Robert Enajite Ughutevbe V. Dr. Owodiran Shonowo (2004)
LAWGLOBAL HUB Lead Judgment Report
A.O. EJIWUNMI, JSC
One of the issues for determination in this appeal is, whether the Court below was right to have held that the trial Court was wrong to have struck out the reply of the 1st respondent to the Amended Statement of Defence filed by the appellant in the trial Court. The other question that also falls for determination among other issues raised in this appeal is, whether the Court below was right to have held the view that the property in dispute which was bought in the name of the 1st respondent by his father was meant to be a gift for the future advancement of the 1st respondent.
The facts leading to this appeal arose when the 1st respondent, Dr. Owodiran Shonowo as plaintiff commenced this action against the appellant’s father as the 1st defendant and the 2nd respondent (2nd defendant) the Registrar of Titles of the Lands Registry in the Lagos State High Court.
Following the order for pleadings, the 1st respondent with the leave of Court filed an Amended Statement of Claim. Similarly, the appellant filed an amended Statement of Defence. The 1st Respondent upon being served with Amended Statement of Defence filed a Reply thereto. At the trial, the 1st respondent gave evidence in his own behalf and the appellant also called witnesses in support of his defence against the action.
Briefly the case for the appellant is that his late father, Dick Ugbutevbe bought residue of the leasehold interest held by Chief M.A.K. Shonowo, the father of the 1st respondent in respect of a piece or parcel of land with Registered Title No. MO.1050 at No. 1 Omode Lane, Apapa. Appellant ackowleged that it was the name of the 1st respondent that the father of the 1st respondent, Chief M.A.K. Shonowo, wrote in the document of purchase when appellant’s father brought the property. The deed of lease in respect of the property, MO.1050 was executed on 20th November 1969 following the payment of the sum of £10,000 to Chief M.A.K. Shonowo for the property which he had bought from one Abdulahi Mohammed for N4,000 and was executed on September 3, 1959. Following the purchase of the property and with a registered title deed dated 7th January 1970, Dick Ughutevbe was put in effective possession of the land. From then on he claimed that he exercised maximum rights of ownership over the property, which he claimed was sold to him by the father of the 1st respondent who told him at the time that the property was his and he was therefore free to deal with it as he wanted. It was in that belief that appellant bought the property which was clearly registered in the name of O.O. Shonowo and which he subsequently knew to be the 1st respondent, the son of Chief M.A.K. Shonowo.
On the other hand, the case of the 1st respondent may be put thus. It is not in dispute that the 1st respondent is the son of Chief M.A.K. Shonowo now deceased. The 1st respondent stated that when he was about the age of 14 years, and was still at school, his father, Chief M.A.K. Shonowo bought the property in dispute for him. His father paid for the property and he signed the document relating to its purchase. This document he identified as Exhibit A and it was signed in the presence of his late father. As the time of the purchase, 1st respondent claimed that his father told him that he bought the property for him because he was his first child to go to secondary school at the time. And his father added that he was very happy with him because he was doing well. His father also told him that the rent that would be collected from the property would be used for the maintenance and education of the 1st respondent. And when he finished his education, the property would be there for him to live in as his residence.
1st respondent claimed that that was how matters stood until he went to the U.S.A. for his further education at the Harvard Medical School in Washington. He did not return to Nigeria until 1971 when his father died. He stayed for only a month for the burial. He denied that he signed Exhibit B, with which the property was purportedly transferred to the appellant. He added that he did not execute the transfer of the document nor did he authorise anyone to execute same on his behalf. Following enquiries he made at the Lands Registry in Lagos, he commenced this action against the appellant and the 1st respondent. At the conclusion of the trial, the learned trial judge found against the 1st respondent in respect of his claims. But before then he had struck out paragraphs 4-7 of the amended reply. This is because the Court formed the view that they offended against Order 16 Rule 25 of Lagos State High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules 1972 in that they raised a new ground of claim inconsistent with the appellant’s previous pleading.
