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Examining Lagos small claims courts, their mechanisms in other jurisdictions


Justice, Opeyemi Oke

On April 23, 2018, the Chief Judge of Lagos State, Honourable Justice Opeyemi Oke, as part of her efforts to fast-track justice delivery in
commercial disputes involving small claims, commissioned the Small Claims’ Courts.

The inauguration of the Small Claims Courts, the first in the country is expected to set an example for other states in the country.

According to the Chief Judge of Lagos State, the purpose of the Court is to provide easy access to an informal, inexpensive and speedy resolution of debt recovery disputes in the Magistrate Courts, of claims not exceeding the sum of N5, 000,000 (Five Million Naira).

Generally, Small Claims Courts refer to special courts (often called conciliation courts), which are established for the provision of
expeditious, swift and inexpensive adjudication of small claims.

The jurisdiction of small-claims courts typically encompasses private disputes, which do not involve large amounts of money.

It encompasses the routine collection of small debts, evictions and other disputes between landlords and tenants, as well as breach of contracts and simple torts.

The foregoing constitutes the bulk of the cases brought before small-claims courts.

Quite commendably, the adjudicatory process for these courts is simplified and encourages self-representation, thereby effectively reducing the cost of legal representation.

The filing process has also been reduced into standard forms and simply approaching the Small Claims’ Court Registry and filling the relevant forms may initiate a claim.

Accordingly, claimants are to file a standard form at the court registry and serve the form, which usually contains the claim(s), on the Defendant(s).

Following the underlying objective of ensuring speed and efficiency, every step in the dispute resolution process is time-bound and the stipulated timelines are to be strictly complied with.

For example, service of the forms, response to the claim and so on has a prescribed time limit for filing.

The entire period of proceedings, starting from filing of the claim till judgment, is not to exceed 60 days.

This would no doubt ensure that issues bothering on small claims are resolved without the usual bottlenecks that characterize conventional court cases.

Interestingly, the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council a World Bank initiative under the office of the Vice-president of Nigeria on the ease of doing business in Nigeria coincidentally has as part of its reforms, enforcement of contracts and the introduction of special mortgage and commercial courts (similar to the small claims court).

For this purpose, Lagos and Kano states were chosen as pilot states for the scheme.

The Small Claims Court in Lagos compares to similar schemes in other jurisdictions.

In the United States for Example, the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands has established the small claims division.

The Small Claims Division of the Superior Court provides simple and inexpensive judicial procedures for the handling of small claims.

The Small Claims Division has jurisdiction of all civil actions where the amount in controversy does not exceed the value of Ten Thousand Dollars ($10,000.00), exclusive of interest and costs.

This measure gives individuals, corporations, partnership, businesses, etc., the opportunity to have smaller matters heard by the Court and to represent themselves.

Every state in the U.S. has established a small claims or conciliation court to resolve legal dispute involving an amount of money that is less a certain dollar figure.

In addition, the California Small claims court handles cases that involve disputes over money or property, usually below a set financial limit.

In California, an individual can collect up to $7,500 in small claims court, while corporations and limited liability companies are still limited to $5,000.

In Canada Small-claims court procedure is regulated both by provincial legislation and rules in most provinces.

Small-claims procedure is simplified with no strict pleadings requirements and no formal discovery process, and parties’ costs may be limited.

All provinces have procedures for small claims. In most provinces, including British Columbia, Alberta, and New Brunswick, small-claims courts operate independently of the superior courts.

In other jurisdictions, the small-claims court is a branch or division of the superior court.

In Ontario Canada, the Small-Claims Court is a branch of the Superior Court of Justice, and in Manitoba Canada, the Court is under the jurisdiction of the Court of the Queen’s Bench.

Small-claims cases are heard by judges of the Provincial Court in British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan by judges or deputy judges of the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario, and by Hearing Officers in Manitoba.

Monetary limits for small-claims courts in Canada vary by province. In Alberta for example the Provincial Court hears civil claims up to $50,000 Canadian Dollars.

In Nova Scotia, the maximum claim that may be recovered in the Small-Claims Court cannot exceed $25,000 (Also, British Columbia the maximum claim that may be recovered in the Small-Claims Division of the Provincial Court is $25,000.

The situation however differs in the United Kingdom. England and Wales do not have a separate small claims court.

They are usually dealt with in the County Court after being allocated to the small claims track of the County Court system.

This is similar to the fast track system obtainable in the Lagos state judiciary where cases the claim for liquidated monetary claims or counterclaim in a sum not less than N100, 000,000.

Small claims take place under a modified set of rules. Low-value cases, including most non-personal injury cases up to £10,000 (Ten thousand pounds), are usually assigned to the small claims track, producing a small claims action in the County Court.

District judges under an informal procedure hear these cases. In conclusion, the establishment of this court is a step in the right direction.

It is believed that the Small Claims Court can help accelerate the process of justice in relation to debt recovery in Lagos State, reduce the backlogs of pending cases/ influx of cases before superior courts of record and ultimately improve access to expeditious settlement of disputes.

These are undoubtedly recipes for legal and more importantly, economic development

Adesunkanmi, is an associate at Kenna Partners, Barristers and Solicitors.

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