What are the jurisdictional questions that confront successful prosecution of offences under Properties Protection Law of Lagos State 2016, otherwise commonly known as “Anti-Land Grabbers’ Law” or “Land Grabbers’ Law”?
The Properties Protection Law of Lagos State 2016, (the “Land Grabbers’ Law”) was hailed as an honest effort of Governor Akinwunmi Ambode’s administration.
Vanguard’s report of 16th August, 2016, noted that Lagos State fulfilled its “pledge of making the menace of land grabbing in Lagos a thing of the past with the signing of the” Land Grabbers’ Law that stipulates 21 (twenty-one) years jail term for convicts.
5 years after, Vanguard reported Ogunrinde, an employee of Lagos State ministry of information and strategy, Alausa, Ikeja, as expressing the hope that all stakeholders will join hands with government to sustain the fight and effectively rid Lagos of the nuisance of land grabbing.
Perchstone & Gray describes the practice of land grabbing as any use of force, threats or violence to take possession or prevent a purchaser or land owner from acquiring legitimate interest and possession of property unless certain illegal or unlawful conditions are fulfilled.
The said conditions are usually in the form of excessive levies or fines, forceful entry, and unlawful claims. Failure to adhere to the demands of the land grabbers in most cases result in destroying any improvements or development on the land, or preventing land owners from taking possession of their land.
Judgment of the honourable magistrate in Commissioner of Police, Lagos State v. Pastor Sunday Obieli, (unreported) charge number MM/G/10/2018 (the “action”), that Nigerian police commenced on the original complaints of Mr. Emmanuel Okpala (the “original complainant”), is instructive to our discussion.
BACKGROUND OF THE ACTION
Commissioner of police commenced the action against Pastor Obieli (the “defendant”) on a 3 (three) count charge that may be summarized as (a) illegal occupation of a property situate at Silver Estate, Ago-Okota, Lagos State, property of the original complainant (b) entry by violence through destruction of perimeter fence of the property of original complainant and; (c) forgery of a survey plan with number AD/1227/024/214 LA in respect original complainant’s property.
Counts (a) and (b) above were founded on sections 4(4)(5) and 3(4)(a) of Land Grabbers’ Law while Count (c) above rested on section 365 (1), Criminal Law of Lagos State 2015.
Defendant consistent with his extra-judicial statements pleaded not guilty on the ground that original complainant is a pronounced land grabber.
Prosecution’s case climaxed when it tendered 3 (three) purchase receipts of building materials; unsuccessfully tendered a petition that purportedly triggered investigations of alleged offences; defendant’s extra-judicial statements; and upon objection of defendant’s counsel, withdrew a survey plan it had sought to tender. – Prosecution’s case closed.
Upon defendant’s application of no case submission, the court ordered parties to file written address.
CONDITIONS PRECEDENT FOR PROSECUTING OFFENCES UNDER LAND GRABBERS’ LAW
Section 4 (1) (all references to section is a reference to Land Grabbers’ Law unless otherwise stated) provides that a person who occupies a property as an encroacher and fails to leave the property on being required to do so by or on behalf of the owner of the property commits an offence.
Section 4(1) demands that a notice to vacate the property must be issued to the encroacher, that is, an illegal occupier by the land owner or his agents. Given that documentary evidence is the best form of evidence, we submit that an oral notice may be easily contradicted and difficult to prove to any 3rd parties that include the Court.
A combined reading of sections 10 (1) and (2) disclose that any complaints under Land Grabbers’ Law must be initiated by a petition to law enforcement agents that include the task force established pursuant to Land Grabbers’ Law.
A petition must be accompanied with a validly sworn declaration by land owner or its agent, and notice to vacate. In our view, the philosophy of a sworn declaration is to enable speedy conviction in the event that the person who alleges that its land is being grabbed turns out to be a land grabber or a false accuser as well as to discouraged false accusations.
A notice to vacate the property, petition and, a validly sworn declaration are conditions precedent of any valid arraignment and prosecution under the Land Grabbers’ Law, in Lagos State. In essence, a jurisdictional question.
Should any law enforcement agents fail to tender a notice to vacate issued by landlord or its agent, a petition and, a validly sworn declaration, the court would not enjoy competence to try any such offence under Land Grabbers’ Law.
The Court affirmed in OHAKIM V. AGBASO & ORS. (2010) 19 NWLR (Pt. 1226) that “for a court of law or tribunal to have jurisdiction to hear and determine any matter before it, it must satisfy the now settled conditions or have the following ingredients: (a) it must be properly constituted as to the number or qualification of its membership; (b) any condition precedent to its exercise of jurisdiction must have been fulfilled; (c) the subject matter of the case must be within its jurisdiction; and, (d) the case or matter must have been brought to the court by the due process of the law.
COMPETENT COURTS FOR OFFENCES UNDER LAND GRABBERS’ LAW
Section 14 requires any offences under Land Grabbers’ Law to be tried before the special offences court or any other courts. The special offences court is created by the special offences court of Lagos State, 2007 (“Lagos special offences court law”).
It does appear to us that the special offences court lacks jurisdiction to hear matters in respect of title to land. We found our opinion on the combined reading of sections 1, 2, 3 and schedule 1 to the Lagos special offences court law.
Community reading of sections 1 and 3(2) of Lagos special offences court law disclose that special offences court is established for the purpose of trying environmental offences and such other offences created by laws set out in schedule 1 to the law and the court shall sit at any convenient place close to the scene of any offence trial-able by the court under the law and committed within any local government area within the State.
Section 3(2) of Lagos special offences court law allows the attorney-general and commissioner of justice Lagos State to vary schedule 1 by a notice published in the gazette.
Section 2 of Lagos special offences court law provides that only magistrates will preside over any trial in a special offence court. Notably, section 28(1), Lagos State magistrate court law, 2009, does not vest magistrate courts with jurisdiction over title to land or any matter in respect of title to land. – It expressly removed such from the jurisdictional realm of magistrate courts.
Yet, Land Grabbers’ Law, without any qualifications, purports to vest jurisdiction in respect of title to land on special offences court presided over by a magistrate. In our view, a magistrate exists by virtue of Lagos State magistrate court law and not Lagos special offences court law.
Courts are to jealously guard its jurisdiction to the extent that it only expounds on its jurisdiction but never to expand its jurisdiction, a clear pronouncement of the supreme court of Nigeria in Governor of Kwara State Vs. Dada (2011) ALL FWLR (PT 592).
The magistrate in Commissioner of Police, Lagos State v. Pastor Sunday Obieli, (supra), on its own, declined jurisdiction to continue trial on the ground that the law that established its court never authorized it to try offences arising from or relating to title to land.
Law enforcement agents and defendant’s counsel owe duties to the public to ensure that offences in respect of title to land within Lagos State is not trial-able before a magistrate sitting in its normal court or at special offences court.
The practice of Lagos anti-land grabbers’ task force that include dragging any suspects to its office at ministry of justice annex, Alausa, Ikeja, and consequent prosecution before a special offences court sitting in Ikeja, offends section 1 of Lagos special offences court law that requires proceedings to take place in any venue closest to the scene of crime within any local government area.
This in our view is a jurisdictional question given the imperative use of shall, in section 1, Lagos special offences court law. An appropriate court in respect of offences touching on title to land under Land Grabbers’ Law is the division of Lagos State high court closest to the scene of the alleged offence.
Knowing that “the constitutional provision on the presumption of innocence of an accused person is sacrosanct and settled. The burden is always on the prosecution to prove the guilt of the accused and not his business to prove his innocence…” C.O.P v. AMUTA (2017) LPELR-41386.