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Backbone Connectivity Network (Nig.) Ltd & Ors V. Backbone Tech Network Inc & Ors (2021) LLJR-SC

Backbone Connectivity Network (Nig.) Ltd & Ors V. Backbone Tech Network Inc & Ors (2021)

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CHIMA CENTUS NWEZE, J.S.C.

At the Federal High Court, holden at Abuja, [hereinafter, simply, referred to as “the trial Court”], the respondents in this appeal, (as plaintiffs), commenced an action against the first – seventeenth appellants through a Writ of Summons and Statement of Claim. The eighteenth and nineteenth defendants, whose names were struck out by an order of Court on October 30, 2012, were also parties to the suit.

They sought the following reliefs:

(i) An Order of Court for independently audited account of Backbone Connectivity Networks from incorporated (sic) to date;

(ii) An Order directing the first plaintiff to submit all its past financial audits and accounts;

(iii) An Order directing the first defendant, its directors and shareholders to restructure its equity/shareholding along or in accordance with the agreement reached in 2004;

(iv) An Order directing the first defendant to pay to the plaintiffs all profits and dividends that have accrued or is (sic) accruable from the date of incorporation till the date judgement is delivered in this suit;

​(v) An Order compelling the first defendant, its directors and shareholders to convene an AGM where the plaintiffs will be entitled to vote according to their equity strength;

(vi) An Order directing that the plaintiffs be appointed Directors of the first defendant.

As defendants, the first – seventeenth defendants entered a Memorandum of Conditional Appearance. By Motion on Notice, they, equally, sought the following reliefs:

(i) An Order directing a Stay of Proceedings in respect of all disputes subject matter of the Suit between the second plaintiff and second defendant and referring them to arbitration in accordance with paragraph 3.3 of the Settlement Agreement dated November 16, 2007 between both parties;

(ii) An Order dismissing this suit as being incompetent for reason that it was not commenced by due process of law as well as on account of lack of jurisdiction.

On May 9, 2013, the trial Court, [Chukwu, J], granted the above first relief. It, however, disallowed the second relief. Dissatisfied, the appellants herein appealed to the Court of Appeal, Abuja Division, [hereinafter referred to as “the lower Court”], which lower Court ordered that:

i) The Writ of Summons and the service thereof on the third; fourth; eighth and twelfth; thirteenth; fourteenth; fifteenth and seventeenth appellants be and are set aside.

ii) The Order of the Lower Court:

a) Directing the parties to nominate the arbitrators;

b) Nominating the Secretary, Nigerian Institute of Arbitration as an arbitrator; and

Adjourned (sic) the case to 17/9/2013 for report of the outcome of the arbitration be and is hereby set aside.

The appellants’ appeal is against the above decision of the lower Court. Promptly, the respondents greeted the said appeal with a Notice of Preliminary Objection.

My Lords, as has been settled in many cases before this Court, a preliminary objection is a pre-emptive strike. This is so for its resolution will determine whether or not the appeal will be determined on the merit, Jim-Jaja v C.O.P. Rivers State and Ors (2012) LPELR-20621 (SC) 10 paragraph F.

Thus, once the respondents challenge the jurisdiction of this Court to hear this appeal, through their preliminary objection, it must be resolved before taking any further step in the determination of the appeal, Okoi v Ibiag [2002] 10 NWLR (pt 7760 455, 468; UBA Plc v ACB [2005] 12 NWLR (pt 939) 232; Goji v Ewete [2001] 15 NWLR (pt 736) 273, 280. The reason is not far to seek. If the said objection is upheld, the consequential result would be a finding as to the incompetence of the appeal. There would be, thus, no outstanding live issues for determination, Ahaneku v. State [2002] 1 NWLR (pt 748) 301, 30; NPA v. Eyamba [2005] 12 NWLR (pt 939) 409; UBN v. Sogunro [2006] 16 NWLR (pt 1006) 504, 521-2. In consequence, I shall now turn to the said Preliminary Objection.

