S’Court Takes 15 Years to Deliver Judgment in Land Dispute

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• Litigation took 33 years for final resolution

Tobi Soniyi

Notwithstanding the various reforms introduced to fast-track delivery of judgment by justices of the Supreme Court, it still took Nigeria’s highest court 15 years to deliver judgment in a land dispute case.

The Supreme Court, last Friday, ended a 33-year dispute over a parcel of land in Iwaya, Lagos State, which had been in contention between the Iwaya community and the Anglican Church.

The case spent 14 years at the Lagos High Court, four years at the Court of Appeal and 15 years at the Supreme Court, bringing the total number of years to arrive at a final ruling on the land dispute to a record 33 years.

The case started in 1984, when it was filed at the High Court, wherein judgment was delivered in 1998. An appeal was lodged at the Court of Appeal in 1998 and judgment was delivered in 2002. A further appeal was filed at the Supreme Court in 2002, wherein judgment was delivered in 2017.

The Supreme Court allowed the appeal filed by Iwaya community, against the judgments of the Lagos State High Court and the Court of Appeal, holding that without proving its due incorporation under the law, the church was without legal capacity to institute an action in court.
Reacting to the judgment, Mr. Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa said some of the litigants who instituted the case had died.
According to him, the judgment, coming 33 years after it was filed, was a sad commentary on the plight of litigants in Nigeria generally.

He said: “I’m aware that there are several other 33 or more-year-old cases that are still pending in the appellate courts, due mainly to the backlog of cases, the avalanche of interlocutory appeals, the limitation on the number of appellate justices, and indeed the manual system of administration of justice.”

He said that another factor compounding the smooth and speedy determination of cases was the amendment of the relevant statues by the legislature to confer jurisdiction upon the final court in respect of certain political cases, and the statutory directive that all such cases involving political office holders should be given priority above other cases and that they must be determined within 180 days, from the high court or tribunal, to the Court of Appeal, and to the Supreme Court.
“This is purely a selfish escapist mechanism adopted for their own convenience by politicians, leaving other litigants in the lurch,” he added.

He said something had to be done very urgently.
Adegboruwa said: “Now, as of the time of the judgment of the Supreme Court in 2017, most of the original parties have passed on and they are unable to reap the fruits of the judgment.
“There is now an urgent need for all stakeholders in the administration of the justice sector to agree on the total revolutionary transformation of the judiciary.

“In this regard, I call upon the acting president, himself a professor of law and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), to convene an urgent meeting of all stakeholders in order to agree upon and implement practical and fundamental reforms that will enhance the effective and speedy administration of justice.”

The land dispute case started in 1984, when the Anglican Church through its Lagos Diocese, filed a suit before the Ikeja High Court, claiming ownership of a vast portion of land situate and being at the Iwaya area of Lagos State.
The church laid claim to the land under a deed, whilst members of the Iwaya community had claimed direct purchase of the same land from the Oloto chieftaincy family.

In the course of trial, the Oloto chieftaincy family joined the case as the 7th defendant.
Judgment was delivered in 1998 by Justice Fatai Adeyinka (as he then was), granting the claims of the church in part and holding the defendants liable in trespass.

Being dissatisfied with the judgment of the High Court, the Iwaya community appealed against it to the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division. In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal in 2002.
It was at this point that the community engaged human rights lawyer, Adegboruwa, to file an appeal against the judgment of the court of appeal.

In the appeal to the Supreme Court, the appellants contended that the plaintiff before the trial court was an unregistered entity, which could not own land, file a case in court, or be a beneficiary of the judgment of a court of law, itself having not been registered under any law.

In its judgment, the Supreme Court clarified the mode of proof of status of artificial bodies incorporated under the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) and also the rule of pleading.
In the lead judgment, it held that an incorporated company or registered trustees bear the onus to prove its incorporation once same has not been conceded by the defendant.

And the only way to prove its juristic personality is to produce its certificate of incorporation before the court.
Re-affirming the Supreme Court decision in the 1972 case of Registered Trustees of Apostolic Church V. A-G., Mid-Western Nigeria, the court held that even if there was an admission inter parties, as the status of the incorporated body, proof of incorporation must be established as a matter of law by the production of evidence of the certificate of incorporation, failing which any action initiated by such body will fail, the consequence being that such plaintiff is not a juristic person capable of suing and being sued.

The Supreme Court then set aside the judgments of both the High Court and the Court of Appeal which had favoured the plaintiff and declared them a nullity.