Jurisdiction of the Federal/State High Court with Respect to Simple Contract

0
Photo: Credit Solution

PREAMBLE

It was expressed by the Supreme Court per OKORO, J.S.C. delivering the leading judgment of the Apex Court in IKPEKPE v. WARRI REFINERY & PETROCHEMICAL CO. LTD & ANOR (2018) LPELR-44471 (SC) that “The importance of the jurisdiction of a Court cannot be over emphasized. The law is trite that jurisdiction is a threshold issue and livewire that determines the authority of a Court of law or Tribunal to entertain a case before it and it is only when a Court is imbued or conferred with the necessary jurisdiction by the Constitution or law that it will have the judicial power and authority to entertain, hear and adjudicate upon any cause or matter brought before it by the parties. Where a Court proceeds to hear and determine a matter without the requisite jurisdiction, it amounts to an exercise in futility and the proceedings and judgment generated therefrom are null, void and of no effect no matter how well conducted.”

It is therefore treated with seriousness when the issue of jurisdiction is brought up for determination in the course of adjudication. It becomes more serious where the issue borders on the appropriate Court before whom an action should be commenced between the High Court of a State and the Federal High Court.

This is so because, both Courts are products of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, (fons et origo) which provides for the exclusive and concurrent jurisdiction of both Courts thereby making it important for due care to be exercised when a judge of either Court or Judges of the Appellate Courts are called upon to determine which of the two Courts i.e. State/Federal High Court is clothed with jurisdiction over a cause or matter.

FACTS

Matthew Ikpekpe was a casual driver with Warri Refinery and Petrochemical Company Limited, then as Petrochemical section of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation at Ekpan. He applied for employment as driver 11 on the Warri Refinery and Petrochemical Company Limited’s salary grade level 16/1. In August, 1986, Matthew Ikpekpe was interviewed along with others for regular employment with the corporation. However, on or about 30th December, 1986, he was dismissed from service. In June, 1987, he was invited by the Warri Refinery and Petrochemical Company Limited’s letter to attend a medical test, a condition upon handing over to him his letter of employment by the Warri Refinery and Petrochemical Company Limited which letter was alleged at the material time to be in the custody Dr. Dena, an employee of Warri Refinery and Petrochemical Company Limited assigned to the Petrochemical section of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Ekpan as its Project Manager.

Matthew Ikpekpe stated that he passed the medical test conducted and medical report was issued to him which automatically entitled him to be employed as a driver 11. That Dr. Dena however, withheld the letter of employment issued by Warri Refinery and Petrochemical Company Limited to him without any just cause, consequent upon which Matthew Ikpekpe instituted an action at the High Court of Delta State, holden at Warri. 

Warri Refinery and Petrochemical Company Limited and Dr. Dena in their joint amended statement of defence denied the claim and stated that they never issued any employment letter to Matthew Ikpekpe and that the medical test conducted by the Warri Refinery and Petrochemical Company Limited was one of sine quo non for an applicant seeking gainful employment with the corporation and that it is not a guarantee or certainty or an assurance that the applicant is successful when such examination is conducted. 

Upon consideration of the cases of the parties, the Trial Court, in its judgment found for Matthew Ikpekpe and awarded the sum of N300, 000 (Three Hundred Thousand Naira) as general damages against Dr. Dena. Dissatisfied with the judgment of the learned trial judge, Warri Refinery and Petrochemical Company Limited and Dr. Dena appealed to the Court of Appeal Benin Division. The Court of Appeal set aside the judgment of the High Court of Delta State on the ground that the said State High Court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the matter and to make the orders it made in the judgment as the Federal High Court is the Court with the requisite jurisdiction to entertain the matter. Also dissatisfied with the judgment of the Court of Appeal, Matthew Ikpekpe has appealed to the Supreme Court.

ISSUES FOR DETERMINATION

ALSO READ   Highlights of the Edo State High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules, 2018 (Part 1) - By Dele Igbinedion Esq.

The Appellant formulated two issues for the determination of the appeal as follows:

“1. Whether Section 230(1) (P) of the 1979 Constitution as amended by Decree No. 107 of 1993 now Section 251 (1) (P) of the 1999 Constitution applies to action founded on breach of contract and specific performance for which the State High Court enjoys jurisdiction in line with the decision in Felix Onuorah v Kaduna Refinery and Petrochemical Co. Ltd (2005) All FWLR (pt 256) 1356.

  1. Whether the Court of Appeal was right to dismiss the appeal when it did not find it necessary to consider and determine the issues identified by the Appellant.”

The Respondent also formulated two issues for the determination of the appeal as follows:

“1. Whether the Court of Appeal was wrong in holding that Section 230(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1979 as amended by the Constitution (Suspension and Modification) Decree 107 of 1993 vested jurisdiction in the Federal High Court rather than the State High Court in the appellant’s action seeking declaratory reliefs and specific performance against the respondents when the 1st Respondent is an agency of the Federal Government.

