Network Securities Ltd V. Dahiru & Ors (2022)
LAWGLOBAL HUB Lead Judgment Report
AMINA ADAMU AUGIE, J.S.C.
The first Respondent, as Plaintiff, instituted the action that culminated in this Appeal at the Federal High Court, wherein he claimed the following Reliefs –
a) A Declaration that the Plaintiff is entitled to the Statutory Right of Occupancy over Plot 109, located at Area A8, Wuse II District, Abuja, covered by Certificate of Occupancy No. FCT/ABU/BA. 50.
b) A Declaration that the purported revocation of the Plaintiff’s right of Occupancy and the purported allocation of same piece of land to the 3rd Defendant was and still is null and void and of no effect whatsoever.
c) A Perpetual Injunction restraining the Defendants by themselves, their servants, agents, or privies from entering, doing anything on, or taking anything from the piece of land known as Plot 109, Wuse Il District, Abuja, and which is in the Plaintiff’s possession.
d) The sum of Two Million Naira (N2,000,000.00) damages against the 1st and 2nd Defendants.
Initially, there were only two Defendants – the second and third Respondents. But, by an Order of the Court dated 20/1/1997, one “Nanfa Ponfa”, who was allocated the said Plot of land during the pendency of the suit, was joined as the “3rd Defendant’, and though, he was served with Court processes, he did not defend the action at the trial Court. He was not a Party in the appeal filed at the Court of Appeal, and he is also not a Party to the appeal in this Court.
The Appellant, who bought the said plot of land from Nanfa Ponfa, was joined on its own motion as 4th Defendant by Order of Court dated 13/3/2000. At the trial, the first Respondent, as Plaintiff, testified and called one Witness. The second and third Respondents, as the first and second Defendants, called one Witness. The third Defendant did not participate at the trial at all. The Appellant, as fourth Defendant, called its Property Manager, as Witness.
Learned Counsel filed and adopted their respective Written Addresses. In the trial Court’s judgment written by Okeke, J., who heard the matter, but delivered in open Court on 11/6/2003 by Egbo-Egbo, J., he held as follows:
The 1st and 2nd Defendants woefully failed to prove that the revocation notice, which is a sine qua non for a valid revocation of Plaintiff’s right of occupancy was served on him… Having failed to prove the service of the mandatory revocation notice on the Plaintiff, the purported revocation of the Plaintiff’s right of occupancy over Plot 109, A8, Wuse II District, Abuja is null and void and of no effect whatsoever. The Plaintiff is, therefore, still entitled to the Statutory Right of Occupancy over the said Plot 109 located at A8, Wuse Il District, Abuja. It is trite that you cannot put something on nothing and expect it to stand. As the re-allocation of the Plot to 3rd Defendant is based on the purported revocation of the Plaintiff’s right, which revocation has been declared null and void, the 1st and 2nd Defendants had nothing to re-allocate to 3rd Defendant. The 3rd Defendant, therefore, had nothing to sell or transfer to the 4th Defendant. In view of the Declarations made, perpetual injunction is ordered against each of the Defendants in favour of the Plaintiff. General damages of N500,000.00 is awarded against the 1st and 2nd Defendants in favour of the Plaintiff.
Aggrieved, the Appellant filed an appeal at the Court of Appeal, which failed; the Court of Appeal in its judgment delivered on 24/1/2007, concluded that:
The law will aid those, who are watchful and not those, who are asleep, a situation that seems to have been the lot of the Appellant. If the Appellant or his agent had conducted proper search, as is required in a land transaction, they would have not only found the much earlier title of the 1st Respondent obtained ten years before, and that the 1st Respondent was fighting not to have that title or right taken away by the 2nd Respondent, which process was pending for two years before the acquisition by the Appellant. It is for the prevailing circumstances that I cannot indulge the frustration of the Appellant, who has exhibited a degree of carelessness. How to reward that lack of carefulness to the disadvantage of the one, who rightly possesses the title or right, especially since in his case against his opponent, he showed sufficient proof that the attempt to revoke his title was outside the terms of his Certificate of Occupancy and the law, being the Land Use Act to which he and the 2nd and 3rd Respondents were bound… This appeal fails as lacking in merit. I dismiss it and affirm the judgment of the Court below with the Orders that accompanied that decision.
Still aggrieved, the Appellant appealed to this Court with a Notice of Appeal that contains eight Grounds of Appeal, however, at the hearing of the appeal, it abandoned Grounds 1-7 thereof, and they were accordingly struck out. The extant Ground of Appeal is Ground 8, wherein it complained as follows –
The learned Justices of the Court of Appeal erred in law by confirming the judgment of the Federal High Court, which Court had no jurisdiction to try issues of Title to Land, land transactions and trespass to land having regard to Section 230(1) of Decree No. 107 of 1993 and Section 251(1) of the 1999 Constitution.
