BOSINDE AYUYA V CHIEF NAGHAN YONRIN (2011)

BOSINDE AYUYA V CHIEF NAGHAN YONRIN

(2011) LCN/3809(SC)

In the Supreme Court of Nigeria

Friday, April 15, 2011


Case Number: SC. 24/2002

 

JUSTICES:

ALOMA MARIAM MUKHTAR, JUSTICE, SUPREME COURT

WALTER SAMUEL NKANU ONNOGHEN, JUSTICE, SUPREME COURT

SULEIMAN GALADIMA, JUSTICE,SUPREME COURT

JOHN AFOLABI FABIYI JUSTICE, SUPREME COURT

BODE RHODES-VIVOUR, JUSTICE, SUPREME COURT

 

APPELLANTS:

BOSINDE AYUYA AKIMIS AKEMEYAI ZUOKUMOR YOUNBAI OGBE HUMPHREY TEBE-OWEI PUlLAH EGENA BRISIBE (For themselves and on behalf of OJOBO Community)

RESPONDENTS

CHIEF NAGHAN YONRIN AMADU ODOGHA AYABEKE CHIEF PALMER EKPEFA PRINCE KEREMA PERETUBO (For themselves and on behalf of TORUGHENE COMMUNITY)

 

WALTER SAMUEL NKANU ONNOGHEN, J.S.C. (Delivering the Judgment by the Court): This is an appeal against the judgment of the court of Appeal Holden at Benin City in appeal No. CA/B/66/96 delivered on the 19th day of July, 1998 in which the court allowed the appeal of the present respondents against the judgment of the Delta state High Court Holden at WARRI in suit No. W/135/71 delivered on the 25th day of August, 1995 in favour of the present appellants who were the plaintiffs before the court.

The appellants, then plaintiffs instituted the suit against the respondents, as defendants claiming the following reliefs in paragraph 24(2) of the still Further Amended statement of Claim:

‘(a) A declaration of title to all those pieces of land lying and situate at and known as Ayiboubou (Ayebo) land, Kriseibou (Krise) land, Oruamabou land on the right (north) bank of Buloutoru Creek and collectively known and called Ojobodo-Ogbo land in the neighbourhood of Ojobo Village in the then Western Ijaw Division within the Bomadi Judicial Division, the exact extent of which is as shown in the Survey Plan No. KP 631A and verged GREEN.

(b)  The sum of N5,000.00 (Five Thousand Naira) being general damages for trespass committed by the 6th -9th defendants who sometime in 1967 without the consent of the plaintiffs first obtained, broke and entered the plaintiffs said parcels of land, fished the creeks therein, cleared parts thereof and planted cassava, yams, and other crops therein, as well as illegal construction of buildings on parts of the land.

(c)  Perpetual injunction to restrain the 6th – 9th  defendants, their agents and/or servants from further entering and trespassing on the plaintiffs said pieces or parcels of land ‘

The facts giving rise to the case include the following:

It is the case of the appellants that the Ojobo community located in Burutu Local Government Area of the present Delta state were the original owners in possession of the land verged green in exhibit J. and was founded by their ancestor known as Gbesa; that the respondents began to trespass on the pieces of land in or about the year 1912, which resulted in a series of court actions between the communities; that as a means of maintaining peace between the two communities, the then District Commissioner of Forcados District, Mr. J. Davidson suggested a boundary between the parties in 1912 by drawing a line from the junction of Krisei and Ayibou creeks to the water front of Buloutoru Creek which later became known as Davidson boundary; that following renewed acts of trespass by the respondents in 1967, the appellants instituted this action against the respondents.