  1. Whether the Court of Appeal did not consider the appellant’s case complaining that the respondents did not appeal against the order of vicarious liability made by the trial Court and, in any event, whether the decision of the Court of Appeal on the issue of jurisdiction did not dispose of the entire appeal before it.”

DECISION/HELD

​ In a unanimous decision of the Apex Court, the appeal succeeded on the only issue of jurisdiction determined by the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court held that Matthew Ikpekpe’s claim i.e. enforcement of contract of employment was squarely within the jurisdiction of the Delta State High Court.

Therefore the trial Judge was right to assume jurisdiction in the matter and the Court of Appeal was therefore wrong to strike out the claim on the ground that the Delta State High Court did not have jurisdiction to entertain the matter.

On the whole, the judgment and orders of the learned trial Judge were reinstated and the Court of Appeal was ordered to determine all the other seven issues presented before it as the matter was remitted back to the Court of Appeal Benin Division for hearing de novo.

RATIO DECIDENDI

  • APPEAL – LEAVE OF COURT/LEAVE TO APPEAL: Instance(s) where leave of Court is not required to file an appeal

“The issue of jurisdiction is no doubt not just an issue of law, it is a substantial issue of law. Appeal on it is therefore one of law which the appellant, in an appeal from the Court below to the appellate Court does not need leave first sought and obtained to appeal on. Ground two, against which the respondent halfheartedly directed his objection also raises a question of law alone. It therefore does not need leave of Court to be brought.” Per EKO, J.S.C. (P. 22, Paras. C-E).

  • JURISDICTION – JURISDICTION OF THE STATE/FEDERAL HIGH COURT: Whether the State High Court or Federal High Court has jurisdiction over a simple contract

“Having established that the claim of the appellant at the trial Court arose from contract of employment and specific performance, is it the Federal High Court or the State High Court which has jurisdiction to entertain the matter?

At this stage, it is pertinent to reproduce the provisions of Section 230(1) (p) and (s) of the 1979 Constitution as amended by Decree 107 of 1993 (now Section 251(1) (p) and (s) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). It states:-

“230(1) Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this Constitution and in addition to such other jurisdiction as may be conferred upon it by an Act of the National Assembly or a Decree, the Federal High Court shall have and exercise jurisdiction to the exclusion of any other Court in civil causes and matters arising from:

(p) the administration or the management and control of the Federal Government or any of its agencies,

(s) any action or proceeding for a declaration affecting the validity of the Federal Government or any of its agencies.”

There is no doubt that by the above provision i.e. Section 230(1) (s) of Decree 107 of 1993 which is in pari material with Section 251(1) (s) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) any action or proceeding for a declaration or injunction affecting the validity of any executive or administrative action or decision by the Federal Government or any of its agencies shall be brought before the Federal High Court. I have given a thorough examination of a plethora of cases of this Court on this issue and there is a consistent pronouncement that the Federal High Court does not have jurisdiction to entertain matters relating to simple contracts. It must not be forgotten that I have already held that the claim of the appellant relates to a simple contract of employment which the appellant sought specific performance. This type of claim, definitely, is not contemplated under Section 230(1) (P) (s) of the 1979 Constitution as amended by Decree 107 of 1993. See Onuorah v KRPC Ltd (2005) All FWLR (pt. 256) 1356, Ports and Cargo Handling Services Company Ltd.& Ors v. Migfo Nig Ltd. & Anor (2012) 18 NWLR (pt. 1333) 555, Adelekan v Ecu-Line NV (2006) 12 NWLR (pt 993) 33.

In Integrated Timber & Plywood Products Ltd v Union Bank Nigeria (2006) 12 NWLR (pt. 995) 483, this Court held emphatically that in a simple contract (as in this case), it is the High Court and not the Federal High Court that has jurisdiction to entertain and determine it. See also Eze v Federal Republic of Nigeria (1987) LPELR – 1193 (SC) Pp 29 – 30 paragraphs G – F.

In a simple contract of employment as in the instant case, there is nothing in Section 230(1) of the 1979 Constitution (as amended) which shows that the Federal High Court is conferred with exclusive jurisdiction to entertain matters arising therefrom. Rather it is the State High Court which continues to have jurisdiction to entertain issues connected therewith as brought by the parties for adjudication.” Per OKORO, J.S.C. (Pp. 16-18, Paras. B-E).

