RAMADAN AND THE LEGAL MEANING OF ‘VOID’: THEORY VERSUS FUNCTIONALITY (PART 1)

Void-Stamp

A. BACKGROUND

Having omitted in 2014 to expressly seek the deletion of what has come to be known as the ‘NHIS names’ from the voters register, the Plaintiffs in the Ramadan case returned to the Supreme Court (the ‘Court’) earlier this year, election year, to complete what they began. This time, they expressly asked the court to, among others, either set aside the entire voters register as void; or in the alternative make “an order compelling the Electoral Commission to audit the current register of voters through the validation of the registration of each person currently on the register … [and] to delete the names of unqualified persons …” By ‘unqualified persons’, I believe, the Plaintiffs mean person who registered with the NHIS cards.

In this two-part article, I will offer a defence to the decision of the Supreme Court in the Ramadan case refusing to order the automatic deletion of NHIS names from the voters register. In doing this, I will attempt to foil the attacks that have been variously mounted against the decision. Particularly, I will conclude that (1) under our Constitution, an act or its consequences are not necessarily or automatically void even if the law under which they were done becomes void; and, (2) public law (like private law) does, indeed, admit of the the concept of ‘voidable.’

B. THE ‘AUTO VIEW’

A law is unconstitutional if it is found to be inconsistent with any provision of the Constitution. According to our Constitution, such a law, “to the extent of the inconsistency [is] void.” Ordinarily, if a thing is void, then, it is ineffectual, it is nugatory, it has no legal or binding force. Therefore, by the very provision of the Constitution, particularly Article 1(2), any law which is unconstitutional is also automatically void ab initio.

By asking the court for that relief, therefore, the Plaintiffs were labouring under the understanding that everything which is void is void ab initio. The consequence of that understanding is that the relevant law as well as every act that is done in pursuance of such a law is deemed as though it was never done. It never was in the eyes of the law. Such an act is incurably bad and cannot yield any fruit whatsoever. After all (and as most classical lawyers would insist), “you cannot put something on nothing and expect it to stand” (much apologies to Macfoy v. U.A.C. (1962) and its Ghanaian offspring, Mosi v Bagyina (1963)). For the purposes of simplicity, I will refer to this understanding of ‘void’ as the ‘auto view’, not the least because it assumes that an act which is made under a law which is subsequently declared void is also void automatically.

Going by the auto view, persons who were registered by the EC using NHIS cards were never registered. In the eyes of the law, they are not on the register, right from the day of their purported registration. Deleting them, therefore, is a natural consequence.

The Court however took a view other than the auto view. The Court refused to grant the Plaintiffs that relief. This is what Justice Gbadegbe, through whom the entire Court spoke, said:

“The said registrations were conducted under CI 72, which was the applicable legislation under which eligible citizens were registered before the 2012 elections. As the registrations were made under a law that was then in force, they were made in good faith and the subsequent declaration of the unconstitutionality of the use of [NHIS] cards should not automatically render them void.”

In other words, the court does not believe that an act done pursuant to an unconstitutional law is necessarily and automatically void. It is exactly this position of the Court which brings anguish to the Plaintiffs and their fans. It is also exactly this holding that has caused a second round of rumbling in the law circles.

For example, Mr. Akoto Ampaw and Prof Kwasi Prempeh, writing jointly, have described the Court’s position as “profoundly extraordinary and deeply troubling.” To support their accusation, the two gentlemen, unfortunately, conflated Articles 1 and 2 of the Constitution and argued as follows:

“If the Constitution is the supreme law of Ghana; and if it lies within the exclusive province of the Supreme Court to declare that a law is unconstitutional; then, a law declared to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, is definitively void and, therefore, of no legal effect.”

As if that was not enough, the two gentlemen went further to make an extraordinarily-large claim. They find it “fanciful” that a Court would import a private law concept of ‘voidable’ into the realms of public law. Further, they assert that “[t]he concept of voidability is a concept known to contract law but completely unknown to constitutional law.”

From this, we may deduce that the auto view rest on two pillars, namely (1) under our Constitution, an act (including its consequences) is necessarily and automatically void if the law under which it was done becomes void; and (2) public law does not admit the concept of ‘voidable.’

C. THE CHECK

I wish to run a legal-validity check on each of these pillars. In other words, I will be arguing, first, that under our constitution, an act or its consequences are not necessarily or automatically void even if the law under which they were done becomes void; and, second, that public law does, indeed, admit of the concept of ‘voidable’.

