This postulation is to the effect that every person no matter his status is subject to the laws of the land. In this sense, it means equality before the law or equal subjection of all classes of persons to the ordinary law of the land administered by the ordinary law court.
This postulation includes equality, justice, and equality of rights. It is also a constitutional provision by the provisions of section 17(1) of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
A further interpretation of this postulation means that no man is above the law and that every man, whatever, his rank or condition is subject to the law of the land and amenable to the jurisdiction of the ordinary tribunals.
Ordinarily, most countries observe this sense of the rule of law in that the socio-political or economic status of an individual is per se no answer to legal proceedings, yet there are a number of exceptions when it comes to practical experiences. For example, from the nature of the duties they have to discharge judges, diplomatic representatives and parliamentarians are usually protected and given certain privileges. They are also exempted from certain liabilities. Similarly, the police have special powers of arrest and search which the ordinary man does not possess.
Furthermore, in modern times, it is not easy to keep to the ideal that every person is brought before the ordinary courts of law. Special courts, as for example, juvenile courts are established to handle special cases. We also have courts for the trial of military personnel who have committed offences. These courts apply special laws which do not apply to every citizen. Similarly, various tribunals and panels have been constituted and charged with the responsibilities of disciplining erring members of the different professions.
However, the decisions of these tribunals are usually subject to review by superior courts. For instance in DENLOYE V DENTAL PRACTITIONERS. DISCIPLINARY TRIBUNAL (1981) 1 N.C.L.R.35 the decision of the tribunal was set aside by the Supreme Court of Nigeria when the court found that the appellant had not been accorded a fair trial before being penalized.
On the whole, the exigencies of modern government suggest that many persons have peculiar rights, powers, immunities and duties which the ordinary citizen does not have. It is apparent; therefore, that equality before the law in modern times does not mean that every person, officials and ordinary citizens alike have the same rights and duties. Rather, it means that all people are subject to the law but the law which some are subject may be different from the law to which others are subject.
In GOVERNMENT OF LAGOS STATE V OJUKWU (1986) 1 N.W.L.R. 621 at 647 Oputa J.S.C. said that the Rule of Law presupposes:-
- That the state …. is subject to law
- That the judiciary is necessary agency of the Rule of Law, 3. That government should respect the right of individual citizens.
That to the judiciary is assigned the role of adjudicating in proceedings relating to matters in dispute between persons or between government or an authority and any person in Nigeria.”