ACTION – CIVIL ACTION – Attitude of Court to the use of criminal law machinery for getting reliefs in civil disputes


“My Lords, the misuse of the criminal law machinery for getting reliefs in disputes that are civil in nature, by using the instruments of State has become dangerously rampant in recent times. This practice leads to vexatious and oppressive litigation and is contrary to Sec. 36(12) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). Sometimes, the filing of criminal proceedings is used as a bargaining chip to pressurize and threaten the Defendant to enter into a settlement. Even though these cases involve civil liability, they are given criminal contours with the object of expediting the civil recovery mechanism or to apply pressure on the Defendant or out of enmity towards the Defendant or to subject the Defendant to harassment. My Lords, it is important that criminal Courts should ensure that proceedings before it are not used for settling scores or to pressurize parties to settle civil disputes. The rule of law allows everyone with a legitimate cause or grievance to avail remedies available in criminal law. However, a complainant who initiates a prosecution with the knowledge that criminal proceedings are unwarranted and the remedy lies in the civil law, should be made accountable in law for pursuing misconceived criminal proceedings. My Lords, I would strongly deprecate the initiation of false criminal proceedings in cases having the elements of a civil dispute. The quick relief offered by a criminal prosecution as opposed to a civil dispute incentivizes the litigant to initiate false and vexatious proceedings. My Lords, it is necessary to take notice of a growing tendency in business circles to convert purely civil disputes into criminal cases. This is obviously on account of a prevalent impression that civil law remedies are time consuming and do not adequately protect the interests of lenders/creditors. Such a tendency is seen in several family disputes also, leading to irretrievable break down of marriages/families. There is also an impression that if a person could somehow be entangled in a criminal prosecution, there is a likelihood of imminent settlement. Any effort to settle civil disputes and claims, which do not involve any criminal offence, by applying pressure through criminal prosecution should be deprecated and discouraged.” Per HELEN MORONKEJI OGUNWUMIJU, JSC in AVIOMOH v. C.O.P & ANOR (2021-LCER-40461-SC) (Pp 23 – 25 Paras B – A).

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