On the other hand, it is the case of the respondents that the land in dispute shown in survey plan No. AA/Rv95/909 – LD which is exhibit ‘N’, is part of a continuous and unbroken mass of land belonging to and in the peaceful possession of their Torugbene community of Tuomo clan; that it is the respondents who have tenants on the land in dispute and that they also have farms, fishing ponds, economic trees, cash crops and burial ground on the said disputed land; that the only fishing rights exercised by the appellants was over a small portion of the Ayegbon and Krisei creeks which were all within Tonugbene territory; that Mr. J. Davidson never fixed a land boundary between the appellants Ojobo Community and the respondents Torugbene Community but that what Mr. Davidson did was to mark a boundary at the junction of Kresei and Ayebou creeks to demarcate the fishing rights of the two communities.

It should be noted that the appellants pleaded and tendered some proceedings and judgments in previous cases between the communities as constituting estoppel.

At the conclusion of the trial, the learned trial judge found for the plaintiffs/appellants and granted all the reliefs claimed. The learned trial Judge also added a relief not claimed by either party into the bargain resulting in an appeal and a cross appeal against the said judgment which appeals were allowed by the lower court in the judgment delivered on the 15th day of July, 1998 thereby giving rise to the instant appeal, the issues for the determination of which have been identified by learned Senior Counsel for the appellants, DAFE AKPEDEYE ESQ, SAN in the appellants brief of argument filed on 24/11/05 as follows:

“i. Whether the learned Justices of the Court of Appeal were right when they held that the learned trial judge was wrong to have found that Mr. Davidson fixed a recognizable and legally enforceable boundary between the Ojobo and Torugbene Community.

ii. Whether the learned Justices of the Court of Appeal were right when they held that the learned Trial Judge was wrong in holding that the previous judgments tendered by the Appellants operates as estoppel against the Respondents in favour of the Appellants.

iii.  Whether the learned Justices of the Court of Appeal were right when they held that the learned trial Judge was definitely wrong to have held that the Appellants had proved the extent and identity of the land in dispute.

  1. Whether the learned Justices of the Court of Appeal were right when they held that the learned trial judge did not properly evaluate the evidence adduced at the lower court before enteringjudgmentfor the appellants.
  2. Whether the learned Justices of the Court of Appeal were right when they held that the Appellants cannot be said to have proved their case. “

There is however, no appeal against the judgment of the lower court allowing the cross appeal against the decision of the trial court made on 15th August, 1995. The order which  was set aside by the lower court was as follows:

“ In the interest of good neighbourtiness; it is hereby ordered that the occupiers/owners of the buildings now standing from the Grammar School to the Davidson line shall continue to occupy same without any hinderance, harassment, molestation, disturbance and interference whatsoever from any member of the plaintiffs community with their occupation of those buildings. For the avoidance of doubt, this order shall apply to only existing buildings.”

The defendants/respondents who were beneficiaries of that order did not counter claim against the claims of the plaintiffs/appellants at the trial court

Turning to the issues for determination, it should be noted that the learned Counsel for the respondents/cross appellant, S. LARRY ESQ has, in the respondents brief of argument deemed filed and served on 29/11/09 adopted the five issues formulated by learned Senior Counsel for the appellants earlier reproduced in this judgment.

However, with respect to the cross appeal, the issue formulated by learned Counsel for the cross appellant is as follows:-

‘ Whether the Court of Appeal was right in ordering a retrial and remittal of this suit back to the High Court of  Delta State for re-assignment. ‘

In arguing issue 1, learned Senior Counsel for the appellants submitted that from the state of the pleadings and evidence, there was no dispute that Mr. J. Davidson fixed a boundary following series of litigation between the communities though the respondents contended that the boundary was limited to the Ayebou and Krisei creeks; that what was in issue is whether the boundary was limited to the Ayebou and Krisei creeks; that the existence and extent of the boundary so fixed is evidenced in exhibits C, K. J and H; that it was not disputed in the pleadings that Mr. Davidson had no capacity to fix or create a legally enforceable boundary between the parties and that it was consequently not the duty of the trial judge to make pronouncements on the enforceability and recognisability of the Davidson boundary.