See also  Oba James Adeleke & Ors Vs Nafiu Adewale Lawal & Ors (2013) LLJR-SC

​RESPONDENTS’ PRELIMINARY OBJECTION.

At the hearing of this appeal on October 4, 2021, the respondents’ counsel relied on their Notice of Preliminary Objection incorporated in their Brief of Argument. The said preliminary objection challenged the competence of the appeal on the ground that the appeal is incompetent in that leave of Court was not sought and obtained before the application was filed.

Counsel contended that the appeal was not proper before this Court and as such, this Court had no jurisdiction to hear or entertain it. He submitted that the decision of the lower Court was delivered on an interlocutory application. He explained that the subject matter of the appeal arose out of the decision against the ruling of the trial Court. The lower Court upheld the said decision in part.

Citing Gomez and Anor v Cherubim and Seraphim Society and Ors [2009] 10 NWLR (pt. 1149) 223; 246 A-C, he submitted that the decision appealed against was not a final one as all issues were not resolved in favour of the appellants. In his submission, therefore, failure to obtain leave of the lower Court contravened Section 233 (3) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) and Section 27 (2) (a) of the Supreme Court Act.

He further submitted that, having filed their appeal out of the fourteen-day period prescribed for appeals against interlocutory decisions, the appellants failed to satisfy all the conditions precedents in bringing the appeal of this nature. Being incompetent, therefore, this Court lacked the jurisdiction to hear this appeal.

Appellants’ Response to the Preliminary Objection

In the Reply Brief, learned counsel for the appellants submitted that the Objection was misconceived. He urged this Court to overrule and dismiss it. He forcefully, submitted that this present appeal is not against an interlocutory decision, but one against a final decision of the lower Court on a clear sole ground of law. He took the view that the judgement of the lower Court of Appeal, which is subject matter of the present appeal, has finally disposed of the rights of the parties with nothing left to be done so that it becomes a final one, notwithstanding the interlocutory nature of its source, citing Ogolo v Ogolo [2006] 5 NWLR (pt 972) 163; 186-187.

RESOLUTION OF THE ISSUE

In resolving the preliminary objection, it is important to determine the nature of the decision delivered by the lower Court being appealed against, that is, whether it is a final or interlocutory decision. There is a long line of decided cases on what constitutes a final or interlocutory decision. That notwithstanding, that question keeps coming up in our Courts every now and then.

Now, there is a striking unanimity of juristic and juridical views on this question, see, for example, Bozson v Altrincham UDC (1903) 1 KB 547, 548; Re: Faithful Ex- Parte Moore (1885) 14 QBD 627; Akinsanya v UBA Ltd [1986] 4 NWLR (pt 35) 273; Alor v Ngene [2007] 17 NWLR (pt 1061) 163, 175; 176; Gomez & Anor v Cherubim and Seraphim Society & 4 Ors. [2009] 10 NWLR (pt. 1149) 223, 246; M. M Stanley-Idum and J.A Agaba, Civil Litigation in Nigeria, 638.

It comes to this: in determining whether the decision of a Court is a final or an interlocutory decision, the proper test is that put forward by Alverstone L. CJ in Bozson v Altrincham U.D.C (supra). According to His Lordship:

See also  Inyere Akpuenya V. The State (1976) LLJR-SC

It seems to me that the real test for determining this question ought to be: does the order, as made, finally, dispose of the rights of the parties? If it does, then it ought to be treated as a final order; if it does not, then it is an interlocutory order.

In Re: Faithful Ex-parte Moore (1885) 14 QBD 627, Brett, M.R. said:

If the Court orders something to be done according to the answer to the enquiries, without any further reference to itself, the judgement is final.

In Akinsanya v UBA Ltd (1986) 4 NWLR (pt 35) 273, one of the issues canvassed was whether the decision of the Court of Appeal, striking out the appellant’s claim, was a final or interlocutory decision. This Court, applying the nature of the order test, or the test in Bozson v Altrincham (supra), held that the majority in the Court of Appeal, having determined that the trial Court had no jurisdiction, had nothing further to determine with regard to the rights of the parties. The decision was therefore final as being a final decision of the Court of Appeal.

