PUBLIC INTEREST SUITS & THE STANDING TO SUE:
It would appear that actions/matters/suits brought in a personal capacity by an individual (albeit on behalf of a public interest) ought to be crowned with a toga of public interest. Public interest litigation is essentially an action brought for the benefit of a group or class of persons who have suffered a general wrong or are about to suffer as a result of the activities of other persons, usually corporate institutions and governments, for political, religious or economic gains. A key feature of this type of litigation is that the victims are often groups of persons who would not ordinarily be in a position to approach the Court on their own due to impecuniosity or lack of awareness of their rights.
By their nature, public interest suits ought to be commenced on behalf of the public by the authority vested with the requisite powers to act as the legal officer of the affected public. More explicitly, the settled position of the law remains that in an action to assert a public right or to enforce a performance of a public duty, only the Attorney-General of the Federation or that of a state (as the case may be) has the standing to sue.
What then becomes of the fate of a suffering public if the requisite authority vested with the power of locus standi on the public’s behalf fails to do the needful? It is the opinion of the writer – in tandem with the unequivocal position of superior Courts evidenced in a plethora of judicial authorities – that a person/group of persons can only circumvent their way through the jurisdictional quagmire of locus standi in public interest suits, where the person/group of persons can establish they have suffered more wrongs or peculiar wrongs, vis-à-vis the alleged acts/omission complained about. Simply, they must have suffered special wrongs.
The above position has always stood as trite, the authority of AMADI V. ESSIEN (1994) 7 NWLR (Pt. 354) 91 @ 115. paras. B-C has the following instructive submissions:
Sufficient interest to ground locus to a plaintiff to sue is an interest which is peculiar to the plaintiff, an interest which he does not necessarily share with the members of the public. The interest in the subject matter must be over and above what the ordinary members of the society have. The interest must be unique and proprietary. This position may however be unsatisfactory in view of its restrictive approach to the issue of locus standi but it remains the current legal position in Nigeria.
In spite of the progressive approach our Courts have adopted over the years, the above position has remained immutable. For an individual to have locus standi in public law, he must necessarily establish personal interest over and above the generality of the public. He must show he would incur injury over the justiciable issue(s) he intends to ventilate in Court. The paramount consideration is whether the person suing is a proper party to request an adjudication of the case and his interest must be peculiar, not general. Hear the Supreme Court speak in yet another case:
To invoke the judicial power of the court in the realm of public law, a litigant must show sufficient interest or threat of injury he will suffer. This interest or injury test is the yardstick in determining the question of the locus standi of a complainant and it is to be determined in the light of the facts or special circumstances of each case. (underlining mine, for emphasis)
In the determination and consideration of each distinct public interest suit, there is need to adopt an approach that would promote the cause of justice, as ‘justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done.’ Since the question of whether or not a claimant has sufficient justiciable interest or sufferance of injury or damage depends on the facts and circumstances of each case, a purposive and liberal approach would do a world of good.
There was strong clamour for this position by the Justices of the Apex court in CENTRE FOR OIL POLLUTION WATCH V. N.N.P.C. (2019) 5 NWLR (Pt. 1666) 518, it was submitted as follows:
It would be a grave lacuna in the system of public law if a pressure group or even a single public-spirited tax-payer were prevented by outdated technical rules of locus standi from bringing a matter to the attention of the court to vindicate the rule of law and get an unlawful conduct stopped……Rigid adherence to the common law rule that insists on locus standi for prospective genuine claimants or applicants poses a hindrance to enforcement of the rule of law. The outdated technical rules of locus standi should not be used to prevent an individual or group of public-spirited individuals from bringing a matter of unlawful conduct that violates the rule of law to the attention of the court. Every person, including non-governmental organisations, public-spirited individuals or associations, have sufficient interest in ensuring that public authorities or corporations submit to the rule of law and that no public authority has power to, arbitrarily or with impunity, break the law or general statute. The right of the citizen or lawful associations to see that the rule of law is enforced vests in him or the association sufficient standing to request the court to call to order a public authority allegedly violating the law.