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The Disposition Of An Appellate Court To A Finding Of Fact By A Trial Court -By Oyetola Muyiwa Atoyebi & Samuel Afolabi

On the other hand, a concurrent finding of fact can only result where both a Trial Court and an Appellate Court have made such a finding. In that respect, the Supreme Court (as the apex adjudicatory body) would rarely disturb itself with that finding of fact, being a concurrent finding.

INTRODUCTION

Facts and Law are undoubtedly intrinsic to proper adjudication, hence, appreciating the intermingling of these two concepts can never be overemphasized. It is a good law that a case is decided on the facts before the Court. Such laws ought to be cited in the light of the facts on which they are decided, because facts give life and meaning to the consideration the Court would carefully make before applying the law. Without being repetitive, the facts agitated in a case invariably give meaning to the law parties, urge the Court to apply in the resolution of their disputes whereupon issues have been joined. I dare say, the law does not give meaning to itself, rather, the meaning of the law is evinced through the facts in dispute.

FINDING OF FACTS

Considering the fundamental role facts play in adjudication, little wonder why Courts of law always desire to be seized of the entire facts placed before them by disputants, with a view to doing justice as duty-bound. Parties in dispute before a trial Court would often lay out favourable facts in strong support of their respective cases, making attempts to justify every fact. This leaves the trial Court with the unenviable responsibility of believing or disbelieving these facts as placed before her, thereby making a finding of same.

Finding of facts is more appropriately employed to describe an affirmation of fact made after considering evidence; it connotes a determination of a fact by the court as averred by one party, denied by the other, and founded on evidence in a case[1]. The law is thus trite that once a trial court makes a finding of fact, an Appellate Court is reluctant, nay, careful to interrupt same.

On the other hand, a concurrent finding of fact can only result where both a Trial Court and an Appellate Court have made such a finding. In that respect, the Supreme Court (as the apex adjudicatory body) would rarely disturb itself with that finding of fact, being a concurrent finding.

AN APPELLATE COURT VIS-À-VIS FINDING OF FACT

The settled position of law remains that an appellate Court is loath to disturb the finding of fact by the trial Court. Where a Court of trial unquestionably evaluates the evidence and appraises the facts, it is not the business of a Court of appeal to substitute its own views for the views of the trial Court.[2] This is premised on the reasoning that findings on primary facts are matters within the province of the trial Court. There is a presumption that the findings of fact of a trial Court or tribunal, are right or correct and so remain until dislodged by the party who challenges such findings.[3] The Court, in Archibong v. State (2022) 1 NWLR (Pt. 1811) 239@ P. 254-255, paras. H-F puts it aptly:

Findings on primary facts are matters within the province of a trial court and there is a rebuttable presumption that a trial court’s findings and conclusions on facts are correct. Therefore, such findings of fact are accorded due respect in appellate courts. An appellate court will very rarely, if at all, interfere with the findings of fact made by the trial court. This is because such findings of fact enjoy the privilege of passing through the furnace of acrimonious cross-examination, the toothcomb scrutiny of the observation of NAIJAONPOINT es’ reactions and assessment of the veracity of their testimonies. In effect, such findings of fact made by a trial court are accorded due respect in appellate courts that did not have the advantage of the trial court.

An Appellate Court will not interfere with the findings of fact bya Trial Court unless they are perverse, unreasonableor not supported by the evidence adduced before the trial court. It suffices to say once the findings of a trial Court are supported by the evidence on record, an appellate Court cannot interfere with it[4]. In Akubuiro v. Mobil Oil (2012) 14 NWLR (Pt. 1319) 42, this trite position of law was accorded judicial approval, the Court submitted as follows:

The task of upsetting the findings of fact made by a trial Judge is not to be lightly embarked upon. It must be obvious from the record that the findings of fact do not flow from the evidence before any interference can be embarked upon by an appellate court. An appellate court will not interfere with the findings of a trial court unless it is perverse or a miscarriage of justice has been occasioned.(Underlining mine, merely for emphasis)

Understandably, the presumption of the correctness of a finding of fact by a trial Court is rebuttable; an appellate Court must, therefore, be wary in interfering with the findings of fact made by the trial Court which are neither erroneous nor perverse.

ATTITUDE OF THE SUPREME COURT TO CONCURRENT FINDINGS:

Concurrent findings, as a concept, connotes the findings of fact made by a trial Court and confirmed as accurate by an appellate Court (the Court of appeal in this instance). The attitude of the Supreme Court to concurrent findings of fact by the trial Court and the intermediate Court is that unless an appellant is able to show satisfactorily that the findings of fact are perverse, not supported by evidence and unreasonable or have occasioned miscarriage of justice, the Supreme Court will loathe to interfere and disturb such findings of fact. The Supreme Court in a recent authority of Akalazu v. State (2022) 13 NWLR (Pt. 1848)had this to say:

The Attitude of the Supreme Court to the concurrent findings of facts by the two Courts below is that the Court will only interfere or disturb such concurrent findings, if the appellant can show that the concurrent findings of facts are either perverse or they occasioned a miscarriage of justice to the appellant. That is, the only veritable ground for the Supreme Court, in the second tier appeal, to interfere with and disturb concurrent findings of fact of the trial Court and the Court of Appeal iswhere the findings are perverse. The issues putforward in the instant appeal, for the determination of the appeal situated the appeal squarely on theconcurrent findings of fact by the trial court andthe Court of Appeal…. The appellant herein was unable to show whetherthe concurrent findings of the trial court and theCourt of Appeal were perverse or not based onthe evidence before the courts. The Supreme Courtwas therefore precluded from interfering with theconcurrent findings of the two lower courts.

