In the Supreme Court of Nigeria
Holden at Abuja
On Friday, the 2nd day of December, 2022
Before Their Lordships
John Inyang Okoro
Helen Moronkeji Ogunwumiju
Emmanuel Akomaye Agim
Justices, Supreme Court
NIGERIAN NATIONAL PETROLEUM CORPORATION APPELLANT
OLAJIRE ALABI & ORS RESPONDENTS
(Lead Judgement delivered by Honourable Helen Moronkeji Ogunwumiju, JSC)
The Respondents filed a writ of summons dated 18th January, 1990 against the Appellant at the High Court of Oyo State, seeking inter alia, certain sums as special damages and general damages suffered by the Respondents as a consequence of the leakage of the Appellant’s petroleum pipes at Oluode/Alafarra/Yemoja villages at Apata, near Ibadan, between 1988 and when the matter was filed in court. The Appellant also sought an order of court directing the Appellant to undertake an immediate repair of the leaking petroleum pipes, and an order of injunction restraining the Appellant and its privies or agents from further acts of trespass on the Respondents’ land. In reaction, the Appellant filed a Notice of Preliminary Objection challenging the jurisdiction of the High Court of Oyo State to determine the Respondents’ claims. The basis of the Appellant’s Notice of Preliminary Objection was that it was the Federal High Court and not the State High Court, that has the exclusive jurisdiction to entertain the Respondents’ claims.
After hearing arguments of parties on the preliminary objection, the trial court delivered its ruling in which it held that the claims indeed, fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal High Court. In the ruling, the trial court held that although the Rules of the Federal High Court permits the court to transfer any matter before it over which it lacks jurisdiction to the State High Court, however, since there was no such similar provision in the extant High Court of Oyo State Civil Procedure Rules of 1988 or any decided authority which enables the High Court to transfer a matter in a similar circumstance to the Federal High Court, it had no choice than to strike out the suit for lack of jurisdiction. Consequently, the trial court struck out the suit.
Dissatisfied with the decision of the trial court, the Respondents appealed to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal agreed with the finding of the trial court that the State High Court did not have the jurisdiction to entertain the suit; however the lower court held that the State High Court has the power to transfer the suit to the Federal High Court by virtue of Section 22(3) of the Federal High Court Act. The Court of Appeal thus, replaced the trial court’s order striking out the suit with an order transferring the suit to the Federal High Court. Dissatisfied with the latter part of the judgement, the Appellant filed an appeal at the Supreme Court.
Issue for Determination
In resolving the appeal, the Supreme Court considered the following issue sole issue submitted for determination by the Appellant.
Whether the Court of Appeal was right to have transferred the suit to the Federal High Court after the trial court declined to transfer the suit, on the basis that the rules of the State High Court do not provide for such powers of transfer.
Counsel for the Appellant submitted that the lower courts are bound to follow the decision of a higher court, inasmuch as the facts and circumstances of the case before it are the same as that in the decision of the higher court. He cited GLOBAL TRANS OCEANICO S.A. v FREE ENT (NIG.) LTD (2001) 5 NWLR (Pt. 706) 426 @ 441 PARAS B-C in support of his submission. Counsel referred to the decision in FASAKIN FOODS LTD v SHOSANYA (2006) 10 NWLR (Pt. 987) 126 to argue that Court of Appeal is bound by the precedent established by the Supreme Court in the said case, to the effect that a State High Court lacks the jurisdiction to transfer a suit to the Federal High Court pursuant to Section 22(3) of the Federal High Court Act. He urged the Court to affirm its precedent as set out in FASAKIN FOODS v SHOSANYA (Supra) and strike out the case.
Conversely, counsel for the Respondent argued that the provisions of the Federal High Court Act is intended to have general application throughout Nigeria, where there is a lacuna in the relevant rules of court. He contended that under the Federal system of government, a State High Court lacks the power to pick and choose the Federal law to apply; therefore, the applicability of Section 22(3) of the Federal High Court Act becomes inevitable, more so as there is no provision in the rules of the High Court of Oyo State which provides for the transfer of cases to the Federal High Court or any other court in the event that it lacks jurisdiction over the subject-matter. Counsel argued further that the Court of Appeal is empowered under Order 1 Rule 20(5) of the Court of Appeal Rules, 2002 (which was the applicable rules at the time the matter came before the court) and Section 16 (now Section 25) of the Court of Appeal Act, to make an order transferring the case from the State High Court to the Federal High Court. He referred to COMPTOIR COMMERCIAL & IND. v S.O.S.W.C. (2002) FWLR 839 @ 850-851 and submitted that the decision of the Court of Appeal to transfer the suit to the Federal High Court rather than upholding the striking out of the suit, met the ends of justice in the circumstances of the case.
Court’s Judgement and Rationale
The Supreme Court held that by Section 239 of the 1979 Constitution which was applicable in 1990 when the action was filed, the High Court can only exercise jurisdiction, whether substantive or procedural, which is donated by the Constitution or the State House of Assembly. In like manner, the Federal High Court only exercises jurisdiction given to it by the Constitution and the National Assembly. Any law of the State House of Assembly or National Assembly which is inconsistent with the Constitution, is liable to be declared a nullity. The Court held that Section 22(3) of the Federal High Court Act 1976 relied upon by the Court of Appeal in its judgement transferring the suit to the Federal High Court, which provided that the High Court of a State could transfer a matter over which it has no jurisdiction, was a law made by the National Assembly in excess of its powers.
The Supreme Court referred to its decision in FASAKIN FOODS LTD v SHOSANYA (2006) 10 NWLR (Pt. 987) 126 that Section 22(3) and (4) of the Federal High Court Act 1976 which in effect was a legislation which covered the State High Courts, was an act or provision that the National Assembly had no power to do and make. The National Assembly has no legislative authority over a State High Court’s Practice and Procedure. Thus, any law made in that regard would be a nullity. The Court held that at the time the cause of action in the appeal arose, the rules of the High Court of Oyo State did not have any provision conferring jurisdiction on the High Court of Oyo State to transfer matters which it lacked jurisdiction over, to the Federal High Court. In essence, pursuant to Section 239 of the 1979 Constitution as applicable at the time the action was filed, the trial court’s jurisdiction was limited to just striking out the suit in the circumstances, which it rightly did. Furthermore, in the exercise of the power granted by Section 16 (now Section 25) of the Court of Appeal Act, the Court of Appeal can only make orders which the court of first instance is legally permitted to make, but failed to make. Thus, the Court of Appeal had no jurisdiction to exercise its powers under Section 16 (now 15) of the Court of Appeal Act, to do what the High Court of Oyo State was constitutionally barred from doing.
Appeal Allowed. Judgement of the Court of Appeal Set Aside, Order of the Trial Court striking out the suit Restored.
Patrick Osu with Claire Elueze for the Appellant.
Sobaloju Kazeem Adekunle, for the Respondent.
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