On whether Provision of Section 2(a) of Public Officers Protection Act Applies in Actions for Recovery of Land, Breach of Contract, or based on Work done

RAHAMANIYA UNITED [NIG.] LTD V. MIN., F.C.T: On whether provision of section 2(a) of Public Officers Protection Act applies in actions for recovery of land, breach of contract, or based on work done. An insight into the decision of the Supreme Court therein.

Citation: (2021) 17 NWLR PT. 1806 AT 481.
PARTIES IN FULL:
RAHAMANIYA UNITED [NIG.] LTD
V.

  1. MINISTER OF FEDERAL CAPITAL TERRITORY
  2. HON. MINISTER, FCT
  3. FEDERAL CAPITAL DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY
  4. ALL PERSONS UNKNOWN CLAIMING CONVEYANCE OF APPROVAL OFFER OF PLOT 216, 217,218, 219, 225, 226, 227, 228, WUYE DISTRICT, ABUJA.

Courtesy: Moruff O. Balogun Esq.
Summary of facts:
The appellant was allocated plots of land measuring about 8000m2 delineated as Plots 216, 217, 218, 219, 225, 226, 227, and 228, Wuye District, Abuja, by a letter of offer of terms of grant/conveyance of approval dated 4th January 1995. The appellant accepted the offer by a letter submitted to the 1st- 3rd respondents 36 days after the offer. But the appellant could not commence any meaningful development on the plots of land because infrastructures were not yet in place and because the certificate of occupancy was not yet issued.

In the interim, on 18th October 2000, the appellant noticed that some unknown persons (the 4th respondent) had taken possession of the land and dug a foundation to commence development thereon. Inquiries made at the office of the 2nd and 3rd respondents to ascertain the identity of the 4th respondent failed. Besides, the appellant could not also locate its file with them. Consequently, the appellant filed an action at the Federal High Court, Abuja on 22nd March 2004 seeking for reliefs.

Without filing a statement of defence, the 1st-3rd respondents filed a preliminary objection to the jurisdiction of the trial court over the suit on the ground that the suit was statute barred under section 2(a) of the Public Officers Protection Act, 1990. The trial court upheld the preliminary objection and dismissed the suit. The Court of Appeal dismissed the appellant’s appeal.
So, the appellant appealed to the Supreme Court.

Held (Unanimously allowing the appeal):

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

On whether provision of section 2(a) of Public Officers Protection Act applies in actions for recovery of land, breach of contract, or based on work done-
Section 2(a) of the Public Officers Protection Act does not apply in cases for recovery of land or breach of contract, or claims for work and labour done. In this case, by the statement of claim, the reliefs sought by the appellant was recovery of land that the 1st-3rd respondents re-allocated to the 4th respondent. In other words, the transaction no doubt carried a contractual flavour and related to recovery of land.

This therefore, removed the suit filed by the appellant in the trial court from the
purview of the Public Officers Protection Act

On object of Public Officers Protection Act –
Section 2(a) of the Public Officers Protection Act is intended to protect public officers from undue litigation in the course of the discharge of their official assignments.

On when public officer is protected under Public Officers Protection Act and when not –
Section 2(a) of the Public Officers Protection Act provides protection for the public officer only in respect of an act done in pursuance or execution or intended execution of any law or of any public duty. So, where a public officer acts outside the scope of his authority or without a semblance of legal justification, he cannot claim the protection
of the provisions of the Public Officers Protection Act. In this case, there is absolutely no justification for the act of the 1st- 3rd respondents or protection under section 2(a) of the Public Officers Protection Act in this regard.

On when public officer is protected under Public Officers Protection Act and when not –
Section 2(a) of the Public Officers Protection Act is intended to protect Public Officers in the discharge of their official functions and performance of their duties in accordance and in line with the provisions and requirements of substantive and subsidiary rules and regulations enacted for the purpose. In order to take benefit of the statutory protection, a public officer must demonstrate that in the discharge of the official functions and duties of his office, he acted strictly within the purview of the clear letters and spirit of the law.

A Public Officer who not only disregarded the requirements of the relevant law, but flouted it and acted with impunity outside the scope of the law in the purported execution or pursuance of a public function or duty, cannot seek refuge under the provisions of section 2(A) of the Act since there would be no legal justification for his
acts. In this case, the respondents did not act within the purview of the provisions of section 28(5), (6) and (7) of the Land Use Act when without a valid revocation of the allocation of the plots in dispute and requisite notification thereof, to the appellant,
they purported to have re-allocated the said plots to other persons.

On whether public officer can disobey laws –
A public officer has no public authority, duty, or right to break the laws of the country. Law breaking or insubordination to the letters and spirit of the law is not a function delegated to a public officer by law. Therefore, a public officer who breaks the law
with impunity cannot be said to be executing the law or intending to execute the law by his malfeasant act of breaking the letters and spirit of the law or statute that he is entrusted to execute.

On limit on power of Minister of Federal capital territory to allocate land in Federal Capital Territory-
The Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (the 2nd respondent) has the statutory right to allocate land in the Federal Capital Territory under section 5 of the Land Use Act. But the exercise of the right is subject to section 28 of the Act.

On duty on Minister of Federal Capital territory to comply with provisions of Land Use Act when exercising power of revocation of right occupancy-
By section 51(2) of the Land Use Act, the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (the
1st respondent) who exercises the powers of a Governor of a State over land in the Federal Capital Territory, has a duty to comply with and abide by the provisions of
section 28(5), (6) and (7) of the Act for a valid and effective revocation of a right of occupancy granted or given to a person in respect of land in the Federal Capital Territory. In this case, until there was a valid and effective revocation of a right of occupancy over a piece of land in the Federal Capital Territory, in strict compliance with the provisions of the law, the 1st respondent and 2nd respondent acting on behalf of the 1st respondent, cannot re-allocate the piece of land over which a valid right of occupancy exists and subsists.

On when issue of jurisdiction can be raised –
An objection to jurisdiction can be taken on the basis of the statement of claim, on the evidence received or by a motion on notice supported by affidavit giving the facts upon which reliance is placed. The objection can be taken even on the face of the writ of summons before filing statement of claim. It is, however, advisable and desirable to file a statement of defence to a statement of claim before the objection is raised, whether it borders on the court’s jurisdiction or not, since demurrer has been abolished.

In this case, the 1st-3rd respondents did not respond to the appellant’s argument that the Court of Appeal erred in affirming the trial court’s decision since it lacked the jurisdiction to entertain the preliminary objection, which was unaccompanied by the statement of defence contrary to Order 26 rule 2 (1) of the Federal High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules, 2000. In the circumstance, the appellant’s argument was deemed admitted.

On need for counsel to consider hierarchy of courts in citing cases as judicial precedents-
A counsel must understand the import of judicial precedents and the hierarchy of courts as regards the application of decided cases. In this case, the 1st – 3rd respondents’ counsel copiously cited and relied on decisions of the Court of Appeal to persuade the
Supreme Court to decide this appeal in their favour.

That ought not to be so because there is plethora of Supreme Court cases on the issues, which the respondents counsel ought to have relied upon to cause the Supreme Court to bind itself by them. Most of the relevant cases cited by the counsel to the 1st- 3rd respondents were decided cases by the Court of Appeal, and unpersuasive before the Supreme Court.

Courtesy:
Moruff O. Balogun Esq.
Ijebu Ode, Ogun State.
08052871414
09121207712 [WhatsApp]


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