The onus lies on an appellant to show that there are special circumstances to warrant interference by the Supreme Court with concurrent findings of fact of two lower Courts. The burden must be clearly discharged otherwise the Supreme Court will not re-open those facts for re-evaluation.[5]

Notably, the word perverse appears recurring in the submissions above. It is tenable to conclude that appellate Courts (the Supreme Court inclusive) would be seized with the vires to disturb a finding of fact which was perverse.

Thus, what makes a finding perverse?

PERVERSE FINDINGS

A perverse finding is one which ignores the facts or evidence led before the Court and when considered as a whole, amounts to a miscarriage of justice. A finding is perverse if it is not borne out of the evidence before the Court. A perverse finding is a finding which is not only against the weight of evidence but is altogether against the evidence itself. It is a finding which no reasonable tribunal should have arrived at in the light of the evidence before it. In the case of Oguntade v. Oyelakin(2020) 6 NWLR (Pt. 1719) 41, the Court pronounced on what amounts to Perverse Finding in the following words:

A perverse finding or decision of a court is one in which the court’s finding or inference being appealed against is completely unsupported by evidence or that it is so manifestly unreasonable that no reasonable tribunal could have arrived at such a finding or conclusion on the evidence. A court’s finding contrary to a principle of law and/or procedure that equally occasions miscarriage of justice falls within the category of perverse decisions the appellate court interferes with.

It is noteworthy to point out that findings of a trial Court which are not supported by evidence at all are patently perverse. And perverse findings cannot sustain a judgment even if upheld on appeal by the Court of Appeal. Where the Court of Appeal upholds the perverse findings of fact, the Supreme Court has a duty to set them aside[6]. A finding is perverse if it does not evolve from the evidence on record or in arriving at a finding the Court had taken into account extraneous matters, or excluded relevant matters from its consideration. A finding would also be perverse where the Court whose decision is being reviewed, applied a wrong principle of law, or applied the correct principle of law wrongly to the facts in dispute in a matter, and thereby occasioned a miscarriage of justice. [7]

CONCLUSION Facts are the forerunners and bedrock of the law, and by their nature, they determine the fortune of a case.  When the facts in dispute are brought to the fore, the Court owes a celestial duty to disputants to ensure that an unequivocal finding is made, especially on the facts in issue. As a matter of law and practice, the trial Court’s findings on these facts are untouchable, and would remain so except in circumstances where the findings are found to be perverse, not supported by evidence and unreasonable or have occasioned a miscarriage of justice.

SNIPPET

An Appellate Court will not treat lightly nor interfere with the findings of facts of any trial Court unless such findings are perverse, not supported by evidence, unreasonable, or have occasioned a miscarriage of justice.

Key terms: Appellate Court, Findings of facts

Author

Mr. Oyetola Muyiwa Atoyebi, SAN is the Managing Partner of O. M. Atoyebi, S.A.N & Partners (OMAPLEX Law Firm).

Mr. Atoyebi has expertise in and vast knowledge of Litigation Practice and this has seen him advise and represent his vast clientele in a myriad of high-level transactions.  He holds the honour of being the youngest lawyer in Nigeria’s history to be conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

He can be reached at [email protected]

Contributor: Samuel Afolabi

Samuel is a member of the Dispute Resolution Team at OMAPLEX Law Firm. He also holds commendable legal expertise in Litigation Practice

He can be reached at [email protected]

[1]Ilori v. Tella(2006) 18 NWLR (Pt. 1011) 267

[2]Olarenwaju v. Governor of Oyo State (1992) 9 NWLR (Pt. 265) 335; Bankole v. Dada (2003) 11 NWLR (Pt. 830) 174

[3]Attah v. State (2009) 15 NWLR (Pt. 1164) 284

[4]Ngige v. Obi (2006) 14 NWLR (Pt. 999) 1

[5]Isiaka v. Amosun(2016) 9 NWLR (Pt. 1518) 417

[6]Jolayemi v. Alaoye(2004) 12 NWLR (Pt. 887) 322; Fashann v. Adekoya (1974) 6 SC 83; Oko v. Ntukidem (1993) 2 NWLR (Pt. 274) 124; Adebayo v. Ighodalo (1996) 5

[7]Samaila v. State (2021) 5 NWLR (Pt. 1770) 562.

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