Tribunal: Decision Arrived At In Error But Within the Jurisdiction Cannot Easily Be Interfered With.

H. R. H. IGWE ONYEKWULUJE & Anor v. BENUE STATE GOVERNMENT & 2 Ors

 

SUPREME COURT OF NIGERIA

(GALADIMA; PETER-ODILI; ARIWOOLA; MUHAMMAD; KEKERE-EKUN, JJ.SC)

The 1st respondent entered into contract with the 2nd Appellant for the supply and installation of Transmitters to the 1st respondent's Radio Broadcasting Station. The contract contained an arbitration clause which provided for recourse to it in the event of "any dispute in the course of the execution of the said contract which in the opinion of the parties cannot be resolved amicably."

 

Dissatisfied with the qualities of the materials supplied for the Transmitters, the 1st Respondent acting within its powers set up the 3rd Respondent in other to ascertain whether there was an abuse, misuse or misappropriation of money meant for the project. The 3rd Respondent after its findings issued out a White Paper which indicted the 2nd Appellant and staff of the 1st Respondent. The 2nd Appellant was requested to refund N85.575, 111.60 (Eighty Five Million,   Five Hundred and Seventy Five Thousand, One Hundred and Eleven Thousand, Sixty Kobo).

 

Dissatisfied with the outcome of the 3rd respondent, the Appellants filed an action at the High Court of Benue State urging the court to dismiss the outcome of the 3rd Respondent for delivering same without jurisdiction. The trial judge dismissed the Appellants’ suit affirming the decision of the 3rd Respondent. The Appellants filed their notice of appeal to the Court of Appeal, Jos Division and same was dismissed. The Appellants further appealed to the Supreme Court praying that the court dismiss the recommendations of the 3rd Respondent who acted without jurisdiction.

 

In determining the appeal, the Supreme Court had to determine this issue raised by the Appellants stating:

 

“Did the cumulative conducts of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd respondents whereupon the appellants were indicted, and penalized on the basis of paragraphs 2 and 3 of Exhibit 7 pass the litmus test handed down by the Supreme Court in the landmark case of ACTION CONGRESS & 1 OR AND INDEPENDENT NATIONAL ELECTORAL COMMISSION (INEC)(2007)FWLR (pt. 378)page 1012”

 

Learned Counsel for the Appellants argued that the genuine fears of the Appellants’ Fundamental Rights would be trampled on did come to pass through the acts of the Respondents when the 3rd Respondent found the Appellants guilty of fraud, misappropriation, unjust enrichment etc which are matters meant exclusively to the judicial function of a regular court. Counsel argued that the 3rd Respondent had no power to find them guilty of any offence as the 3rd Respondent commissioned by the 1st Respondent lacked the power to try them for such offences.

 

Learned counsel for the Respondent conceded that the 3rd respondent, as a quasi-judicial body, was not vested with the power of a regular court that can convict and sentence the appellants for offences and imposition of penalties/punishments, but it was set up to see whether there was abuse, misappropriation or misapplication or fraudulent practice or unjust enrichment by any person or persons. Counsel argued that the 3rd Respondent was set up as a fact finding body to see to the proper conduct between the Appellants and the 1st Respondent herein and not to find the Appellants guilty.

 

Unanimously dismissing the appeal, the Supreme Court held that:

 

“I agree with the learned counsel for the Respondents that an arbitration clause in a contract is only a procedural provision whereby the parties agree that only disputes should be submitted to arbitration. This does not exclude or limit rights or remedies of parties, but simply provides a procedure which the parties may settle their grievance.  May I observe that the 3rd Respondent was brought about by the 1st respondent, having recourse to commission of inquiry Law Cap 25, Laws of Northern Nigeria, which Law is equally applicable to Benue State. This empowers the Governor unfettered discretion to set up a Commission of Inquiry as the need arises. See  GOVERNOR OF KADUNA STATE & 2 ORS v. LAWAL KALOMA (1981- 1982) BSLR Vol.III at  40; and DA KIM & ANOR v. HON. JUSTICE EMEFO & 6 ORS (2001)FWLR (pt.66) 729. On this point the learned trial Chief Judge held on pp.416 - 417 of the records thus:

 

"Applicants' Counsel referred to several authorities that touch on arbitration and when it can be constituted. He however admitted in his address that there was no dispute and the 3rd Respondent was not an arbitration Panel. I agree with him on this point. 3rd Respondent is not said to have pretended to be arbitration to exhibit 2. There has been no disagreement between the parties as to the execution of the contract there was no need for arbitration. When considering whether 3rd respondent had jurisdiction to do what she did or not, it is the law setting up the commission of inquiry that  should be in focus and not        any other law.

 

As 3rd Respondent is not accused of going outside the terms of reference prescribed for her under the instrument that brought her to life. I do not see any basis for holding that she acted without jurisdiction."

 

Stressing this point further and agreeing with  the trial  Chief  Judge, the  Court of Appeal per  Ogbuagu JCA  (as he  then was)  on  page  520  of the  record held:

 

“I agree with the learned counsel for the Respondents that even from Exhibit 7 the Recommendations of the Commission to the State Government, the 3rd Respondent followed or complied strictly with the Terms of Reference that appears (sic) in paragraph 5 of the affidavit sworn to on behalf of the Appellants in support of the said application and appears at pages 13 and 14 of the Records. That being so, I also agree with the Respondent's learned counsel's submission, that the 3rd Respondent acted within jurisdiction having regard to the law/statute      empowering the 1st Respondent to set it up and the terms of reference.  Indeed, I agree with the learned judge that the law setting up the 3rd Respondent is what should be looked at or be the focus and certainly not that pertaining to Arbitration."

 

I cannot agree more. The two courts below concurrently stressed this point, quite succinctly debunking the argument of learned counsel for the Appellants on this point, which I, as well consider faulty in the circumstance. I agree that a Tribunal may commit a mistake or error of law in reaching its decision. However, so long as the mistake/error is committed within the confines of its jurisdiction, a superior court, exercising supervisory jurisdiction cannot readily interfere with it. That is, a Tribunal may decide a point of law or fact wrongly whilst keeping well within its jurisdiction. See SHODEINDE v. THE REGISTERED TRUSTEES OF AHMADIYYA MOVEMENT- IN- ISLAM (1980) 1-2 SC. 225; OLANIYI v. AROYEHUN & ORS.(1991) 5 NWLR (pt. 194) 653 at 685.”

 

Counsel:

F.M. Ebofuame-Nezan (Mrs.) with D. Omaiye Esq. and E. M. Musa (Miss) for the Appellants.

S. E. Elema Esq. with H. Chaha Esq. for the Respondents.

 

This summary is fully reported at (2015) 12 CLRN

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