When Trial Court’s Jurisdiction will not be Circumscribed by the Plaintiff’s Claim

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In the Supreme Court of Nigeria
Holden at Abuja
On Friday, the 13th day of March, 2020

Before Their Lordships
Olabode Rhodes-Vivour
Mary Ukaego Peter-Odili
Chima Centus Nweze
Amina Adamu Augie
Ejembi Eko
Justices, Supreme Court
SC.416/2014

Between

1. Apostle Peter Ekweozor
2. Rev. K. Oyema
3. The Registered Trustees of the
Saviour’s Apostolic Church… … …Appellants

And

The Registered Trustees of the
Saviour’s Apostolic Church of Nigeria… …Respondent

(Lead Judgement delivered by Honourable Mary Ukaego Peter-Odili, JSC)
Facts
The 1st and 2nd Appellants were formerly priests of the Respondent church, previously known as Saviour’s Church of Nigeria. The 1st and 2nd Appellants resigned in 1977, but after their resignation, they refused to quit the church premises. Rather, they set-up another church as the Saviour’s Apostolic Church and operated from the Respondent’s premises. The Respondent therefore, commenced an action at the High Court of Anambra State claiming, inter alia, a declaration that it was entitled to a Statutory Right of Occupancy over the premises.

The Respondent pleaded and gave evidence that the land was granted to a certain John Ekweozor (deceased) in 1952 by Awka Local Government Council, for the establishment of a church. The Respondent averred that, in 1961, the church was incorporated as Saviour’s Church of Nigeria at the Corporate Affairs Commission and issued a certificate with registration No.558. In 1986, the name of the church was changed to Saviour’s Apostolic Church of Nigeria, and another certificate was issued to it with the same registration number. It was further stated that the Respondent is interchangeably referred to as “The Saviour’s Apostolic Church” or the “Saviour’s Apostolic Church of Nigeria Eastern State” (with or without “THE”).

The Appellants, on the other hand, alleged that the Saviour’s Apostolic Church has been in possession of the church premises and that there is no church by the name Saviour’s Apostolic Church of Nigeria in Awka. The Appellants claimed further that, a narrow part of the land in dispute was initially granted to the late John Ekweozor but the entire land was granted to the 1st Appellant as a personal gift by the Ezi-Akwa Elders through their attorney via a memorandum in 1972.
At the conclusion of trial, the court delivered judgement in favour of the Respondent. The Appellants unsuccessfully appealed to the Court of Appeal, and this led to a further appeal to the Supreme Court.

Issues for Determination
In resolving the appeal, the Supreme Court considered the following issues –
1. Whether the action was competent having been commenced at the High Court of Anambra State by the Respondent, instead of Saviour’s Church of Nigeria.
2. Whether the Respondent discharged the burden of proof placed on it, in line with the provisions of the Evidence Act.

Arguments
Arguing the first issue, the Counsel for the Appellants submitted that the suit ought to have been heard and determined by the Federal High Court and not the High Court of Anambra State, as it is not just a land matter but a suit that principally revolves around the operation of the associations incorporated under Part C of the Companies and Allied Matters Act (‘CAMA”). He argued that when the jurisdiction of a trial court is challenged, the court has the duty to consider the entire case of the Plaintiff without limiting itself to the reliefs. He cited the case of A.S.T.C. v QUORUM CONSORTIUM LTD. (2009) 9 NWLR (Pt. 1145) 25-26 in support of this position. He contended further that, from the facts and evidence on record, the incorporated entity called Saviour’s Church of Nigeria is not the same as Saviour’s Apostolic Church of Nigeria. The subject-matter of the dispute was vested in Saviour’s Church of Nigeria and the action ought to have been commenced in that name, and not in the name of the Respondent who lacked locus standi to institute and maintain the action. It was argued that, the issue of change of name of Saviour’s Church of Nigeria was imported by the trial court and affirmed by the Court of Appeal, as same was not canvassed by the parties.

Countering the submission above, counsel for the Respondent argued that the reliefs sought by the Respondent were clearly within the jurisdiction of the High Court of Anambra State, as the claims were essentially for declaration of title to land, damages for trespass and injunctive order. She contended that the issue concerning CAMA, was a new angle which the Appellants were trying to set up. Counsel cited and relied on the case of AKUNEZIRI v OKENWA (2000) 15 NWLR (Pt. 691) 526. She argued further that, the Respondent led evidence in respect of the pleaded facts as to the change of name and the use of the names interchangeably.

