➥ CASE SUMMARY OF:
Reg. Trustees of Apostolic Church of Christ v. Reg. Trustees of Grace Church of Christ (2021) – SC
by Branham Chima (SAL).
Supreme Court – SC.270/2011
➥ JUDGEMENT DELIVERED ON:
Friday, May 07, 2021
➥ AREA(S) OF LAW
Revocation of land;
Certificate of Occupancy;
Revocation of revocation.
➥ PRINCIPLES OF LAW
⦿ WHERE COMPETING TITLE, THE ONE WHO SHOWS A BETTER TITLE WINS
Where there are competing titles, which trace their root to the same source, the one who can show a better title prevails. See:Omiyale Vs Macaulay (2009) FWLR (Pt. 479) 399: Otukpo vs John (2013) ALL FWLR (Pt: 661) 1509; (2012) LPELR–25053 (SC). — K.M.O. Kekere-Ekun, JSC.
⦿ CERTIFICATE OF OCCUPANCY IS ONLY EVIDENCE OF TITLE
It is also trite that a Certificate of Occupancy is only prima facie evidence of title or possession, but it is not conclusive proof of title to the land to which it relates. See: Registered Trustees Mission vs Olowoleni (1990) 6 NWLR (Pt. 158) 514: Otukpo Vs John (Supra): Adole Vs Gwar (2008) 11 NWLR (Pt. 1099) 562: (2008) LPELR-189 (SC) @ 17 D-E. — K.M.O. Kekere-Ekun, JSC.
⦿ RELIGION UNDER THE CONSTITUTION IS NOT A BUSINESS FOR THE GOVERNMENT
In any case, I should think religion, under the Constitution is not a business or purpose any Government in Nigeria should engage itself in. Section 10 of the 1999 Constitution provides clearly and unambiguously- 10. The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion a State religion. That is the outright proclamation of the non-spiritual or non-religious nature of our government and governance that must be, and is, civil, earthly, non-clerical, temporal and unsacred. It is, therefore, with all deference to the lower Court, an act of great Constitutional profanity for a Government, under the Constitution, to compulsorily acquire land for overriding public purpose or interest to allocate the same land for religious purpose or a place of worship. — Ejembi Eko, JSC.
➥ LEAD JUDGEMENT DELIVERED BY:
Kudirat Motonmori Olatokunbo Kekere-ekun, J.S.C.
⦿ FOR THE APPELLANT
A.M. Makinde, SAN.
⦿ FOR THE RESPONDENT
M.P. Anaukyaa, Esq.
➥ CASE FACT/HISTORY
The appellant is a Christian religious organisation which was registered in 1963. It had several branches, which included the Mushin Branch, which eventually broke away from the main organisation and was registered in 1996 as The Registered Trustees of Grace Church of Christ, the respondent in this appeal. In 1976, while he was still a pastor in the employment of the Appellant Church, the promoter of the respondent, one Pastor Igbeare, purportedly purchased a parcel of land at 23/25 Fayemi Street, Ejigbo Town near Mushin from the Agbeke Family. The purchase receipt was in Pastor Igbeare’s custody. The respondent applied for Land Information in respect of the land which yielded the information that the land had been acquired by the Lagos State Government as far back as 1972, vide Official Gazette No. 60 of 7/12/72 Volume 59. Realising that as at 1976 when the Agbeke family sold the land, it had been divested of title thereto, the respondent applied in its own name to the Lagos State Government for ratification of the sale. The respondent was consequently issued a formal letter of allocation of State Land. Upon the payment of the necessary fees, the respondent was issued with a Certificate of Occupancy on 24/8/97 in respect thereof. It was the respondent’s contention that each branch of the church generated its own funds and that the branches were co-ordinate with and not subordinate to the headquarters. It was also its contention that it had deposited materials at 23/25 Fayemi Street, Ejigbo, preparatory to the construction of a permanent site for its church, which got lost. It was also contended that rather than take steps to object to the issuance of Certificate of Occupancy in its favour, the appellant proceeded to issue a notice of Revival Service scheduled to take place on the disputed land.
Warning letters were written to the appellant to no avail, hence the institution of suit NO. ID/I/31/9 before the High Court of Lagos State, Ikeja Judicial Division vide Written Summons and Statement of Claim filed on 14/5/98.
At the trial, both parties led evidence and tendered documents in support of their respective positions. In a considered judgment delivered on 10th June, 2005, the plaintiff’s claims were dismissed. The defendant’s counter claim was granted in its entirety. The Court field that the land in dispute belonged to the defendant and that the plaintiff had no right to apply for ratification in respect thereof. The letters of ratification, Exhibits P3 and P4 and the Certificate of Occupancy, Exhibit P2, were declared null and void and of no effect.
The plaintiff (now respondent) was aggrieved by the decision and filed an appeal at the Court below. In its judgment delivered on 4/2/2011, the appeal was allowed and the judgment of the trial Court was set aside. The Court held that the Agbeke family, having been divested of its title to the land by the Government acquisition, Exhibit P14, had nothing to convey to the present appellant. It held that the respondent had proved a better title to the land. The judgment of the trial Court was set aside and all the plaintiff’s reliefs were granted.
