Whereas, certain matters of trifling value render it impractical to subject the parties involved to the extensive and formal litigation process; this is most frequently encountered in the recovery of debts of an amount lesser than the cost of a full-scale legal proceeding. Consequently, an aggrieved party, wronged but without recourse, often resorts to divine intervention, for those who hold faith, seeking retribution. In some cases, frustrated parties have resorted to unconventional means to recover their owed sums, occasionally leading to the commission of offences.
To address this matter, certain states in Nigeria, with the Federal Capital Territory being the most recent, have established a Small Claims Court, where non-declarative, non-possessory, and relief claims based on promises or tortious actions can not be pursued. The jurisdiction of this court is restricted to claims for liquidated sums not exceeding NGN 4,000,000:00 (excluding interest and cost), and, where permitted, not exceeding NGN 7,000,000:00. Claims sum can be broken down multiple claims to accommodate the financial jurisdiction of the court.
On July 6th, 2023, the Chief Judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, exercising constitutional authority, issued the Small Claims Court Procedure Directive of 2022 to facilitate access for disputing parties to an informal, expeditious, and cost-effective debt recovery process. The court ensures that cases are resolved within 60 days of filing, and appeals, directed to the Fast-Track Registry of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, are concluded within 30 days.
For a claim to qualify for consideration by this court, the following conditions must be met:
1. The debt must be a liquidated monetary demand not exceeding four million naira. Liquidated monetary demand is defined as a debt or specific sum of money typically due or payable, with an ascertainable amount, determined arithmetically without further investigation, as established by the Court of Appeal in the case of Micmerah International Agency Ltd. v A-Z Pet. Products Ltd. Such a liquidated sum may arise from a promise to provide compensation or a gift that has not been redeemed or paid, and the promisor acknowledges the debt, as seen in Joseph Uzor v. Daewoo Nigeria Limited.
2. The cause of action must have arisen within the Federal Capital Territory.
3. Either of the parties involved in the dispute must reside or conduct business in the Federal Capital Territory.
4. A demand letter must have been initially served on the debtor.
When these criteria are met, the claimant will be issued with Form SCA 2, where claim particulars will be submitted. If the claimant believes the defendant lacks a good defence, they may attach Form SCA 3 A and B, which include an application for the undefended list and an affidavit attesting to the grounds for their belief that the defendant lacks a good defence.
Upon assessment and payment of fees, a summons is issued, and the claim is filed by the Registrar of the Small Claims Court or the officer in charge. The case is then transferred to the administrative District Court Judge, who assigns it to any district court judge presiding over the Small Claims Court. This assignment must be completed within 2 days of filing. Fresh cases, unless approved by the Chief Registrar of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory or the Director of Magistrates, will not be assigned to judges handling more than five part-heard cases that have extended beyond 60 days.
The court bailiff or officer is responsible for serving the summons and other related documents on the defendant within 7 days of filing and filing Form SCA within 2 days of service. The defendant has 7 days to file a response, counterclaim, or admissions using Form SCA 5. In the case of a counterclaim, the defendant must attach Form SCA 5A to their process, and the claimant may file a further affidavit within 5 days to respond to the counterclaim.
In instances where the bailiff is unable to effect service within the specified timeframe, Form SCA 6 is to be filed, and the claimant may subsequently file Form SCA 7, which is an application for substituted means of service. This application must include an affidavit providing the physical, postal, or electronic mailing address of the defendant and evidence of correspondence between the parties.
Hearings must be conducted within 30 days from the initial hearing date. This period may begin with 7 days set aside for private amicable settlements, which, when reached, are reported to the court and entered as consent judgments. In the event of failure to reach an amicable settlement, the court proceeds to hearing and takes oral and documentary evidence, focusing on justice rather than technicalities due to the informal nature of the court. Rules of evidence are relaxed, allowing the judge to ask questions and request document production to clarify ambiguous evidence. Hearing continues daily, with each party entitled to only one adjournment, until the hearing is concluded.
Upon the conclusion of the hearing, which must be completed by the 30th day or earlier, the court has 14 days to deliver its judgement and cause copies of the judgement to be issued to parties not later than 7 days after the delivery of the judgement. Failure to comply with this 14-day deadline does not invalidate the judgement delivered outside this timeline. However, when neither party appears in court at the commencement of the hearing, and there is no justifiable reason for an adjournment, the claim is struck out, and no relisting is allowed.
Judgments issued by the court are enforced as judgments of the District Court. Appeals against judgments of this court goes to the High Court of the FCT (Fast-Track Registry) and are initiated through a Notice of Appeal in Form SCA 8 within 14 days from the date of judgement delivery and records of appeal are to be transmitted to the appellate court within 14 days.
These 17 articles of Practice Directions conclude with a provision that makes other applicable court rules within the Federal Capital Territory relevant to matters not covered by these Practice Directions.