Officers in the Temple of Justice: Court Registrars – Powers and Duties By Daniels Nanna, Esq.
Court Registrars are public officers or officials who carry out indispensable administrative functions in the Nigerian judicial system. They are the official bolts, nuts and grease that make the wheel of justice run smoothly. The Registrar of Court, which includes also the Deputy Sheriff is said to be a servant of the Court.
The head of the registry is the Chief Registrar who is the Head of Administration, the Chief Accounting Officer of the Court and heads the Court Support Staff in the High Courts of various states in Nigeria.
Majority, if not all of the Rules of Court in Nigeria define a “Court Registrar” to mean: the Chief Registrar, Deputy Chief Registrar(s), Assistant Chief Registrar, Principal Registrar, Senior Registrar, High Registrar, Registrar or any other Officer acting or performing the function analogous of a Registrar. See: Ezomo V. Attorney-General, Bendel State (1986) LPELR-1215(SC) Per Karibi-Whyte, J.S.C (P. 40, paras. C-D).
In other jurisdictions (common law and non-common law) the duties of registrars are much more wider as seen in the definition of a registrar below: “The registrar is a Chief Executive officer of a judicial forum. They are in charge of the entire registry of the department. In common law jurisdictions, registrars are usually judicial officers with the power to hear certain civil matters such as interlocutory applications and assessment of damages. In some jurisdictions they may also hear trials of cases if both parties consent. Registrars are assisted by Deputy-Registrars, who in common law jurisdictions are sometimes called masters. The Registrar is the chief administrator of the department, normally they are the Head of the Department. The post of Registrars are important for the effective running of tribunals, High Courts, Court of Appeals and even the Supreme Court. Court Registrars in the Administration of Justice play similar roles Registrars of educational institutions (Universities, Polytechnics etc) play in the Administration of tertiary education. In Judicial matters they have both administrative and quasi judicial powers in the courtesy subject to only to the authority of the president/Chairman of the tribunals and Chief justices of the High Courts and Supreme Court. The Government may also appoint one or more Assistant/Deputy Registrars. They assist the Courts, the Registrar, the President/Chairman and the Judges in all their official/ judicial functions. They are deemed to be exercising delegated powers of the Registrar and they are the Guardians of the Seals and responsible for the Court’s archives and publications”.
SOURCES OF POWER AND DUTIES
The Court Registrars derive their powers and authorities from several source which included but not limited to the following:
- Rules of Court
- Practice Directives from the Chief Justice, President of the Court of Appeal, the Chief Judge of a State High Court as the case may be or heads of specialised courts.
- Judicial Precedent
In Ofem & Ors. v. Presbyterian Church of Nigeria, the Court of Appeal held and rightly so that: “The duty of the registrar has been well spelt out in the provisions of those rules, and where a statute or rule has spelt out a duty, that duty must be carried out in strict compliance with the statute. The issuance of Form 49 connotes that the Registrar should sign at the space which is adequately and conspicuously provided at the foot of the Form as in Schedule 1 to the Rules…”
Order 2 Rule 21 of the Supreme Court Rules 1985 states that:
“The Chief Justice may assign, and the Chief Registrar may, with the approval of the Chief Justice, delegate to any Registrar of the Court any functions required by these Rules to be exercised by the Chief Registrar.”
Order 2 Rule 20 of the Supreme Court Rules 1985 in stating the duties of the Chief Registrar and by extension all other Registrars under him provides that:
“The Chief Registrar shall have the custody of the records of the Court and shall exercise such other functions as are assigned to him by these Rules”
REGISTRARS OF COURT FUNCTIONS AND DUTIES
It is worthy of note that where a statute or Rule of Court contains specimens of Forms, certificates or court processes that should be issued, seal and/or signed by the Chief Registrar or any other Registrar under him, it is taken that such a rule of court or statute empowers the Registrar or official of court to so sign.
It is therefore very important for legal practitioners, to consult the specimens of Forms or process usually located at the Schedule end of a statute or rule of court. This is necessary because a rule of court or section in legislation may mention that a form, certificate or process be filed without stating who should sign it. The said document if signed by a Counsel when it ought to be signed by a registrar will be incompetent. However, if such a court process like a Writ is not signed by the registrar when it is his duty to so sign, such a process will be irregular and not incompetent,.
Another example is the signing of the Certificate as to Decree Nisi and the subsequent Decree Absolute in matrimonial matters. It is the primary responsibility of the Assistant Chief Registrar to sign both documents by the specimen of Forms 35 and 41. It is when the registrar fails or refuse to sign that another responsible court officer (which includes a Judge) may sign. If a legal practitioner signs such a document it will be incompetent notwithstanding that a competent court has pronounced a decree nisi dissolving the marriage.
It is the duty of the Court Registrar to receive process, assess same, receive the assessed fees, seal and endorse the process.
Service of court processes is an administrative function done by the Chief Registrar through the Sheriffs and Bailiffs.
ASSISTANCE TO THE JUDGES
- The Registrar prepares the Cause List which contamos a list of all the cases before the court for the day.
- They call out each case in turn so that the parties can identify themselves to the court.
- When a witness is called out to testify in a case, it is the Registrar who administers the oath to the witness.
- The Registrar keeps all court documents (writs, etc.) relating to each case before the court and makes them available to the judge when the need aries.
- When the court makes an order, the Registrar keeps a record of the order and enrolls the order if there is need to execute the order.
- The Registrar is in charge of the general administration of the court and ensures the smooth running of the courts.
