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Law and Legal

The Influence of British Law on Nigeria’s Legal System

Last Updated on January 26, 2024


Nigeria, the largest country in Africa, has a legal system that is a blend of customary, Islamic and English law. The adoption of English law is due to the colonial period when Nigeria was under British rule.

British law has had a significant influence on Nigeria’s legal system. The English common law and equity have been pivotal in shaping the Nigerian legal system.

The British also introduced statutes, such as the Evidence Act of 1843, which Nigeria still applies. Additionally, the British introduced the doctrine of judicial precedent, which is particularly crucial in Nigeria’s legal system.

The doctrine specifies that courts must decide a case based on previous cases with similar facts. Furthermore, British judges who presided over the courts in Nigeria imparted English legal principles and practices to Nigerian lawyers and judges, thus influencing the evolution of Nigeria’s legal system.

Consequently, Nigeria’s legal system has a close link to the British legal system. While Nigeria has made some efforts to modify its legal system, British influence is still evident in Nigeria’s laws and judiciary.

Read: Understanding Nigerian Law: Criminal vs Civil Cases

History of British Law in Nigeria

The Nigerian legal system traces its roots back to British colonial rule and the subsequent introduction of British laws. Here is a revised version, keeping each sentence under 20 words and using an active voice:

  1. British colonial rule established the foundation of the Nigerian legal system.

  2. Traditional leaders were utilized by the British for indirect rule.

  3. However, the diversity of Nigerian customs and laws posed challenges to this system.

  4. British laws gradually replaced or modified traditional laws in Nigeria.

  5. Homosexuality was criminalized with the introduction of British laws.

  6. The British brought a written law and formalized court system to Nigeria.

  7. New courts, like the Supreme Court, became integral to Nigeria’s legal system.

  8. English was prioritized in Nigeria’s legal system during the colonial era.

  9. Traditional languages were marginalized due to the emphasis on English.

  10. British law schools were established in Nigeria to educate lawyers.

  11. Nigerian law schools have since modified their curriculum to cater to local needs.

  12. Efforts were made to incorporate elements of Igbo customary law into the criminal code.

  13. British law significantly influenced Nigeria’s legal system.

  14. Nigeria adapted British law to fit local traditions, resulting in a unique and evolving legal system.

Read: Roles and Responsibilities of Lawyers in Nigeria

The Legal System in Nigeria Today

The legal system in Nigeria today has been greatly influenced by British law, particularly English Common Law. This influence is evident in how the country’s judiciary and legal profession function in the present day.

Adoption of English Common Law

When Nigeria became a British protectorate in 1861, the country’s legal system was virtually non-existent. Upon gaining full independence in 1960, Nigeria had to build a strong legal system to govern the newly-formed country.

One of the first steps taken towards achieving this was the adoption of English Common Law, which forms the basis of Nigeria’s legal system today.

The Nigerian legal system is comprised of various legal codes and enactments, with the English Common Law serving as a guiding principle. Nigerian courts and judges routinely cite British legal principles and cases as persuasive precedent in the development of Nigerian law.

Additionally, lawyers and legal professionals are trained in the principles of English Common Law and use it as a framework to interpret Nigerian statutes and constitutional provisions.

The Role of the Judiciary and Legal Profession

The Nigerian judiciary is made up of a series of courts with varying levels of jurisdiction, ranging from customary courts to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

These courts are tasked with interpreting and applying the law in a manner that is fair and just. The legal profession in Nigeria plays a crucial role in ensuring that the judiciary functions effectively and efficiently.

In order to practice law in Nigeria, lawyers must be admitted to the Nigerian Bar Association. This requires completing a rigorous program of legal education and training, which includes studying English Common Law and Nigerian statutes and case law.

The Nigerian Bar Association is responsible for regulating the conduct of legal practitioners and upholding the ethical standards of the legal profession. By doing so, the association ensures that legal practitioners adhere to the highest standards of professional conduct and integrity when representing their clients.

The influence of British law on Nigeria’s legal system has been both profound and enduring. The adoption of English Common Law has provided a solid foundation for the development of Nigerian law, and the legal profession has played a key role in ensuring that Nigeria’s judiciary functions effectively.

Today, Nigeria boasts a legal system that is well-respected both domestically and internationally. Despite its colonial origins, the Nigerian legal system has developed a unique Nigerian identity that reflects the country’s rich cultural heritage and its commitment to justice and the rule of law.

Read: Top Law Schools in Nigeria: Preparing for a Legal Career

Positive Influence of British Law on Nigeria’s Legal System

British colonization of Nigeria in the 19th century led to a significant impact on the country’s legal system.

While some argue that British law had negative effects on Nigeria’s legal system, it is undeniable that certain positive aspects of British law have helped to improve the legal system in Nigeria.

Let’s discuss the positive influence of British law on Nigeria’s legal system.

Introduction of Written Laws and Codification

Before British colonization, Nigerian legal practices were largely unwritten and based on customary laws. British colonial administrators introduced written laws and codification, which allowed for greater legal certainty and predictability.

This enabled Nigerians to have a better understanding of their legal rights and obligations.

Codification also led to the development of more sophisticated legal procedures, such as the Nigerian Criminal Code and the Nigerian Evidence Act, which have been crucial to the country’s legal system.

Therefore, the introduction of written laws and codification is a positive aspect of British law that has helped to improve Nigeria’s legal system.

Establishment of a Formal Legal System

Under British rule, Nigeria’s legal system was formalized, with the establishment of formal courts and legal institutions.

