At the end of one of the most fiercely contested and protracted legal battles in the history of the Firm, the Judgment of the Court of Appeal in the very complex dispute in Appeal No: CA/L/1073/11; UPDC Property Dev. Company Plc. V County & City Bricks Dev. Company Limited (“UPDC Appeal”) in respect of an expanse of Land located at the choice area of Parkview Estate, Ikoyi Lagos was delivered on 23 April 2020 by the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division, 9 years after that Appeal was filed.
The background to the dispute which culminated in the Appeal is that County & City Bricks Dev. Company Limited (“CCB”) commenced a Suit before the Federal High Court in Lagos alleging breach of contract against the Federal Government of Nigeria (“Federal Government”) in respect of a purported lease of the Land by the Federal Government to CCB. As at the commencement of the Suit on 16 April 2007, 10.647 hectares of the Land had been leased to CCB by the Federal Government – this is common ground between the parties – leaving a disputed balance of approximately 5.4 hectares. Out of this disputed balance, UPDC at all times material to this Suit, held title to approximately 5,648.734 square metres thereof (“UPDC Property”) and also traced its title to the Federal Government. CCB therefore prayed the Court for a declaration of title to the Land or in the alternative, a declaration that the Federal Government was in breach of the Contract between CCB and the Federal Government in respect of the Lease of the 16 hectares of Land, inclusive of UPDC’s property. The Federal High Court in its Judgment delivered on 08 June 2009 found wholly in favour of CCB and held that the Federal Government has no interest in the said Land.
Having lost at the Federal High Court, UPDC changed Counsel and briefed PUC at this appellate stage to challenge the decision. The Firm, led by Mr. Paul Usoro SAN, immediately swung into action and commenced the Appeal. At the Court of Appeal, we, amongst other things challenged the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court to determine the Suit in the first place on the grounds that the subject matter relates to land and it was of no moment that the Federal Government Agency was party to the Suit, the appropriate Court being the Lagos State High Court. The appeal suffered several setbacks as a number of Interlocutory Applications were filed and argued over the 9-year period. Eventually, the substantive Appeal argued on 29 January 2019 in what can best be described as an epic legal courtroom battle and the Court of Appeal delivered its Judgment, allowed the Appeal and set aside in its entirety the Judgment of the Federal High Court. The Court amongst other things held that having considered section 251 of the Constitution, the mere fact that Federal Government was a party to the Suit before the lower Court does not confer jurisdiction on the Federal High Court whether as it relates to the main claim or the alternative claim since both claims were unarguably in respect of interest in land. The Court held that it is the State High Court under section 272 of the Constitution that has jurisdiction to entertain the Suit. According to the Court, even if it were to proceed to consider the reliefs sought from the prism of a contract, the question will be specific performance of which contract? The Court held that the contract was one which only the Lagos State High Court can assume jurisdiction and consequently, ordered the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court to transfer the case file to Chief Judge of the Lagos State High Court for accelerated hearing.
Before the above summarized landmark Judgment of the Court of Appeal, there was an interesting twist to the case when the Federal Government, being a party to the Suit at the lower Court and the predecessor in title to UPDC, sought the leave of the Court of Appeal to appeal against the Federal High Court Judgment and the Court of Appeal granted the said leave. Dissatisfied with the Ruling of the Court granting the leave, CCB appealed to the Supreme Court and on 01 February 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of CCB and held that the Federal Government has lost its right to Appeal against the lower Court’s Judgment on the grounds that, they had waived their constitutional right to appeal. Armed with the Judgment of the Supreme Court, CCB filed a Motion dated 04 March 2019 (“040319 Motion”) praying the Court of Appeal to dismiss the UPDC Appeal on the ground that since the Federal Government, from which UPDC derived its title to the land in dispute, UPDC had by extension also lost its right to Appeal and lacked the right to continue to prosecute the UPDC Appeal.
In its Ruling delivered prior to the Judgment on the same, 23 April 2020, the Court held that having looked at the arguments of both the Applicant and the Respondent to the 040319 Motion, it finds that the judgment of the Supreme Court upon which the 040319 Motion was predicated did not deal with the case on its merit and did not determine the issue of jurisdiction raised in the UPDC Appeal but merely addressed the issue as to whether having not appealed within time, the Federal Government of Nigeria could still exercise its right to appeal. The Court held that the 040319 Motion lacked merit and accordingly dismissed same.
The significance of this judgment is that UPDC has, by asserting its right successfully, unwittingly provided succor to several individuals and corporate organisations that were not parties to the Suit before the Lower Court because CCB, relying on the Judgment of the Federal High Court had, sequel to the Judgment of the Supreme Court extinguishing the Federal Government’s right appeal, proceeded to enforce the Judgment against all these individuals and entities that derived their title from the Federal Government and displaced them all. The highlight of the Judgment of the Court of Appeal therefore is that all consequential and incidental orders obtained from the Federal High Court Lagos, the Lagos State High Court and even the Supreme Court or any other Courts, or any steps, actions and possession taken pursuant to the doomed Judgment of the lower court are equally set aside. The said Judgment of the Federal High Court has accordingly become null, void and of no effect whatsoever, as it is practically and legally impossible to place something on nothing.
This victory has once again re-affirmed PUC’s pride of place as the go-to law Firm for both dispute resolution and transaction assignments and further demonstrates the Firm’s prowess and internationally acclaimed reputation for handling and resolving very complex legal matters in favour of our Clients.