What is the real age of majority in Nigeria? -Solomon Adeseun Esq.

INTRODUCTION

The age of majority is the age at which a person is legally considered as an adult. Prior to the advent of Western civilisation in Nigeria, it does not appear that the indigenous communities of the territories that later became Nigeria had any particular age as the age of majority. It seems that the indigenous peoples consider a person as an adult if the person appears mature. On the other hand, a person may not be regarded as an adult yet if he or she is wanting in physical presence, notwithstanding the age. The result is that a 15 year old who has a larger physical appearance might be considered as an adult whereas an 18 year old who appears smallish in size might not be so considered.

The British colonisers however introduced their legal system into Nigeria. Part of that legal system is the Common Law of England. Under the Common Law as received, the legal age of adulthood or age of majority was 21 years. For the purpose of this write-up and with reference to Nigeria, we do not need to look beyond the case of Labinjoh V. Abake.[1] In that case, the full Court[2] established that, as was the case under English Law, a person in Nigeria was an infant if still under the age of 21 years.

 

IMPORTANCE OF THE AGE OF MAJORITY

The age of majority is important for a number of reasons. In the first place, there are a lot of disabilities which persons who have not attained the legal age of adulthood lie under. The reason for this is that because they are not yet adults and they are legally considered as infants, it is considered that they cannot take informed decisions. Therefore, if they were not restricted in what they could or could not do, they would enter into legal relationships which would entangle them in serious consequences, which may be totally devastating to them. Some unscrupulous adults too, observing their naivety, may take undue advantage of them.

 

Thus, you may not enter into contracts with an infant, except for such contracts as are considered essential for their very survival. These are called contracts for necessaries. Examples include contracts for food items or clothing and contracts for training or apprenticeship. Consequently, if an adult enters into a contract with a person who has not attained the age of majority, and the contract is not a contract for necessaries, then the infant, also called a minor, may elect to avoid such a contract. The adult would not be able to enforce any rights under the contract. The case of Labinjoh V. Abake cited above is an example. The Plaintiff supplied goods to the Defendant for trading purposes. The Defendant was about 17 or 18 years of age at the time of the contract. The Plaintiff wanted to recover the balance of the price of the goods supplied. It was held that if the English Common Law applies, the Plaintiff could not recover under the contract.[3]

 

In Omidiji V. Federal Mortgage Bank,[4]the purported buyer was an infant, both literally and legally, as he was eight days old when the mortgaged property involved in the case was sold to him. What actually happened was that the father bought the property, using the name of the infant child. It was held that “the Law is settled that at Common Law, infants or minors are barred from entering into contracts. The only exceptions are in respect of contracts which are for the infant’s necessaries…The purported sale of the house to the said infant purchaser is therefore null and void.”[5]

 

Another limitation under the Common Law is that an infant or a person who has not attained the age of majority is not sui juris. He cannot sue or be sued in his own capacity unless he sues or be sued through his legal guardian.[6] This would normally be a parent, a person in loco parentis or some other proper person appointed by the Court.

 

Under the Marriage Act,[7] it is a criminal offence to marry a minor, defined as a person under the age of 21 years without the requisite consent.[8] Under the Matrimonial Causes Act,[9] unless special circumstances exist, the Court may only make maintenance orders in respect of children of the marriage who are not more than 21 years.[10]

 

Furthermore, there are differences in the criminal responsibility of adults and infants. For example, under Section 30 of the Criminal Law of Lagos State,[11] a person under the age of 10 years is not criminally responsible for any act or omission.[12] A person under the age of 12 is not criminally responsible for any act or omission unless it is proved that at the time of doing the act or making the omission, he had capacity to know that he ought not to do the act or make the omission.[13] Furthermore, the Court may order a male person under 17 years of age to be caned, in addition to any other punishment to which he is liable, if he has been found guilty of an offence.[14]

 

UNCERTAINTIES ON THE AGE OF MAJORITY

Ranging from the Constitution to other statutory enactments, different ages have been set or prescribed for some specific purposes. For example, the Constitution has set the voting age in Nigeria at 18 years.[15] Again, the Constitution adopted the use of the term “full age” in making provisions for citizens who may wish to renounce their citizenship of Nigeria. Accordingly, any citizen of Nigeria of full age, defined as 18 years, who wishes to renounce his citizenship may do so in the prescribed manner.[16]

 

Under the Companies Act, a person who is 18 years or above has capacity to participate in the formation of a Company without needing to be joined by older persons.[17] Again, in making provisions for the disqualification of persons as directors of a Company, the Companies and Allied Matters Act adopted the use of the term “infant” which it defines as a person under the age of 18 years.[18]Thus, for the purpose of being a Director of a Company, a person is not an infant as from the age of 18 years and may be appointed as a Director.

 

Owing to these provisions adopting the age of 18 years, most especially, the Constitution, some have reasoned that if the Constitution regards the age of 18 years as good enough for voting, then that age should be good enough for other purposes where the age of legal adulthood is required.  In other words, that the age of majority has been reduced from 21 years to 18 years in Nigeria, so that on attaining the age of 18 years, a person may be legally considered as an adult.