However, I think it is desirable to refer to that portion of the judgment of the trial Court where the learned trial judge stated what would have been his decision if the aforesaid paragraphs 4,5,6,7 of the Amended Reply had not been struck out by him. It reads: –
“The conclusion I reached above results from the finding I had earlier made on the Amended Reply whereof I struck out its paragraphs 4,5,6 and 7. If therefore I was wrong on that finding, the presumption of advancement canvassed by the learned Senior Advocate for the plaintiff would be upheld by me of acts or declarations before or at the time of the father’s purchase of the property by virtue of Exhibit A in 1959 in the name of the Plaintiff or immediately after it, to constitute a part of the transaction which is admissible to show that the plaintiff’s father intended a resulting trust. Subsequent declarations and acts of which evidence abounds from the defence are inadmissible in evidence to rebut the presumption of advancement. Again, similar dealings or the course of business practice that the plaintiff’s father collected rents on the property are irrelevant. I would therefore have found in favour of the plaintiff and would have given judgment in terms of his reliefs.”
As the plaintiff was clearly dismayed with the judgment and the orders of the trial Court, he appealed to the Court below. The Court below in a well considered judgment overturned the judgment of the trial Court, and restored as the judgment of the Court the judgment which the trial Court stated that it would have given, had it not struck out paragraphs 4,5,6 and 7 of the Amended Reply filed by the plaintiff. The 1st respondent, having lost in the Court below, has now appealed to this Court. He shall from henceforth be referred to as the appellant, while Dr, Owodiran Olushola Shonowo shall be referred to as the 1st respondent and the Registrar of Titles as the 2nd respondent.
Pursuant thereto, the appellant filed two briefs, namely an Appellant’s brief which was followed by a reply upon the receipt of the 1st respondent’s brief. The 2nd respondent did not file any brief. In the said appellant’s brief, four issues were identified for the determination of the appeal. The 1st respondent in the brief filed on his behalf adopted these issues as proper for the determination of the appeal. The issues as settled though prolix, read thus: –
“(1) Whether the learned Justices of the Court of Appeal were right when they held that Order 16 Rule 12 of the Lagos State High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules on ‘Reply’ was not offended by paragraphs 4,5,6 & 7 of the Plaintiff/Respondent’s Amended Reply and that the learned trial Judge was not entitled to raise suo motu and without hearing the parties on the propriety or otherwise of those paragraphs before striking out those paragraphs from the Amended Reply.
(2) Whether the Court of Appeal was not in error in allowing the Plaintiff/Respondent’s appeal by departing completely from the issues canvassed by the parties on appeal and framing completely new issues and claims for the Plaintiff/Respondent.
(3) Whether the Court of Appeal did not misconceive and in the process did violence to the issue of presumption of advancement having held that “It was manifest that the appellants sold the property to the 1st respondent and that the deed was not executed by the appellant. In addition to these, the learned trial judge made a finding of fact not contested on this appeal, that it was the appellant’s father who had signed the appellant’s name in the deed of transfer Exh B made in favour of the 1st respondent………..The applicable law is free from doubt even though its application from case to case has not been free from complexity …..”
(4) Whether the learned Justices of the Court of Appeal were right when they held that the issue of estoppel did not arise for argument in the appeal.
As the Registrar of Titles did not file a brief and did not take any part in this appeal, I will not refer to him as a party in this judgment. In respect of the first issue which is, whether the Court below was right when it held that Order 16 Rule 12 on the Amended Reply filed by the 1st respondent was not offended by its paragraphs 4,5,6 & 7, embedded also in this issue is the question as to whether the learned trial judge was right to have considered suo motu, the validity of the said paragraphs of the Amended reply of the 1st respondent.
Now, on the first part of the question, it is argued for the appellant that the Court below came to the wrong conclusion when it held that paragraphs 4,5,6 & 7 of the Amended reply did not offend the provisions of Order 12 Rule 6 of the Lagos State High Court [Civil Procedure] Rules, 1972. The learned counsel for the appellant therefore urged the Court to hold that as the basis of the respondent’s case had been fraud/forgery, it is not permissible
for him under the Rules to allege in his Reply that the property in dispute was meant as a gift by his father to him when it was bought in his own name, and that he also signed the documents with which it was bought. In support of his contention, learned counsel cited L.U.T.H. V. Adewole  5 NWLR (pt.550) 406 at 420.
