A Lagos State High Court sitting in Ikeja has resolved a nine-year-old legal battle between a Lebanese-owned real estate firm and an 85-year-old doctor, Charles Williams, over a parcel of family land at 3/5 Bankole Street, in the Olowogbowo area of the state.
The property, now known as 33, Balogun Street, belonged to Charles’ forefather, one James Wilson, but was leased and backed up with a Deed of Lease dated March 12, 1953
The land was registered by the family under title number LO 2217 at the Lands Registry, Lagos.
The old man dragged the firm – M. Elkhalil & Sons Properties Limited – to court for failing to vacate the land in 2003 upon the expiration of a 50-year lease granted by the family. The real estate company also reportedly ignored a notice to quit served on it.
Justice S.B.A Candide-Johnson delivered the ruling in favour of the octogenarian and awarded damages of N265,860,000 against the firm for occupying the premises between April 1, 2003, and March 31, 2013, upon the expiration of the lease.
The court also awarded cumulative damages of over N240m (at 40m per annum) running from April 1, 2013, to December 6, 2019, when the judgment was delivered.
Following the judgment, the octogenarian alleged that his life had been under threats by the representatives of the defendants and called on the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, and the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, to come to his aid.
The three other defendants in the case are the personal representatives of the estate of Mohammed El-Khalil; the personal representatives of the Estate of Ramiz Moukarim and the Registrar of Titles, Lands Registry of Lagos State.
Saturday PUNCH learnt that Charles’ late father, Clarence Williams, and his (Clarence’s) siblings, Charles Wilson, Florence Bajomo (nee Williams) and Adenike Wilson, leased the land to Messrs Ramiz Moukarim and Mohammed El-Khalil (both now deceased) for 50 years spanning from 1953 to 2003.
On the expiration of the lease, the 1st to 3rd defendants failed to relinquish possession of the property, claiming that their late predecessors bought the land from Clarence and his late siblings via a purported Deed of Transfer dated November 2, 1956.
This was four years after the initial Deed of the declaration was signed.
Charles was said to have conducted a search in 2010 at the Lands Registry and discovered that the signatures on the alleged Deed of Transfer were grossly inconsistent with those on the Deed of Declaration dated December 28, 1952, and the Deed of Lease signed by the deceased family members.
It was learnt that the 1st to 3rd defendants obtained another Deed of Transfer dated June 14, 1966, in respect of the same property.
Charles obtained a Certified True Copy of the 1956 Deed of Transfer and forwarded it to the Forensic Science Laboratory of the Federal Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department annex, Alagbon, Ikoyi, for verification of the signatures which turned out to be at variance with those of the 1952 Deed of Declaration and the Deed of Lease.
The medical doctor consequently dragged the defendants to court in suit number: LD/331/2012 to protect the estate of his deceased family members who inherited the property under native laws and customs.
Section 1 (3) of the Administration of Estates Law of Lagos State excludes inheritance governed by customary law from the provisions.
Charles sought eight reliefs from the court in his Statement of Claim, maintaining that the 1956 Deed of Transfer was forged while that of 1966 did not transfer any rights to the 1st to 3rd defendants.
He also sought an order directing the fourth defendant to cancel the purported registration of the 2nd defendant as the proprietor of the property and demanded its possession.
The statement added, “Pursuant to paragraph 18 of the Statement of Claim, the sum of N233,860,000 being Mesne profit and/or damages for use and occupation of the demised premises at the respective yearly rates from 1st April 2003 to 31st March 2012.
“Pursuant to paragraph 17 of the Statement of Claim, N32,000,000 per annum being Mesne profit and/or damages for use and occupation of the demised premises from 1st April 2012 to 31st March 2013.
“Thereafter and beginning from 1st April 2013 ending 31st March 2014 and continuing from every such year thereafter, the said N40,000,000 per annum, successively compounded therein every year as aforesaid until judgment.
“Interest on all the above sums at the rate of 35 per cent per annum compounded and changeable from the date of filing this action until judgment and thereafter at 10 per cent interest compounded until full payment.”
However, the 1st to 3rd defendants in their amended Statement of Defence and Counterclaim urged the court to declare the 3rd defendant (M. El-Khalil & Sons Properties Limited) as the lawful owner of the property on the grounds of the 1966 Deed of Transfer.
They also sought N150m damages for alleged trespass carried out by the “claimant and/or his agents on the subject matter sometime in December 2009.”
They raised preliminary objections that the suit was statute-barred, claiming that the cause of action challenging the authenticity of the 1956 Deed of Transfer was coming up after over 55 years.
“The 1st and 2nd defendants herein are not juristic persons,” the statement added.
They also maintained that the contents and signatures of the 1956 Deed of Transfer were proper, regular and that the claimant was a complete stranger unknown to the transactions and without a link to the deceased family members.