It is the further contention of learned Senior Counsel for the appellants, that the question as to whether the Davidson boundary was recognizable in law was never raised in the pleadings of the parties, which the court is bound by, but by learned Counsel for the respondents in address to the court on the ground that the provisions of the Inter-Tribal Boundary settlement Ordinance Cap 95, Laws of the Federation, 1933 were not complied with; that the said   submission cannot take the place of evidence relying on Ishola vs Ajiboye (1998) I NWLR (pt. 532) 71; that the above notwithstanding, the learned Trial Judge went ahead to consider the submission in the judgment and overruled same.

Learned Senior Counsel then urged the court to resolve the issue in favour of the appellants.

It is, however, the contention of learned Counsel for the respondents that Mr. Davidson did not and could not have fixed a recognizable and enforceable land boundary between the Ojobo Community and Torugbene Community; that what Mr. Davidson did was to mark a boundary at the junction of Kresei and Ayebou creeks to demarcate the fishing rights of the two communities in the said creeks which boundary marks had nothing to do with the surrounding lands and bushes which were owned and in possession of the respondents; that it was the duty of the appellants to establish the existence of the boundary in relation to the surrounding lands on the preponderance of evidence, relying on UBN Ltd vs Nnoli (1990) 4 NWLR Cpt. 145) 530, 544; Sanusi vs Ameyogun (1992) 4 NWLR (pt. 237) 527, 553, Amaeze vs Anyaso (1993) 5 NWLR (pt. 291) 20,25,33 at 41; that of the exhibits C, K and J tendered by the appellants in proof of Mr. Davidsons boundary, exhibit K reflects the truth that the dispute was limited to fishing rights between the two communities in the Ayebo and Krise creeks; that the boundary mark shown in the said exhibit K did not extend to the water front at Bluetoru creeks neither did it traverse the land mass from the Krise/Ayebo/Fonkoro creeks to the Bluetoru creek; that ‘the evidence of the appellants as to the so-called Davidson Boundary is unreliable ‘ and finally that there is no pleading of facts indicating how the appellants came to own the lands surrounding the Ayebo and Krise creeks and urged the court to resolve the issue against the appellants.

In the reply brief filed on 20/1/2010, the learned senior Counsel for the appellants submitted that there are facts as to how the appellants came to own the said lands pleaded in the still Further Amended statement of Claim and testified to by the witnesses for the appellants. Learned Senior Counsel particularly referred to paragraphs 6, 7, 8, 11 and 12 of the still Further Amended statement of Claim at pages 25 to 27 of the record and the evidence of PW2, PW4 and PW5.

To resolve the issue under consideration, it is my intention to begin the exercise from the pleadings of the parties and proceed to consider the evidence thereon.

In paragraphs 14 and 15(3) of the still Further Amended statement of Claim, the appellants pleaded as follows:-

’14. When the 6th -9th Defendants were firmly established, they trespassed upon the land of the plaintiffs in the area of Tungbokorobri, Krisei (Krise) and Ayibou (Ayebo) creeks in 1912 and committed various acts of trespass. These ensured series of court actions both criminal and civil between the plaintiffs and the 6th -9th Defendants. The then District Commissioner of Forcadus District, Mr. J Davidson, fixed a boundary for the two communities by drawing a line from the junction of Krisei and Ayibou creeks to the waterfront of Buloutoru creek now known as DA VIDSON BOUNDARY as clearly shown in the survey plan number KP 6316A as aforesaid. The plaintiffs aver that this is the boundary between them and the 6th -9th Defendants and will rely on it at the trial of this action.

15(3) notwithstanding the fixing of the Davidsons Boundary between the two communities and subsequent actions and judgments against the Defendants, Torugbene people, continuously disregarded the said boundary as finally settled and trespassed on the creeks and lands which by that settlement were given to the plaintiffs. As a result of the constant friction between the two communities, the then District Officer Forcados referred the matter to the Resident Warri Province Mr. J Davidson who hadpreviously dealt with the issue while as the District Commissioner ofForcados District and accordingly, in 1921, confirmed the SKETCH as the true boundary, he fixed for the two communities. The SKETCH will be founded upon at the trial of this action.”