PARTICULARS OF ERROR
a. The Court of Appeal wrongly affirmed the judgment of the Federal High Court, which acted without jurisdiction.
b. Having regard to Section 230(1) of Decree No. 107 of 1993 and Section 251(1) of the 1999 Constitution, the Federal High Court lacked/lacks the jurisdiction to try causes dealing with Title to Land, land contract/transactions and trespass to land.
c. The jurisdiction of Federal High Court in respect of land disputes/transactions has been ousted by Section 39(1) of the Land Use Act 1978, which vests exclusive jurisdiction in the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory.
d. The decision of the Court of Appeal confirming the judgment of the trial Court is a nullity.
The Appellant distilled five Issues for Determination in its Brief of Argument. Apart from Issue i., which is distilled from Ground 8 of the Grounds of Appeal, Issues ii-v are formulated from the abandoned Grounds of Appeal, which have been struck out, therefore, the said Issues have no legs to stand on and they are, hereby, ignored -WAEC V. Adeyanju (2008) 9 NWLR (1091) 207. The only surviving Issue from the extant Ground of Appeal is Issue i.; that is:
Whether the trial Court having regard to the nature of the claim/causes of action i.e., title to land/trespass to land had jurisdiction to entertain the Suit.
The first Respondent formulated six Issues for Determination in his own Brief. Issues 1 to 5 are tied to the complaints in the abandoned Grounds of Appeal, which are of no moment in this appeal, but as he put it at page 8 of his Brief: And lastly, as a new issue now being converse (sic) by the Appellant, whether the trial Court (the Federal High Court) at the time it heard the matter, had jurisdiction to hear and determine the matter brought before it.
The second and third Respondents formulated only one Issue in their Brief –
Whether the trial Federal High Court had jurisdiction to adjudicate on the suit when it was instituted.
As the Appellant submitted in its Brief, the Issue of whether the trial Court had jurisdiction to entertain the suit that led to this appeal is being raised for the first time in this Court. But the Appellant is right that being a threshold issue, jurisdiction can be raised for the first time in this Court, and it can be raised suo motu by this Court – see Galadima V. Tambai (2000) 6 SC (Pt. 1) 133, Jeric Ltd. V. Union Bank (2000) 6 SC (Pt. 1) 206, MPPP V. INEC (No. 2) (2015) 18 NWLR (Pt. 1491) 251, cited by Appellant. Even so, the Appellant addressed this Issue from two standpoints – that Federal High Court has no jurisdiction to try the causes of action; and the judgments and proceedings are nullities because they were based on improperly signed Court processes.
The issue of whether the proceedings and the lower Courts’ judgments are nullities must take centre stage in this appeal because this is not an issue that is treated lightly by this Court. The issue goes to the root of jurisdiction, which is aptly described as the pillar upon which the entire case stands, and once it is shown that a Court lacks jurisdiction, the case crumbles into pieces.
In this case, the Appellant submitted that the Writ of Summons dated 17/9/1996 and the Statement of Claim that accompanied it, were both signed in the name of a law firm, which is not a legal practitioner on the Register/Roll of legal practitioners, therefore, the suit was dead on arrival because the Writ and Statement of Claim were not signed by a legal practitioner; and that the non-signing of the processes by a known legal practitioner, renders the Writ and the Statement of Claim incurably defective, invalid, null and void. It cited:
Sections 2(1) and 24 of the Legal Practitioners Act
– First Bank Plc. V. Maiwada (2013) 5 NWLR (Pt 1348) 444 at 494
– SLB Consortium Ltd. V NNPC (2011) 9 NWLR (Pt. 1252) 312 at 337
– Peak Merchant Bank V. NDIC (2011) 12 NWLR (Pt. 1261) 253 at 262
– MTN (Nig.) Ltd. V. C.C. Inv. Ltd. (2015) 7 NWLR (PT. 1459) 437/465
– Okafor V Nweke (2007) 10 NWLR (Pt. 1043) 521
And further argued that an improperly signed Court process is void ab initio; that it bears no good fruits, and nothing good can emerge out of it because it remains void; and that nothing can be put or super imposed on such process, citing Macfoy V UAC (1961) 3 WLR 1405, SLB Consortium Ltd. V NNPC (supra) and E.B.N. Ltd. V. Halilco (Nig.) Ltd. (2006) 7 NWLR (Pt. 980) 568. It urged this Court to so hold and set aside the Court of Appeal’s judgment.
The first Respondent did not address the issue in his Brief of Argument. The second and third Respondents made no reference to it in their own Brief, therefore, the resolution of this Issue rests on the Appellant’s arguments only.
Firstly, the Appellant stated the correct position of the law on this issue. Section 2(1) of the Legal Practitioners Act, which it cited, provides as follows:
Subject to the provisions of this Act, a person shall be entitled to practice as barrister and solicitor if, and only if, his name is on the roll.
Section 24 (Interpretation Section) of the said Act further explains as follows:
In this Act, unless the context otherwise requires, the following expressions have the meaning assigned to them respectively, that is to say “legal Practitioner” means a person entitled in accordance with the provisions of this Act to practice as a barrister or solicitor, either generally or for the purposes of any particular office or proceedings.
