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IN THE SUPREME COURT OF NIGERIA
4 S.C. (PT. II) 160
BEFORE THEIR LORDSHIPS
SALIHU MODIBBO ALFA BELGORE, J .S.C. (Presided)
IDRIS LEGBO KUTIGI, J.S.C.
SYLVESTER UMARU ONU, J.S.C.
NIKI TOBI, J.S.C.
DENNIS ONYEJIFE EDOZIE, J.S.C. (Read the Leading Judgment)
PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE – COURT – Abuse of court process – Determination of whether there is abuse – Relevant consideration.
PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE – COURT – Abuse of court process – What amounts to – Instances thereof.
PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE – COURT – Abuse of court process – Supreme Court – Power of to prevent.
PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE – Abuse of court process – Determination of whether there is abuse – Relevant consideration.
PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE – Abuse of court process – What amounts to – Instances thereof.
EDOZIE, J.S.C. (Delivering the Leading Judgment):
Although an appreciation of the facts leading to this appeal is not relevant for its determination, it is nonetheless proper to state the facts albeit briefly. The case arose from a road accident that occurred on 31st December, 1986 near Okuokoko village along Ughelli/Warri Road. The accident involved the collision of a luxurious bus No. BD 9558A and a Peugeot 504 station wagon No. BD 5361 HA which caused the death of Friday Ojichie, a passenger in the latter vehicle. In consequence of the death of Friday Ojichie, his dependants in a representative capacity as plaintiffs commenced proceedings in the High Court of Delta State holding at Effurum claiming jointly and severally damages in negligence against the 1st and 2nd defendants as the driver and owner respectively of the luxurious bus. The trial court in its judgment delivered on 25/8/97 found negligence directly proved against the 1st defendant and vicariously established against the 2nd defendant and they were accordingly jointly and severally mulcted in damages in the sum of N453,970.00.
Against that judgment, the defendants as appellants lodged an appeal to the Court of Appeal Benin division as per the notice of appeal dated 25th August, 1997 and filed the same day. After the settlement of the record of appeal, the Court of Appeal dealt with several interlocutory applications filed by the parties. One of such applications is a motion on notice dated 27/9/98 by the plaintiffs as respondents and applicants in the motion praying for the dismissal of the appeal on the ground that the appellants had defaulted in filing their briefs of arguments as required by Order 6 rule 10 of the Court of Appeal Rules, Cap. 62, Laws of Federation of Nigeria, 1990. That motion was heard and granted by the Court of Appeal in its ruling delivered on 25th January, 1999 whereby it dismissed the appellants’ appeal for want of diligent prosecution. Dissatisfied with that ruling. The appellants simultaneously filed two processes. One process is an appeal filed on 10/2/99 by the appellant to the Supreme Court against the said ruling of Court of Appeal delivered on 25th January, 1999. The relief sought in the appeal is that the ruling appealed against be set aside and that the appeal dismissed be heard on its merit.
The second process is a motion on notice dated 9th February 1999 filed on 10/2/99 by the appellants before that Court of Appeal seeking, among other things, “an order for restoration/relisting its Appeal No. CNB/83/98 dismissed on the 25th day of January, 1999 for want of diligent prosecution to enable the matter to be heard on merit.”
This motion was heard and struck out by the Court of Appeal in its ruling delivered on 7th July, 1999. Still undaunted, the appellants have on 16th July, 1999 lodged before this court an appeal against the ruling of the Court of Appeal delivered on 7th July, 1999 praying that that ruling be set aside so that the appeal could be relisted and heard on its merit before the court below. It is that ruling delivered by the Court of Appeal on 7th July, 1999 striking out the motion to relist the appeal dismissed for want of diligent prosecution that is the focus of this appeal.
