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Wahab Shittu writes on limitation law and concludes that it is no longer relevant in enforcement of fundamental human rights

Fundamental human rights have been described as rights which are inalienable and guaranteed to every person. They have also been defined as “rights which stand above the ordinary laws of the land and which in fact are antecedent to the political society itself”. The importance of fundamental human rights necessitates their entrenchment in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999. This is also the reason there are special rules for the enforcement of fundamental human rights which are not muddled with general rules of courts.

Limitation laws are such laws in form of statutory provisions, rules of Common Law and principles of equity, which impose disability on a claimant from bringing an action for his claims by specifying the time limit within which such claims can be brought before a court of competent jurisdiction.

It is noteworthy that while limitation statutes may be precise as to the time within which an action can be brought failure of which will make the action statute barred; equitable rules may not be tied to time but certainly ties the conscience to the stake of justice.

In this presentation, we are going to look at the new fundamental rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 2009 and its relationship with the provisions of limitation laws in force in our jurisprudence.

Meaning of fundamental human rights

Chapter IV of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 covers a whole range of rights constitutionally guaranteed.  Like most of the Commonwealth countries, the provisions on fundamental rights have been enshrined in the Constitution in consonance with the principles proclaimed by the United Nations in Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 wherein it is stated that:

“It is essential, if a man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the Rule of Law”

According to the Black’s Law Dictionary, human rights is defined as the freedoms, immunities, and benefits that, according to modern values (especially at an international level), all human beings should be able to claim as a matter of right in the society in which they live.

Fundamental human rights have also been said to be regarded as set of entitlements in the context of a legal system, wherein such system is itself based upon this same set of basic fundamental or equitable entitlement.

Fundamental human rights are also defined as entitlements that humans have by the fact of being human, and that are neither created nor can be abrogated by any government. Justice Eso JSC, in Ransome-Kuti v. Attorney General of the Federation, stated:

“Fundamental right is a right which stands above the ordinary laws of the land and which in fact is antecedent to the political society itself. It is a primary condition to a civilised existence…”

Historical background to fundamental human rights

Human right is a concept that has been constantly evolving and developing through human history. Researchers and historians have always shown that human rights have always been intricately tied to the laws, customs and religions of the people throughout the ages.

One of the earliest examples of codification of laws which contain references to human rights is the Code of Hammurabi which was created about 4000 years ago. This codified law was promulgated by King Hammurabi, the first ruler of the dynasty of Babylon.

It was in ancient Greece where the concept of human rights began to take a greater meaning. Human rights became synonymous with natural rights -  rights that spring from natural law. It should be noted however that there are a lot of difference between natural rights in the past and human rights today. For example, it was seen as perfectly natural to keep slaves then, but such practice as legal as it was then goes counter to the ideas of liberty and equality that is associated with human rights today.

The next fundamental philosophy of human rights, according to scholars, arose from the idea of positive law where theorists saw natural law as being very vague, hollow and too open to vast difference of interpretation. Thus, under positive law, instead of human rights being absolute, they can be given, taken away and modified by a society to suit its needs.

The transfer of abstract ideas regarding human rights in relation to the will of nature into concrete laws is exemplified best by various legal documents that specifically described these rights in detail. Example of such documents is British Magna Carta, 1215; French Declaration of the Rights of Man 1789; American Bill of Rights 1789; The Geneva Convention 1864, etc.  The development and improvement of fundamental human rights continued that way in and around the world.

In 1948, shortly after the devastation of the Second World War, the newly formed United Nations General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Right. Passing this declaration marked an international desire for peace and the beginning of a system to protect fundamental human rights.

UDHR has since inspired many individuals, governments and policymakers around the world to work towards a better protection of human rights. Fundamental human rights have a special place in Nigeria as in other countries. Apparently, Nigeria’s development of fundamental human rights has always been entrenched in the constitution since 1963 and has always been so for all the constitutions till the present constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999.

Enforcement of fundamental human rights

The Constitution provides in Section 46(1) that”

“Any person who alleges that any of the provisions of this chapter has been, is being, or likely to or contravened in any state in relation to him may apply to a High Court in that state for redress”

This provision apparently empowers everyone to enforce his fundamental human rights. It will also be noted that the person does not have to wait until his rights are contravened; he has the power to enforce where the rights is being contravened and where there is likelihood that the rights will be contravened.

The constitution, in its effort to ensure that the court jurisdiction to enforce fundamental human rights is not in doubt, provides in the same section as follows:

“Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, a High Court shall have original jurisdiction to hear and determine any application made to it in pursuance of the provisions of this section and may make such orders, issue such writs and give such directions as it may consider appropriate for the purpose of enforcing or securing the enforcement within that State of any right to which the person who makes the application may be entitled under this chapter”.

The two provisions of the constitution discussed above ensure that a person is empowered to enforce his rights while the courts are also empowered to hear the application having been conferred with original jurisdiction. Thus, the next question is what manner or by what process will an aggrieved person enforce his human rights? The Constitution provides the answer in section 46(3) as follows:

“The chief Justice of Nigeria may make rules with respect to the practice and procedure of a High Court for the purpose of this section”.Thus, pursuant to this provision, we have the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules 2009 made by the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Legbo Kutigi.

It must be noted that there was a similar provision in the 1979 Constitution pursuant to which we had Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 1979. The 1979 rules have been repealed by the current 2009 Rules. The 2009 Rules which came into effect in December 2009 is the only procedural law guiding the enforcement of fundamental rights in Nigeria.

Meaning of limitation law

To understand limitation law, it is very important to first understand the concept “limitation of action” and know its difference from “limitation law”. It is an established principle of law that a right of action does not exist sine die, it is limited by statute, such statute is called statute of limitation, which may either be the Limitation Act or any of the Limitation laws of various states.

The major difference between limitation of action and statute of limitation is that the statute of limitation regulates the maintenance of actions by litigants for an injury suffered by them. It stipulates a limited period of time for bringing such actions. But, limitation of action is not only tied to time as prescribed by statute of limitation, the cause of action must necessarily relate to previous acts of party, previous decisions of a Court and several other factors which make it inequitable or unconscionable to allow the claimant to activate the jurisdiction of the court in a particular case.

Thus, while the statute of limitation is tied to time, limitation of action which is more comprehensive is not necessarily tied to time.

Limitation laws, in the context of this presentation, mean statutes or enactments which limit the power of the courts to entertain proceedings for enforcement of certain rights if such proceedings were set on foot after the lapse of a definite period of time, reckoned as a rule from the date of the violation of the right. A cause of action becomes statute barred if it is brought on a date after the period laid down by the statute within which such action must be filed in court.

•To be continued

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