehensive understanding of substantive law, judges are more prone to emphasizing technicalities over the essential merits of a case.

For instance, concerning the impact of irregularities, Rule 1 (1) and (2) of Order 5 in the High Court of the FCT (Civil Procedure) Rules are designed to rectify any irregularities arising from the lack of technical knowledge or mistakes on the part of a litigant, ensuring fairness to the parties involved. However, the applicability of the provisions of Order 5, Rule 1 (1), is constrained by the stipulations of sub-rule 2, which unfortunately serves to underscore to litigants that non-compliance with the Rules may be deemed a failure to apply the law, potentially resulting in the irregularity being treated as a substantial technicality by the Court. Failure to grasp these court rules signifies incompetence and may lead to a ruling based solely on technicalities.

The Influence of Corruption on Technicalities in the Judicial System

An additional crucial consideration that cannot be disregarded pertains to the potential impact of corruption on the prevalence of legal technicalities within the Nigerian judicial system. Accusing the judiciary, an institution traditionally revered as the bastion of justice and the last resort for the common man, of corruption is a weighty assertion. However, with the judiciary topping corruption indexes (Sahara Reporters, 2020), one cannot help but make these accusations. Corruption within this esteemed institution can manifest through various means, including bribery, political interference, and the manipulation of legal processes for personal gain. In this milieu, legal practitioners or judicial officers may exploit technicalities as a strategic tool to subvert the course of justice, shield the culpable, or unfairly favour specific parties.

Numerous instances within the Nigerian judicial system underscore the prevalence of legal technicalities, giving rise to concerns about both incompetence and corruption. The notorious Salisu Buhari forgery scandal in 1999 serves as a poignant example (Akande, 2018). Salisu Buhari, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, was exposed for fabricating his academic qualifications, including his age and educational background. Despite compelling evidence against him, the case was dismissed on a technicality, with the court contending that the charges were filed outside the statute of limitations. This incident not only spotlighted deficiencies in the Nigerian judicial system but also engendered suspicions of corruption, as influential individuals appeared to be shielded from accountability through legal technicalities.

Another illustrative case is that of Chief Bode George v. FRN, a prominent politician convicted for corruption in 2009. Despite a lower court finding him guilty, his conviction was overturned on appeal due to procedural errors and technicalities. These cases stand as stark reminders of how legal technicalities can compromise the pursuit of justice and further diminish public trust in the Nigerian judicial system. Moreover, corrupt practices can undermine the integrity of legal proceedings, leading to a culture where technicalities are exploited to perpetuate injustice.

The Apex Court’s Stance on Technicalities

It is noteworthy that the Supreme Court of Nigeria, historically, has emphasized the primacy of substantial justice over technicalities. In the case of Hope Democratic Party (HDP) v. Independent National Commission (2009), the court explicitly declared a departure from undue reliance on technicalities, asserting a commitment to the pursuit of substantial justice between parties.

However, a shift in this stance has become apparent in more recent cases, although it seems the court is not quite sure where it wants to shift to. There are two cases that illustrate my point.

The first is the case of Adeleke v. Oyetola (2019). Here, the Supreme Court, drawing from the West African Court of Appeal's decision in Nana Tawiah v. Kwesi Ewudzi, deemed the Electoral Tribunal's decision a nullity. The justification rested on the absence of Justice Obiora, the individual who read and pronounced the majority judgment at the Tribunal, during at least one day of the trial. According to the court, this absence rendered the tribunal devoid of the authority to issue any judgment in the entire matter. In my humble opinion, the court seems to be prioritizing technicalities over the principles of substantial justice here. 

However, in the second case, Skypower Express Airways Ltd. v. UBA & Anor (2022), one is not quite sure. In this dispute involving Skypower Express Airways Limited and United Bank for Africa (UBA) over a loan agreement, the court faced the question of whether technicalities should prevail over the pursuit of substantial justice. Skypower, which had issued a post-dated cheque as security for a loan from UBA, found itself embroiled in a legal battle when the cheque, presented for payment, was dishonored due to insufficient funds. UBA filed a criminal complaint, alleging the issuance of a dud cheque. Skypower contended that the cheque was not a dud cheque, citing its post-dated nature, and further argued that UBA had breached the loan agreement by prematurely presenting the cheque for payment.

