LEGAL IDEAS FORUM

Can the Court Rely Solely on the Admission of the Defendant in Declaration of Title over Land to Confer Ownership on the Plaintiff: A Review of Plethora of Supreme Court Pronouncements.

It is a popular view among Jurists, Lawyers and Legal Scholars that admitted fact needs no further proof. Such view also appears to enjoy legal backing from the Nigerian Evidence Act, 2011 and other extant laws. Section 23 of the Evidence Act, 2011 reads:

“No facts need to be proved in any civil proceedings which the parties to the proceedings or their agent agree to admit at the hearing, or which, before the hearing, they agree to admit by any writing under their hands, or which by any rule or pleading in force at the time they are deemed to have admitted by their pleadings;
Provided that Court may in its discretion, require the facts admitted to be prove otherwise than by such admission.” (Emphasis mine)

A Comprehensive perusal of the above provision seems to nail the fact that mare admission of fact can give the adverse party technical victory in Court over the disputed fact. However, the proviso, underneath confers unfettered discretion on the trial Court for alternative proof beyond mare “admission”. It follows that reliance on the said “admission” by the trial court to enter judgment for the adverse party is a question of discretion. Again rules of court of various jurisdictions appear to have imposed an obligation on Courts to rely on “admission” to enter judgment for the adverse party. For example Order 16 rule 5(1) of the High Court Civil Procedure Rule of Anambra State ,2019 provided that “any allegation of fact in any pleading if not specifically denied in the pleading of the opposite party shall be taken as admitted except against persons under legal disability”

In the light of the above the gravamen for determination is: “What then will be the position of the court, where a defendant in a Land suit, for declaration of title admits in his pleadings that the title belongs to the Plaintiff? Can the Court rely on such admission to confer title on the Plaintiff?

It seems from plethora of Supreme Court authorities that where the admission borders on title to land, the court cannot confer title on the Plaintiff or Claimant strictly on the strength of “admission” by the defendant.Thus, in Alhaji Adebolu Olakunle Elias v. Chief Timothy Omo-Bare[1982] 1 All NLR(Pt. 1) @page 81 the Supreme Court(Per Udo-Udoma) said:

‘‘Civil cases, as is well known are decided on a preponderance of evidence. This is even more so in a case where a Plaintiff seeks to be awarded the discretional relief of a declaration of title to land. The burden in such a case which squarely rests on the Plaintiff is a heavy one. [Underline mine]’’

It consequentially follows that the Plaintiff is placed within a water tight position to prove his title for the land for which he is seeking a declaratory relief notwithstanding the admission of the Defendant. The Supreme Court :(Per Nnamani JSC) quoting Obaseki JSC with approval in Motunwanse v. Sorungbe [1988] 12 SC (pt 1)@page 140 lucidly noted:

‘‘Admitted that one does not need to prove that which is admitted by the other side. But in a case such as one for declaration of title where the onus is clearly on the Plaintiff to lead such strong and positive evidence to establish his case for a declaration, an evasive averment (‘the defendant is not in a position to deny or admit paragraph 1,2 and 7 and will put the Plaintiff to the strictest proof thereof’’) does not remove the burden on the plaintiff .’’(Emphasis mine)

We find ourselves in considerable agreement with the above and align ourselves with the view of the Appeal Court that: “because the parties to litigation have chosen to admit something. The Court declare what it has found to be the law after proper argument not merely the submission of the parties. There are no declaration without argument that is quite plain” [See: Muhammed, JCA in Abdullahi v. Military Administrator (2003) 28 WRN @ page 69.]

