The doctrine of covering the field is a doctrine in constitutional theory that applies in federal constitutions where legislative powers are shared between the federal government and the federating states in Enumerated Lists. It applies only to legislative acts (statutes) made by the federal and state legislatures under the Concurrent Legislative List. In the US, the expression, covering the same ground, was used in Houston v Moore 18 US 1 (1820).
The doctrine simply means that where there is a conflict between the legislation of a state and the federal parliament on a matter in the concurrent legislative list, an inconsistency arises, and as between the two laws so passed, the one passed by the federal parliament federal parliament prevails and that of the state is rendered inoperative during the lifetime of the federal law.
The reasoning behind the doctrine is that:- (1) It would be too inappropriate of a lower legislative body to legislate on the same subject matter as covered by the higher legislative body and 2) To subject a citizen to obedience to two laws at the same time on the same subject will be too oppressive.
The basic foundation of the doctrine is that acts of the federal government in a federal system of government bind the states and their agencies as representing separate segments of the federation within the limits of the enumerated powers, in Clyde Engineering Co Ltd v Cowburn (1926) 37 CLR 466, where a federal Act had made provisions on hours of work and a state entered upon the same field to make its own provisions, the High Court of Australia held the state law inoperative.
How does the doctrine actually operate in practice? We will consider how the doctrine works in the following aspect:- Federal Exhaustion, Exclusive & Complete Coverage It is not always the case that at any time a federal and a state law exist the doctrine applies. There must be an intention in the federal law to completely and exhaustively cover the field and not merely supplementary to cumulative upon state law. How is the complete or exhaustive intention of the federal law shown?
In some cases where the federal parliament has power to regulate a particular subject and regulates it in a given manner, and in a given form, it cannot be that state legislatures have a right to interfere, as it were, by way of complement to the legislation of Congress, to prescribe additional regulations. A G Ondo v A G Federation Constitutional Coverage The ultimate coverage is constitutional coverage. It binds both the federal and state governments.
Where the constitution has defined or provided for the exercise of a right in a particular manner, no legislation either by the federal parliament or a state can extent it in a statute short of outright constitutional amendment – Attorney-General of Ogun State v Attorney-General of the Federation  2 NCLR 166, 180-181, or repeat, duplicate or add to subtract from the provision – Attorney-General of Abia State v Attorney-General of the Federation (2002) 9 NSCQLR 670, 785, 788. Mutually Exclusive Powers
In federal systems such as the Nigeria system where powers are mutually exclusive between the federal and state legislatures, a law passed by the National Assembly on a subject falling within the exclusive jurisdiction of the states is superior to state legislation –A. G Lagos State V A. G federation. Federation apart from this state exclusive zone, there are situations where both National Assembly and State House of Assembly may overlap. In those cases neither legislation is ultra vires if the field of legislation is clear. Where the field is not clear, the National Assembly legislation prevails – A. G Ondo v A.
G Federation. Beneficial Statutes Laws that are beneficial in character fall into a different category. The statutes that are relevant here are those that create duties in emergency or rescue situations. Where the provisions of a federal statute and a state statute both create beneficial duties for the public on the same concurrent subject, they are supplementary to each other. An inconsistency or an intention to cover the field completely by the federal legislation cannot be presumed against the state law. What happens in situations like these is to see what action has been taken under the federal law.
Where action has been taken under the federal law (i. e. , the federal law is executed) the state law becomes powerless in the course of the execution of the federal law in any event of inconsistency between them –A G Ondo V A G Federation Partial Coverage Where from the terms of a federal law it is shown to have gone only part of the way to cover a concurrent subject-matter, a state legislation can validly deal with the areas of the subject-matter left untouched by the federal legislation. – A G of Ogun State v Aberaugba (19850 )NWLR (Pt, 3) 395.
The same principle applies to a situation where the effect of a federal law is to enhance a federal purpose only on a concurrent subject. In that case a state can also make its own legislation to enhance its own purposes – A G Lagos State v A g federation (supra). In another form the coverage may be described as territorial. The federal law limits its application to the federal level, leaving the states free to exercise their legislative powers on the same subject on the Concurrent List – Adetona v Attorney-General, Ogun State  5 NCLR 299, 308-309.
And at times both the federal and state laws are taken as a ‘combined’ legislation. Where both federal and state legislations are by the terms of the federal law permitted to alternatively deal with a situation, the federal law has only partial coverage. Subsequent Coverage & Revival of State Law Either of the laws, federal or state, may come into operation first. In cases where a federal legislation is held to have covered the field completely, it does not totally kill the state law. The state law is merely rendered inoperative during the life of the federal law.
The state legislation can revive when the federal law goes out of the scene. Therefore a subsisting state law can be rendered inoperative by a subsequent federal law and revive when the federal law is spent – Ogun State vs. The Federation (1982) 3 NCLR p. 204 As to the question as, when a court adjudges that a federal law covers the field, what will be the effect? As regarding to section 4 (5) that provides for the supremacy of the law made by national assembly (Federal law) is superior to that made by the house of assembly state law), and when ever there are in conflict the one made by National assembly shall prevail, while he state law is consider void to the extent of it inconsistence, but as regarding the Doctrine of covering the field the case is different. It should be noted that it is not appropriate to describe the conflict between a federal law and a state law under the doctrine of covering the field as inconsistency. Inconsistency implies invalidity of the subordinate law. Under the doctrine of covering the field, the state law is merely rendered inoperative while the federal law is in operation… The state law revives in the event of the federal law ceasing to have force.
Therefore the use of the term inconsistency, in the cases under the doctrine should be taken to mean, not invalidity of the state law, but inoperativeness of the state law arising from the conflict between the two laws. So when the court adjudges that the federal law covers the field and where the matter legislated upon is in the concurrent list, the effect will be:- 1)Where a legislation enacted by the state is inconsistent with the legislation of the Federal Government it is indeed void and of no effect for inconsistency. – Attorney-General of Ogun State v Aberuagba (1985) 4 SC 288, 328 )Where however, the legislation enacted by the State is the same as the one enacted by the Federal Government, where the two legislations are in pari material, the state legislation will in abeyance and becomes inoperative for the period of the Federal legislation is in force. A G Ogun State vs. A G Federation (1982) 3 NCLR p. 204 3)If for any reason the Federal legislation is repealed, the state legislation which is in abeyance is revived and becomes operative until there is another Federal legislation that covers the field. A G Lagos State v A G Federation.
The doctrine of covering-the-field has some advantageous effects in a federal system. It has disadvantages, too, if adhered to in the extreme. For purposes of maintaining uni-formity of laws in vital areas in the Concurrent List, it has its good points. But a federal system recognises the fact that the component parts of the federation exist with diverse cultures, traditions and religious and economic and environmental backgrounds. Therefore the likelihood of an affected state waiting for the federal parliament to amend an offend-ing federal law without success will always occur.
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