Parole Evidence Rule: When a Document speaks for itself

By Aloysius Ezeonu 

When a document speaks for itself

The rule of evidence which deals with the exclusiveness and conclusiveness of documentary evidence is often loosely referred to as the “parol evidence”rule.

It is this rule we refer to when we say that a document speaks for itself. The rule which is of common law origin has been enacted in our Evidence Act.
It is qualified and not absolute. But given the prevalent misconception of the limitations of this rule, it has become necessary to re-examine the boundariesof the rule to prevent the current trend of damaging decisions emanating from its misapplication by our various courts. ________________________________________________
In the case of A.G. Enugu State v. AVOP Plc,1
the Court of Appeal, per Tobi, J.C.A. (as he then was) painted the following fascinating imagery about theeffect and place of document in a judicial process:

“A party who has tendered a document in a court of law and admitted as an exhibit, will at the end of the litigation, either sail joyfully with it in the boat of victory or sink sorrowfully with it in
the boat of defeat.”

This analogy underscores the unassailable importance of documents in thedetermination of civil rights and criminal liabilities in particular, and the trial ofcases in general.

However, the rules and practice guiding the concept ofdocumentary evidence present an intractable turf for every legal practitioner of any practicing age and judges/justices at every hierarchical level.

The law reports are my witnesses. The controversies surrounding documentary
evidence are myriad and critically unsettled. They could range from the issue of distinguishing when a document is a material fact and when it is evidenceof material facts; the appropriate way to plead a document; the proper way to tender it after pleading; the appropriate stage to tender it; the appropriate person to tender it; the issue of its admissibility to the proper weight to begiven to it ad nauseam. It usually happens that a party may place reliance onthe contents of a document in proof of his case.

The requirement of the law is that such document should be pleaded and tendered in evidence during trial, in the absence of any defect in admissibility.

In the case of Atanda v.Ifelagha, the Court of Appeal, per Onnoghen, J.C.A. held as follows: “…when a document is duly pleaded, tendered and admitted inevidence, the document becomes the best evidence of its contents and therefore speaks for itself.”5.

In a manner that smacks of generalisation, the Court of Appeal in the case of Aiki v. Idowu,6 per Alagoa, J.C.A. stated thus: “Documents when tendered and admitted in court are like wordsuttered and do speak for themselves.”

This proposition of the law has erroneously been extended to all types of documents and regardless of the exceptional circumstances created by theEvidence Act. This misconception of the limits of parole evidence rule has anunsavoury effect on trial of cases as unnecessary and unfounded objections
are raised by lawyers during trials and superficial arguments canvassed on
3 “Every document tendered by a party in a case, must be tendered with some evidence in view. The document may be tendered to advance and further strengthen the case of the party who tendered it or toadversely weaken or destroy the case of the adversary.” Per Oputa, J.S.C. in Ajide v. Kelani (1985) 3NWLR (Pt.12) 248 @ 290.
4 (2003) 17 NWLR (Pt. 849).
5 Ibid., p. 288, F-G.
6 (2006) 9 NWLR (Pt.984).
7 Ibid., p. 65, A-B.
In the case of R.C.C. (Nig.) Ltd v. Edomwonyi,8the Court of Appeal, per Ibiyeye, J.C.A. held as follows: “The learned counsel for the appellant argued that no oral testimony of a witness is admissible to alter and/or add to the
contents of a written document. I am of the view that (sic) is amisconception of section 132 of the Evidence Act, 1990 withparticular reference to paragraph (d) of its proviso.”9
[Emphasis supplied].

This misconception of the parol evidence rule (as encapsulated in section 132of the Evidence Act 1990 and now section 128 of the Evidence Act 2011) is common and has spun a tragic catalogue of damaging decisions emanating from  the bench owing to the inappropriate application of its limitation.

It is a common experience in our law courts that some judges disallow questions in relation to documentary exhibits during cross-examination of witnesses on the ground that a document speaks for itself.

The constant miscarriage of justice wrought by this wrong application of the parol evidencerule has called for a proper and rather urgent reappraisal of the ramifications of that doctrine.

8 (2003) 4 NWLR (Pt.811)
9 Ibid., p. 533, paras. A-B. ”

Aloysius Obumneme Ezeonu is an Onitsha based Legal Practitioner and the author of Probate Practice in Nigeria: A Practical Approach.


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