Admitted under the rule of canon of interpretations plethora of judicial authorities hold the word “shall” to be Mandatory (See: ICAN v. Attorney General of the Federation [2003] 42 [email protected] page 67 AC ).Again, most Rules of Courts uses the word “shall” for this purpose . For example Order 16 rule 5(1) of the High Court Civil Procedure Rule of Anambra State ,2019 provided that “any allegation of fact in any pleading if not specifically denied in the pleading of the opposite party shall be taken as admitted except against persons under legal disability.”[underline mine]. Notwithstanding, the Rules of Courts cannot rise above enacted laws. The Supreme Court (Per Ogundara,JSC) in Dalhatu v. Turaki [2003] 42 WRN @ page 13 said:

“With profound respect to the learned Senior Advocate, it is not the rules of Court that vest jurisdiction but the statute creating that court.”

As such, it follows that rejecting “admission” by the defendant strictly for proof of title cannot fetter the equitable power of the court. Additionally, discretion to go beyond “admission” of the defendant by the trial Court in the determination of a fact as enunciated by S.123 Evidence of the Act is not out of script because an Act of the National Assembly supersedes the rules of Court.In Elrufai v. Senate of the National Assembly (2016) 1NWLR (Pt.1494)@page 539 Paragraphs A-C the Appeal Court (Per Tur JCA) said: “It will seem to me that the deemed Act of National Assembly (African Charter) ought to override rules and practice of courts. The Supreme Court (Per Nnamani JSC) in Motuwanse v. Sorungbe (supra) @ 141 said:

“It is true as was contended, before us by appellant’s Counsel that Rules of Court and Evidence Act relieve a party of the need to prove what is admitted but where the court is called upon to make a declaration of right, it is incumbent on the part claiming to be entitled to the declaration to satisfy the Court by evidence not by admission in the pleading of the defendant that he is entitled (Underline mine).’’

The erudite Per Nnamani JSC in Motuwanse v. Sorungbe (supra) @ page 141 continued: ‘‘A statement, oral or written made by a party to civil proceeding and which statement is adverse to his case is admissible in the proceeding as evidence against him of the truth of the fact asserted in the statement…But this admission which excuses the appellant from proving his purchase of land from a common vendor is not the end of the matter’’
We argue that the Court is also a court of equity. If an iron cast opinion should be tied to the “admission’’ of the defendant in the determination of title to land, it follows that even inadvertent admission of the litigant or mistake of the Counsel or Court can be visited on the litigant. The Supreme Court (Per Odili,JSC) in Chukwu v. State [2019] 12 NWLR (Pt. 1687)@ page 533 said:

‘‘A litigant should not be made to suffer for the mistake of the court. In such a situation court could not act as a robot slavishly applying rules to the detriment of a litigant. A Court must at all times prevent undue adherence to technicality and do substantial justice that would be seen to be done. The Courts are also of equity. Justice is all about being fair.’’

In the light of the above we conclude that mare admission of the defendant in the determination of declaratory title cannot be substantially determined without the Plaintiff proving his case on the strength of his case. The weakness of the defendant cannot and will not operate as a strength to the case of the Plaintiff. The Supreme Court (Per Coker JSC) in Olowu & 2 Ors v. Olowu (1985) 12 SC @ page 71 noted: “It has been established for a very long time now that in a case seeking the declaration of title to land the onus lies on the plaintiff to establish the title which he claim, and he would in the process have to rely on the strength of his case and not on the weakness of his case.” It must be remembered that a Plaintiff may lose his case where defendant has not even appear to challenge or contradict the evidence tendered if such evidence does not support the facts pleaded or where the statement of claim itself is contradictory or defective. See: [Abdullahi v. Military Administrator [2005] 28 @ pg. 62.]

About The Writer:
Chike Henry Izuegbu Esq. is a Solicitor and Advocate of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. He graduated Second Class Honors (Upper Division) in Law and Political Science respectively. He holds the Commendation of Nigerian International Model United Nations as the Rapporteur for Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) for the 2011 Convection year. As a Student Delegate he had an audience with the Swiss Government. He is presently a research consultant and a Law Practitioner with B.S Nwankwo SAN & Co. No 1 Owerri Road Nnewi. Comments on this article can be reached to him through this medium:[email protected] through 07036758285

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