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Once it cannot be said who signed a process, it is incurably bad, can’t be remedied by rules of court

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Scale of Justice. Photo/Sealchambers


Weekly Insight And Communication Network Ltd & Anor V. Peter & Ors (2019) Lpelr-46847 (Ca)

In The Court Of Appeal
(Calabar Judicial Division)

On Friday, The 8th Day Of March, 2019

 Before Their Lordship

SUIT NO: CA/C/190/2017

OJEED ADEKUNLE OWOADE      J. C. A
OBANDE FESTUS OGBUINYA     J. C. A
MUHAMMED LAWAL SHUAIBU           J. C. A

Between

1. WEEKLY INSIGHT AND COMMUNICATION NETWORK LIMITED
2. DAVID AUGUSTINE     …………………         APPELLANT(S)

And

1. MR. FRANCIS GREEN PETER
2.MRS.AFFIONG ETIM OTON ……….                                      RESPONDENT(S)
3. MR. GREEN PETER IKPE
4. COMMISSIONER OF POLICE, AKWA IBOM STATE
           
LEAD JUDGMENT DELIVERED BY MUHAMMED LAWAL SHUAIBU, J.C.A.
FACTS OF THE CASE
On Wednesday, February 18, 2009, the appellants published an article in their weekly insight captioned “Evil Son Arranges kidnappers to Abduct mother”. The article at page 6 stated how police detective thought that it was the 1st respondent that was the real instigator of a plan to abduct his mother so as to give to the concerned gang the purported N5 million sent to the mother by her daughter abroad. The plank of the respondents’ case was that by the words complained of in the appellant’s publication, Exhibit A, the 1st respondent was portrayed to be a criminal who committed a criminal offence of attempted abduction, stealing, kidnapping and robbery. The 1st – 3rd respondents (as plaintiffs) filed an action on libel against the appellants claiming the sum of N20 million damages and retraction of the said publication at the High Court of Akwa Ibom State, Uyo.
  
Pleadings were ordered and exchanged. Both the 1st and 2nd appellants as well as the 4th respondent denied the claims. The matter proceeded to trial with the 1st – 3rd respondents calling four witnesses and tendering the said publication, which was admitted and marked Exhibit “A”. The appellants called one witness and upon the 3rd respondent raising a no case submission, the claim against the 3rd respondent was accordingly dismissed and his name struck out by the trial Court. The learned trial judge entered judgment against the appellants and in favour of 1st respondent.
Dissatisfied appellants appealed to the Court of Appeal.

ISSUES FOR DETERMINATION
Appellants formulated the following four issues for determination:
“1. Whether the trial Court properly evaluated the evidence as presented by the parties in this case to arrive at the decision of finding the appellants liable when the 1st – 3rd Respondents evidence lacks the ingredients required for the Court to so find.
2. Whether the Writ of summons that originated this suit was properly signed according to law to have invoked the adjudicating power of the trial Court.
3. Whether a Court of competent jurisdiction is precluded from looking at the Courts record even after a party had been struck out. 4. Whether the 1st respondent in the circumstances of this case and facts lead at the trial, is entitled to damages if he is, whether the sum of N3, 000,000 awarded by the trial judge is not grossly excessive to warrant the interference of the Court of Appeal.”

PARTIES’ ARGUMENTS
On issue Nos.1 & 3 learned counsel for the appellants, while referring to the findings of the trial Court at page 204 of the record that the said words are defamatory in their ordinary and material meaning, submitted that these facts were never offered in evidence and thus different from the case of the respondents. It was argued for the appellants that words in themselves are not defamatory. Consequently, that the findings of the trial Court that the words complained of is defamatory when no evidence has been led to show that such words lower the integrity of the person (1st Respondent) in the eyes of the reasonable public is perverse.
  
Further, it was also contended that the amended statement of claim having been filed without obtaining the required leave of Court, was therefore abandoned and a Court cannot on its own get into such an abandoned process to grant any relief or even comment thereon.
  
Dealing with the admissibility of the weekly insight Newspaper by the trial Court, learned counsel submitted that same being a public document, is required to be produced from proper custody as required in Section 148 of the Evidence Act, 2011.On their part, the respondents contended in respect of issues 1 and 3 that the statement of claim superseded the Writ of summons and that the trial Court had evaluated the evidence of each of the respondents before arriving at its decision. He thus submitted that where the words complained of are defamatory in their natural and ordinary meanings, the plaintiff has no legal duty to lead any evidence to show additional defamatory meaning as understood by persons possessing same particular facts.
  
On the appellants complaint of failure to obtain the leave of Court to validate the amended statement of claim; learned counsel contended that the issue of miscarriage of justice will not avail the appellants as the original statement of claim subsists. And the major feature of the supposed amendment was to emphasize on some aspects of the case. Thus, the appellants were not misled in any way.
  
On the wrongful admission of Exhibit A (weekly insight Newspaper) learned counsel argued that where a document is admissible under certain conditions and same is admitted with procedural defect but without objection, the appeal Court will not upset the trial Court’s decision solely on ground of inadmissibility of such document.

COURT’S FINDINGS
On issues 1 and 3, the Court of Appeal stated categorically that the primary duty of the trial Court is to evaluate the evidence produced by the contending parties in support of their contention before arriving at its decision in one way or the other.  Further, that where the trial Court abdicates this sacred duty or when it demonstrates that it had not taken proper advantage of having heard and seen the witness testify, evaluation of evidence is said to be at large.
   
On the admissibility of the publication, Exhibit A, the Court stated that the said newspaper , though private, falls within the meaning of public document by virtue of Section 102 of the Evidence Act read together with Section 2 (2) (a) of the National Library Act, Cap. N56 Laws of the Federation, 2004 and as such, ought to have been produced from proper custody by virtue of Section 156 of the Evidence Act, 2011. The court concluded in this regard that had the trial Court addressed its mind adequately to the issue of proper custody of Exhibit A, it would certainly have come to the conclusion that the said publication was inadmissible. 
  
On issue No.2, the Court pitched that a careful perusal of the originating writ of summons shows that same was neither signed by the 1st and 3rd respondents nor their legal practitioners. The Court referred the case of SLB CONSORTIUM LTD V NNPC (2011) ALL FWLR (pt 583) 1902 at 2904 where the Supreme Court was emphatic that once it cannot be said who signed a process, it is incurably bad; and the rules of Court that seem to provide a remedy are of no use as a rule of Court cannot override the law. 
Consequently, it was the Court’s position on this issue that the trial Court lacked the jurisdiction to hear and determine the suit.

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Since issue No. 4 deals with proportionality of the damages awarded to the 1st respondent by the trial Court; and having held that non-signing of the Writ of Summons has deprived the trial Court of the requisite jurisdiction and that the trial Court has failed to properly evaluate the evidence adduced before it, the Court resolved all the four issues in favour of the appellants and against the respondents.

DECISION OF THE COURT
Appeal was allowed and suit NO HU/94/2009 filed at the High Court of Akwa Ibom State sitting at Uyo was struck out. The 1st respondent was also ordered to pay costs assessed at N100, 000 to the appellants.

APPEARANCES
Chief Godwin O. Effiong with him, John Ekpe, Esq. For Appellant(s)
Effiong Udofia, Esq. with him, Iniobong Williams, Esq. 1st – 3rd Respondents For Respondent(s)
Compiled by: LawPavilion

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