Learned counsel for the parties filed and exchanged briefs of argument. The respondents’ counsel adopted and relied on his brief. As the appellants’ counsel was absent, the appeal was deemed argued on the brief he had filed. In the appellants’ brief of argument, the sole issue for determination was framed thus:- “Whether the Justices of the Court of Appeal Benin City properly, directed themselves in refusing to restore the appeal inspite of the fact that the appellants applied for the restoration of appeal giving cogent and compelling reasons for their inability to be in court at the time the appeal was dismissed having regard that service of processes is fundamental in any judicial proceedings.” For the respondents, the issue identified for determination is:-
“Were the learned Justices of the Court of Appeal Benin Division right in striking out the appellants’ motion dated 9/2/99 on 7/7/99.”
In his brief of argument, learned counsel for the appellants submitted that the respondents’ motion for dismissal of the appeal was not served on them before the Court of Appeal proceeded to dismiss the appeal. It was pointed out that the motion on notice was allegedly served on them at Warri instead of through their counsel Chuks Nwolisa AND amp; Co of 95 Ojuelegba Road, Surulere Lagos being their correct address for service as indicated in their notice of appeal against the judgment of the High Court. It was further pointed out that the said motion on notice did not indicate a hearing date. It was then submitted that failure to give notice of proceedings to the opposing party in a case where service is required is a fundamental omission (except where proceedings are ex-parte) which renders such proceedings void because the court has no jurisdiction to entertain the matter, citing in support of the proposition the following cases:- Skenconsult v. Ukey (1981) 1 SC 6; Obimonure v. Erinosho (1966) All NLR 250; Katsina v. Makudawa (1971) 1 NMLR 100.
Learned counsel referred to the affidavit in support of their motion for relisting the appeal dismissed in which it was averred that the appellants’ motion for the dismissal of their appeal was not served on them the appellants before the dismissal of the appeal by the court below. He stressed that on becoming aware of the dismissal of the appeal, the appellants took sufficient, reasonable and diligent steps to restore the appeal for the matter to be decided on merit but that the court below for no good reasons refused to grant their application to relist the appeal for it to be determined on merit. We were therefore urged to allow this appeal and order that the appeal against the judgment of the trial court to be restored for it to be determined on its merit before the Court of Appeal.
Responding to the above submissions, learned counsel for the respondents submitted in his brief of argument that the learned Justices of the Court of Appeal were right in striking out the appellants’ application dated 9/2/99 but filed on 10/2/99 for the relisting of the appeal dismissed for want of prosecution. It was contended that the lower court having dismissed the appeal on 25/ 1/99 became funtus officio and therefore lacked the jurisdiction to entertain the appellants’ motion filed on 10/2/99 for the restoration of the appeal.
It was canvassed that an appeal dismissed under Order 6 rule 10 of the Court of Appeal Rules, Cap. 62, Vol. IV Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990 cannot be restored and relisted as the appellants sought to do and as authority for the proposition, the case of Akanke Olowu and 3 Ors. v. Amudatu Abolore AND amp; Ors. (1993) 5 NWLR (Pt.293) 255, (1993) 6 SCNJ (Pt. 1) I was cited. Furthermore, learned counsel contended in his brief that the court below satisfied itself that the appellants were duly served the motion for dismissal of the appellants’ appeal before proceeding to dismiss it on 25/1/99 on the ground that the appellants had not filed their brief long after the expiration of the period of 60 days limited by the rules for doing so. It was further argued that the appellants were duly served with the respondents’ motion for the dismissal of the appeal through their address in Warri provided by the appellants from which address they had previously received several processes. We were urged to dismiss the appeal.
As is evident from the submissions of both counsel, it would appear as they conceived it that this appeal rested on service or failure to serve the appellants the respondents’ motion for the dismissal of the appellants’ appeal against the judgment of the trial court. If that were so, one would appreciate with commendation the submissions of learned counsel for the appellants. It seems to me with respect, that learned counsel has misapprehended the substance of the ruling of the Court of Appeal delivered on 7/7/99, which is the subject matter of this appeal.
For their brevity. I will set out below the proceedings of that court on 7/7/99 leading to the ruling appealed against.
“2nd respondent is represented Chief C. Nwolisa for applicants, Chief Nwolisa says he has a motion dated 9/2/99 relisting his appeal dismissed for want of prosecution and for stay of execution. He applies to withdraw prayer (2) for stay. Mr. Onwamuedo does not oppose withdrawal of prayer (2) for stay. But he is opposing prayer I because there is already an appeal against the dismissal.