 

However, the Court of Appeal rejected this reasoning. In the case of Elias V. Elias,[19]the issue was whether the Applicant should be permitted to continue the action as an adult Plaintiff, now that she has attained the age of 18 years. Ayoola, JCA (as he then was) said as follows: “In the absence of statutory prescription of the age of infancy, resort should normally be had to the Common Law. However, in the lower Court, the argument that prevailed on the learned Judge is that the Constitution has in several sections relating to right to vote and be voted for and to question elections has been given to persons who are 18 years old or above, therefore the capacity to take action in other matters is also 18 years…There is no controversy as to the common Law rule that the age of 21 years is the full age. Nor was it suggested that any Statute has expressly prescribed any other age. Learned Counsel for the Appellants has argued that where the legislature enacts a Statute (including Constitutional enactments) prescribing some age other than 21 years as the qualifying age for exercising a particular legal right, such enactment leaves the Common Law rule untouched for other purposes. I respectfully agree with this submission which correctly stated the law in my view.”[20]

 

The Court of Appeal added that the conclusion reached by the trial Judge that since the Constitution has put the voting age at 18 years with capacity to challenge any act under the electoral laws, that therefore, capacity to take action in other matters is also limited to 18 years is neither logical nor in accordance with any known principle of statutory interpretation.

 

LEGISLATING THE AGE OF MAJORITY

We had stated earlier that under the Common Law of England, the age of majority is 21 years. However, by the Family Reform Act 1969, the age of majority was reduced to 18 years in England. This type of direct statutory action appears to be what Ayoola, JCA, envisaged in Elias V. Elias when his Lordship talked about “statutory prescription of the age of infancy.”[21]

 

Enter the Child’s Rights Act

It appears that this requirement for statutory intervention has been satisfied in Nigeria in relation to the age of majority. The Child’s Rights Act[22] is an “Act to provide and protect the rights of a Nigerian child and other related matters.”[23] Under the Act, “child means a person under the age of eighteen years.”[24]In order to take it beyond peradventure that the Act meant to alter the age of majority in Nigeria, it provides further that “age of majority means the age at which a person attains the age of eighteen years.”[25]Thus, the meanings of the terms, “age of majority” and “child” have now come to be defined with reference to a common denominator, namely whether or not a person has attained the age of eighteen years. By defining what is majority, “minority” or “minor” has by implication, been defined and the term “child” is certainly wide enough to include “infant.”

 

Bad Provision in respect of Contract

The Act expressly makes provision on the question of restriction on the capacity to make contracts.[26] The restriction to contracts for necessaries now applies to child, as defined. Therefore, a person who is 18 years or above, since he is no longer a child, now has capacity to enter into all manners of lawful contracts just as any other adult person. Thus, a person who is 18 but under 21 years would now be bound by his contracts, even if the contract is not a contract for necessaries, unlike the position in the case of Labinjoh V. Abake.[27]

 

The Child’s Rights Act provides that “No child shall enter into a contract, except as provided in this section.”[28] The Act provides further, “Any contract, except a contract for necessaries, entered into by a child for repayment of money lent or for payment of goods supplied to the child, shall be void.”[29] Action cannot be brought on such contract after the child has attained majority and the child cannot ratify the contract after he had attained majority.[30]

 

The above are all the provisions of the Section and no provision has been made for any other contract, even if beneficial to the child. In providing that a child can only enter into contract in accordance with this Section, it would seem that the Act has outlawed all other types of contracts, except for contracts for necessaries.

 

This provision throws up a number of serious questions. The first is whether contracts of employment of minors have been outlawed? Traditionally, a contract of employment of a minor is not void, if the terms are beneficial to the minor. Likewise contracts for lease or purchase of land, which a minor could ratify within a reasonable time of attaining majority. If these contracts are now void ab initio, then ratification would no longer be possible. Some minors also acquire vocational skills while in school.  For example, a 14 year old secondary school pupil has aptitude for drawing and during long vacations, he was put under training so that by age 16, he had become quite proficient in making attractive, life-like drawings. Can he be engaged to draw portraits for celebrities and business ventures like banks and other such entities for pay? Would such a contract not be void? What if a minor, not having the advantage of parental or any other financial support, engages in trading in order to sustain himself and obtain income to finance his education? If such a minor is employed, can he take advantage of any employer’s soft loan scheme or be a member of a Workers’ Cooperative where such low interest loans are arranged? These all involve contracts.

 

What necessitated the change in law from the position where contracts of non-necessaries by minors were only voidable and not void? When those contracts like the examples above were only voidable, they could be enforced by the minor against the adult who entered into such contracts with him. But that would no longer be the case now that the law has limited their ability to contract to only the areas provided for in the Child’s Rights Act. It is submitted that this limitation is utterly to the disadvantage of minors, is wholly unnecessary and it does not appear that the implications of the provision were well thought out.

