The Supreme Court has upheld the ownership claim of the people of Umuagama village (Ukwulu) and Oranto/Akpu village (Ukpo) in Anambra state to a disputed parcel of land that had pitched them against their neighbours in Okpuloji Abba Town.
In upholding the respondents’ claim, the apex court dismissed the appeal against the decision of the Court of Appeal, Enugu which had earlier made similar findings.
A five-man panel of the court, headed by Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour, resolved all the four issues, identified for determination, in favour of the two sets of respondents – listed as representatives of Umuagama village (Ukwulu) and Oranto/Akpu village (Ukpo).
Court documents revealed that the people of Okpuloji Abba Town, Umugama Village Ukwulu and Oranto/Akpu Village (Ukpo) have been locked in dispute over the parcel of land in the area since early 1970.They went before the High Court of Anambra in 1975 in a suit marked: AA/53/75 and a subsequent one filed in 1977, marked: AA/11/77.
Both suits were later consolidated, and in a judgment by then Chief Judge of the court, Justice Obiora Nwazota, delivered on November 12, 1999, the court declared the title of the disputed land in favour of the people of Umuagama Village (Ukwulu) and Oranto/Akpu Village (Ukpo).
Okpuloji Abba Town, through its representatives – Uyaemenam Nwora, Eric Uzoma, Emesi Okeke, Gabriel Okoye and NwudeIgweonuwu – appealed the decision at the Court of Appeal, Enugu.
The Court of Appeal, Enugu, in its final decision on June 27, 2016 dismissed the substantive appeal on the grounds that the appellants failed to compile and transmit record of appeal within the stipulated period, as provided in Order 8 Rule 4 of the Court of Appeal Rules 2011.
The court also dismissed the appellants’ motion, in which they had sought to direct the Chief Judge of the High Court of Anambra state to re-assign the consolidated suit for hearing afresh, on the grounds that the court’s Chief Registrar had declared the record of proceedings missing.
Uyaemenam Nwora, Eric Uzoma, Emesi Okeke, Gabriel Okoye and NwudeIgweonuwu, acting for Okpuloji Abba Town, subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court, in SC: 589/2016.
The appeal had Nweke Nwabueze, Phillip Okoro and Reuben Ifeka, representing Umugama Village Ukwulu (as the first set of respondents) and Nwoye Ofoedu, EkemekaOmogu, Ichie Titus Okeke and EuguneOtunabo, representing Oranto/Akpu Village, Ukpo (as the second set of respondents).
Justice Paul AdamuGalinje, who read the lead judgment of the Supreme Court’s decision on February 15, 2019, held that the appellants failed to sustain their allegation of denial of fair hearing and miscarriage of justice.
Justice Galinje said it was the fault of the appellants that they failed to ensure the compilation and transmission of record of appeal within time, as required under order 8 rule 4 of the Court of Appeal Rules 2011.
In upholding the Court of Appeal’s dismissal of the appellants’ motion, Justice Galinje held that the appellants were wrong to have filed their motion, for retrial, at the Court of Appeal.
He said the motion ought to be filed at the trial court, since the appellants’ appeal was not yet properly before the Court of Appeal, and because they were yet to compile and transmit the record of appeal then.
Justice Galinje however advised parties to the dispute to return to the trial court to have the case re-heard because it might be difficult to enforce a judgment, which record is said to be missing from the trial court.
The judge added: “In the instant case there is in place what I may call “force major,” an unexpected occurrence, which has the capacity to defeat even the enforcement of the judgment obtained at the trial court in the two consolidated suits.
“It follows therefore that, if nothing is done, there will be a total failure of justice. The loss of the record of the appeal is a factor that has in my view vitiated and rendered the judgment invalid.
“Is there a way of enforcing the judgment in the absence of the record of the case? This is what may unfold later. I think it is in the best interest of the parties to go back to the trial court and sort out this mess,” the judge said.
Justice Galumje rejected the appellants’ contention that they ought not to be penalised for not compiling and transmitting record when the trial court’s Chief Registrar had said the record of proceedings was missing.
The judge said that the appellants were not diligent in their handling of the appeal at the Court of Appeal, Enugu.
He stated: “In this matter, the appeal was filed on the 18th November, 1999. The appellants applied for and obtained a stay of execution of the judgment that had adjudged them trespassers on a piece of land, upon which title was declared in favour of the two sets of respondents.
“Thereafter, the appellants stayed away from the trial court and refused to take steps to fulfil the condition of the appeal for four years until on the 31st of October, 2003 when they deposited the sum of N10,000 on the prompting of the respondents who wrote and complained to the Chief Registrar about the appellants’ failure to take steps to prosecute the appeal.”