In reaction to the pleadings of the plaintiffs, the defendants pleaded in paragraph 20 of their 4th Further Amended statement of Defence as follows:

’20. In still further answer to the said paragraph 14 of the Further, further amended statement of claim, 1st – 4th Defendants aver that Davidson fixed no land boundary between the plaintiffs and the 1st – 4th Defendants and their Torugbene people. During the dispute of the Davidson boundary, the plaintiffs predecessor conceded or did not contest or challenge the 1st – 4th Defendants title, possession to and user of the land in dispute and other lands and houses surrounding the Ayebou and Kresei Creek.

What Davidson did was to mark a boundary at the junction of Kresei and Ayebou creeks to demarcate the fishing rights of the two communities in the said creeks over which there was dispute and the said Davidson boundary was therefore confined to the two tiny creeks which boundary mark had nothing to do with the surrounding lands and bushes which had been in undisputed and continuous possession and effective control of the 6th – 9th  Defendants and their people ever since Torugbene was founded.”

From the pleadings reproduced above, it is very clear, and I agree with learned Senior Counsel for the appellants, that the issue as joined between the parties with regards to the Davidson boundary is as to whether the said boundary, which both parties agreed was fixed by Mr. Davidson and therefore not disputed, is limited for the fishing rights of the parties in the creeks in question or extends over the surrounding lands and bushes to the waterfront of Buloutoru creek. There is nothing in the pleadings of the defendants/respondents suggesting that the Davidson boundary was not recognizable and legally enforceable.

The passage in the judgment of the lower court giving rise to the issue under consideration can be found at pages 307 -308 of the record where the court stated, inter alia:

‘While the lower court made a finding on the right of Mr. Davidson to fix the said Davidson Boundary between the parties, there was no finding at all as to where the boundary is located and its relation to the land in dispute between the parties. The findings on the actual location of the boundary on the ground, is actually more relevant for the resolution of the dispute between the parties and the failure of the lower court to make such finding, after properly evaluating the relevant and credible evidence in support of such finding, is in my view a clear manifestation of the failure of the lower court to properly evaluate the evidence before it prior to the entering of judgment in favour of the respondents. ‘

The issue is whether the lower court is correct in finding/holding as above? I had earlier stated that there is no dispute as to whether Mr. Davidson fixed a boundary between the two communities by which it means that both parties agreed that there exists a Davidson boundary between them. What is however in dispute is whether the said boundary extends over the surrounding land and bushes from the creeks in question to the water front of Boloutonu creek. The burden of proving that the said boundary extends over the surrounding land and bushes as pleaded by the plaintiffs/appellants lies on the appellants and it is settled law that the standard of proof required is on the preponderance of evidence.

To prove the existence and extent of the boundary in question, the appellants tendered exhibits C, K, J and H with exhibit C being the sketch of the boundary made by Mr. Davidson in 1912 creating the boundary which said boundary is clearly indicated in the litigation survey plan of the appellants. It is also instructive to note that exhibit K is a certified true copy of Plan No. BUC3 made by the Department of Lands and survey dated the 5th day of August, 1927 showing the boundary between the communities.

The question is what was the relevant issue put before the trial court relevant to the instant issue under consideration? At page 110 of the record, the learned trial Judge stated in his judgment as follows:

“Learned Counsel for the defendants in his address submitted that for the plaintiffs to succeed, they must prove three issues; and they are:

(a)  Whether in the light of the pleadings and the evidence, whether Davidson fixed a boundary between Ojobo and Torugbene recognizable in Law. If the answer is yes, then in respect of what area of the subject matter was the boundary fixed.”

