Scope of Application of Limitation Bar in Section 2(a) of the Public Officers (Protection) Act

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In the Supreme Court of Nigeria Holden at Abuja

On Friday, the 17th day of June, 2022

Before Their Lordships

Olukayode Ariwoola

Uwani Musa Abba Aji

Mohammed Lawal Garba

Adamu Jauro

Tijjani Abubakar

Justices, Supreme Court

SC.82/2010

Between

1. OLUREMI OBASANJO

2. OWOEYE NIYI     APPELLANTS

  And

1.    WURO BOGGA NIGERIA LIMITED

2.  REGISTERED TRUSTEES OF WOMEN  RIGHTS ADVANCEMENT PROTECTION                               ALTERNATIVE (WRAPA)

3.  HON. MINISTER OF FEDERAL CAPITAL TERRITORY

4.   FEDERAL CAPITAL DEVELOPMENT  AUTHORITY     RESPONDENTS

(Lead Judgement delivered by Honourable Adamu Jauro, JSC)

Facts

The 1st Respondent was issued a Certificate of Occupancy in respect of land at Plot 6 Cadastral Zone BO5, Utako, Abuja on 7th June,l 1998. The 1st Respondent subsequently sold the said land to the 2nd Respondent in 2004, further to which the 1st Respondent executed a Deed of Assignment and an Irrevocable Power of Attorney over the said land in favour of the 2nd Respondent.

By a letter dated 5th October, 2005, the 3rd Respondent revoked the 1st Respondent’s Certificate of Occupancy. Subsequent to the revocation of the 1st Respondent’s Certificate of Occupancy over the land, the 3rd and 4th Respondent re-allocated the land to the 1st and 2nd Appellants. Aggrieved, the 1st and 2nd Respondent filed an action against the Appellants and the 3rd and 4th Respondent at the Federal High Court, Federal Capital Territory, Abuja seeking inter alia, an order nullifying the purported revocation of the 1st Respondent’s right of occupancy in the land and an order reinstating the land to the 1st Respondent. According to the 1st and 2nd Respondent, the 4th Respondent had been made aware of the sale of the land by the 1st Respondent to the 2nd Respondent by the submission of relevant documents to it, and the 3rd Respondent had nevertheless proceeded to revoke the 1st Respondent’s Certificate of Occupancy without giving prior notice to the 1st Respondent or affording it fair hearing.

Upon the service of the Originating Processes on the Appellants and the 3rd and 4th Respondent (who were Defendants at the trial court), the Appellants on one hand and the 3rd and 4th Respondent, filed separate Memoranda of Conditional Appearance, as well as Notices of Preliminary Objection. Their objections were basically to the effect that, the 1st and 2nd Respondent’s action was statute barred by virtue of Section 2(a) of the Public Officers (Protection) Act. Their objections were premised on the ground that the essence of the action was a challenge to the administrative powers of the 3rd and 4th Respondent, in revoking the 1st Respondent’s Certificate of Occupancy on the said land. The 1st and 2nd Respondent filed a joint reply in which they contended that the Notices of Preliminary Objection were incompetent and amounted to demurrer, and that their action at the trial court was predicated on recovery of land which the Public Officers (Protection) Act does not apply to.

In its ruling on the Notices of Preliminary Objection, the trial court held that the Appellants’ objection challenged the jurisdiction of the court and could therefore, not be considered as demurrer. The trial court also agreed with the Defendants that the action was caught by Section 2(a) of the Public Officers (Protection) Act; hence, it declined jurisdiction and dismissed the suit.

Aggrieved, the 1st and 2nd Respondent lodged an appeal at the Court of Appeal, which court upheld the finding of the trial court on the issue of demurrer, but set aside the part of the ruling where the trial court held that the action was statute barred by virtue of Section 2(a) of the Public Officers (Protection Act). The Court of Appeal held that the 1st and 2nd Respondent’s action was an action for recovery of land, and the applicable law in this regard is Section 15 of the Limitation Act Cap 522, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria which provides for a limitation period of 12 years in actions for recovery of land.

Dissatisfied with the decision of the appellate court, the Appellants appealed to the Supreme Court.