In the noted case of Okafor v. Nweke (supra), where a Motion on Notice was signed by “J.H.C. Okolo, SAN & Co”, Onnoghen, JSC (as he then was), said:
The combined effect of the above provisions is that for a person to be qualified to practice as a legal practitioner he must have his name on the roll, otherwise, he cannot engage in any form of legal practice in Nigeria. – The law does not say that what should be in the roll should be the signature of the legal practitioner but his name. That apart, it is very clear by looking at the documents, the signature which learned counsel claimed to be his really belongs to J.H.C. Okolo SAN & Co or was appended on its behalf since it was signed on top of that name. Since counsel agree that J.H.C. Okolo SAN & Co is not a legal practitioner recognized by the law, it follows that the said J.H.C. Okolo SAN & Co cannot legally sign and/or file any process in the Courts and as such the Motion on Notice and Brief of Argument all signed and issued by the firm known and called J.H.C. Okolo SAN & Co are incompetent in law particularly as the said firm of J.H.C. Okolo, SAN & Co is not a registered legal practitioner.
This Court maintained its position that a law firm “cannot legally sign and/or file any process in the Courts”; and that any process signed by a law firm is “incompetent in law”, in SLB Consortium V. NNPC (supra), wherein it held:
The signature of “Adewale Adesokan & Co” on the originating summons robs the process of competence ab initio as the said firm is not a registered legal practitioner enrolled to practice law as Barrister and Solicitor in this Court. All the proceedings, which rested on the inchoate originating summons, are deemed not to have taken place in law. One cannot put something on nothing and expect it to stand. It has been established that the originating summons signed by a Law Firm was not initiated by due process. As same is incompetent, this appeal rests on nothing.
This Court, per Fabiyi, JSC, also held as follows in FBN V. Maiwada (supra)-
We are interpreting a law, which seeks to make legal practitioners responsible and accountable in modern times. I see nothing technical in insisting that a legal practitioner should abide by dictates of law in signing Court processes. If the decision in Okafor V. Nweke is revisited as urged, more confusion will be created. The decision in Okafor V. Nweke is not in any respect wrong in law. The convenience of counsel should have no pre-eminence over the dictates of the law. The law, as enacted, should be followed. I do not for one moment see any valid reason why the decision in Okafor V. Nweke should be revisited. It has come to stay, and legal practitioners should reframe their minds to live by it for due accountability and responsibility on their part and for due protection of our profession.
The decision in Okafor V. Nweke (supra) is here to stay; that is the message entrenched in the decisions of this Court thereafter— see Hamzat & Anor V. Sanni & Ors (2015) 5 NWLR (Pt. 1453) 486, wherein Galadima, JSC, stated:
In SLB Consortium V. NNPC this Court citing the case of Okafor V. Nweke struck out the Plaintiff’s Originating summons and Statement of claim, both having been signed by “Adewale Adesokan & Co”, who was held not to be a legal practitioner known to law – – – In view of our clear position in Okafor V. Nweke and other similar cases, I hold that the Appellant’s Statement of Claim on which evidence was led, were a nullity, same having been signed in the name of a law firm.
In this case, the Application for Issue of Writ of Summons at pages 2-3 of the Record was signed by “Plaintiffs Solicitors, A. A. Gulak and Company”; and the Statement of Claim at pages 78-81, was signed by “A. A. Gulak and Company (Plaintiffs Solicitors)”. The originating processes were, therefore, not signed by a legal practitioner, which means that the Appellant is right that the said suit was dead on arrival – see Min. of W. & T., Adamawa State V. Yakubu (2013) 6 NWLR (Pt. 1351) 481, wherein this Court observed that:
The fatal effect of the signing of an originating process by a law firm is that the entire suit was incompetent ab initio. It was dead at the point of filing. The originating process is fundamentally defective and incompetent. It is inchoate, legally non-existent.
This Court clearly stated in FBN V. Maiwada (supra) that the provisions of Section 2(1) and 24 of the Legal Practitioners Act, which are unambiguous, affect the jurisdiction of the Court as a matter of substantive law and not as a matter of procedural law, therefore, they cannot be waived. As the Appellant rightly submitted, Sections 2(1) and 24 of the said Act mandatorily prescribed that all Court processes must be signed by an identified legal practitioner, therefore, the non-signing of the Writ of Summons and Statement of Claim by a known legal practitioner in the law firm of A. A. Gulak & Company renders the Writ and Statement of Claim “incurably defective, invalid, null and void”.
Simply put, the processes filed by the law firm were dead on the point of filing, and in the eyes of the law, they are defective and legally non-existent – Min. of W. & T., Adamawa State V. Yakubu (supra). The said processes are incompetent; and so, the judgments of the two lower Courts are nullities.
In the circumstances, this appeal succeeds, and it is, hereby, allowed. The judgment of the Court of Appeal is a nullity; it is, accordingly, struck out. The suit filed at the trial Court was incompetent ab initio, and it is struck out.
There will be no order as to costs.