Submitted that Davidson did not fix any boundary recognizable in law because the provisions of the Inter-tribal Boundaries Settlement Ordinance Cap 95, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1933, sections 2, 3 and 10 were not complied with. Submits that exhibit C was a mere suggestion and that there is nothing to show that the suggestion was adopted. Submitted that no boundary was therefore fixed by Davidson. ”

It is in the light of the above issue and the submission of learned Counsel for the respondents thereon that the trial court made the finding at pages 115 -116 of the record. The finding was clearly within the issue as formulated by learned Counsel. Learned Counsel for the respondents had argued that Mr. Davidson did not fix a boundary between the parties recognizable in Law because he did not comply with the provisions of the Inter-tribal Boundary settlement Ordinance, J933 to which the trial court held that Mr. Davidson had the administrative capacity to do what he did and that the Ordinance of 1933 had no retrospective effect over the acts of Mr. Davidson which took place in 1912 and concluded firmly thus:

“I therefore find as a fact that the boundary so created as shown in exhibit C is a recognizable boundary between Ojobo Community and Torugbene Community.”

I hold the considered view that the learned trial Judge was correct in so finding/holding in relation to the issue before the court.

The above notwithstanding exhibit J is a survey plan of the appellants showing the land in dispute and the Davidson boundary as constituting the boundary between the parties and the extent of the land in dispute in respect of which the learned trial Judge had this to say at page 116 of the record:

“With regard to the submission that the plaintiffs have failed to prove the extent and identity of the land in dispute, with due respect to learned Counsel for the defendants, I hold that the submission lacks merit and this is in view of Exhibit J, the survey plan of the plaintiffs. The identity and area of the land in dispute were clearly shown in Exhibit J…..”

I had earlier stated that the Davidson boundary of 1912 is clearly shown/indicated in exhibit J which the trial court rigtltly found as clearly showing the extent and identity of the land in dispute. I have examined exhibit C, the sketch made by Mr. J. Davidson in 1912 and it is very clear thereon that the boundary extends beyond the creeks into the surrounding lands and bushes contrary to the contention of the respondents. In fact the learned trial Judge at page 116 of the record also found that the boundary extends beyond the creeks and that the land in dispute and abutting the creeks fall within the side of the boundary of the appellants as shown in exhibit ‘C’. I therefore find merit in the issue and resolve same in favour of the appellants.

On issue 2 on estoppels, learned Senior Counsel restated the law that  claim for declaration of title is provable by one of five recognizable ways/methods as laid down in the case of Idundun vs okumagba, (1976) 10 NSCC 445. Learned Senior Counsel further submitted that though a plea of res judicata is not one of the five ways listed in Idundun vs Okumagba supra, a successful plea of same is a relevant fact for the prove of title, relying on Ibero vs Ume-Ohana (1993) 2 NWLR (pt. 277) 510; that appellants tendered exhibit A,D,E,F,G and H being previous judgments between the parties which were not denied by the respondents; that in paragraph 22 of the 4th Further Amended Statement of Defense, the respondents specifically averred that suit No./W/44/52 were in respect of the land dispute in the instant case and that the evidence in the said suits revealed that the respondents and their tenants were in possession of the lands but did not contend that the suits ended in their favour nor that the parties and issues were not the same with those in the instant suit; that the pleadings and evidence before the trial court being as they were, the learned trial Judge had no issue to determine on res judicata and that the trial Judge was therefore right in holding that the previous judgments being judgments between the same parties and in respect of the same subject matter, they operated as estoppel in favour of the appellants and that the lower court was in error in holding that the trial court did not properly evaluate the previous judgments before finding that they constitute estoppel against the respondents and urged the court to resolve the issue in favour of the appellants.

