Facts of the case
This is an appeal against the ruling of the High Court of Enugu in the old Anambra State. The appellants/plaintiffs sued the respondents/defendants and sought a declaration that their customary right of occupancy was valid.
The appellant’s claim was based partly on traditional evidence and partly on acts of ownership and possession. They stated that the land in question had belonged to their family from “time immemorial” and that the singular act of putting tenants on the land signified their ownership.
However, the tenants in question never appeared in court as witnesses for the appellants, and the appellant/plaintiff was unable to satisfy the court that his claims were founded.
The appellants also brought up an “attempted settlement” that had been carried out by the council of leaders in their locality. However, the court found that the committee of arbitrators did not satisfy the minimum requirements laid down by precedents and the law, and, as such, discountenanced that point.
Ultimately, the suit was dismissed because the appellants/plaintiffs failed to dismiss their burden of proof regarding the ownership of the land; satisfy that they had come to a previous agreement concerning the land in question; and did not prove to the court that they were indeed the owners of the land.
This section outlines the decisions of the court which have been distilled into broad questions for easy reading.
What are the ways of proving title to land?
- Proof by traditional evidence
- Production of document of title duly authenticated
- Acts of ownership such as selling, leasing, or renting all or parts of the land
- Acts of long possession and enjoyment of the land
- Proof of possession of a connected or adjacent land.
What is the onus of proof on a plaintiff seeking a declaration of title?
The plaintiff bears the burden of proving his allegations in any issue regarding the declaration of title. In a situation where he fails to discharge this burden, he will not be entitled to a good judgment, and it does not matter whether the defendant makes a defense or counterclaim.
It is common practice for the plaintiff to make his case as airtight as possible rather than relying on any loopholes in the defendant’s case.
In matters concerning the declaration of title and, indeed, most civil cases, the burden of proof rests on the person that alleges. That is to say, a party seeking an injunction to prevent another party from tampering with their land has to convince the court that he is the real owner of the land.
In that manner, a plaintiff risks getting an unfavorable judgment if he is unable to prove his title to the land in dispute.
- Onubruchere v. Esegine (1986) 1 NWLR (Pt. 19) 799
- Oyeyiola v. Adeoti (1973) NNLR 10
- Onibudo v. Akibu (1982) SC 60
What does a plaintiff relying on traditional history for proof of title have to plead and prove?
- The founder of the land
- The mode of founding or discovery of the land
- The history of the devolution of the land from the founder to the plaintiff
In a situation where a plaintiff chooses to rely on traditional history to back up his claims to land, there are some requirements that must be satisfied. This is important because the plaintiff must be able to find the root of his title (ownership) unless he will not get a favorable judgment.
In his leading judgment, Fabiyi J.C.A. ruling on the need for the plaintiff to produce sufficient evidence that will convince the court stated that:
“Since land is a special commodity of recent, the appellants must prove their case. They cannot have their desire actualized just for asking or on a platter of gold. The foundation of their claim was destroyed. It is necessary to say it forcefully that their launching pad, as it were fizzled into oblivion due to their lethargy.”
Those are many words there but what he means is that the court will not give a plaintiff something simply because they asked for it. Discharging the burden of proof is a roundabout way of saying that the plaintiff has to take their time to convince the judges of their position.
In the instant case, the learned trial judge was not convinced of the plaintiff’s argument as he reported finding a total absence of the requirements. That is to say, the plaintiff did not tender any evidence that established the root of the title. As such, this vacuum, so to speak, single-handedly guttedtheir suit.
- Sunday Piero v. Chief Tenalo & Ors. (1976) 12 SC 31 at 41-42
- Alade v. Awo (1975) 4 SC 215 at 228
- Ogbechie v. Gabriel Onochie (1988) 1 NWLR (Pt. 70) 370 at 392
- Odofin v. Isaac Ayoola (1984) 11 SC 72 at page 106
What happens when traditional evidence of the root of the title is lacking or rejected?
In such a situation, the court will not rely on that evidence. This is because an absence of the root of the title nullifies every other claim the individual has made concerning the land in question. As such, it will not matter whether the appellant/plaintiff was able to fulfill every other criterion. As long as he has not been able to prove ownership, the secondary acts of possession cannot avail him of a favorable judgment.
What happens if the defendant admits the plaintiff’s possession of the land? Will the plaintiff still be required to prove ownership?
When the plaintiff pleads possession of land and the defendant acquiesces to that disposition, then the onus shifts to the defendant to prove that the plaintiff is not the owner of the land.
This is because previous court decisions have proven that if the parties to a suit agree as to the facts, the burden of proof is automatically vanquished. In the case of Onubruchere v. Esegine (Supra), the court stated that when a plaintiff pleads possession of the land as his root of title and the defendant acknowledges this averment as fact but alleges that the plaintiff held the land under as a pledgee, then the burden of proof shifts to the defendant to back up their claim.
Can a declaration of title be granted against a person not a party to action?
The courts will not grant such a declaration in favor of the defendant if it will negatively affect a person that is not a party to the action.
When can customary arbitration operate as estoppels?
The following ingredients must be available:
- The parties must have come voluntarily to the arbitrators.
- There must have been an express or implied agreement between the parties that the decision of the arbitrator will be binding.
- The arbitration must have followed the customs of the parties or of their trade.
- The arbitrators must have reached a decision and published their awards.
- The involved parties must have expressly or impliedly accepted the decision at the time of the award.
Estoppel is a legal principle that prevents a party from a particular legal recourse due to a pre-existing arrangement. This law prevents parties to an agreement from backing out from the promises or concessions they made in the past.
In the instant case, the appellants stated that they had made moves to involve third-party independent arbitrators to mediate their argument. The arbitrators, appearing as witnesses, stated that they were in the preliminary phase of mediation when they backed out and advised the parties to initiate legal proceedings.
As such, this “attempted settlement” by the customary arbitrators did not stand in court as the arrangement did not satisfy the stringent requirements observed by the court.
Where is the burden of proof in civil cases?
The burden of proof rests on the party that initiated the proceedings i.e. the party that has much to lose. This is because, in doing so, they are making an averment and should be ready to tender evidence and witnesses to back up their claims.
It then follows that the plaintiff must succeed on the strength of this case rather than on the weakness of the defendant’s case. All the facts and claims must be sufficiently proven to the court unless the defendant stands a chance to see his case thrown out of court.
- Piero v. Tenalo (Supra)
- Kodilinye v. Odu (1935) 2 WACA 336
- Statutes: Evidence Act section 136 and 137