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How to recover property mistakenly seized by the court

Apr, 2021 | By Niyi Lawal | ||

The popular quote "no one is above mistake" can apply to anyone because no one is perfect. Yes! even the law courts also make mistakes There are cases of Nigerians both highly placed and the middle class who have had their property wrongfully seized by the law courts.

However, one would wonder how a court of competent jurisdiction could make such a huge mistake, because the impression the populace has about the law court is that it not only works according to the laid down legal procedures but also listens to the arguments of lawyers who present evidences and facts before it. Most people will therefore find the argument that the law courts can mistakenly seize someone's property surprising.

The law court is the only institution that has power to order the seizure of property of a party to a case before it. The Judges and Magistrates that make the orders, need not enforce the orders themselves, rather, the courts act through the bailiffs and sheriffs (staff of court) from the execution unit of the courts and possibly these people could make a mistake or wrongly seize an innocent person's property during enforcement.

Meanwhile, where there is an attachment and seizure of property (whether rightly or wrongly seized), it is only the same court that can order for the release of the seized property. This simply means that a person whose property was wrongly seized cannot recover the seized property by begging or violence, rather, can recover it by approaching the concerned court. Nothing is ever automatically granted or obtained from a law court. Courts are like the Benin Kingdom's "Iye Akugbe" (Mother of Unity), a female seer that protects the community but will never render her services unless she is beckoned. So, in seeking for a court to release a wrongly seized property, the party/person seeking such release must beckon on the court.

However, there is a single simple issue that can frustrate the entire process of praying a court of law to release a wrongly seized property. The issue is the only limitation to the recovery of a property wrongly seized by a court of law. A lawyer, Barrister Onyekachi Umah said the victim of a wrongly seized property has every right to seek for redress from the court rather than resort to violence or any form of self help.

According to Onyekachi, the process or procedure for seeking to recover a property that was wrongly seized by a court of law as well as the party/person seeking for such recovery/release of property are known as "an Interpleader". The proper court processes (form/document) to file in court and commence an interpleader is known as "Interpleader Summons". He was however quick to say that the duty on the interpleader is the greatest limitation to the recovery of a property that was wrongly seized by a court. According to him, logically, any person that makes any claim should be the person to prove his claim. So, where a person claims that a seized property belongs to him, the same person must show evidence to prove that he truly owns the seized property. It is never enough to merely state a claim without proving the claim. This is the summary of the duty on an Interpleader. He added.

An interpleader, being a person that claims that his property was wrongfully seized by a court of law, must be able to convince the court that the seized property belongs to him and that the seized property was wrongfully seized. This is the duty on an interpleader in a court and where an interpleader fails this duty, he will therefore fail to recover the seized property. Hence, proving that a seized property belongs to an interpleader and that the same property was wrongly seized by a court of law, make up the limitation to the recovery of property wrongfully seized by a court.

Onyekachi informed that the Supreme Court of Nigeria as well as the Court of Appeal of Nigeria have both made known their support for the above understanding, through their judgments. Among such judgments are;

A. The apex court had in the case of ALHAJI MUSA KALA v. ALHAJI BURAU POTISKUM & ANOR (1998) LPELR-1648(SC), held that; "It is trite that in interpleader proceedings, the claimant generally is deemed to be the plaintiff and the judgment creditor, the defendant. Accordingly the burden of proof, again as a general rule, is on the claimant as the plaintiff in the proceedings. The onus lies on him to establish his title to the property in dispute, or where his claim is not absolute title, he must prove the precise interest or title he claimed. Where, however, the claimant was in possession of the property in issue at the time of its attachment, it would seem that the judgment creditor shall, in that case, be deemed a plaintiff and the burden of proof shall reverse accordingly. In that case, the onus must be on the judgment creditor to establish his claim. See Rabiu Jinadu v. Babaoye (1966) 2 All N.L.R. 241 per Taylor, C.J., as he then was. "Per IGUH ,J.S.C (Pp. 25 paras. C).

B. In the case of DALE POWER SYSTEMS PLC v. WITT & BUSCH LTD & ANOR (2007) LPELR-4011(CA), where the Court of Appeal, held that; "In an interpleader proceedings the burden of establishing ownership of the attached goods is on the applicant." Per PAUL ADAMU GALINJE ,J.C.A ( P. 13, para. C)

C. The Court of Appeal in the case of ISOKO COMMUNITY BANK LTD v. EDOFREN (NIG) LTD & ORS (2018) LPELR-44998(CA), held that "No doubt, the purpose of inter-pleader proceedings is to seek relief by initiating an action to determine the ownership of the property or goods seized or attached by the sheriff or intend to seize or attach in the Court against a judgment debtor. The third party who claims ownership of such property or goods in question has the onus under the law to establish title to the property or goods wrongly attached. See BULUS VS OKPALA & ANOR (2017) LPELR 43423 (CA). In OLATUNDE VS OAU & ANOR (1998) 5 NWLR (PT. 549) 178 the Supreme Court held that in inter-pleader proceedings, the claimant is deemed to be the plaintiff and the judgment creditor, the defendant. Accordingly, the onus is generally on the claimant, to establish title to the property he claims to be his." Per SAMUEL CHUKWUDUMEBI OSEJI ,J.C.A ( Pp. 26-27, paras. C-A )

D. Same was held in the case of COBRA LTD & ORS v. OMOLE ESTATES & INVESTMENT LTD (2000) LPELR-6809(CA), when the Court of Appeal, held that; "The learned trial Judge was right in dismissing the Inter pleader/appellant summons based on affidavit evidence and the documents placed before him. The Inter pleader claimant should not act fraudulently so as to defeat judgment creditor's interest by claiming that the title to the seized goods are vested in the third party. In Okwoche v. Dibia (1994)2 NWLR Part 325 at P.195 at page 205 this case per Uwaifo JCA (as then was) had this to say: "The good faith of the claimant in the present case is certainly come into question as a crucial issue having regard to the question in nature of the alleged transfer of the vehicle under which judgment debtor would endeavour to avoid his obligation to the judgment creditor. The fraudulent transfer took place no doubt, after the case of execution had been delivered to the sheriff. The claimant cannot be said to have established his claim upon the facts. It must be said that he has discharged this burden before he can be granted relief. He has, in my view, from the totality of the evidence failed in regard…" It is in the light of what have been said above that I feel that the learned Judge gave the Inter pleader/Claimant an opportunity of being heard before dismissing their claims. I also affirm that decision." Per SULEIMAN GALADIMA ,J.C.A ( Pp. 25-26, para. E )

Onyekachi reiterated that part of the basic tenets of law and court room procedures, is that the party that makes a claim must be the party to prove the claim. Hence, where a party comes to court to claim that his property was wrongfully seized, it is the party that must prove that the seized property belongs to him or that part of the property belongs to him. Where a party fails to prove his total or partial ownership of a wrongly seized property, the party cannot have a good stand to pray for the wrongly seized property to be released. This duty to prove ownership or interest on a wrongly seized property is the Limitation to the Recovery of Property Wrongly Seized by Court. He therefore enjoined the public to always follow proper channels in acquiring property because by this, they can get all necessary documents that would make them have a good stand to reclaim their property in case of any eventuality.

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