When does customary law apply

When does customary law apply. Customary law applies to a matter when there is a clash between English Law and Customary Law as a general rule, customary law will apply in the following situations:

  1. Where a transaction is subject to customary law, the rule of customary law will apply between natives as decided in Ogiamen V. Ogiamen (1967) NMLR 245, Iwuchukwu V. Anyanwu (1993) 8 NWLR pt. 311 p. 307; Agheghen V. Waghoreghor (1974) All NLR 74.

In Labinjo V. Abake (1924) 5 NLR 33 both parties were natives. The defendant who was a young girl and a minor under 21 years of age living with her parents was sued in a magistrate court for the price of goods sold and delivered to her for trading purposes in 1922 when the defendant was seventeen (17) or eighteen (18) years of age. The magistrate held that the Infant Relief Act 1874 which is in force in Nigeria Applied to the case, the girl being a minor, and dismissed the action on that ground.

See also:- Mode of Marriage Decisions; Conflict Situations; Judicial Precedent; Liability for Animals; Product Liability;

On appeal by the plaintiff to the Divisional court, that is High Court, the decision was reversed. The defendant appealed to the WACA, which held that, the Infant Relief Act applied in Nigeria without modification in meaning. And also, that the trial court should find out the liability of a minor if any, under native law and custom for the price of goods supplied to her for trading purposes without the consent of her parent or guardian, and the lower court should apply such customary law, instead of English Common Law.

The case was therefore remitted to the Magistrate to take evidence and decide the case according to the liability or otherwise of an infant debtor under native law and custom.
In this case, Labinjo V. Abake supra, Combe CJ stating the general rule of law that:

the general rule is that, if there is a native law and custom applicable to the matter in controversy, and if such law and custom is not repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience or incompatible with any local ordinance, and if it shall not appear that it was intended by the parties that the obligations under the transaction should be regulated by English law, the matter in controversy shall be determined in accordance with such native law and custom”.

As a general rule, where customary law is applicable to a transaction, the mere fact that the agreement is reduced into writing will not render customary law inapplicable to the transaction.

2. Where a native and non-native are involved in a transaction, and it appears that substantial injustice will be occasioned if customary law was not applied, the court will proceed and apply customary law. See the case of Alfa & Ors V. Arepo (1963) WNLR 95.

On the other hand, where a transaction is subject to customary law, and both parties are natives, the court does not need to refer to the substantial justice rule before it can apply customary law.

In Ajayi V. white (1946) NLR 41, the court refused to apply English law in determining succession to property, on the ground that substantial injustice would be occasioned. The court, applying native law and custom held that in default of a mutual agreement for partition being reached, the property should be sold, the proceeds paid into court and a scheme drawn up for its distribution among the parties entitled to share under customary law.

This case involved natives and so there was no basis for invoking the substantial injustice rule to justify the application of customary law. However, the application of customary law did not affect the merit of the case.

In Neleson V. Nelson (supra), two of the defendants were non-natives, the WACA relied on the substantial injustice rule and applied customary law in order to avoid a substantial miscarriage of justice, which in the view of the court would be occasioned by the application of English law.

The application of customary law instead of English law in order to avoid the miscarriage of justice is not totally free from criticism. The basis for criticism is that if a court applies customary law instead of English law in order to avoid the miscarriage of justice to one party; the argument will be: whether injustice is not thereby occasioned to the other party who lost the case?


Customary law also governs a transaction where law such as a statute stipulates that customary law should be applicable law. An example of a statute stipulating customary law as the applicable law is Section 3(1) OF THE wills Law Cap. 172, Bendel State as applicable in Edo and Delta States, which provides that all properties may be disposed of by Will subject to customary law. This provision was upheld in Idehen V. Idehen (1991) 6 NWLR pt. 198 p.382 SC; Agidigbi V. Agidigbi (1992) 2 NWLR pt. 221 p. 98 SC.
The areas where we have had clash of different systems of customary laws may be broadly divided into succession matters, land matters and other civil matters.

Succession matters – When does customary law apply

Where there is a dispute as to which customary law will apply, the applicable law is:

  1. The customary law that is binding on the deceased during his lifetime. This means “personal law” of the deceased and his family unit, as the case may be. See Tapa V. Kuka (1945) 18 NLR 5. It is proper and fair that it should be the applicable law, for if the deceased were to give away his property inter vivos, that is, in his lifetime, he would most probably have done as according to his personal law. In many cases, the personal law of the deceased is the same law that is predominant in the locality.

In the absence of personal law applying, the law of the place where the property is situated applies, as was the case in Ekem V. Nerba (1947) 12 WACA 256, where it was held that under Nigeria law a person is free to change his personal law from customary to English law or vice versa and also from one culture group to another.

The issue of the personal law of a person is a question of fact to be resolved by evidence in each case. Read the following cases on this point: GBAMSON & ORS V. WOBIL (1947) WACA 181; UKEJE V. UKEJE (2001) 27 WRN 142 CA; OLOWU V. OLOWU (1985) 3 NWLR PT. 13 P. 372 SC

LAND MATTERS – When does customary law apply
The general and first rule regarding land is that, the lex situs, that is, the law of the place where it is located applies.

The parameters that the courts apply to decide the applicable law are:

  • Usually the law that will apply depends on the great extent on the nature of the civil matter as was decided in the case of Okoriko V. Otobo (1961) WNLR 48 and Re Effiong Okon Ata (1930) 10 NLR 65; Edet V. Essien (1932) 11 NLR 47.

The applicable law may be the law which was agreed to by the parties, or the law which is binding between them.
c. The law prevailing in the jurisdiction of the court, that is the lex situs – Amachree V. Goodhead (1932) 4 NLR 101.


As a general rule, where Islamic law is the law applicable to the transaction, then Islamic law applies as between Muslims – Tapa V. Kuka (supra).

On the other hand, English law will apply:

There from the express terms of a contract or from the nature of the transaction, it should be regulated by a law other than Islamic law, as in Adesubokan V. Yinusa (1971) All NLR 97.
b. English law also applies where the transaction is unknown to Islamic law.

The final authority in Islam is the Quran. So, in the event of any conflict between the Qiyas, Ijma and the Unna, the Quran prevails.
In succession matters, the applicable law is the personal law of the deceased which in most cases is the law binding between the parties. The applicable law may also be the predominant or prevailing law in the jurisdiction of the court – lex situs.


In a democracy, the constitution is supreme. Whenever, there is supremacy of the constitution, it means that:

  1. The constitution is the supreme law of the land. It is superior to all other laws and legislations in the country.

The constitution overrides every other law, decision or conduct, any law or act contrary to the provision of the constitution is null and void and of no effect whatsoever.
Section 1(1) of the CFRN, 1999 as amended stated that:
“This constitution is supreme and its provision shall have binding force on all authorities and persons throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

And Section 1(3) provides:
If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall to the extent of the inconsistency be void”.
See the celebrated case of Doherty V. Balewa (1961) All NLR 637; AG Bendel State V. A.G. Federation & 22 Ors (1982) 3 NCLR 1 SC.

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