Can “Persons Unknown” maintain an action in Court?

Background.

In law, a named person has the right to sue unknown and unnamed person(s). For instance, where unknown and unidentified persons are in unauthorised occupation/possession of property as squatters, the owner of property has the right to evict them even without recourse to court. However, considering the possibility of a violent altercation occurring, the courts have encouraged a more civilised approach of going to court to obtain an order of possession. Thus, it is common practice, especially in matters of recovery of premises, for owner of land/landlords to approach the court for the issuance of a writ of possession. The process is by taking out a summons against the unidentified persons usually described as “Persons Unknown” in the action.

The question that arises is, while an action can be maintained against “Persons Unknown”, can “Persons Unknown” maintain an action in Court? This question has become more necessary because maintaining an action includes filing a fresh suit or appealing against a judgment. So, where an Order or Judgment has been validly obtained against “Persons Unknown”, sued as Defendant(s) in a recovery of premises action, can the same “Persons Unknown” appeal against the decision/order without properly identifying themselves?

The Supreme Court in a recent decision (Persons, Name Unknown v. Sahris Int’l Ltd [2019] 13 NWLR (Pt. 1689) 203) answers the all-important question in the negative.

Persons, Name Unknown v. Sahris Int’l Ltd.

What happened in the case was that Sahris Int’l Ltd (“the Respondent”) filed an action in Court, claiming the right of occupancy in respect of a plot of land and sought to recover possession of the said plot from certain unidentified persons whom it sued as “Persons, Name Unknown”. The said “Persons, Name Unknown” entered a conditional appearance, without more. The trial Court had no difficulty in entering Judgment in favour of the Respondent.

Thereafter, the unnamed and faceless “Persons, Name Unknown” appealed to the Court of Appeal (as “Appellant”) which dismissed the appeal for being incompetent. On a further appeal to the Supreme Court, Counsel representing “Persons, Name Unknown” argued on their behalf that since the Respondent was comfortable to institute the action against the Appellant as “Persons, Name Unknown” and obtained Judgment against the Appellant, it is estopped from denying the identity of the Appellant. The Supreme Court was not persuaded. Galumje, JSC unequivocally explained:

“The Respondent sued those he termed as unknown persons, because it was not possible for it to know those who had put structures on its land. Those who are appealing as unknown persons cannot claim that they do not know themselves. The right thing for them to do immediately the suit was filed was for them to disclose themselves, and then apply to join as interested defendants, but this they failed to do. The Court of Appeal at page 83 of the record of appeal had this to say: “It is well settled that a person unknown cannot appeal unless he identifies himself by name and seeks leave to appeal as a person interested in the matter. There is nothing in the record to show that the Appellants (Persons Unknown) have identified themselves or made any attempt to show their interest in the matter at the trial Court, neither have they sought for leave to appeal. Obtaining leave is a precondition to be satisfied before the appeal can be said to be properly before the Court. Failure to obtain leave as in this case renders the appeal incompetent.” I entirely agree with the lower Court in its conclusion as reproduced hereinabove. I also agree that a party to a suit who feels comfortable remaining faceless can never obtain relief from a court of law.”

In his contribution, Eko, JSC said:

“…The courts are not established and maintained at a huge cost to the public to accommodate or even tolerate busybodies, some of whom are faceless as the instant Appellant.”

As seen above, the preference by the Appellant to defend the action and also appeal in ghost mode was purely fatal. Curiously, it is not clear what the Appellant aimed to achieve in being anonymous throughout the life of the case, up to the Supreme Court. Beyond holding strong to technical arguments, the approach is a subtle indication that the unidentified persons perhaps had no strong defence to the suit.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court is commended for affirming the position that unknown and unidentified persons cannot maintain an action in court. In the first place, allowing named persons to maintain an action in court against unknown persons is a product of judicial ingenuity whereby the courts moved to protect a person from unduly suffering in the hands of unknown persons/squatters who may never disclose their identity. Originally, it was not possible to obtain an order against “persons unknown”. The hardship caused by this strict rule of procedure was later cured by allowing summons to be issued for possession against unidentified squatters. Thanks to Lord Denning, M.R. in McPhail v. Persons Unknown (1973) 3 All ER 393 at 395-399.

While this is so, it would however amount to nothing but absurdity for any one to be allowed to also maintain an action as “Persons Unknown”. As advised by the Court, the proper thing to do is for such person to quickly identify himself or herself and apply to be made a defendant and he can only appeal after identifying as a named person who is interested, aggrieved or prejudicially affected by the judgment or order and applies for leave of court to so proceed.



Stephen Azubuike
Author: Stephen Azubuike
Stephen is a Legal Practitioner, Consultant, Mediator and Social Entrepreneur. He is the Managing Attorney at Splendour Legal Consultants. He has successfully argued cases from the High Courts of various jurisdictions to the Appellate Courts. Desirous of implementing new legal solutions, he founded Stephen Legal, a firm in the business of providing innovative legal insights and easy solution in this information age. Stephen serves as a volunteer at Prof. Pat. Utomi’s Centre for Values in Leadership in Lagos, given his passion for capacity building and leadership development. He is also a member of the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association (Lagos Branch).

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