A Critique of the Application of the Principles of Natural Justice in Disciplinary Action in Nigerian Universities

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ABSTRACT

The requirement of the principles of natural justice in the Universities disciplinary action has received much attention from the Courts in the recent time. The Court interventionin the administrative determination of the Universities hascreated a lot of uncertainties and confusion. In fact, the extent, scope and limit of the Universities‟ power to punish student for misconduct is mostly unclear. This problem is so far-reaching that the University decision-makers are often confused as to practical steps to follow or what standard of natural justice they should observe in their disciplinary process.Objectives of the work include theappraisal of the University disciplinary jurisdiction vis-à-vis court of competent jurisdiction in trying University students for misconduct. This work is motivated by the unusual raise in the student-university litigations in Nigeria. The study focused on the importance of University disciplinary system and remedies as a much better way of resolving University disciplinary matters. It employed the doctrinal method of research to critically examine the application of the principles of natural justice in disciplinary action in Nigerian Universities and its effect on the institutional administrative expediency and efficiency. This research produced a number of findings:the application of the principles of natural justice to the University disciplinary actions are too demanding for the University Disciplinary Authorities;students and staff, despite the internal redress mechanism in the University forum, still resort to the court of law for redress. Based on the findings, it is recommended that the observation of the basic principles of natural justice should be sine qua non to discipline of student in Nigerian Universities. It is no longer sufficient for a University to discipline a student where it appears to the Vice-chancellor that such a student has been guilty of misconduct. Any student facing a disciplinary penalty, must know the case against him/her, the student must be given an opportunity to correct or contradict the evidence that have been made in support of the case, the University authority must make its decision without a reasonable apprehension of bias. In order to avoid the cost and minimize the number of lawsuits mushrooming in our Universities, it is crucial that University administrators understand the law, disciplinary             due                          process              and                         follow  it.
 

CHAPTER ONE

GENERAL INTRODUCTION

            Background to the Study

 
Disciplinary action of whatever nature must be carried out according to the dictate of law. This is one of the pillars of the rule of law. Statutes always provide procedures to be followed before a person is disciplined. These procedural requirements are provided in the statutes to enable the authority exercising the power under such statutereach a conclusion that is fair, justand reasonable. Where these procedures are ignored, irrespective of the fairness of the power exercised, the court will hold that the law has not been obeyed andthe power exercised, is a nullity.1
One of the legal requirements for a valid exercise of disciplinary action is the observation of natural justice principles. The doctrine of Natural justice has, over the years, crystalized into two maxims: Audi alteram partem meaning that nobody should be condemned unheard. Nemo judex in causa sua which means that a man should not be a judge in his own cause. The most frequent cause of judicial interference with the exercise of administrative powers is a disregard of these principles of natural justice. Many of the cases of disciplinary actions in Nigerian Universities were often reviewed against the Universities by the courts, consequently nullified as a result of their failure to recognise and observe the principles of natural justice.
 
Natural justice, apart from being the “law of GOD”2, has alsofound expression in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999 Constitution).Section 36 (1) provides:
In the determination of his civil rights and obligations, including any question or determination by or against any government or authority, a person shall be entitled
to a fair hearing within a reasonable time by a court or other tribunal established by law and constituted in such manner as to secure its independence and impartiality.
The effect of this provision is that, even where there is no statutory provision allowing a person, who is under „trial‟ to be heard in an institution‟s law, such person must nonetheless, be given the opportunity to present his case and be heard in accordance with the provision of the Constitution. It has long been established that administrative authorities/tribunals are bound to observe the principle of natural justice and right to fair hearing in the discharge of their judicial and quasi- judicial functions.3 The guiding principle is that as long as an individual‟s right and obligation stand to be affected by decision, action or inaction of any authority or tribunal, the action of such authority or tribunal is amenable to judicial scrutiny to see that the authority or tribunal observe  the principles of natural justice.
Universities world over are vested with the power to instil, inculcate discipline and good moral in their students. This power usually stems from statutory provisions, which are normally contained in the enabling laws of the institutions. Nigerian Universities (particularly the Federal Universities) have theirs contained in the Acts establishing them. The various Acts, which are similar in content, give the Universities the authority to set up disciplinary panels and to determine their procedures with a view to ensuring that such conform to the dictate of fair hearing and right reasoning.4
The University is a meeting point for various academic competitions and pursuits, a very large body of students from different backgrounds and cultures converge there to pursue their individual intellectual interests.Essentially, the University‟s students must be subject to its disciplinary powers so as to ensure an orderly academic community where the University‟s objectives could be achieved. Preservation of law and order is, therefore,crucialfor peace and stability in the University without which serious academics pursuit can hardly take place. In other words, the students,
lecturers and other supporting staff in the University community must be disciplined and subject themselves to the laws establishing the University, its rules and regulations.
If a University is to run successfully, the University authority must be able to exercise its disciplinary powers to punish students for the breach of its rules. Theemphasis here is that the University disciplinary process is used to maintain law and order in the university community. This is because, if any reasonable degree of academic progress is to be attained, a peaceful environment must be secured. The University has the inherent power to formulate and enforce rules of student conduct that are „appropriate and necessary‟ to the maintenance of order reasonably necessary to further the institution‟s educational goals. The power to discipline erring members of staff and students is extant, the fundamental requirement is that such an institution must act in accordance with the principles of natural justice.