Upon trial, Skypower was convicted of issuing a dud cheque. However, on appeal, the Supreme Court of Nigeria sided with Skypower, ruling that the trial court lacked jurisdiction. The court emphasized that the post-dated nature of the cheque precluded it from being classified as a dud cheque. Additionally, it noted the trial court's failure to consider Skypower's argument regarding UBA's breach of the loan agreement by prematurely presenting the cheque for payment. This decision underscores a nuanced approach by the Supreme Court, considering both technicalities and the pursuit of substantial justice in rendering its judgments.


Having explored the potential roots of technicalities in the Nigerian judicial system, it is incumbent upon stakeholders to consider meaningful reforms that can mitigate the adverse effects of technicalities and restore public trust in the administration of justice. These reforms may encompass measures to enhance the professional competence of legal practitioners, strengthen judicial independence and integrity, streamline procedural rules to prioritize substantive justice, and institute mechanisms for accountability and transparency within the judiciary. By addressing the systemic issues that contribute to the prevalence of technicalities, the Nigerian judicial system can aspire to uphold the principles of fairness, efficiency, and equity.

The term "judicial activism" has been used to describe the judiciary's role in supporting democracy and the rule of law. It is a method of interpreting the law that encourages judges to apply larger legal concepts and values in order to improve the law's efficacy. Judicial activism is a reaction against judicial restraint, which pushes for judges to limit their function to narrowly interpreting the law. The overwhelming emphasis on technicalities has afflicted the Nigerian legal system. The approach has resulted in the dismissal of cases on small technicalities, depriving the persons involved of justice. Consider a case that lasted over 23 years in court. It is no longer Justice, regardless of the outcome. This is based on the adage, "Justice Delayed is Justice Denied."

Judicial activism provides a solution to Nigeria's preference for technicalities above justice. The technique in interpreting the law can be used by the judiciary to guarantee that justice is served, even in circumstances where small technicalities could have resulted in dismissal. As a result, the judiciary will strengthen its position as a defender of the rule of law and ensure that the law is applied in the best interests of society. As rightly recommended by Uwais and Niki Tobi CJN (as he was at the time).


For starters, judicial activism will aid in the development of public trust and confidence in the judiciary. The judiciary will demonstrate its dedication to the rule of law by emphasizing justice over superfluous technicalities, leading people to trust that the judiciary is independent and impartial.

It would increase legal certainty. The legal system can adapt to shifting societal ideals through judicial activism. It ensures that the law is interpreted in accordance with society's changing economic, social, and political situations. For enterprises and individuals that rely on the legal system for their rights, judicial activism provides a high level of stability and security.

Lastly, it can play a crucial role in social and political reforms. Activist judges can interpret legal provisions in a way that will promote the ideals of democracy, such as human rights and social justice. They can use their positions to influence the legislative and executive branches of government to implement policies that will promote the welfare of the citizens.


In conclusion, the prevalence of technicalities in the Nigerian judicial system is a multifaceted issue that demands careful examination and proactive intervention. While incompetence among legal practitioners and corruption within the judiciary may contribute to the overemphasis on technicalities, it is essential to approach this issue with nuance and a commitment to systemic reform. By critically evaluating the impact of technicalities and drawing on case laws to substantiate our analysis, this essay has sought to shed light on a pressing concern that has far-reaching implications for the rule of law and access to justice in Nigeria. It is hoped that this exploration will stimulate further discourse and action towards fostering a judicial system that prioritizes substantive justice and serves the interests of all citizens.

In Nigeria, activism by judges remains a vital weapon for advancing justice. It is a strategy that improves the efficiency of the legal system and aids in balancing the conflicting social interests.

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