This provided greater access to justice and increased legal protections for Nigerians. British colonial administrators also introduced a legal profession, which allowed for the training and professionalization of lawyers within Nigeria.

Today, there are over 80,000 lawyers in Nigeria, many of whom have been trained in both Nigerian and British law. This has helped to ensure that Nigerians have access to quality legal representation and that the legal profession is held to a high standard.

Greater Legal Certainty

British law has helped to provide greater legal certainty in Nigeria. Under customary law, decisions were made on a case-by-case basis and were often unpredictable.

With the introduction of written laws and the establishment of a formal legal system, Nigerians can now rely on consistent, predictable legal decisions and remedies.

Greater legal certainty has also attracted foreign investment and has played a crucial role in Nigeria’s economic development.

Foreign investors are more likely to invest in countries where legal rights are clearly defined and protected, and where the legal system is fair and transparent.

The positive influence of British law on Nigeria’s legal system cannot be overlooked. British colonization introduced written laws and codification, established a formal legal system, and provided greater legal certainty.

These developments have been crucial to improving the legal system in Nigeria, providing Nigerians with greater access to justice and legal protections. While there are still issues that need to be addressed in Nigeria’s legal system, the positive influence of British law is undeniable.

Read: Requirements for Practicing Law in Nigeria: A Detailed Guide

Uncover the Details: The Role of Lawyers in Nigeria’s Judicial System

Negative Influence of British Law

When the British colonized Nigeria in the late 19th century, they brought along their own legal system, which replaced the traditional and customary laws that were in place.

This legal system has been enforced even after Nigeria gained independence from the British in 1960.

While British law has had some positive impacts on Nigeria’s legal system, such as promoting human rights and democratic governance, it has also had negative effects. Let’s focus on the negative influence of British law on Nigeria’s legal system.

Disregard for Indigenous Laws and Customs

British law disregarded the traditional indigenous laws and customs already established in Nigeria, causing negative impacts.

These laws, developed over centuries, reflected the values and beliefs of the people, fostering social cohesion and harmony.

However, British law enforced its own system, replacing or relegating the indigenous laws and customs. Consequently, Nigerians experienced a loss of cultural identity and a sense of alienation.

Additionally, the British legal system failed to acknowledge Nigeria’s legal diversity, imposing a uniform system nationwide.

As a result, the legal system inadequately addresses the specific needs of different regions.

Legal Imperialism and Cultural Erasure

Another negative impact of British law on Nigeria’s legal system is that it has perpetuated legal imperialism and cultural erasure. Legal imperialism refers to the imposition of the legal system of one country on another country.

Western legal traditions heavily influenced Nigeria’s legal system, disregarding Nigerian cultural values and beliefs, resulting in cultural erasure.

The negative impact of British law on Nigeria’s legal system cannot be overlooked. In terms of human rights and democratic governance promotion, traditional indigenous laws and customs have been disregarded.

Nigerians must acknowledge the importance of developing a legal system that aligns with their cultural traditions and values, while ensuring justice and equity for all.

Read: The Evolution and History of Legal Professions in Nigeria

Current Challenges and Future Prospects

  1. The Nigerian legal system faces numerous challenges, including corruption, inefficiency, and outdated laws.

  2. Ongoing efforts have been made to modernize and reform Nigeria’s legal system, highlighted by the Nigerian Judicial Council’s National Judicial Policy.

  3. The Policy aims to address issues such as case backlog, judicial corruption, and the selective enforcement of court orders.

  4. Promoting the use of technology, such as e-filing and e-court systems, aims to enhance access to justice and reduce delays

  5. The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) actively advocates for international best practices, including mediation and arbitration.

  6. Some argue for a more balanced approach between British and indigenous laws, as British common law is believed to have negatively affected Nigeria’s legal system.

  7. Despite being more accessible to the majority of Nigerians, indigenous laws, like the Customary Court System, have often been undermined.

  8. This neglect creates a disconnect between the legal system and the people it serves.

  9. Steps have been taken to integrate indigenous laws, such as the introduction of the High Courts of the Federal Capital Territory (Civil Procedure) Rules 2018, allowing the use of customary law in civil proceedings.

  10. However, more needs to be done to educate lawyers and judges on indigenous laws and to improve their enforcement.

  11. The future prospects of Nigeria’s legal system are promising, with the potential for greater efficiency and access to justice.

  12. The adoption of technology and international best practices, along with the integration of indigenous laws, can help to achieve this.

  13. However, these efforts require dedicated leadership, adequate funding, and commitment to change.

  14. The legal profession also needs to become more diverse and inclusive, with greater opportunities for women and minority groups.

  15. Ultimately, the success of Nigeria’s legal system will depend on the willingness of its leaders and citizens to work towards a more just and equitable society.


The influence of British law on Nigeria’s legal system cannot be overemphasized. The colonial era brought with it an imposition of European legal systems in Nigeria.

The impact of British law on Nigeria’s legal system can be seen in English common law, statute law, and principles of equity and justice.

The legacy of British law has influenced Nigeria’s legal system, shaping a framework that protects citizens’ rights and upholds the rule of law.

Nigeria boasts a vibrant democracy with an independent judiciary, thanks to the significant role British law played.

We cannot overstate the ongoing impact and importance of British law’s legacy in Nigeria’s legal system. It has fostered a fair, transparent, and accountable system that will continue to drive Nigeria’s progress.

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