The 1st to 3d defendants claimed that the property known as 33 Balogun Street was built on parcels of land registered as LO 0717, LO 3564 and LO 2217 and that only LO 2217, representing one-third of the entire land, was captured in the lease.
The 4th defendant, the Registrar of Titles, Lands Registry of Lagos State, filed Memorandum of Appearance and Statement of Defence but did not lead evidence during the trial.
At the trial, the claimant and a forensic document examiner from FCIID annex in Alagbon, ASP Raphael Onwuligbo, as well as an estate surveyor and valuer, Chukwudi Ubosi, gave evidence and were cross-examined.
Onwuligbo told the court that he carried out a scientific examination and comparison of the signatures on the land documents via video spectra comparator (BSC 5000) and other distinguishing apparatus and “found inherent features of disparity between them.”
“Based on this finding, I wrote a report with Ref No. DFX/44/2010 dated 09/04/2010 duly signed by me,” he added.
But the defendants’ forensic expert and Executive Officer, Forensic Science Consultants identified only as Dr Oshiyemi, said the signatures were not forged as claimed.
He stated, “Having carefully and thoroughly examined the police forensic report dated April 9, 2010, and the handwriting analysis report marked as exhibits 20 and 20A, I find them vacillating and they do not in any way establish forgery as alleged.”
In his ruling, Justice Candide-Johnson granted all the eight reliefs sought by the claimant.
He upheld the result of the forensic analysis carried out by Onwuligbo and nullified the 1956 Deed of Transfer.
He ruled, “I discountenance in its entirety the expert opinion of DW2 (Dr Oshiyemi) which is contradictory and unhelpful and uphold as credible, compelling and authoritative that of CW2 (Onwuligbo) in his finding and opinion that the signatories to questioned signatures in the 1956 Deed are different to the signatories to the undoubted signatures in the 1953 Deed.
“I uphold CW2’s expert finding and opinion that both documents ‘were made by different signatories.’ In effect, I hold that the 1956 document tells a fundamental and fatal lie about itself as to who are the signatories who purported to sign and execute that document. The document contains a false and fraudulent misrepresentation as to the signatories and is therefore not a genuine or authentic document.”
He added that falsity of the 1956 Deed of Transfer equally rendered that of 1966 null and void on the principle that “you cannot put or build something on nothing and expect it to stand.”
Contrary to the defence claim, the judge also held that the case was not statute-barred as provided in sections 16(2) and 21 of the Limitation Law of Lagos State Cap L67 which states that any action cannot be brought to recover the land after the expiration of 12 years from the date in which the right of action accrued.
He said the Writ of Summons, in this case, was instituted on March 8, 2012, nine years (and not 12 years) after the lease expired in 2003.
“Hence, the claimant is not caught up by the 12 years deadline specified by the Limitation Law of Lagos State,” he held.
The presiding judge equally ruled that Charles has a link with the family as his name “is seen as written on the photograph of the vault of Late Clarence Olatunde Williams who died on 21/9/1961 where the claimant’s name was listed as No. 2 amongst the children of Clarence Olatunde Williams,” among other documents.
On the identity of the land in dispute which the defendants claimed to have been registered as LO 0717, LO 3564 and LO 2217, the judge held that the ownership of the land was not in doubt.
He cited the principle of equity which enables the owner of the land to own it and everything on it.
“So, the claimant in the eyes of equity on the basis of his Registered Title No. LO 2217 owns everything affixed upwards on top of his land at No. 3/5 Bankole Street, Lagos, all the way to heaven and downward to the earth’s centre,” he added.
On the issue of non-juristic persons, the trial judge noted that the presence or absence of the 1st and 2nd defendants did not affect the competence of the suit.
Justice Candide-Johnson also directed the 4th defendant “to cancel the purported registrations of M. EL-Khalil & Sons (Properties) Limited and Ramiz Moukarim and Mohammed El-Khalil as the proprietors of the demised premises at No 3/5 Bankole Street, Lagos and rectify the relevant register and documents accordingly to reflect the ownership of the claimant.”
He also ordered that various sums of N233,860,000; N32,000,000 and N40,000,000 per annum (beginning from April 1, 2013, until judgment) demanded as damages and interests by the claimant are paid.
Meanwhile, the 1st to 3rd defendants have appealed the ruling at the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division, seeking that the judgment of the lower court is set aside.
The defence counsel, Chief Tunde Omoboriowo, debunked Charles’ claim on the threat to life, noting that his clients toed the path of the law.
He stated, “I handled the matter from start to finish. I am a pastor and lawyer and I believe in the principle of law. We can’t do that. We do our things according to the rule of the game. Even though the judgment went the other way, we believe that is not the end of life. That same day, I filed an appeal and there is nothing more than that.
“If he claims there is a threat to his life, let him show you through a letter or SMS and take it to the DSS or police to locate the person. I guess he is trying to fabricate things or trying to whip up sentiment. We will never do that.”