  1. The Constitution and “Void”

The beginning point of this section of the argument is that there is a difference between a law and the act which is done under the law. The drafters of the Constitution knew this too well. That is, perhaps, why they created separate Articles for them. Article 1 deals with “law” only and is placed under the scope called the ‘Supremacy of the Constitution” (see the marginal note). Article 2, on the other hand, deals with both “laws” and “acts” that are done, whether in pursuance of a law (intra vires) or without legal backing (ultra vires). Article 2, unlike Article 1, deals with ‘Enforcement of the Constitution’ (see marginal note).

By this, we may also say that the drafters of the Constitution know pretty well that proclaiming the supremacy of the Constitution is one thing and enforcing it another. The former is theoretical and desirable, requiring nothing more than a “declaration”, while the latter is functional and requires practicable “orders”. So, the relevant portion of Article 1 says that:

“The Constitution shall be the supreme law of Ghana and any other law found to be inconsistent with any provision of this Constitution should, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.” (emphasis mine)

Here, we would notice that the provision contains the word “void” and says nothing about an act. On the other hand, however, the relevant portion of Article 2 says that:

 “A person who alleges that (a) an enactment or anything contained in or done under the authority of that or any other enactment; or (b) any act or omission of any person is inconsistent with, or is in contravention of a provision of this Constitution, may bring an action in the Supreme Court for a declaration to that effect.”

Note that this provision, which deals with ‘acts’ says nothing about ‘void.’ Rather it commands the Court to make a “declaration” to the effect that the act or law in question is indeed “in contravention of a provision of this Constitution.” In other words, while a law which is inconsistent with the Constitution is automatically “void” and is of no effect, acts done under that law may not be automatically void.

Some may attempt to argue that this bifurcation is extremely fine and merely artificial. However, there are a number of substantial functional and practical reasons that may be advanced in support of the bifurcation. i.e. reasons why a law may be void while an act done under it would not be void without further steps. For example, a situation where innocent third parties have already acquired rights under the void law, those rights are not automatically extinguished merely because the law is declared void. This falls in line with the rule against destruction of accrued rights.

Further, the bifurcation also explains why lawyers always separate declaratory-reliefs from order-reliefs. Every lawyer knows (or, perhaps, ought to know) that seeking an order-relief requires a lot more consideration than declaratory-reliefs.  For example, one may seek a declaratory relief that Justice Cecilia Koranteng-Addow (may her soul rest in peace) right to life was violated. However, an order-relief which seeks to bring the perpetrators of the alleged violation to book or which seeks an award of compensation will, definitely, require more consideration (including a consideration of Section 35(2) of the Transitional Provisions, proof of next of kin, public policy, etc.) than the factors that are considered in granting the declaratory relief.

Finally, one may, upon a careful reading, also notice that this bifurcation lies at the heart of Article 2(2). Article 2(2) confers discretion on the Court to, notwithstanding whatever declaratory reliefs they have granted, “make such orders and give such directions as it may consider appropriate for giving effect, or enabling effect to be given, to the declaration so made.” The million-cedi question, therefore, is: if everything done under a law is automatically void (by reason of unconstitutionality) and is of no effect, why, then, will the Constitution give some discretion to the Court to make such orders and give such directions as it may consider appropriate”?

This reasoning was sufficiently stated in the recent case of Dery v Tiger Eye (2016), where the Court, in considering “what consequences that flow from the violation of Article 146(8)” in that case, recalled its position in the Election Petition case (2013) that “it is not every violation of a constitutional provision which results in the annulment of the action.” In Dery, the Court went further to state that the consequences of unconstitutionality require more consideration than the declaration of the unconstitutionality itself. It says:

“Apart from legal considerations, there are also public policy considerations that support that general principle of law. It does not follow that a declaration that an action or inaction is unconstitutional has the effect of nullifying the action in question. The court must say it does have such an effect having regard to an express or implied provision of the Constitution or that it should have such effect in the spirit of a particular Constitutional provision, and proceed to give directions or make the appropriate consequential orders under Article 2(2) of the Constitution, 1992.”

Therefore, even though it is true that “all laws which are repugnant to the Constitution are null and void” (Marbury v. Madison, 1803.), it is equally true, even under American constitutional law, that “an unconstitutional statute is not necessarily a nullity as it may have indeterminate consequences binding on the people” (See: 16 Am. Jur. 2d., Sec. 257). Consequently, in Ghana, too, acts that are done under an unconstitutional law and their consequences are not always automatically and necessarily void as the law itself. So, like Prof Forsyth, I believe that public law acts are theoretically void but functionally voidable.

In part 2 of this article, I will attempt to assail the second pillar on which the auto view rests, namely that public law does not admit of the concept of ‘voidable.’

By Justice Srem-Sai, Lecturer, GIMPA Faculty of Law