On his part, learned Counsel for the respondents submitted that the previous judgments pleaded and tendered as exhibits by the appellants could not in any way be deemed to have created estoppel against the respondents particularly as estoppel is used as a defence not as a means of attack and is not usually pleaded in a statement of Claim, as a successful plea of res judicata ousts the jurisdiction of the court, relying on Igwego vs Ezeugo (1992) 6 NWLR (pt. 249) 561, 587; Ike vs ugboaja (1993) 6 NWLR (pt. 301) 539, 565 -566; that the pre-conditions for the application of res judicata are stated in Igwego vs Ezeugo supra, Omokhafe vs Esekhomo (1993) 8 NWLR (pt. 309) 58, 66 & 73; Ibero vs Ume-Ohana supra; Ntuks vs NPA (2007) 13 NWlR (pt. 1051) 392 at 410; that every judgment relied upon as establishing res judicata must be looked at in detail; that an examination of all the exhibits (judgments) show clearly that they deal with fishing rights in the Ayebo and Krise Creeks and not title or trespass to land; that the only case that had anything to do with land abutting the Ayebo and Krise Creeks was the consolidated suit Nos. W/36/1952 and W/44/1952 -exhibit H- in which no finding was made on trespass to land against the respondents and their two tenants on the land who were put there to tap palm wine.

Finally, learned Counsel submitted that the cases cannot ground a plea of res judicata as they were not final decision on the merit by courts of competent jurisdiction and that the lower court was right in holding that the trial court failed to evaluate the evidence on res judicata before arriving at its decision and urged the court to resolve the issue against the appellants.

In the reply brief of the appellants, learned senior Counsel submitted that learned Counsel for the respondents is in error in submitting that the appellants were wrong in pleading facts raising a plea of res judicata. It is the contention of learned Senior Counsel that a plaintiff is not precluded in pleading res judicata in the Statement of Claim and relied on the case of ukaegbu vs Ugoji (1991) 6 NWLR (pt. 196) 127 at 159 and Chinwendu vs Mbamodi (1980) 12 NSCC 127 at 137.

In paragraphs 20 and 21 of the Still Further Amended statement of Claim, the appellants pleaded as follows:-

“20. The plaintiffs will contend at the trial of this action that the 6th – 9th defendants are estopped by the various judgments against them from disputing the plaintiffs’ title to and possession of the land in dispute.

  1. The plaintiffs will rely on the above judgments as constituting res-judicata between them and the 6th – 9th Defendants at the trial of this action.”

The various judgments alleged to constitute estoppel had been pleaded in paragraphs 15 -19 of the still Further Amended statement of Claim and were duly tendered and admitted in evidence as exhibits.

It is settled law that for a plea of estoppel by res judicata to succeed the party relying on it must plead and establish the following:

(a)  that the parties or their privies involved in both the previous and present proceedings are the same.

(b)  that the claim or issue in dispute in both proceedings are the same;

(c)  that the res judicata or the subject matter of the litigation in the two cases is the same;

(d)  that the decision relied upon to support the plea is valid, subsisting and final; and,

(e)  that the court that gave the previous decision relied upon to sustain the plea is a court of competent jurisdiction  – see Oke vs Atoloye (No.2) (1986) 1 NWLR (pt. 15) 241; Yoye vs Olubode (1974) 1 A~I NLR (pt. 2) 118; Fadiora vs Gbadebe (1978) 3 S.C 219.

It is also settled law that a plea of estoppel per res judicata is a shield rather than a sword and is accordingly not available to a plaintiff in his statement of claim because if allowed, the plaintiff would in reality be impugning the jurisdiction of the court to entertain his matter since a successful plea of res judicata means that the court is without jurisdiction to hear the new matter -see Yoye vs Olubode supra; Igwego vs Ezeogo also supra etc.

The above statement of the law notwithstanding, a plaintiff in an action for declaration of title may plead and rely on a previous judgment in his favour not as res judicata but simply as an estoppel in the sense that it constitutes a relevant fact to the issue in the present action and the judgment will be conclusive of the facts which it decided – see ukaegbu vs Ugoji (1991) 6 NWLR (pt. 196) 127; Esan vs Olowu (1974) 3 S.C 125.

