Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The Concept Of Characterisation And The Problems Associated With Qualification/Classification

Conflict of Law Group 3

By: Adesoye Ibukunoluwa, Bolomope Bashirat Ifeoluwa, Sowunmi Temitope and Ogundoye Gbenga


Conflict of laws otherwise known as Private International law is that part of municipal law of the state which directs its courts and administrative agencies when confronted with legal problems involving a foreign element to determine whether or not to apply a foreign law or laws. It is mainly concerned with one or more of the following questions;

      1) Choice of jurisdiction

      2) Choice of law

      3) Recognition and enforcement of foreign judgment 

The problem of conflict of law though most of the time is often considered with how to solve a case involving a foreign element, also has an internal scope. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Nigeria.

Nigeria practices a federal system of government with its separate federal and state laws. The country also practices a dual system of court and there is multiplicity of laws within the state. Therefore, internal conflicts of law are inevitable.

       However in any conflict of law case, one of the first things the court must do is to categorize the legal question under a particular legal heading. This process called characterization (also known as classification by English writers and qualification by French writers) presents a very knotty issue in conflicts of law.

       In ASHIRU V BENSON & ANOR (1967) N.M.L.R pg 363, the plaintiff, dependant of a victim of an automobile accident which occurred in Western Nigeria successfully brought an action under the Federal Fatal Accident in Lagos High Court against the defendants. The defense contended that an action could not lie under the Lagos statute where the injury and death occurs in Western Nigeria. The action succeeded.

The court in this case notwithstanding the criminal ramifications of the matter in question, characterized the matter as tort and subsequently laid down the conflict rule that a foreign cause of action in tort has to fit into the domestic category of tort.



Characterization refers to the allocation question raised by factual situation before the court to its correct legal category and its object is to reveal the relevant rule or rules for the choice of law. It deals with the process of assigning a factual situation to a proper legal category. In those cases where a different result would be achieved depending on which of several possibly relevant laws is applied, characterization reveals the relevant rule for the choice of law. Thus until the judge has ascertained the true basis, that is, characterize the plaintiff’s claim he cannot make any pronouncement for he would not know the rule or choice of law to be applied. This issue of characterization has been regarded by many continental and some English and American writers as a problem fundamental to the conflict of laws. It was discovered independently and almost simultaneously by the German jurist Kahn and the French jurist Bartin at the end of the 19th Century and was introduced to American lawyers by Lorenzen in 1920 and to English lawyers by Beckett in 1934.

In majority of cases, it is obvious that the facts must be subsumed under a particular legal category that a particular conflict rule is available and the connecting factor indicated by that conflict is unambiguous. In fact, the categorization may be so obvious as to be automatic. For example, a buyer’s claim against the seller that the thing he bought does not work as it supposed to, is so obviously a contractual issue that any court or lawyer  dealing with it would not even advert to the classification process before turning to the law of contract to seek the solution. But if the malfunction causes injury or damage to the property, or if the complainant is not the buyer of the product but the user of it, either the initial characterization has to be amended in some way or the situation seen as something else entirely –a tort perhaps or the subject of statutory action. Thus, characterisation sometimes and most of the times is not obvious. Even if the forum and the foreign country have the same conflict rule and interpret the connecting factor in the same way, they may still reach different results because they characterize the question in different ways. For instance, the forum may regard the question as one of succession, while the foreign law may regard the same question as one of matrimonial property.

IN OGDEN VS OGDEN (1908) PN6, a French man under the age of 21 marries an English woman in England without obtaining the consent of his parent as required by French law. The French and English conflict rules agree that the formalities of marriage are governed by the LEX LOCI CELEBRATIONIS (English Law) and also that the husband must have capacity to marry by his personal law (FRENCH). But is the issue in the case one of formalities (in which case the French rule will apply and the marriage will be void for want of capacity)? Or is the French rule to be characterized as one dealing with formalities (and so inapplicable) or with capacity)

A classic problem of characterization came before the Appeal Court in Algiers in ANTON VS BARTOLA (1891) Clunet 1171. The husband and wife were domiciled in Malta at the time of their marriage. Subsequently, they settled in France and the husband bought land there. On his death the wife claimed a life interest in the French land. French and Maltese law had the same choice of law rules – succession to immovables was governed by the LEX SITUS while matrimonial property rights were matters for the LEX DOMICILI at the time of marriage. However, French Law classified the issue as one of succession whereas Maltese law saw it as matrimonial property. In the event the court applied Maltese law.