       Statement of the Problem

 
Maintaining peace and order in any of our University has now become a herculean task.The University on one hand,is often saddled on how to use the big stick on students adjudged to have fouled the institution rules and regulations without drawing the ire of the law, while on the other hand, the student is often embroiled with the quandary of determine where to seek relief from the often perceived high-handed and oppressive decisions of the University in meting out discipline  for the breach of its rules and regulations. The unnatural consequences of the above is the spate of law-suits instituted against the Universities by their staff and students‟ alike when disciplinary actionswere taken against them.Unfortunately, most of these suits ended against the University concerned, most often, on the ground of non-observance of the cardinal principles of natural justice.
 
Theproblem is more complex in the face of issues like the place of natural justice in the administrative law sphere, the extent, scope and desirability of theapplication of the principles of
 
natural justice in administrative / disciplinary action of the University; the effect of the Supreme Court‟s decision of Garba vs University of Maiduguri which prohibit the University from entertaining students‟ misconduct tainted with crime; the provisions of the Examination Malpractice Offences Act which regulate, define and prescribe penalty for examination malpractice misconducts in public Universities, and in addition vest jurisdiction in examination malpractice cases on the Federal High Court; the question of exclusiveness or otherwise of academic decisions as distinct from University administrative / disciplinary action; the adequacy and relevance of forum domesticum for settlement of issue or dispute in the University  community. These issues are extant and called for a serious attention and thinking.
This research work shall attempt to find answers to the following questions-
 

  1. In exercising disciplinary powers, must the University decision-makers take into consideration the principles of natural justice or just discretionbeforemeting out punishment to student adjudged misconducted?
  2. What amount to misconduct which a University can legitimately assume jurisdiction and punish its student for and which degree of misconduct that the University is prohibited from entertaining?
  3. Is examination malpractice a minor misconduct amenable to the University disciplinary jurisdiction or a serious misconduct triable only by a court of competent jurisdiction?
  4. Is the University jurisdiction in all academic decisions exclusive and not subject to judicial review as declared often by the courts or is it a theory?
  5. Must a student exhaust the internal remedies in the forum domesticum of the University before approaching the Court of law for redress?

       Aim and Objectives of the Research

 
Themain aim of this research is to critically assess the application of the principles of natural justice in disciplinary action in Nigerian Universities. The specific objectives of the research are:
 

  1. To find out whether the University decision-makers exercising their disciplinary powers under the University Act must observe the principles of natural justice when discipline student for
  2. To appraise the University disciplinaryjurisdiction vis-à-vis that of Court of competent jurisdiction or Tribunal established by law in trying University student for misconduct tinted with
  3. To examine whether examination malpractice is a minor misconduct subject to the University disciplinary jurisdiction or a serious misconduct within the competent of the High Court
  4. To find out whether University academic decisions are subject to supervisory and reviewing power of the
  5. To appraise the doctrine of forum domesticum in the University context, especially as it relates to disciplinary actions and internal

1. 5 Scope of the Research

 
The territorial scope of the research essentially covers Tertiary Institutions in Nigeria. There are more than 100 Universities5 in Nigeria today established by statutes whose provisions are strikingly similar (particularly the Federal Universities). The provisions of these statutes will be examined in the light of the prevailing circumstances in our campuses to demonstrate their adequacy or otherwise.
The substantive scope is administrative law.

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