Act vs Law: Conceptual Clarification by Wukatwa Charles Wakji, LLM

Wukatwa Charles Wakji, LLM

This article aims at clarifying whether there is a difference between an Act and a Law. In trying to distinguish between an Act and a Law, section 318 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 which is the definition section of the Constitution distinguished them thus:

318. (1) In this constitution, unless it is otherwise expressly provided or the context otherwise requires-

“Act” or “Act of the National Assembly” means any law made by the National Assembly and includes any law which takes effect under the provisions of this constitution as an Act of the National Assembly;

“law” means a law enacted by the House of Assembly of a State;

From the above provision of the Constitution, it is safe to say that an Act is an enactment of the National Assembly while a Law is an enactment of the House of Assembly of a State.

It is in line with this distinction that some sections of the Constitution make use of them distinctively as defined. Section 315 (1) and (3) made use of the distinction thus:

315. (1) Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, an existing law shall have effect with such modifications as may be necessary to bring it into conformity with the provisions of this Constitution and shall be deemed to be –

(a) an Act of the National Assembly to the extent that it is a law with respect to any matter on which the National Assembly is empowered by this Constitution to make laws; and

(b) a Law made by a House of Assembly to the extent that it is a law with respect to any matter on which a House of Assembly is empowered by this Constitution to make laws.

(3) Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed as affecting the power of a court of law or any tribunal established by law to declare invalid any provision of an existing law on the ground of inconsistency with the provision of any other law, that is to say-

(a) any other existing law;

(b) a Law of a House of Assembly;

(c) an Act of the National Assembly; or

(d) any provision of this Constitution.

The Interpretation Act is also of immense help to us in this discourse. In distinguishing the two terms, section 37(1) of the Interpretation Act 1964 defined an “Act” thus:

“Act” means an Act of the National Assembly, …

While section 18(1) of the same Interpretation Act defined a “Law” thus:

“Law” means any law enacted or having effect as if enacted by the legislature of a State… 

However, despite this distinction especially by the Constitution, some sections of the Constitution make use of the term “Law” where an “Act” should have been used.

Section 4(2) and (3) of the Constitution provides:

4(2) The National Assembly shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Federation or any part thereof with respect to any matter included in the Exclusive Legislative List set out in Part I of the Second Schedule to this Constitution.

(3) The power of the National Assembly to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Federation with respect to any matter included in the Exclusive Legislative List shall, save as otherwise provided in this Constitution, be to the exclusion of the Houses of Assembly of States.

Similar examples are found in section 4(4), 51, 58(2) and 58(5) of the Constitution and other provisions. More specifically, section 58(2) of the constitution provides thus:

58 (2) A bill may originate in either the Senate or the House of Representatives and shall not become law unless it has been passed and, except as otherwise provided by this section and section 59 of this Constitution, assented to in accordance with the provisions of this section.

However, the term “Law” has a universal meaning. Black’s Law Dictionary defined Law as:

The regime that orders human activities and relations through systematic application of the force of politically organized society, or through social pressure, backed by force in a society. It is the aggregate of legislation, judicial precedents and accepted legal principles.

From the above, it is clear that there are instances where the Constitution makes use of the term “Law” in its universal usage.

While the term “Law” can be used to mean enactments generally (whether it is made by the National Assembly or a House of Assembly of a State), it also means an enactment made by the legislature of a State. Therefore, in its usage, one must be careful not to use it in its restrictive sense when referring to enactments made by the National Assembly.

Wukatwe Charles Wakji Esq. specializes in Bill Drafting, Bill Scrutiny and Analysis and Post- Legislative Scrutiny. He can be contacted via: charlzwakji@gmail.com 


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