With regard to whether the Court below was right to have held that it was wrong for the trial Court to have considered suo motu, the validity of paragraphs 4,5,6 & 7 of the respondent’s reply brief, learned counsel for the appellant submitted that it was the Court below that wrongly reversed the decision of the trial Court. The premise, apparently from what can be gathered from his brief, is that as parties were bound by their pleadings, the trial Court was right to have excluded pleadings which raised fresh matters from the proceedings. It is also his view that the question before the trial Court was procedural in the sense of whether a party such as the respondent should be allowed to prove what he has not pleaded. Hence he submitted that the trial Court did not need to hear counsel on whether to strike out what he considered as the offending pleadings contained in the paragraphs. In a reply brief filed on behalf of the appellant, the argument that the trial judge properly struck out the offending paragraphs was further advanced in the said brief. In support of this contention, he cited the following cases: – Emegokwue V. Okadigbo  4 S.C. 113; Njoku V. Eme  5 S.C. 293; Odumosu V. A.C.B. Ltd.  11 S.C. 55; Aderemi V. Adedire  N.M.L.R. 398.
For the respondent in respect of this issue, the contention made for him by his learned counsel is basically that the justification of the suo motu nature of the learned trial judges finding is a hurdle which must be crossed before there can be any examination of the question of whether or not the pleading in fact offended against Order 16 Rule 12 of the High Court of Lagos State [Civil Procedure] Rules. It appears then that the crux of the submission of learned counsel for the respondent appears to be that in striking out suo motu paragraphs 4,5,6 & 7 of the respondent’s Amended Reply, the trial Court denied the right of the respondent to be heard before the ruling, which was concerned with the meaning and effect of the affected pleadings. Thus the emphasis of the respondent is on the failure of the trial Court to observe the procedural rules of fair hearing with regard to the validity of the said paragraphs of the Amended Reply. He therefore submitted that the Court below was right to have overruled that decision of the trial Court striking out paragraphs 4,5,6 & 7 of the Amended Reply of the respondent. It is further submitted for the respondent that the Court below was right to have held that the said paragraphs of the respondent’s Amended Reply did not offend against the provisions of Order 16 Rule 12 of the High Court of Lagos [Civil Procedure] Rules, 1972.
Learned counsel for the respondent further submitted in his brief that there is no dispute between the parties that the respondent was the registered owner of the property in dispute from 1959 to 1970. And then argued that the question of how he became such registered owner did not come into issue until the appellant attempted to plead facts establishing a resulting trust. It was the appellant; he further argued who pleaded himself that the property in dispute had been purchased by the respondent’s father in the name of the respondent. Learned counsel for the respondent then urged the court to hold that the respondent necessarily had to file the reply. And submitted that the reply while confirming what had been said in the Statement of Defence, only went on to plead facts to show that his father had purchased the property for him as a gift. That plea, he argued was not contrary to his original statement that he was the owner of the property; an existing fact by virtue of Exhibit A. It was further argued by learned counsel for the respondent that Chief M.A.K. Shonowo was in fact not the beneficial owner of the property in dispute, because as a father purchasing a property in the name of his minor son, the law presumed that he intended to pass the beneficial ownership of the property to that son. It is further contended for the respondent that therefore as the property remained in the respondent, as he had not transferred it to the appellant, the pleadings of the respondent in his amended Reply cannot and ought not to be regarded as a new head of claim to constitute a breach of Order 16 Rule 12.
There can be no doubt that the resolution of the question raised by this issue revolves round the meaning and effect of Order 16 Rule 12 (supra). In order to appreciate what I need to say on it, it is I think desirable to set down this Rule. It reads: –
“No pleading, not being a petition or summons, shall, except by way of amendment, raise any new ground of claim or contain any allegation of fact inconsistent with the previous pleadings of the party pleading the same.”