The court is required to analyze the pleadings prepared by the parties and to assign each component element to the most appropriate judicial concept or category. The rules of any given system of law are arranged under different categories, addressing procedure, status, contract, tort, divorce, nullity, etc. For each category, there is one or more choice of law rule(s). Hence, for example all questions as to the status of a person before a court, viz an infant or adult, legitimate, legitimated or illegitimate, married or not, mentally incapacitated or not, bankrupt or not, etc. will all be governed by the person’s personal law namely the law of nationality (THE LEX PATRIAE) or habitual residence in a civil law state, or the law of domicile (THE LEX DOMINILII) in a common law state.

Characterizing laws as either procedural or substantive is necessary, but this part of the process can be abused by the forum count to maximize the use of the local law.

However, the generality of the characterization process is no, and cannot be a wholly scientific process. It is always a matter of interpretation. For example, if A who is a national of Arcadia, dies having made a local will transferring land situated in Mongolia to C who is domiciled in Bethpage, how is the issue to be classified? One might say that any rights that C might have are vested by the will that was made in Arcadia (i.e. THE LEX LOCI ACTUS). Equally, the right to succeed to title might be an aspect of C’s status as the oldest surviving male heir under Bethphagean law (THE LEX LOCI DOMICILLI).Or it may be a matter for the law of Mongolia since all matters of title to land must be adjusted by the LEX SITUS, as the law of the place where the land is situated. Thus, completely different judgments might result depending on how the forum court characterizes the action. To solve this dilemma SAVIGNY (1779 – 1861) proposed that it was always necessary for the court to find the ‘natural seat’ or ‘center of gravity’ for the case by identifying the largest cluster of “connecting factors” to a particular legal system. If all courts adopted such an international outlook, he reasoned, this would eliminate forum shopping[1] by producing the same choice of law no matter where the case was begun. But unfortunately the solution has not yielded the desired result. Forum shopping remains a problem, and neither legislators nor judges have been able to agree on characterization issues, producing classifications that extend rather than reduce international divergences. In an attempt to avoid obvious unjust results in particular cases, some judges therefore created a number of public policy exceptions to justify decisions.








i.   The first problem is Renvoi[2], determining whether the question falls naturally within this or that judicial category.

ii.  The second problem is the interpretation of what the connecting factor is. Connecting factor could be given different meaning in different countries. Thus, what constitute a domicile in Nigeria may not so constitute in for example, Italy.

iii. The third problem is characterization itself i.e. to identify the department of law under which some particular legal question fall in order to determine the rule of law to apply.

  Although various compromise solutions have been advocated, the principal contenders are characterization by the LEX FORI and LEX CAUSAE. Another, the analytical jurisprudence and comparative law approach is also discussed.


  Writers such as Khan and Bartin believed that such characterization should be governed by the law of the forum. That is, where a judge is faced with the situation, the judge should characterize the lex fori i.e. domestic law and the lex (causae) and apply the lex fori that is nearest in equivalent to the lex causae. Khan and Batin believe that characterization must be done in terms of law and not in terms of issues. They assert that the forum should characterize rules of foreign law in accordance with the nearest equivalent in its own domestic law. In Ogden V Ogden (1909) P.46, the court characterized by the lex fori The argument in favor of this view is that if foreign law were to be applied, LEX FORI would lose control over the application of its own conflict rules and will lose power.

  However, LEX FORI presents the following problems,

A.    Arguing by analogy from a rule of domestic law to that of foreign law can be equated to engaging in an objectionable mechanical jurisprudence resulting in the forum seriously distorting the foreign law and applying it in cases where it need not be applied and vice-versa. In future it may result in a case where the law to be applied is neither that of the forum, the foreign law nor that of any other country.

B.     There is no solution for cases where there is no close analogy to the foreign law or any institution in the domestic law of the forum.


This means that where a judge is faced with a case, he should apply the foreign law which governs the question. Writers such as WOLFF, DESPAGNET believe that characterization must be governed by the appropriate foreign law (LEX CAUSAE). WOLFF, a strong advocate of this school of thought is of the view that every legal rule takes its characterization from the legal system to which it belongs. In RE-MALDONADS (1954), the English court of appeal was faced with the task of deciding whether the Spanish government’s claim to the movables in England of a Spanish intestate who died without a next of kin was a right of succession (in which the Spanish government was entitled to the movable) or JUS REGALE (in which the English crown was entitled). The court held that this question must be decided in accordance with Spanish law with the result being that the Spanish government was entitled.

