Access to Public Information
Company Doe v. Public Citizen
Closed Contracts Expression
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The Federal High Court of Nigeria dismissed a claim by the Unemployed Youths Initiative for access to public records because it lacked the necessary standing to sue. The local organization sought a judicial order requesting the Code of Conduct Bureau, an anti-corruption agency set up by the Federal Government of Nigeria, to provide the written declarations of assets and liabilities submitted by public officials. The Court held that based on its reading of the Initiative’s certificate of registration, and an affidavit of its objective to empower disadvantaged youths, the organization failed to prove the existence of a specific legal right or interest in bringing the action, which is required under Nigerian case law. Accordingly, the High Court of Nigeria dismissed the action for lack of jurisdiction in the absence of the Initiative’s legal standing to seek a judicial declaration against the Code of Conduct Bureau.
In August 2015, the Unemployed Youth Initiative (“the Initiative”) brought an action against the Code of Conduct Bureau, an anti-corruption agency set up by the Federal Government of Nigeria to enforce constitutional provisions against public corruption.
Part 1 of the Fifth Schedule to the 1999 Constitution, for example, requires every public officer, at the end of his or her term, to submit to the Code of Conduct Bureau “a written declaration of all his [or her] properties, assets, and liabilities and those of his [or her] unmarried children under the age of eighteen years.”
In its lawsuit before the Benin Judicial Division of the High Court of Nigeria, the Initiative claimed that it had standing on behalf of the country’s disadvantaged youths to obtain a judicial declaration to the effect that the Bureau was required under the Freedom of Information Act of 2011 and other relevant laws to make the written declarations of public officials publicly available. It further emphasized that it was important for the public to know the assets and liabilities of the office holders before and during their terms of employment with the government and that the Bureau’s failure to publish them was far more unjust than any invasion of privacy.
Justice Tokode dismissed the action for lack of standing to sue. Before addressing whether the Court had proper jurisdiction to adjudicate the case, Justice Tokode said it was necessary to establish whether the Initiative had “the necessary proprietary interest or right” to bring the lawsuit in the first place. Under Nigerian case law, “[a] person is said to have locus standi if he has shown sufficient interest in the action and that his civil rights and obligations have been or are in danger of being infringed.” [p. 11]
Justice Tokode further explained that generally “a person has locus standi in a given situation if it is possible for such person to show that the issue at hand causes him harm and that an action undertaken by the court could redress that harm.” [p. 12] Further, he said that the plaintiff’s standing and the jurisdiction of a court to hear his or her grievances are “interwoven” and therefore, where a plaintiff has no legal standing to sue, “the suit becomes incompetent and the court lacks the jurisdiction to entertain it.” [p. 13]
In addition to its certificate of incorporation, the Initiative submitted an affidavit, which in part described the organization’s objectives, such as creating an environment to empower unemployed youths of the country. Justice Tokode, however, held that these submissions failed to show the existence of a specific legal right or interest in bringing the action. “There is nowhere in the whole of the plaintiff’s affidavit where it claim[s] that its right is trampled upon or threatened or likely to be trampled,” said Justice Tokode. [p. 15] He also noted that the certificate of incorporation, without attaching the organization’s “memorandum or constitution,” did not allow the Court to “glance into its objectives to see whether they include the power to present this suit or make the prayers sought in the summons.” [p. 14]
Accordingly, the High Court of Nigeria dismissed the action for lack of jurisdiction in the absence of the Initiative’s legal standing to seek a judicial declaration against the Code of Conduct Bureau.
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