By this rule, it is clear that a plaintiff may file a reply to the statement of defence but such a pleading, not being a petition or summons, shall except by way of amendment, raise no new ground of claim or contain any allegation of fact inconsistent with the previous pleadings of the party pleading the same. It seems also clear that the crucial question that falls to be considered where a plaintiff files a reply is, whether the reply so filed is consistent or not with his earlier pleading in his Statement of Claim. In order to assist in the determination of this question, I would refer to what the learned authors of Bullen & Leake & Jacobs Precedents of Pleading 12th Edition stated at pages 107-108
“The plaintiff must not set up in his reply a new cause of action which is not raised either on the writ or in the statement of claim, since the plaintiff must not in his reply make any allegation of fact, or raise any new ground of claim inconsistent with his statement of claim. Inconsistent for this purpose does not mean ‘mutually exclusive’ but merely new or different. In other words the reply must not contradict or “depart” from the statement of claim, or it will be ground for an application to strike out the reply in which the defect occurs. For example, if a plaintiff claims rent on his writ, he cannot claim the same sum in his reply as damages for unlawfully “holding over”. Or, if the statement of claim alleges merely a negligent breach of trust, the reply must not assert that such breach of trust was fraudulent. So again, if the statement of claim alleges undue influence exercised on the deceased by the defendant, the reply must not allege that in the alternative it was exercised by the deceased’s husband. Such inconsistent claims should be pleaded, if at all, alternatively in the statement of claim; and the plaintiff may amend or apply to amend his statement of claim in order to plead such allegations or claims in the alternative. Although the plaintiff is not allowed to make a “departure” in his reply, yet he may “new assign.” A new assignment was a pleading in the nature of a special reply, which explained the declaration in such a manner as to point out the real or supposed mistake of the defendant, and to show that the defence pleaded was either wholly inapplicable to the causes of action replied upon by the plaintiff, or was applicable only to a part of them. Such a reply is very seldom necessary under the present system of pleading owing to the greater particularity now required in a statement of claim; but it is still sometimes used. As a rule, however, if there be any mistake or possible ambiguity as to the precise nature or extent of the acts complained of or of the right which the defendant relies on as justifying those acts, the pleadings already served should be amended or further particulars ordered.”
See also Herbert V. Vaughan,  3 ALL E.R. 122;  1 W.L.R. 1128; Renton Gibbs & Co. V. Neville  2 Q.B. 181
After carefully reading the judgment of the Court below, per Ayoola JCA (as he then was), I am quite satisfied that he caught the essence of the principle enunciated above when he said thus at page 507 of the printed record: –
“Where, as in this case, the plaintiff relies on documents of title which adequately and unequivocally vest title in him, it is not a material fact essential to his cause of action and which he should allege by his statement of claim that he does not hold the property as a trustee when he does not claim as a trustee, moreso when the action is against a defendant who claimed title originating from an instrument purportedly executed by the plaintiff.
The plaintiff is also not required to allege circumstances in which the legal and beneficial interest converge in him. The appellant did not in his amended statement of claim plead facts from which the doctrine of presumption of advancement arose. He did not need to. It was the defence which by facts pleaded raised that presumption. All that the reply did was to set up an affirmative case by the appellant to show that the intention imputed by law to his father coincided with his father’s actual intention.”
The question that now falls to be considered is, whether there is merit in the contention of the appellant that the Court below was wrong to have held that paragraphs 4,5,6 & 7 of the respondent’s Amended Reply are not in breach of the provisions of Order 16 Rule 12 (supra). I think not. It is common ground in this appeal that the respondent, as plaintiff, by his pleadings, was primarily concerned with his ownership of the property in dispute and therefore pleaded inter alia in his Further Amended Reply thus: –
“Par 4. By virtue of a Deed of Transfer dated the 3rd day of September, 1959 the plaintiff became the proprietor of the residue of the term of the lease in respect of the land known as parcel No. 136 at 1, Omode Lane, a Apapa (thereinafter called “the property”) Registered under Title No. MO 1050.
The said Deed of Transfer dated 3rd September, 1959 was registered on 1st October, 1959 at the Lands Registry under Title No. MO 1050.