Court: Motion is (sic) dated 9/2/99 struck out with N500 costs in favour of the respondent.”
(Italicising is for emphasis)
It is evident from the above excerpt that the ruling of the court below is the order striking out the appellants’ motion to relist the appeal dismissed for want of prosecution on 25/1/99. The reason for striking out the motion as borne out from the underlined portion of the excerpt is that there was a pending appeal before this court filed by the appellants against the dismissal of the appellants’ appeal. The clear position is that on 25/1/99, the Court of Appeal dismissed the appellants’ appeal for want of prosecution. In consequence the appellants lodged an appeal to this court praying that the appeal that was dismissed should be relisted and determined on merit by the Court of Appeal. Simultaneously with filing the said appeal to this court, the appellants then filed the motion before the Court of Appeal seeking the substantially same reliefs prayed for in their appeal to this court against the dismissal of their appeal against the decision of the trial court.
Clearly, that was an abuse of judicial process. It is trite law that the abuse of judicial process is the improper use of the judicial process by a party in litigation. It may occur in various ways, such as instituting a multiplicity of action on the same subject-matter against the same opponent on the same issue or a multiplicity of action on the same matter between the same parties. It also occurs by instituting different actions between the same parties, simultaneously in different courts even though on different grounds; where two similar processes are used in respect of the exercise of the same right for example, a cross-appeal and respondents’ notice etc see Okorodudu v. Okoromadu_(1977) 3 SC 21; Oyegbola v. Esso of West Africa Inc (1966) 1 All NLR 170; Harriman v. Harriman (1989) 5 NWLR (Pt. 119) 6; Anyaduba v. N.R. 7: C. Co Ltd. (1990) 1 NWLR (Pt. 127) 397; ladesimi v. Okotie-Eboh (1986) 1 NWLR (Pt. 16) 264; Alade v. Alemuloke (1988) 1 NWLR (Pt.69) 207. In the appeal on hand, and in the face of the appellants’ appeal filed on 10/ 2/98 to the Supreme Court against the Court of Appeal’s ruling of 25/1/99 and the appellants’ motion filed on 10/2/99 for the relisting the appeal that was dismissed by it, both processes filed simultaneously in different courts and seeking the same reliefs, the appellants had grossly abused the process of court and the Court of Appeal was eminently justified in striking out the appellants’ motion to relist the appeal that was dismissed on 25/1/99 in default of filing their briefs. However meritorious that motion might be, the Court of Appeal did the right thing. It’s ruling of 7/7/99 striking out the appellants’ motion for relisting the appeal dismissed is without reproach.
This appeal is palpably groundless. It is accordingly dismissed with N10,000.OO costs in favour of the respondents against the appellants.
BELGORE, J.S.C.: I agree with the judgment of my learned brother, Edozie, JSC that this appeal lacks merit. I also dismiss this appeal with N10,000 costs in favour of respondents against appellants.
KUTIGI, J.S.C I read in advance the judgment just delivered by my learned brother, Edozie, JSC. I agree with him that this appeal is devoid of merit. It is hereby dismissed with N10,000 costs in favour of the plaintiffs/respondents.
ONU, J.S.C: I agree with my learned brother Edozie, JSC that this appeal is unmeritorious and I too accordingly dismiss it. I subscribe to the costs as assessed in the leading judgment.
TOBI, J.S.C: On 25th August, 1997, the trial Judge delivered judgment in this matter. It was in favour of the plaintiffs and therefore against the defendants. On the same day, that is, 25th August, 1997, the defendants as appellant filed an appeal. On 27th September, 1998, the plaintiffs as respondents and applicants filed a motion for the dismissal of the appeal on the ground that the appellants did not file their briefs of arguments. On 25th January, 1999, the Court of Appeal granted the motion and dismissed the appeal for want of diligent prosecution.