 

This new statutory definition of the age of majority also has implication on the capacity to sue and be sued, without the aid of a legal guardian. Under the High Court Civil Procedure Rules, “minor” means a person who has not attained the age of 18 years and is included among what the Rules term as “persons under disability”[31] who would need legal guardian to bring or defend a legal action.[32] Therefore, a person who is 18 years or above but under 21 years can now bring an action or defend the same in his own right unlike the position in Elias V. Elias.[33]

 

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

It can now be said with some measure of certainty, that the age of majority in Nigeria is at present 18 years. This conclusion is not based on the illogical argument that because the Constitution has prescribed the age of 18 years as the voting age, the age of majority for other purposes has thereby been reduced.

 

The reduction to 18 years, of the age of majority is based on statutory authority which expressly states that to be the age. If this is now accepted as the general position, it must be noted that Statutes that prescribe 21 years as the age of majority and which have not been amended, like the Marriage Act must then be regarded as exceptions to the general rule. This means that for the purposes of marriage for instance, full age is still 21 years, even though the relevant parent or guardian may be able to give consent to marry, under the Marriage Act to a person who is eighteen but not yet twenty one.[34]

 

The question may now be asked, what is the desirability of this reduction in age from 21 years to 18 years? Is it truly the case that when a person attains the age of 18 years, he is old enough to be regarded as an adult, to be regarded as independent, no longer in need of supervision and old enough to be responsible for his actions?

 

It was in 1970 that the age of majority was reduced in Britain, from 21 years to 18 years. It is true that today, most countries of the world have adopted the age of 18 years as the age of majority. However, there are some States in the United States of America where the age of majority has remained 21 years. Likewise, there are some countries where the age of majority remains 21 years.

 

Did Nigeria adopt 18 years as the age of majority because other countries, especially, the Western countries have adopted the same? Is there any particular advantage to be gained in the position that at age 18, a person is an adult, old enough to take critical life decisions independently of parents or an older person?

 

However, there is some science to the effect that the part of a person’s brain responsible for decision making is not yet fully developed until after the age of twenty years. If this be true, it then means that we have made laws giving serious, impactful, life changing responsibilities to people whose decision making faculties are not yet fully developed.

 

 

 

 

[1] (1924) 5 NLR 33 @34-35.

[2] Coram: Combe, CJ., Van der Muelen and Tew, JJ.

[3] The Full Court directed that since both parties were natives, evidence should be taken as to what the Native Law and Custom is in such a case and should be applied if it is not contrary to natural justice, equity and good conscience.

[4] [2001] 13 NWLR (Pt. 731) 646CA.

[5] Per Akintan, JCA (as he then was) @672A-B. Since these types of contracts by infants are not generally void but voidable at the option of the infant; perhaps, the Court adopted the term “null and void” in this case which was not at the instance of the infant, because the contract was merely a sham.

[6] See Order 13 Rule 9 of the High of Lagos State (Civil Procedure) Rules 2012.

[7] Cap. M6 Vol. 8, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2010.

[8] Sections 18 and 48. It now appears that such consent can no longer be given in respect of the marriage of a person who is under eighteen years, having regard to Child’s Rights Act, Ss. 21-23.

[9] Cap. M7 Vol. 8, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2010.

[10] Section 70 (4).

[11] Cap. C17 Laws of Lagos State of Nigeria 2015.

[12] Under the age of seven years in Section 30, Criminal Code Act, Cap. C38, Vol. 4 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2010.

[13] Section 30, Criminal Code Act, supra.

[14] Section 18, Criminal Code Act, supra. Quaere: whether this provision is not discriminatory and therefore, unconstitutional. However, the Child’s Rights Act has prohibited the sentence of caning for minors.

[15] See Sections 77, 117, 132 and 178 of the Constitution of Nigeria 1999.

[16] See Section 29 (1) and (4) of the Constitution of Nigeria 1999.

[17] Section 20, Companies and Allied Matters Act, Cap. C20 Vol. 3, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2010.

[18] See Section 257 Companies and Allied Matters Act, supra.

[19] [2001] 9 NWLR (Pt. 718) 429CA. This case, though reported in 2001, was actually decided in 1994.

[20] Supra @443C-H.

[21] Supra @443C.

[22] Cap. C50, Vol. 4 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2010.

[23] It seems the provisions would therefore not apply to Lebanese, Indian or other non-Nigerian children resident in Nigeria.

[24] Section 277, Child’s Rights Act, supra.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Section 18, Child’s Rights Act, supra.

[27] Supra.

[28] Section 18 (1), Child’s Rights Act, supra.

[29] Section 18 (2), Child’s Rights Act, supra.

[30] Ibid., Section 18 (3) (a) and (b).

[31] Order 1 Rule 2 of the High Court of Lagos State (Civil Procedure) Rules 2012;

[32] Order 13 Rule 9 of the High Court of Lagos State (Civil Procedure) Rules 2012

[33] Supra.

[34] Consent to marry cannot be given in respect of a person below eighteen years in view of Section 21 of the Child’s Rights Act which prohibits marriage of such persons.

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