By an instrument dated 7th January, 1970 and wrongfully registered under Title No. MO 1050 by the 2nd defendant on the 5th day of February 1970, the 1st defendant purported to take the residue of the term granted by the registered lease under Title No. MO 1050.
The plaintiff avers that he neither sold nor authorised anybody to sell on his behalf, his interest under Title No. MO 1050.
The plaintiff did not sign or execute, nor did he authorise anybody to sign or execute the said instrument of transfer dated 1st January 1970 which bears his handwritten name and initials and avers that insofar as the same purports to be his signature, it is a forgery.
The plaintiff avers that the said instrument dated 7th January, 1979 is null and void and of no effect in law for fraud through forgery.
The plaintiff avers that the entry of the 1st defendant as the proprietor of the residue of the term of the lease registered under Title No. MO 1050 in the Register kept by the 2nd defendant at the Lands Registry, Lagos was obtained by fraud namely through forgery.
The plaintiff avers that after the 1st defendant fraudulently procured the wrongful registration of the purported transfer of the property to himself, he wrongfully entered upon the property and commenced to enjoy the same whether by occupying the same or by letting the same out to tenants.
The plaintiff did not become aware of the existence of the said instrument dated 7th January 1970 of the entry of the 1st defendant upon the property until after he
had completed his studies in the United States of America and returned to Nigeria in July, 1975.
By reason of the said fraud, namely forgery, the plaintiff has suffered loss and damage in that he has been deprived of the benefit of the rents and profits which would otherwise have accrued to him since 7th January, 1970.”
Whereupon the Plaintiff claims: –
A declaration that the instrument dated 7th January, 1970 and purportedly made between the plaintiff of the one part and the 1st defendant of the other part and registered under Title No. MO 1050 is null and void.
An order that the Register kept at the lands Registry under the control of the 2nd defendant pursuant to the Registration of Titles Act be rectified by deleting therefrom the entry therein relating to any estate, right or interest purported to be vested in the 1st defendant.
iii. A declaration that the plaintiff is the rightful owner of the residue of the term of the lease registered under Title No. MO 1050.
Delivery of the leasehold Land Certificate Title No. MO 1050 now in the custody of the 1st defendant to the plaintiff. v. N300,000.00 as against the 1st defendant being mesne profit in respect of the plaintiff’s registered interest under Title No. MO 1050 or in the alternative N300,000.00 as against the 1st defendant being damage for fraud.
Dated this 2nd day of June 1980.”
It is not also in dispute that when the appellant as defendant was confronted with those reliefs, it must have been clear to him that he needed to challenge the facts so pleaded and claimed by the respondent. Apparently, in order to secure the title which he thought he had properly obtained, he pleaded in his Amended Statement of Defence at paragraphs 5,6,7,8,9,13,14,15 & 19. These paragraphs read thus: –
“5. With further reference to paragraph 7 of the Amended Statement of Claim, the 1st defendant states that it was the plaintiffs father, Chief M.A.K. Shonowo, who sold the interest under Title No. MO 1050 to him for valuable consideration.
With further reference to paragraph 8 of the Amended Statement of Claim, the 1st defendant states that it was the said plaintiffs father, Chief M.A.K. Shonowo, who signed and executed the deed of transfer dated 1st January 1970.
The landed property which forms the subject-matter of this action was originally leased to one Yesufu Kasunmu Babalola by the then Lagos Executive Development Board for a term of 90 years under terms and conditions contained in the said Deed of Lease.
That after subsequent transactions, the said landed property was assigned to the said Chief M.A.K. Shonowo for £4,000 (now N8,000) on or about 1st October, 1959 and he paid the purchase price but he bought the same in the name of his son, the plaintiff herein, who was at the material time a minor. The Deed of Assignment was executed to the said Chief M.A.K. Shonowo at the (sic) request in the name of his said son.
At all times relevant to the transaction pleaded in paragraph 8 herein, the said Chief M.A.K. Shonowo intended to have and use the said property for his own benefit absolutely and not as a gift for his said son, the plaintiff herein and that the plaintiff very well knew this or is deemed to have known it.