Regarding the second issue, it was argued on behalf of the Appellants that the Respondent predicated its entitlement to the land in dispute on a grant by Awka Local Government Council, and averred that a document evidencing the said grant was issued to it. The Appellants submitted that, the only acceptable evidence to prove the grant or allocation is a certified true copy of the document of grant or title in line with Section 85(1), 89 and 105 of the Evidence Act. He cited the case of ILONA v IDAKWO (2003) 11 NWLR (Pt.830) 53 at 84. Further, he posited that given the Respondent’s failure to produce the document of title, it had failed to prove its entitlement to the disputed land. He argued that, there was no evidence of traditional history on the record of proceedings to support the claim for a declaration of title, and the lower courts erred in holding that the Respondent established its title by evidence of traditional history.

In response, counsel argued for the Respondent that it established its ownership of the land in dispute, by pleading and giving evidence of the traditional history of the land and the unbroken chain of devolution from the original owner. She concluded that the Respondent discharged the burden of proof laid upon it by law, while the evidence of the Appellants was found unreliable as it was replete with contradictions.

Court’s Judgement and Rationale
Resolving the first issue, especially as it relates to the jurisdiction of the trial court, the Apex Court held that the jurisdiction of the trial court is determined by the Plaintiff’s claim as disclosed in the writ of summons and statement of claim. However, when evidence has been taken before raising the issue of jurisdiction, the court may refer to any part thereof necessary. The court considered the Respondent’s reliefs before the trial court, and the issues joined by the parties. It also considered Section 39(1) and (2) of the Land Use Act, 1978 which confers jurisdiction in respect of proceedings as to land, the subject of a Statutory Right of Occupancy and questions as to compensation payable for improvements on land, on the High Court. The court concluded that, the issues as to the operation of CAMA which will take the suit to the domain of the Federal High Court, were not in contest at the trial court. The parties understood the battle line to be ownership of the church land at Awka and the buildings thereon.

An Appellant is not allowed under the guise of arguing his appeal, to set up a new case different from what was pursued at the trial court; an issue, new or alien to that argued during trial is incompetent for consideration on appeal, even where leave is sought and obtained. A new issue to be raised on appeal must be one which takes the contest outside the subject-matter of the litigation or one that has the effect, as in this instance, of totally changing the character of the dispute between parties. The issue of registration of the Respondent or the operation of the CAMA were not in contest at the trial court, and was not pronounced upon by the court – ABDULRAHEEM v OLUFEAGBA (2006) 17 NWLR (Pt. 1008) 265. More so, where there a claim falls within the jurisdiction of two courts, the court with jurisdiction over the main claim (in this case the land dispute), is the proper court to determine the matter.

Further, the Supreme Court held that the primary duty of court is to fully consider conscientiously the totality of the evidence of parties based on the issues in dispute, before handing down its decision. From the pleaded facts, evidence, submissions of counsel and the opinions of the lower courts, it can be seen that the Respondent pleaded and discharged the burden of proving its incorporation as well as the subsequent change of name by tendering Exhibits B and C, the certificates of incorporation and giving evidence on same, which was not challenged by the Appellants. It follows that the decision of the lower court that the Respondent has the locus standi to sue, cannot be disturbed – FATUNBI v OLANLOYE (2004) 6-7 SC 68.

In respect of the second issue, the court held that the burden of proof in civil cases has two distinct facets, the legal burden of establishing a case which is static and the evidential burden which oscillates as the evidence preponderates. There cannot be a burden of proof, where there are no issues in dispute between the parties. Considering the findings of the lower courts, the Respondent established its title by pleading and giving evidence of the traditional history of the land. The Respondent established an unbroken chain of devolution from the original owners, to its present ownership. In contrast, the pleadings of the Appellants, the evidence of their witness and cross-examination were contradictory. The court also found that the Appellants claimed exclusive ownership of the land in dispute by gift, but failed to adduce evidence to justify the claim which leaves the Respondent’s claim without a challenge.

Appeal Dismissed.

Representation
Ogwu James Onoja, SAN with Noah Abdul, Esq., M.A. Ebute, Esq. and Mimi Ayua Esq. for the Appellants.

Chief (Mrs.) A.J. Offiah, SAN with Ikechukwu Onuama, Esq. and Daniel Aloh, Esq. for the Respondent.

Reported by Optimum Publishers Limited, Publishers of Nigerian Monthly Law Reports (NMLR)

Quote
“JURISDICTION OF A COURT INCLUDING THE TRIAL COURT, IS DETERMINED BY THE PLAINTIFF’S CLAIM AS DISCLOSED IN THE WRIT OF SUMMONS AND STATEMENT OF CLAIM. HOWEVER, WHEN EVIDENCE HAS BEEN TAKEN BEFORE THE ISSUE IS RAISED, THE COURT MAY REFER TO ANY PART THEREOF NECESSARY”