  • JURISDICTION – JURISDICTION OF THE STATE/FEDERAL HIGH COURT: Whether the State High Court or Federal High Court has jurisdiction over a simple contract

“On the merits, the substance of the appellant’s suit at the trial Court, in my view, was the tort of detinue. The appellant’s complaint at trial Court was that the 2nd defendant/respondent, a servant of the 1st defendant/respondent had wrongfully detained from him the letter of employment issued to him by the 1st defendant/respondent. It is on this fact that the appellant, as the plaintiff, claimed damages against the respondents, as the defendants at the trial Court. The 1st respondent, the employer/master of the 2nd respondent was apparently joined in the suit for purposes of vicarious liability it has for the liability of the 2nd respondent in the alleged tort of detinue. The Federal High Court has no jurisdiction in tort of detinue. The appropriate Court, in the circumstance, was the High Court of Delta State. Section 230(1) (p) & (s) of the 1979 Constitution, as introduced thereto by Decree 107 of 1993 is in pari materia with their successors, Section 251(1) (p) & (s) of the 1999 Constitution. By these provisions, the Constitution does not intend to divest the State High Courts of their jurisdiction over disputes relating to torts or simple contracts. This Court makes the point loud and clear in ONUORAH v. KRPC LTD (2005) ALL FWLR (pt. 256) 1356 and all the decisions following which cited it with approval. NEPA v. EDEGBERO (2002) 12 SC (pt. ii) 119, an earlier decision of this Court, which held that the action for declaration and injunction, the principal purpose of which is the nullification of the decision of the defendant (NEPA, a Federal agency) terminating the appointments of the plaintiffs falls squarely within the provisions of Section 230(1) (s) of the 1979 Constitution, as amended, is only an authority for it decided on the peculiar facts of the case The facts of this case distinguish it from NEPA v. EDEGBERO (supra).

In this case, the appellant as the plaintiff, had sued inter alia for damages on the premise of the 2nd respondent/defendant wrongfully withholding or detaining from him his letter of appointment duly issued by the 1st respondent/defendant, which wrongful act caused him the loss of the appointment. The facts of the instant suit do not fall squarely within the provisions of Section 230 (1) (s) of the 1979 Constitution, as amended by Decree 107. That is what distinguishes it from the EDEGBERO case (supra). This distinction is what makes ONUORAH’s case applicable.” Per EKO, J.S.C. (Pp. 22-24, Paras. F-F).

  • PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE – PRELIMINARY OBJECTION: Effect of ground(s) of objection in respect of which no argument(s) was/were proffered

“…The above is all that relates to the preliminary objection. There is no argument in support of the said issues raised in the notice of preliminary objection. The only reasonable conclusion would be that it has been abandoned. It is not the duty of the Court to proffer argument for the respondents in support of the notice of preliminary objection or the issues raised therein.”Per OKORO, J.S.C. (P. 8, Paras. D-F).    

  • PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE – ISSUE OF JURISDICTION: Whether leave of Court is required to raise the issue of jurisdiction on appeal

“… But even if there was argument in support, the law is trite that issue of jurisdiction is constitutional or statutory and therefore a matter of law.

The appellant needed no leave to raise same. Moreover, issue of jurisdiction was the main and probably the only decision of the lower Court. It is my view that the said issue 1 was properly raised by the appellant. See Agbule v Warri Refinery & Petrochemical Company Ltd, (2012) LPELR – 20625 (SC), (2013) 6 NWLR (pt. 1350) 318, NNPC & Anor v Orhiowasele & Ors (2013) 13 NWLR (pt. 1371) 211 Wema Securities & Finance Plc v Nigeria Agricultural Insurance Co. (2015) LPELR – 24833 (SC), Western Steel Works Ltd & Anor v Iron Steel Workers Ltd., (1987) 2 NWLR (pt. 179) 188, Aderibigbe v Abidoye (2009) 10 NWLR (pt. 1150) 592.” Per OKORO, J.S.C. (Pp. 8-9, Paras. F-C).

  • COURT – DUTY OF COURT: Duty of an appeal Court to consider all issues for determination raised before it

“I must also observe that this Court has said on several occasions that when the penultimate Court finds out that it or the trial High Court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case, it should say so and proceed to give a decision on the merits. This is the procedure that must always be followed, so that if it turns out that the Court of Appeal was wrong, the Supreme Court would have the benefit of a judgment on the merits from that Court. Where this is not done as in this case and the Supreme Court finds that the Court of Appeal was wrong on jurisdiction, the only order the top Court can make is to send the case back to the Court of Appeal. This comes with huge costs and delay. See Isah v INEC & 3 Ors (2014) 1-2 SC (Pt. iv) p.101 Brawal Shipping (Nig.) Ltd v Onwadike Co. Ltd (2000) 6SC (Pt.ii) p.133.” Per RHODES-VIVOUR, J.S.C. (Pp. 20-21, Paras. E-C).

MATTHEW IKPEKPE V. WARRI REFINERY & PETROCHEMICAL CO. LTD & DR.DENA (2018) LPELR-44471(SC)

ALSO READ   NWLR This Week: “Federation”, Federal Republic of Nigeria”, Government of the Federation”, Federal Government”: Meaning and Differences.

Law Pavillion

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here