In the instant case, the appellants pleaded the judgments as constituting estoppel in paragraph 20 of the still Further Amended statement of Claim though in addition to the said paragraph 20, they pleaded in paragraph 21 thereof that the said judgments also constitute res judicata.

At page 115 of the record, the trial Judge found as follows:-

“The previous judgments being judgments between the same parties and in respect of the same subject matter operated as estoppel in favour of the plaintiffs and I so hold.”

From the above, it is clear that the learned trial Judge did not hold that the previous judgments constitute res judicata but estoppel as pleaded in paragraph 20 supra. In any event it was not the respondents case on the pleadings and evidence that the appellants pleading was erroneous thereby joining issues thereon with the appellants.

However, is there any difference between estoppel and res judicata? One may ask. The answer is in the positive. If a party pleads a judgment as estoppel, what he is telling the court is simply that the court should take the judgment into consideration in considering the totality of the evidence in the present case.

When the plea is res judicata on the other hand, the party is saying that although he has already gotten judgment on the piece or parcel of land, he wants the court to adjudicate on the matter that had already been adjudicated upon in his favour which would be contradictory in terms since he would be asking the court to judge what had already been judged, that is why res judicata is a shield, not a sword particularly as the effect of its being sustained is that the court has no jurisdiction to entertain the present action over the same subject matter between the same parties or their privies etc, etc. See ukaegbu vs Ugoji supra.

In the instant case and as stated earlier in this judgment, the trial court relied on paragraph 20 of the still Further Amended statement of Claim to find that the respondents are estopped by the judgments in the previous cases and I am of the considered view that the court is right.

However, the decision of the lower court on the issue is at page 309 of the record and is inter alia, as follows:-

“The learned trial Judge apart from listing the previous judgments by their exhibit numbers in the present case, their case or suit numbers and the years of filing with dates of judgment and one being a criminal case, other necessary and relevant contents of these judgments were not reviewed at all to show how they are related to the present action in the respondents claim title to the parcels of land specified in their Survey Plan Exhibit J, damages for trespass and a perpetual injunction against the appellants. In other words, there was no proper evaluation of the contents of these judgments between 1920 to 1953 to support the finding of the learned trial judge that the judgments were between the same parties, as in the present case. Therefore even here in respect of the previous judgments relied upon by the respondents, the fact that there was no proper appraisal of the evidence before the lower court found in favour of the respondents is quite obvious.”

The above clearly shows the reason why the lower court is of the view that the trial court was in error in holding that the respondents in this appeal were estopped. There was nothing about the pleadings relevant to the plea of estoppel etc.

In any event, it is settled law that it is the primary duty of the trial court to evaluate the evidence produced by the contending parties in support of their contentions before arriving at its decision one way or the other. It does so by putting the totality of the acceptable testimony adduced by both parties on an imaginary scale with the evidence of the plaintiff on one side while that of the defendant is put on the other side. The court then weighs them together to see which is heavier, not by the number of witnesses called by each party but by the quality or probative value of the testimony of those witnesses – see Sha Jnr vs Kwan (2000) 8 NWLR (pt. 670) 685.

Where, however the trial court abdicates this sacred duty or when it demonstrates that it had not taken proper advantage of haven heard and seen the witnesses testify, the matter i.e evaluation of evidence, becomes at large for the appellate court to carry out, see Romaine vs Romaine (1992) 4 NWLR (pt. 238) 650; Akinola vs Oluwo (1962) 1 SCNLR 352; Ebba vs Ogodo (1984) 1SCNLR 372.

Where however the evidence which the trial judge failed or neglected to evaluate is a document tendered as exhibit which does not involve the demeanour of the witnesses then it is settled law that an appellate court is in as good a position to evaluate the evidence and come to its own decision.

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