➥ ISSUE(S) & RESOLUTION(S)
I. Having discovered the defect in title, who had the right to apply to the Lagos State Government for ratification?
RULING: IN APPELLANT’S FAVOUR.
A. THE APPELLANT WAS THE PARTY ENTITLED TO APPLY TO THE LAGOS STATE GOVERNMENT
“The learned trial Judge made some findings of fact as follows: ‘PW1 admitted during cross-examination that as at 1976, the Plaintiff was not in existence. The Church at 14 Palm Avenue Street was a branch of the Defendant. The evidence of PW1 under cross-examination confirmed the testimony of DW1 that the Mushin Branch was under the Headquarters. The Pastor of the branch, PW1, was appointed by the Defendant vide Exhibit D1. As Pastor of Mushin Branch, PW1 was obliged to attend meetings at the Headquarters. On one occasion that he could not attend, he wrote a letter of apology, Exhibit D2. Therefore, contrary to the assertion of PW1 that Mushin Branch was independent and was not subordinate to the Headquarters, the evidence before the Court showed otherwise. PW1 did not have power to ordain ministers at the Mushin Branch. They were presented by him to the Headquarters for ordination. The Ordination was done on 26th September, 2003, (sic: 1993) Exhibit D3. From 1976 when the land was purchased up until PW1 left Defendant Church to establish his own church, he never challenged the authority of the Defendant. By PW1’s own admission in his pleading, contrary to his evidence in Court, it was the defendant’s church that commissioned him, DW1 and others to negotiate for and buy the land for the Mushin branch. In his words, “the land was bought for Christ Apostolic Church Mushin Branch”. … What PW1 did was to use his position as Vice President of the Defendant and his custody of the purchase receipt to surreptitiously apply for the certificate of occupancy for his church using the Defendant’s purchase receipt.’
The above finding of the learned trial Judge is fully supported by the evidence on record. Exhibit D2 written by PW1, Pastor Igbeare on 22nd April, 1994 was signed by him in his capacity as the Vice President of the Apostolic Church of Christ. In the programme for the Headquarters’ Ordination Ceremony held on 26th 1993, PW1 is referred to as representing the Mushin Branch of the Church. Furthermore, as pointed out by the learned trial Judge, PW1 admitted under cross-examination that all the branches of the Church were under the Headquarters and that in 1976, the property in dispute belonged to the Mushin Branch of the Apostolic Church. It could not have been otherwise because, the respondent did not come into existence until 1996. It debunks respondent’s contention that the Mushin branch was co-ordinate and not subordinate to the Headquarters. I agree with the learned trial Judge that PW1, being the Vice President of the Church, who had custody of the receipt issued by the Agbeke family, took advantage of his position and knowledge of the defect in title, and used the receipt to apply for ratification of the sale by the Agbeke family. In other words, Exhibits P2, P3 and P4 were obtained on the basis of fraudulent misrepresentation. Exhibit P2 could not confer a valid title on the respondent.”
“Having discovered that there was a defect in the title obtained from the vendors, the appellant was the party entitled to apply to the Lagos State Government for ratification of same and for the grant of a Statutory Right of Occupation in respect thereof. The learned trial Judge meticulously evaluated the evidence before him. His findings ought not to have been disturbed.”
II. Whether the Court below was in error when it granted all the reliefs of the Plaintiff/Respondent, particularly its claims for special and general damages which were never proved by credible evidence?
RULING: IN APPELLANT’S FAVOUR.
A. NO EVIDENCE THAT MATERIALS WERE DESTROYED
“The law is that special damages must be strictly proved by the person who claims to be entitled to them. The nature of the proof required depends on the facts and circumstances of the case. The evidence must however be credible. See: Oshinjirin Vs. Elias (1970) ALL NLR 151 @ 156: B.B. Apugo & Sons Ltd. Vs OHMB (2016) 13 NWLR (Pt. 1529) 206. British Airways vs Atoyebi (2014) 13 NWLR (Pt. 1424) 253. The receipts tendered by the respondent show that materials were bought. There was however, no evidence to establish the assertion that they were destroyed by the appellant.”
III. Whether the Court below set up a case different from the one presented by the parties themselves in their pleadings and evidence?
RULING: IN RESPONDENT’S FAVOUR.
A. THE COURT DID NOT MAKE OUT A CASE FOR THE PARTIES
“In light of the pleading and evidence on record, I do not agree with the appellant that the lower Court made out a case for the parties by raising the purpose for which the Certificate of Occupancy was granted. In the course of resolving issue 1, I noted that the Court below was wrong when it held that the Certificate of Occupancy was granted for overriding public purpose or as a place of worship. Exhibit P2 clearly states that the Certificate of Occupancy was granted for residential purpose. The appellant has not shown that it has suffered any miscarriage of justice in this regard. This issue is resolved against it.”
“The judgment of the lower Court delivered on 4/2/2011 is hereby set aside. The judgment of the High Court of Lagos State delivered on 10/6/2005 is affirmed. Costs of N500,000.00 is awarded against the respondent in favour of the appellant. Appeal allowed.”
➥ MISCELLANEOUS POINTS
➥ REFERENCED (LEGISLATION)
➥ REFERENCED (CASE)
➥ REFERENCED (OTHERS)