Issue for Determination

The following issue was considered by the Apex Court, in its determination of the appeal.

Whether the Court of Appeal was right not to have invoked the provisions of the Public Officers (Protection) Act, having regard to the facts and circumstances of the case.

Arguments

Counsel for the Appellants argued that paragraph 11 of the Statement of Claim formed the basis of the 1st and 2nd Respondent’s grievances, and it showed that they were displeased with the administrative or ministerial actions of the 3rd and 4th Respondent who are public officers. He argued that based on this, Section 2(a) of the Public Officers (Protection) Act, which provided a limitation period of three months, is applicable. Counsel cited IBRAHIM v JSC (1998) 14 NWLR (Pt. 584) 1and submitted that, where a statute provides for the institution of an action within a prescribed period, proceedings shall not be instituted after the time prescribed by such statute. He submitted further that it was clear from the Statement of Claim that, the case of the 1st and 2nd Respondent was not for recovery of land, but was challenging the administrative action of the 3rd Respondent, and for this reason, since Section 2(a) of the Public Officers (Protection) Act has fixed a three months limitation period for such actions, the Limitation Act relied upon by the lower court is inapplicable. Counsel for the Appellants urged the court to allow the appeal, and hold that the suit is statute barred under the Section 2(a) of the Public Officers (Protection) Act.

Conversely, counsel for the 1st and 2nd Respondent argued that, although the basis of the 1st Respondent’s grievances is their displeasure over the revocation of the 1st Respondent’s Right of Occupancy in respect of the disputed land, however, the relief being sought by the 1st and 2nd Respondent is the recovery of the said land which was unlawfully taken away from the 1st Respondent. He urged the court to affirm the finding of the lower court, that the suit before the trial court was a claim for recovery of land and Section 2(a) of the Public Officers (Protection) Act did not apply in the circumstance.

Court’s Judgement and Rationale

Deciding the appeal, the Supreme Court held that in order to determine the cause of action, when it accrued and when the action was filed, the court will look at the claim of the Plaintiff and the facts pleaded in the Statement of Claim. The Apex Court held that by facts pleaded in the 1st and 2nd Respondent’s Statement of Claim, it was clear that their cause of action is the revocation of the 1st Respondent’s Certificate of Occupancy by the 3rd Respondent, and the action itself was predicated simpliciter on recovery of the land purportedly revoked, and not connected with the administrative or ministerial actions of the 3rd and 4th Respondent who are public officers.

The Court held that the provision of Section 2(a) of the Public Officers (Protection) is not absolute and without its limitations. Such limitations are cases predicated on cases of recovery of land, breach of contract or claims for work and labour done – CIL RISK AND ASSET MANAGEMENT LTD v EKITI STATE GOVERNMENT & ORS (2020) LPELR–49565 (SC). The provisions of Section 2(a) of the Public Officers (Protection) Act do not apply, for the purpose of limitations of actions, to actions predicated on contracts or for recovery of land – OSUN STATE GOVERNMENT v DALAMI (2007) 9 NWLR (Pt. 1038) 66; NPA v LOTUS PLASTICS (2005) 24 NSCQR, 56; CBN v ADEDIJI (2004) 13 NWLR (Pt. 890) 226 and RAHAMANIYA UNITED (NIG) LTD v MINISTER OF FCT & ORS (2021) LPELR-55633 (SC) (PP. 10-11 PARA. B).

Their Lordships held further, that it was clearly demonstrated from the facts in the pleadings of the 1st and 2nd Respondent, that the primary claims and reliefs sought in the case before the trial High Court were based on, and for recovery of land taken away by the 3rd and 4th Respondent, a matter to which the provisions of Section 2(a) of POPA do not clearly apply. 

Appeal Dismissed.

Representation 

Oluwole Aladewoye Esq. with M. D. Ojo Esq. for the Appellants.

Sylvester O. Imhanobe Esq. with John E. Opaluwa Esq. and Adaobi B. Onuoha Esq. for the 1st and 2nd Respondents.

Chief Kingsley Chukwu with Daniel Ojo Esq. for the 3rd and 4th Respondents.

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

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