Commissioner Of Police V. Sebastine Obasi & Ors (1976)
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This is a case stated by Aseme, J., on his own motion, under the provisions of Section 39(2) of the High Court Law of the East Cental State. The learned judge making the reference states the questions upon which the opinion of this Court is sought as follows:-
“In view of the fact that there are two divergent interpretations placed on Section 18 of the Magistrates Court Law Cap. 82 Laws of Eastern Nigeria, in the High Court decision of Aniagolu, J. in Appeal No.HU/4CA/72 Mohammed Bello Ukaegbu and another v.Commissioner of Police (1972) 2 ECSLR 207 and Nwokedi, J. in Appeal No. HO/16CAI72 Dorcas Nwagu and another v. Commissioner of Police (1973) 3 ECSLR 29 on one hand and the decisions of Umezinwa, J. in Appeal No. HU/4CA/72 Oti Kalu and others v. Commissioner of Police (1972) 2 ECSLR 738 and Aseme, J. in the instant appear No AA/8CA/74 Commissioner of
Police v. Sebastine Obasi and others on the other hand; it is desired to state a special case for the opinion of the Supreme Court on point of law to determine which of the two lines of decisions is correct that is to say:
1. Whether on the correct interpretation of Section 18 of the Magistrate Court Law Cap.82 Laws of Eastern Nigeria as amended by Section 6 of Edict No. 23 1971 the ouster of jurisdiction of the magistrate as therein provided also contemplates ouster of the Criminal jurisdiction of the magistrate to hear and determine criminal cases:
(i) Where the value of the subject matter of the charge exceeds the limit of the civil jurisdiction of the Magistrate.
(ii) Where with respect to the subject matter ofthe charge, title to land or interest therein is involved.2. Whether in the case of a criminal charge of malicious damage to property the jurisdiction of the magistrate is ousted by virtue of Section 6 of the Magistrate Court (Amendment) Edict No. 23 of 1971 if the value of the subject matter of the charge exceeds the limit of the civil jurisdiction of Magistrate.”
The facts of the case stated may be summarised thus: The respondents in the court below had been charged under Section 451 of the Criminal Code of the East Central State with wilful and malicious damage to building valued N800 before magistrate Grade 1 sitting at Ujunia Magistrate’s Court. At the conclusion of the case for the prosecution in the trial court, counsel for the respondents made a submission that the Magistrate had no jurisdiction to try the case on the ground that the value of the property, the subject matter of the charge, exceeded the limit of the jurisdiction of the Magistrate and also on the further ground that the case raised an issue as to title to land. The trial Magistrate considered himself bound by the decision in Mohamadu Bello Ukaegbu and Anor. v C.P. (1972) 2 ECSLR 207 in which Aniagolu, J. had decided that where an issue as to title to land is raised in a criminal case as well, as in civil cases, the jurisdiction of a Magistrates Grade 1 is ousted by section 18 of the Magistrates’ Courts Law of the East Central State if the value of the subject matter in dispute exceeds N600. Following that decision, the trial magistrate upheld the submission that he had no jurisdiction and discharged the respondents without prejudice.
The prosecutor, having been dissatisfied with the decision of the trial magistrate, appealed to the court below upon the following grounds:
(i) “That the learned magistrate erred in law in holding that he had no jurisdiction to hear the case.
(ii) That the learned magistrate erred in law in holding that by virtue of section 18 (sic) Magistrates’ Court (Amendment) Edict 1971 he had no jurisdiction to hear this criminal case on the ground that the value of property alleged destroyed was N800”.
