The entire administration of law, order, and justice would come to a standstill if defendants were permitted to assert a defence of error or that they were unaware of the existence of the law they have broken.

10/4/20224 min read


The General rule of law is that “Ignorance of the law is not an excuse” with the maxim as “IGNORANTIA LEGIS NON EXCUSAT” or “IGNORANTIA LEGIS NEMINEM EXCUSAT”. It is pertinent enough to state that, Ignorance of the law excuses no one. The entire administration of law, order, and justice would come to a standstill if defendants were permitted to assert a defence of error or that they were unaware of the existence of the law they have broken. Nobody would be liable or guilty. People would just commit any breach of the law and simply plead the defense of mistake or ignorance.

The rule “Ignorance of the law is no excuse” literally means that people cannot defend their actions by claiming they did not know the law, even if you honestly did not realize that you were braking the law. Ignorance of the law occurs when one has full knowledge of law but is either ignorant of the legal effect of those laws or retains an erroneous belief as to their legal effect. Pursuant to section 22 of the Criminal Code Act provides that Ignorance of the law does not provide an excuse for an act or omission which should have constituted an offence, unless knowledge of the law is an express element of the offence. The mere fact that one honestly and reasonably but mistakenly believes that an act or omission is not illegal, cannot be a defense unless the knowledge of the law is ascertained.

Therefore, unless specifically permitted by the relevant law, defendants are not permitted to assert the defence of mistake or ignorance of the law in order to facilitate the administration of justice. Every person is assumed to be aware of the law, according to the prevailing principle. As a result, even if the effects of an action were not completely understood, it is assumed that the individual knew the law and intended the likely or natural outcomes of his actions. In other words, it is assumed that everyone is fully aware of what the law requires.

The issue at hand is how, according to the Nigerian approach, anyone can be aware of every legislation that is occasionally passed; the concept presupposes that the law in question has been properly proclaimed, publicised, and dispersed, such as by being printed in a government gazette. In order that a law obtains a binding force which is proper to a law, it must be applied to the men who have to be ruled by it. Such application is made by their being given notice by promulgation. A law can bind only, if it is reasonably possible for those whom it applies to acquire knowledge of it in order to observe it, even if actual knowledge of the law is absent for a particular individual. A secret law is known law.

The onus is generally placed on individuals to be aware of the laws of their state or community and thus this defense only applies in very limited circumstances. In view of the above, ignorance of the law can be used specifically as defense in four limited circumstances: When the law has not been published. When the defendant relied upon a law or statute that was later overturned or deemed unconstitutional. When the defendant relied upon a judicial decision that was later overruled. When the defendant relied upon an interpretation by an applicable official.

In view of the defenses in respect to IGNORANCE OF THE LAW, the following cases are spelt out for better understanding. In Ogbu v R (1959) NRLR 22at 24-25 (F.S.C) , it was held that “one of the accused said at his trial that he did not know that it was contrary to law to pay a bribe in order to induce the other accused to appoint him as village headman and therefore tax collector. (The mental element of the offense charged being that he should have paid the bribe “corruptly”). The trial judge accepted the story and acquitted him.

On Appeal by the other accused, although the Federal Supreme Court had no power to convict the first accused, they remarked (Obiter)………………. We are not at present satisfied that the learned judge was right in law in acquitting Utachia Okobi on those findings and that if the matter ever fail to be decided by this court, we should require cogent argument to convince us on a charge involving doing some acts “Corruptly”,. Ignorance of the law is a defense to a person who had intent of a kind which the law regards as corrupt.

ON THE SUBJECT MATTER, The Supreme Court of Nigeria held that: It is an established principle of criminal law that, an honest and reasonable belief in the existence of circumstances, which if true, would make the act for which the accused is charged an innocent act, has always been held to be a good defense. This is because of the state of his or her mind at the time of the commission or omission of the act which must not be only honest but must also be reasonable in the circumstances.

The above illustration was clearly spelt out in the facts and decision of THE STATE v. Squadron Leader S.I Olatunji (2003) LPELR- 3227 (SC). This piece would enable us to understand the application of defenses in IGNORANTIA LEGIS NON EXCUSAT.

Another analysis shows in the decision of the Supreme Court per Pats Acholonu JSC (as he then was), held that: “It is the law that where an accused acted under an honest and reasonable belief in a given state of situation which if true would have justified the act, he may set up such a credible defense…” This analogy was stated in the case of Osaremwindam Aiguokhian v. The State (2004) LPELR-269 (SC).

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