  However, this view presents the following problem;

A.    It is a circular argument to say that foreign law governs the process of characterization  before the process of characterization has led to the selection of foreign law

B.     In cases where there are two applicable foreign laws, which one would be applied and what would be the basis of the forum adopting the characterization of one over the other.


Writers such as Rabd believe that characterization should be governed by the rules of analytical jurisprudence and comparative law. That is, the judge should use the scope of the law to determine and compare the law of the countries involved and choose the one which will dispense justice more fairly. The argument in favor of this approach is that judicial technique in conflict cases must be more international and less insular than in domestic cases.

  The arguments against this approach are as follow,                               

1.      There are very few principles of analytical jurisprudence and comparative law that are of universal application. As KAHN-FREUND rightly opined, international agreement on analytical concept is a utopia.

2.      While the study of comparative law may reveal differences between domestic laws, it is hardly capable of resolving them. For example, comparative law may reveal that parental consent to marry may sometimes affect formalities or the capacity to marry. But how does it determine how these matters may be characterized

However, solving characterisation problems is not confined to the above approaches. There are alternative approaches which have been put forth by various scholars. These are discussed in extensio below:


The problem of characterization can be solved by the legislator developing corresponding rules on recognition of foreign acts or documents. An example is found in the relevant succession law of Estonia which contains a general conflict rule on succession, according to which the law of the state of the last residence of the deceased generally applies to succession. Also, under this law a succession certificate prepared in a foreign state is recognized in Estonia if the procedure for the preparation and the legal effect thereof are comparable to the provision of Estonia law concerning succession certificates. Thus, an interesting solution can be achieved if the Nigerian legislature can adopt this Estonian model at least in matters of succession. Though by this method, the Nigerian court might be able to avoid recourse to the conflict rules, it is still required to carry out a comparison between the Nigerian substantive law and the relevant foreign law in other to evaluate whether a person is entitled to inherit.

However, the recourse to recognition and enforcement of foreign acts or documents does not always solve the characterization problem since often such recourse is not possible, if a relevant document or judgment does not exist.


            Because the early system of connecting factors was mechanical and inflexible, the results could offend a court’s sense of justice. For example, with the development of motor car, the classification of the cause as tort required the application of the LEX LOCI DELICTI COMMISSI rule. The French court’s insistence on this linkage frequently barred or severely limited relief for French citizens injured in countries that had no developed law for the compensation of such victims. In BABCOCK V JACKSON, 24ON.E 2D 279(NY1963), the New York court of appeals abandoned the LEX LOCI DELICTI rule completely. Most jurisdictions were not so radical, preferring to retain the framework of categories and choice of law rules but leave public policy as the avoidance device.

            This means that states will not apply “foreign” law that offends the deeply held principles of forum’s state legal system. For instance, it would be considered improper to give enforcement to a law that defined the status of a person as a slave or as in the possession of another e.g. for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

          However, in cases involving alleged immorality or injustice, this rule has been criticized as susceptible to abuse, for a court could characterize almost any statute or rule as being offensive to the public policy of their state.



                     THE MODERN APPROACH

          Since the characterization system and the choice of law rule were operating in an inflexible way, the solution has been to allow the growth of judicial discretion within both sides of the system. Hence, most legal systems have opted for the PROPER LAW APPROACH i.e. the identification and application of the law that has the closest connection with the cause(s) of action. In theory, this flexibility will preserve an international outlook and multilateral approach by the courts and in jurisdictions that have adopted this approach, the results are not unencouraging.


              Asides LEX SITUS which determines the characterization of property, there is hardly any consistent theory of characterization. In MACMILLAN INC V. BISHOPSGATE INVESTMENT TRUST PLC (NO3) (1996) 1WLR 387, a case which was characterized by the LEX FORI, the dictum of AULD LJ is instructive;

         “However classification of an issue and rule of law for this purpose the      underlying principle of which is to strive for comity between different legal systems, should not be constrained by particular notions or distinctions of the domestic law of the LEX FORI or that of the competing system of law, which may have no counterpart in other system. Nor should the issue be defined too narrowly, so that it attracts a particular rule under the LEX FORI which may not be applicable under the other system.”

    From the foregoing, this may look like a call for an international application of the LEX FORI, but this may be applied to other concepts too. Characterization should not be restricted but must be determined based on the fact in issue.








1.      Themes on conflict of laws- I.O Agbede (1989)

2.      The conflict of laws- Morris





[1] Is the informal name given to the practice adopted by some litigants to have their legal case heard in the court thought most likely to provide a favourable judgment.
[2] Literally meaning in French “send back” or “to return unopened” applies whenever a forum court is directed to consider the law of another state.


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