The issue canvassed at the hearing of the appeal before the learned judge making the reference was whether or not the ouster of “jurisdiction in civil causes or matters” specified in section 18 of the Magistrates’ Court Law of the East Central State in respect of Magistrate Grade I also applies to his jurisdiction in criminal causes. In a well reasoned ruling the learned judge disagreed with the decisions in Muhamadu Bello Ukaegbu and Anor. v. CP. (Supra) and Dorcas Nwagu and Anor. v. CP. (1973) 3 ECSLR 29 which had decided similar issue in the affirmative and reached the same conclusion as in Oti Kalu and Others v. C P. (1972) 2 ECSLR 738 that the ouster of jurisdiction under section 18 of the Law only applies to a magistrate in the exercise of his civil jurisdiction and not in the exercise of his criminal jurisdiction; that a magistrate has jurisdiction to hear and determine a criminal charge under S.451 of the Criminal Code Law for malicious damage to property irrespective of the fact (a) that the value of the property, the subject matter of the charge, exceeds the civil jurisdiction of the magistrate and (b) that the subject matter of the charge involves title to land or interest therein provided the magistrate does not decide the issue of title. However, having regard to the conflicting views on the issue, the judge making the reference did not make final decision on the appeal before him but stated the case to this Court.
The substance of the submission of D.O. Edozie, the learned Senior State Counsel who represented the Commissioner of Police at the hearing of the reference before us, is that the criminal jurisdiction of a magistrate is provided for by sections 20 and 22 while sections 17 and 18 of the Magistrates’ Courts Law as amended by the Magistrates’ Courts Law (Amendment) Edict 1971 provide for the civil jurisdiction of a magistrate. He argued that correct interpretation of the provisions of the Law does not warrant the incorporation of the limitations on civil jurisdiction imposed by Section 18, which deals with civil jurisdiction, into Sections 20 and 22, which prescribe the criminal jurisdiction, as was done by Aniagolu J. in Muhamadu Bello Ukaegbu & Anor. v. CP. (Supra). The learned counsel for the respondents in his argument before us seems to concede to the submission of the Senior State Counsel.
We may make some observation on the propriety of the questions in the case stated submitted for our opinion. Question No.1 refers to the criminal jurisdiction of the Magistrate in -criminal cases generally. The question which arises on the facts of the case stated, however, is a question concerning jurisdiction of the magistrate to try the charge under section 451 of the Criminal code when the value of the subject matter of the charge was N800 and the issue as to title to land was raised by the defence.
In our view the only question which may be referred and answered under section 39 of the said High Court Law is a question which arises in the case. We consider Question No.1 as a general and hypothetical question which does not arise from the case. We would accordingly refrain from answering it. The question which arises from the facts of the case is question No.2. We propose to limit our opinion to answering this latter question.
As we have indicated the question involved is whether the limitations imposed in the civil jurisdiction of the magistrate by section 18 of the Law referred to above contemplates ouster of his criminal jurisdiction to try the charge under section 451 of the Criminal Code when the subject matter of the charge is land valued N800 and the defence has raised the issue of its title.
Section 18 as amended reads:
18. “A Senior Magistrate, Grade I or II and a Magistrate, Grade I or II shall have and exercise jurisdiction in civil causes or matters similar in all respects to that set out in subsection (1) of section 17, save that such jurisdiction, in causes or matters where the subject matter in dispute is capable of estimation at a money value, shall be limited to causes or matters in which such subject matter does not exceed in amount or value
(a) in the case of a Senior Magistrate, Grade I, seven hundred and fifty pounds;
(b) in the case of a Senior Magistrate, Grade II, five hundred pounds, and
(c) in the case of Magistrate, Grade I or II, three hundred pounds:
Provided that except in so far as the Administrator may by order otherwise direct
(i) a Senior Magistrate, Grade II or a Magistrate, Grade I or II shall not exercise original jurisdiction in suits relating to trespass to any land whether or not any issue as to the title to any land or as to the title to any interest in land is raised therein, and
(ii) a Senior Magistrate, Grade I or II or a Magistrate, Grade I or II shall not excercise jurisdiction in suits in which any will or settlement is or may be disputed.
“Now the jurisdiction of a magistrate other than a Chief Magistrate in “criminal causes” is provided for by section 22 of the Law. The section sets out the classes of offences he can deal with and what punishments he can impose in regard to these offences. The section is too verbose and comprehensive and we do not intend to quote it in full. It is sufficient to say that it does not impose any limitations, as section 18 does, in regard to the value of any property that may be the subject matter or any offence set out therein nor in regard to any issue as to title to land.