That the 1st defendant together with Chief M.A.K. Shonowo went to the Lands Registry Lagos to conduct the necessary searches in respect of the said property.
That in answer to the 1st defendant’s query as to why the property was not in Chief M.A.K. Shonowo’s name, he was told by the said Chief M.A.K. Shonowo and he believed him that the property was in the name of Chief Shonowo’s son as a matter of convenience at the time but that the property was and remained his, Chief Shonowo’s, at all times.
The said Chief M.A.K. Shonowo told the 1st defendant that he was the true owner of the said landed property and that it was he who paid the full purchase price at the time it was sold to him and, at all times material, he intended to have the property as his own for his use and benefit absolutely and not otherwise.
All the various documents executed as pleaded herein were executed consistently in the name of the said son, the plaintiff herein, throughout the various stages of the transaction by the said Chief M.A.K. Shonowo.”
By the sequence of the order of pleadings in this matter, it is obvious that the Amended Reply of the respondent in this appeal was filed upon the receipt of the Amended Statement of Defence of the appellant in this proceeding. The relevant paragraphs of the Amended Reply and which form the crux of the issue under consideration deserve to be set down. They read thus: –
“Par.4 The plaintiff was a school boy aged 14 years at the time of the said transfer in 1959.
Par. 5 The plaintiffs father, Chief M.A.K. Shonowo bought the property in dispute for the plaintiff as a gift in order that the plaintiff would have something to secure the financing of his education and afterwards have a home in which to live and he informed the plaintiff of this time at the time of the purchase.
Par. 6 The plaintiff’s father bought the property in dispute for the plaintiff because of his pride in the plaintiff’s educational achievements, and the plaintiff avers that it was the funds from his said property which paid for his education and enabled him to train as a medical practitioner in the United States.
Par. 7 The plaintiffs father, Chief M.A.K. Shonowo had many properties during his lifetime and of these he settled several upon his children as gifts, either jointly or individually while retaining others in his own right, and he always referred to the property in dispute as being the plaintiff’s nor did he at any time signify to the plaintiff any desire to have the property for himself.”
Bearing in mind the principles to which I referred to earlier in this judgment with regard to when a Reply to a Statement of Defence may be filed by a plaintiff, I will now consider whether the Reply was justifiable in the circumstances. It would be recalled that the focus of the claim of the plaintiff and which he believed was that the property in dispute was bought by his father for him and that at the time of its purchase, his father told him to sign the documents of purchase. That he did. Throughout the proceedings, the fact that the property was signed by the respondent has not been disputed. When, therefore, the appellant claimed ownership of the property in dispute by purchase from the father of the respondent, the appellant quite properly filed a reply to challenge that assertion of the appellant. Where as in this case, a defendant sought to justify himself or his action by pleading that a set of facts existed different from that pleaded by the plaintiff, it is not only right but proper for the plaintiff to set up such facts as would show the lie in the claim of the defendant. It follows that I must hold that the Court below was right, having regard to all I have said above that the Amended Reply, particularly paragraphs 4, 5, 6 & 7 thereof filed by the respondent in no way breached the provisions of Order 16 Rule 12 of the High Court of Lagos State [Civil Procedure] Rules. 1972
The second part of the question as to whether the Court below was right to have held that the trial Court should have given the parties the opportunity of being heard before deciding to strike out what was considered to be the offending paragraphs of the respondent’s Amended Reply, in my humble view, the Court below was right to have held that before the alleged offending paragraphs of the Amended Reply were struck out, the parties should have been heard by the trial Court. It must be borne in mind that the pleadings in an action determine and control the way and manner the trial of an action will succeed or fail. Being the threshold that determines the facts of an action, it makes for justice and fair play for their validity and relevance to be tested at the beginning of an action or as soon as possible thereafter. In any event, in a matter as crucial as the determination of the rights and wrongs of an action, the parties ought to be given an opportunity of being heard before the Court takes its decision. It follows from all I have said above that issue (1) is resolved against the appellant.