The appellants thereafter filed two processes: one to the Supreme Court and the other to the Court of Appeal. The one to the Supreme Court was an appeal against the 25th January, 1999 ruling of the Court of Appeal dismissing the appeal of the appellants for want of diligent prosecution. The one to the Court of Appeal was a motion dated 9th February, 1999 for “an order for restoration/relisting its appeal No. CA/B/83/98 dismissed on the 25th day of January, ] 1999 for want of diligent prosecution to enable the matter to be heard on merit.” By a ruling of 7th July, 1999, the Court of Appeal struck out the motion. Dissatisfied, the appellants have come to this court challenging the ruling of the Court of Appeal.
The above factual position creates a scenario of the appellants I pursuing the same matter by two court processes. In other words, the appellants, by the two court processes, are involved in some gamble or game of chance to get the best in the judicial process. While they appealed against the ruling of the Court of Appeal striking out their appeal for want of diligent prosecution, they also filed a motion in the Court of Appeal for the “restoration or relisting” of the appeal.
A litigant has no right to pursue pari passu two processes which will have the same effect in two courts at the same time, with a view to obtaining victory in one of the processes or in both. Litigation is not a game of chess where players outsmart themselves by dexterity of purpose and traps. On the contrary, litigation is a contest by judicial process where the parties place on the table of justice their different positions clearly, plainly and without tricks.
In my humble view, the two processes were in law not available to the appellants simultaneously. Only one was available and the choice of which of these two was exclusively the appellants. They could appeal against the decision of the Court of Appeal. In the alternative, they could ask for the restoration of the appeal dismissed for want of diligent prosecution.
It is my view that one of the processes is clearly an abuse of the judicial process. See Saraki v. Kotoye (1992) 9 NWLR (Pt.264) 156; The Vessel “Saint Roland” v. Osinoloye (1997) 4 NWLR (Pt.500) 387; Messrs N. Scheep v. M. V “Saraz” (2000) 15 NWLR (Pt.691) 622. The question is which of the processes is an abuse of the judicial process? In the determination of abuse of the judicial process, the court will consider the content of the first process vis- a-vis the second one to see whether they are aimed at achieving the same purpose. Relating the above principle to the factual situation, can come to the conclusion that the appeal filed at this court and the motion for restoration filed at the Court of Appeal were aimed to achieve generally the same purpose. And that is why the Court of Appeal rightly struck out the motion for restoration on 7th July, 1999 when it came before the court for hearing.
This court has an inherent jurisdiction to prevent abuse of process by frivolous or vexatious proceedings, either in this court or in any other court, which is brought before this court. In the light of the above, the motion for restoration of the appeal before the Court of Appeal was clearly an abuse of court process and the Court of Appeal rightly struck it out.
It is in the light of the above reasons and the fuller reasons given by my learned brother, Edozie, JSC in the leading judgment that I too dismiss the appeal with N10,000 cost in favour of the respondents against the appellants.
Cases Referred to in the Judgment:
Alade v. Alemuloke (1988) 1 NWLR (Pt. 69) 207
Anyaduba v. N.R.7:C. Co. Ltd. (1990) 1 NWLR (Pt. 127) 397
Harriman v. Harriman (1989) 5 NWLR (Pt. 119) 6
Jadesimi v. Okotie-Eboh (1986) 1 NWLR (Pt. 16) 264
Katsina v. Makudawa (1971) 1 NMLR 100
MessrsN. V Scheep v. M./ S. Araz (2000) 15 NWLR (Pt.691) 622
Obimonure v. Erinosho (1966) All NLR 250
Okorodudu v. Okoromadu (1977) 3 SC 21
Olowu v. Abolore (1993) 5 NWLR (Pt.293) 255
Oyegbola v. Esso West Africa Inc. (1966) 1 All NLR 170
Saraki v. Kotoye (1992) 9 NWLR (Pt. 264) 156
Skenconsult v. Ukey (1981) 1 SC 6
The Vessel “Saint Roland” v. Osinloye (1997) 4 NWLR (Pt.
Nigerian Rules of Court Referred to in the Judgment:
Court of Appeal Rules, Cap. 62, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990, O. 6 r. 10