It is appropriate at this stage to reiterate the cardinal rule for construing a Law or Edict. It has been stated thus: it is in the first instance to examine the wording of the law or Edict, which is being construed, and to find that its natural meaning is uninfluenced by any consideration derived from any other Law or Edict. If it is found to be unambiguous, it is neither necessary nor permissible to look further. It is only when there is ambiguity in the meaning of the Law or Edict, which is being construed, that it is proper to refer to other Laws or Edicts in pari materia in order to resolve the ambiguity: see Olalere Obadara & Others v. The President, lbadan West District Customary Court (1964) 1 All N.L.R. 336 and Calude Habhan v George Nabhan (1967) I All N.L.R. 47.
We agree with the view that correct application of the aforementioned rule in the interpretation of the relevant sections of the Magistrate’s Courts Law will not result in the transcription of the limitations imposed on a Magistrate Grade I in his civil jurisdiction under section 18 of the Law into his criminal jurisdiction under section 22. This is so because while section 22 specifies the jurisdiction of the magistrate in “criminal causes”, the limitation under section 18(c), which ousted the jurisdiction of a Magistrate Grade I where the value of the subject matter in dispute exceeds N600, is confined to his “jurisdiction in civil causes.”
Although section 2 of the Law defines “cause” as to include “any action, suit or other original proceeding between a plaintiff and a defendant and any criminal proceeding”, it may be observed that the provisions of the two sections under consideration clearly show that while the words “causes or matters” in section 18 are qualified by, and therefore limited to, the words “in civil”, the word “causes” in section 22 is qualified by the words “in criminal”. It follows therefore that the word “causes” is given restrictive meaning under the two sections and is narrower in either case than the definition of “cause” under section 2.
The ouster of jurisdiction under proviso (i) to section 18 relates to “suits relating to trespass to any land whether or not any issue as to title is raised therein.” Section 2 of the Law defines “Suit” as to include “action and means a civil proceeding commenced by writ of summons, or in such other manner as may be prescribed by rules of Court.” The definition is clear and criminal causes are not within its ambit.
We would only make brief observation on Mohamadu Bello Ukaegbu’s case (Supra). It appears from the judgment of Aniagolu, J. that the Edict No. 23 of 1971, which amended the Magistrates’ Courts Law, was not brought to the notice of the learned judge and he decided the case upon the interpretation of Section 18 as it was prior to its amendment. He thought that the Section, as it was prior to its amendment, was identical with Section 14(2) of the Magistrates’ Court (Lagos) Ordinance and therefore followed by construction of the latter section by De Lestang C.J. in J.F. Oyedele v Ben Awomodu (1960) L.L.R. 118. Close examination of the two sections of the respective legislations would have shown that the provisions of section 18, as it was prior to its amendment, of the Magistrates’ Court Law of the East Central State were not identical with the provisions of Section 14(2) of the Ordinance. As Section 18 of the Law has been substantially amended by the Edict of 1971, we do not think that any further consideration of the provisions of the section prior to its amendment would serve any useful purpose. We would simply say that Anialogu J. applied wrong principle of construction in following the decision in J. F. Oyedele’s case, which was decided upon the interpretation of the provisions of the Ordinance, when the wording of the relevant provisions of the Law of East-Central State was not substantially the same or identical with the relevant provisions of the Ordinance.
It follows, therefore, that our answer to the question No.2 is: in the case of a criminal charge of malicious damage to property the criminal
jurisdiction of the magistrate to try the charge is not ousted by virtue of
Section 18 of the Magistrates’ Courts Law as amended by section 6 of the Magistrates’ Court (Amendment) Edict, 1971 in cases:
(i) Where the value of the subject matter of the charge exceeds the limit of the civil jurisdiction of the magistrate, and/or
(ii) Where with respect to the subject matter of the charge, title to land or interest in land is involved.
Other Citation: (1976) LCN/2346(SC)