Ibude v. Saidi: On Whether Failure of Plaintiff’s Claim Confers title on Defendant who does not Counter-Claim

An insight into the decision of the Supreme Court therein.

Citation: (2021)10 N.W.L.R PT. 1785 AT 567.

Courtesy: Moruff O. Balogun Esq.

Summary of facts

The appellant claimed against the respondent jointly and severally before the High Court of Edo State, claiming declaration that he is the person entitled to a certificate of occupancy in respect of the piece or parcel of land in dispute, damages for trespass,

The appellant’s case was that his late father was granted the piece of land in dispute by Oba Akenzua II of Benin as the sole trustee of all communal land in Benin evidenced by exhibit A, that is, the registered deed of conveyance between Oba Akenzua II and the appellant’s father. Tendered also by the appellant were exhibits B and C showing negotiations by the respondents to buy the land in dispute, which negotiation failed because the offer was not accepted by the appellant.

The appellant as the eldest son of his father inherited the land in dispute after his father’s death. Shortly after, the respondent broke into the land and bulldozed same, destroying the economic trees thereon, hence the action.

The respondents’ case, however, was that when they wanted to buy the appellant’s land, they sent an estate agent, but the negotiation failed because the appellant could not produce any title document to the respondents. The respondents then applied to the Edo State Government, which gave them temporary occupation license over the piece of land evidenced as exhibit F, which expired 7 years before the institution of the suit.

Upon conclusion of hearing, the trial court in its judgment gave judgment for the appellant. Dissatisfied, the respondents appealed to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal set aside the judgment of the trial court.
Aggrieved by the decision of the Court of Appeal, the appellant appealed to the Supreme Court.

Held: Unanimously allowing the appeal. The judgment of the learned trial court was restored.

The following issues were raised and determined by the Supreme Court:

  1. On whether failure of plaintiff’s claim confers title on defendant who does not counter-claim-
    In an action for declaration of title to land, even if the plaintiff fails, title does not automatically confer on the defendant without a counter-claim. In this case, the respondents knew that the case against them was for declaration of title to the land in dispute, yet did not counter-claim. Probably, they had no claim to ownership or title to necessitate counter-claiming.
    The respondents defended the suit casually and feebly without the intention of laying claim to the title of the land in dispute.
  2. On exception to the rule that plaintiff must rely on strength of his case and not on weakness of the defence in action for declaration of title –
    The time-honoured principle that the plaintiff must rely on the strength of his case and not on the weakness of his opponent’s case will not apply where the defendant leads evidence directly in favour of the plaintiff’s case. In the instant case, the evidence led by the respondents of their attempt to purchase the land from the appellant was a positive admission that the land belonged to the appellant.
  3. On ways of proving title to land-
    Ownership or title to land may be proved by any of these five methods, viz:
    (a). by traditional evidence;
    (b) by production of documents of title, which are duly authenticated;
    [c]. by acts of selling, leasing, renting out all or part of the land, or farming on it, or on
    a portion of it;
    (d). by acts of long possession and enjoyment of the land; and
    (e). by proof of possession of connected or adjacent land in circumstances rendering it
    probable that the owner of such connected or adjacent land would, in addition, be
    the owner of the land in dispute.

The five methods do not have to be present before ownership of land is said to have been proved. Where the plaintiff is able to satisfactorily establish one, by cogent and conclusive evidence, ownership or title would have been sufficiently established. The above five methods deal with the means by which title to land can be proved in the court of law. However, it does not mean that once a claimant produces what he claims to be an instrument of grant, he is automatically entitled to a declaration that the property which such an instrument purports to grant is his own. Rather, production and reliance upon such an instrument inevitably carries with it the need for the Court to enquire into some or all of a number of questions, including:
(i) whether the document is genuine and valid;
(ii) whether it has been duly executed, stamped and registered;
(iii) whether the grantor had the capacity and authority to make the grant;
(iv) whether the grantor had in fact what he purported to grant; and
(v) whether it had the effect claimed by the holder of the instrument.

In the instant case, the appellant established his title to the land by production of title documents.
The respondents presented no better title to the land and could not succeed in challenging the appellant’s claim to the land.

Per OKORO, J.S.C. at pages. 583-584, paras. F-A:
“In the instant appeal, the appellant is able to establish that the piece of land in dispute was granted to his father by Oba Akenzua II, as the sole trustee of all Communal Land in Benin, under Benin Customary Law in 1975.

He went further to tender a registered deed of conveyance over the land. The respondents on their part tendered an expired temporary occupation licence. In the circumstance, where one party has a registered deed over the land and the other holds an invalid licence, I am inclined to hold that the party with the registered deed of conveyance has a better title. I am of the considered view that learned trial Judge was right when he held that the acquisition of the temporary occupation licence exhibit “1c” by the defendants, a licence which on the face of it expired on the 31st of December,
1993 cannot defeat or supercede the title of the plaintiff, a title that was granted by the Oba of Benin Akenzua II himself the sole trustee of all communal lands in Benin. The judgment of the court below that the appellant failed to prove superior title is to my understanding of the law and the subject, perverse.

  1. On burden of proving that original owner had been divested of his title-
    A party who acknowledges the title of his opponent to a parcel of land must prove how that opponent has been divested of title, wholly or partially, of the ownership of the land to the satisfaction of the Court.

Moruff O. Balogun Esq.
Ijebu Ode, Ogun State.
09121207712 [WHATSAPP]

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