IBA International Pro Bono

The pro bono class action that dislodged the issuance of irregular marriage certificates in Nigeria

 

Olumide Babalola, Olumide Babalola LP, Lagos
olumide@olumidebabalolalp.com

 

In 1976, under the General Olusegun Obasanjo regime, the introduction of local government councils as a tier of the Nigerian Government led to an unconscious distortion of the Marriage Act, LFN 1990. Local government councils began to conduct marriages and issue their own version of marriage certificates, which were radically different from the Form E specifically provided under the Marriage Act. As a result, some of the recipients of this specie of marriage certificate suffered varying degrees of victimisation, either at other countries’ embassies and consulates or during litigation in Nigerian courts, where they tendered the certificates as evidence of purported celebration of their marriages under the Marriage Act.

 

Facts

 

By Item 61, Second Schedule, Part 1 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), formation of marriages, among other matters, are regulated by the Federal Government. Consequently, the Marriage Act as enacted by the National Assembly regulates formation of marriages and the law specifically provides in section 24 that marriage certificates shall be in Form E and details the contents.

 

Upon the noted introduction of local government councils in Nigeria, deviations from issuing marriage certificates in Form E arose and new versions were created. To address and redress this anomaly, I filed a pro bono class action for and on behalf of the over ten million recipients of the irregular marriage certificates before the Lagos State High Court in Suit No. LD/1343/2016 against all the 774 local government councils in Nigeria as defendants. In the class action, the following relief was sought:

 

  1. A DECLARATION that the 1st Defendant does not have powers to issue modified and/or customised marriage certificates different from the provided in Form E under section 24 of the Marriage Act, LFN 1990.
  2. A DECLARATION that the 2nd Defendant’s ‘Local Government Unified Marriage Certificate’ is unknown to our law, unconstitutional, null and void.
  3. A PERPETUAL INJUNCTION restraining the Defendants, their agents, officers, employees and representatives from further issuing modified and/or altered marriage certificates apart from the form as provided under Form E (1st schedule) and Section 24 of the Marriage Act, LFN 1990.
  4. A PERPETUAL INJUNCTION restraining the 2nd Defendant, their agents, officers, employees and representatives from further issuing ‘Local Government Unified marriage certificates’.
  5. AN ORDER regularising and deeming the already issued modified marriage certificates as valid in law.
  6. Such other consequential Order(s) that this honourable court may deem fit to grant in the circumstance.

 

Decision

 

Judgment was given in the class action on 15 May 2017, when the court, per I O Harrison, J granted relief and ordered all the local government councils to begin to issue uniform marriage certificates in Form E provided by the Marriage Act. The Court also expressly pronounced on the legality and validity of all marriages issued with the irregular marriage certificates.[1]

 

Remarks and conclusion

 

The significance of the class action was particularly pronounced by its nationwide effect, as well as its role in synchronising the sector by ensuring that everyone had the same marriage certificate irrespective of the issuing government authority.

 

Thankfully, in obedience to the judgment, local governments have started issuing the proper marriage certificates in Form E after the Lagos State Ministry of Local Government and Community Affairs, via a letter dated 30 June 2017, ordered the local government to begin to do so. It is worth noting that victims of irregular marriage certificates have also been invited to replace them with the statutory Form E.

 

I am particularly excited on three grounds: (1) to think that public interest litigation can be used as an instrument of social engineering, especially to correct an unlawful practice that has pervaded our nation for over 50 years; (2) the level of social consciousness and awareness aroused by the judgment is amazing; and (3) the speed with which the concerned government agencies aligned with the judgment and gave full effect to it.

The class action gave a voice to the voiceless and disadvantaged millions of recipients of the irregular marriage certificates, who at one time or the other may have suffered discrimination, disadvantage and/or disenchantment over the bearing of a ‘second class’ marriage certificate issued by government agencies in gross violation of mandatory salutatory provisions.

 

The significant judgment represents the most publicised and far-reaching class action judgment in the history of the Nigerian judiciary and, arguably, public interest litigation in this part of Africa as it affected almost every family in Nigeria.[2]

 



[1] A copy of the judgment is available online at: http://theclassactioncrusader.com/?p=314&preview=true.

[2] For example, see: Samson Ezea, ‘Questioning authenticity of marriage certificates issued by local governments’ (The Guardian, 03 June 2017), available at: https://guardian.ng/saturday-magazine/questioning-authenticity-of-marriage-certificates-issued-by-local-governments/.

 

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