APPEAL RELATED DUTIES OF THE REGISTRAR
- Summon the parties before him to settle the documents to be included in the records
- Settle the documents to be included in the record of appeal;
- Fix the amount to be deposited by the appellant to cover the estimated cost of preparing and forwarding the record of appeal;
- Fix the amount to be deposited by the appellant or secured by bond for the due prosecution of the appeal and the payment of any costs.
- Proceed to transmit the records compiled to the Court of Appeal
- It is the duty of the Registrar to notify the parties of the transfer of record of appeal after the registrar of the court below had completed his own duties of settling and compiling the records.
The list of the functions and duties of the court registrars are in inexhaustible.
JUDICIAL AND QUASI JUDICIAL FUNCTIONS
Registrars of court in Nigeria do not have strict judicial or quasi-judicial functions. But where a Chief Magistrate is promoted to a Chief Registrar of a High Court, such a registrar can still sit as magistrate over pending matters in his court before his promotion.
In Aguele V. Sufi the Nigerian Court of Appeal held that: “… nothing precludes the Chief Registrar from acting as Magistrate, and as a result the learned trial Court was right when it found that there is nowhere the laws cited prohibit a Chief Magistrate or any Magistrate because he has been appointed as a chief Registrar to perform his substantive duty as a judicial officer.” Per ORJI-ABADUA, J.C.A. (P.7,paras.C-E)”
A South African Chief Registrar Denim Kroqwana in his article titled “Duties and Responsibilities of Registrars in the Modern Legal System” had the following to say:
“There was a time in our history when our motion court rolls were clogged by applications for default judgment in matters where claims were liquid. This gave rise to the passing of S 27A of the Supreme Court Act, which provides that “a judgment by default may be granted and entered by the Registrar in the manner and in the circumstances prescribe in the rules made in terms of the Rules Board of Courts of Law Act, 1988 (Act 107 of 1985), and a judgment so entered shall be deemed to be a judgment of the court”.
The result of this exercise is the alleviation of the work load of the judges. Coupled with the Registrar’s power to grant default judgments is the power to declare immovable property executable – Rule 45(1) of Superior Court Rules of Practice.”
It is submitted that we can learn and even borrow from the example of the South African judicial system. If Lawyers with post call to bar practice experience of 10 years are appointed registrars, they can and should be allowed to perform some form of judicial and quasi-judicial functions. These will in no doubt reduce the work load of the Judges.
SOME PRINCIPLES OF LAW RELATING TO COURT REGISTRARS
- The propriety of Court’s reliance on information given by registrar:
“Reliance on court officials as the registrar who is expected to be seised with facts relating to the administrative aspect of the any case in court, such as the filing of same in the registry, payment of the correct fees for filing, issue of service of processes etc., by a Magistrate or a Judge is sine qua non to the smooth running of the state of affairs in the citadel of justice”.
- Whether the knowledge of a document in the court’s file by the registrar is imputed to the court:
“Once a document is in the court’s file the knowledge of it by the Registrar is imputed to the Court.”
See: SBM Services (Nigeria) Ltd. & Ors V. Okon & Ors (2003) LPELR-7292(CA); Steyr (Nig.) Ltd. v. De Luke M. Enterprises (1999) 12 NWLR (Pt. 631)458.” Per EKPE, J.C.A. (P. 27, para. C)
- Duty of a High Court Registrar, when a document or instrument is lodged with him for execution:
“when, as here, it is shown that the document or instrument after it had been prepared (following a refusal or neglect of the party originally ordered to execute the same) was lodged with the High Court Registrar for execution, the registrar undoubtedly has a duty to bring the same to the notice of the Judge who on being satisfied with the documents will authorise its execution by the registrar; this undoubtedly is a matter for the internal administration of the registry.” See: Tsokwa Motors (Nig.) Ltd. V.United Bank For Africa Plc. (Supra) per Idigbe, J.S.C. (P.26, Paras.G-C).
- Whether the mistake of a Court Registrar can be visited on a party:
“The mistake of the Registrar of the lower court should not be visited on the appellants, more so, that the inclusion of the irrelevant document has not occasioned a miscarriage of justice.”
- Whether a Chief Registrar can sit as Chief Magistrate:
“…there seem not to be any Law, as I observed earlier, prohibiting the Chief Registrar of the State High Court appointed from the Magistracy from continuing to sit in Court as a Chief Magistrate, the position he has not been stripped of. There is no Law suggesting that being appointed a Chief Registrar would erode the powers of a Chief Magistrate to sit as such. It must be emphasized that an action can only be declared as being illegal where there is a law in place prohibiting its commission.”
- Whether a party can be punished for the negligence of the Registrar:
“A party cannot therefore be punished for the negligence or tardiness of the Registrar in the performance of his duties. It should also be noted that it is primarily the responsibility of the Registrar of the Edo State High Court to endorse the said writ, once a party has paid the filing fees, he is no longer in control of how, and when his writ is endorsed..” see: Olatunbosun V. Annenih (2008) LPELR-8582(CA); B.B.M. Ltd. V. S. Olayiwola & Sons Ltd. (2005) 3 NWLR, (PT.912) Page 434 at 457.
- Judicial notice of signatures of officers of court, etc:
Section 520 Companies and Allied Matters Act 1990- Laws Of The Federation
“In all proceedings under this Part of this Act, all courts, Judges, and persons judicially acting, and all officers, judicial or ministerial, of any court or employed in enforcing the process of any court, shall take judicial notice, of the signature of any officer of court and also of the official…”
Registrars play very important roles in the administration of justice. It is suggested that Registrars who are Lawyers ought to be given extended roles by way of quasi-judicial functions. Registrars can hear and determine summary and default judgment applications. They can also sit as judges over small claims suits.
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