Again, in Alor v. Ngene [2007] 17 NWLR (pt 1061)163, 175; 176, applying this test, this Court held:

In a plethora of decided cases, this Court decided that, in this Country, if the order, decision or judgment of a Court finally determines the rights of the parties in the case, it is final. But if it does not, it is interlocutory only. And in order to determine whether the decision is final or interlocutory, the decision must relate to the subject matter in dispute between the parties and not the function of the Court in making the order. Therefore, the determining factor is not whether the Court had finally determined the issue but it is whether or not it has finally determined the rights of the parties in the claim before the parties. See also Gomez and Anor v Cherubim and Seraphim Society and Ors. [2009] 10 NWLR (pt. 1149) 223, 246.

Turning to the facts of the instant appeal, the lower Court, in affirming the decision of the trial Court that leave was not required for the respondent to institute an action but only in respect of issue and service of writ on the appellants outside the jurisdiction of the Court, ordered that:

iii) The Writ of Summons and the service thereof on the third; fourth; eighth and twelfth; thirteenth; fourteenth; fifteenth and seventeenth appellants be and are set aside.

iv) The Order of the Lower Court:

a) Directing the parties to nominate the arbitrators;

b) Nominating the Secretary, Nigerian Institute of Arbitration as an arbitrator; and

c) Adjourned (sic) the case to 17/9/2013 for report of the outcome of the arbitration be and is hereby set aside.

See also  Samuel Isheno V Julius Berger Nig. Plc (2008) LLJR-SC

In Alor v Ngene (supra) at p.177 E-F, His Lordship, Kalgo JSC held thus:

But where the rights or claims of the parties in the action have not been looked into and determined by the Court, they are still pending and the parties can still go back to any Court or indeed the same Court to examine and decide on those rights.

​Once the judgment has been set aside, the resultant effect is that the appellant’s claims were pending and awaiting a determination one way or the other by the Court. The lower Court has therefore not become functus officio on the footing of the order. I have reviewed the order or the decision in this ruling. The Learned Justices of the lower Court made no pronouncement on the rights of the parties. Their Lordships decided nothing. This is because they had no intention of deciding anything. They merely sent the parties and their counsel packing from their Court to observe their arbitration proceeding. Their rights remained as wide, open and undecided as they came to the Court. There was no victor; there was no vanquished. The decision of the lower Court was therefore an interlocutory decision. Section 27 (2) (a) of the Supreme Court Act provides thus:

(2) the periods prescribed for giving notice of appeal or notice of application for leave to appeal are:

(a) in an appeal in a civil case, fourteen days in an appeal against an interlocutory decision and three months in an appeal against a final decision.

[Emphasis supplied]

​On the heels of the foregoing, the appellants ought to have filed their Notice of Appeal within fourteen (14) days of the decision, Douglas v Federal Public Trustees [1959] SCNLR 26; Alli v Union Trading Company Ltd (1954) 14 WACA 605. The order was delivered on July 10, 2014.

The birthday of the Order should be excluded from the fourteen days. Thus, the appellants’ right of appeal ripened on July 25, 2014. However, they only approached the Court on August 6, 2014. It is common knowledge that this country is a user of the Gregorian Calendar.

As it is, this appeal was not filed within time. What is more, no application for extension of time was made and obtained. The appellants’ Notice of Appeal was filed in flagrant defilement of the limitation period under Section 27(2) (a) of the Supreme Court Act.

The position of the law is that where an intending appellant runs out of time in appealing against an interlocutory decision, the law grants him an unbridled license to seek for an extension of time. The Court in such an application, always favours him with an indulgence of extension of time, Malari v Leigh (2018) LPELR-43823 (SC). An appeal against an interlocutory decision, filed out of time without leave of Court to extend time within which to appeal, is incompetent and the appellate Court lacks jurisdiction to hear the appeal,Adeleke v Cole [1961] 1 SCNLR 65.

In the final analysis, the Preliminary Objection succeeds. This appeal is hereby struck out for being incompetent. There will be no order as to costs.


SC.656/2014

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