Can Unknown Persons Be Sued In Court?

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Can Unknown Persons Be Sued In Court?

Can Unknown Persons Be Sued In Court? Daily Law Tips (Tip 705) by Onyekachi Umah, Esq., LL.M, ACIArb(UK)

 Introduction:

It is not unusual to have need to rush to court and sue persons that may be unknown. With no reliable records in most parts of Nigeria, it is not impossible to find strangers with no known names or identities, who confidently trespass, damage and violate the rights of other persons. However, generally, courts of law expect all parties to a case to be known, so that a case with wrong name or the names of non-existing persons must be struck out (thrown out of courts). This work answers the question; “Can Unknown Persons Be Sued In Court?”.

Who Are Unknown Persons?:

In a country with little or no reliable national record on births, deaths, marriages, citizens, addresses and details of sensitive national records, almost every person or any person can become an unknown person. An unknown person is a person whose true identity is not known. 

 It is common to have need to sue and seek legal remedies against persons whose real identities, names, addresses and bios are not known to the persons seeking justice. In such case, the person’s whose identities are not known are clearly “Persons Unknown” (“Unknown Persons”, “Anonymous”, “Persons, Names Unknown”, “Unknown Defendants” or “Unidentified”). These words mean the same thing and may be used interchangeably in this work. 

Suing Unknown Persons: 

It is important to mention that only human beings and corporate beings can sue and be sued. So, the courts will never allow anything/any person that is not either a human being or a corporate being to sue or be sued. In litigation, there is always a Plaintiff (Claimant, Petitioner) on one side and Defendant (Respondent) on the other hand. Generally, this means that no case can be brought against “Persons Unknown”. “Persons Unknown are not natural or corporate beings, they are non-existing persons. So, what is the way out of this legal jam?

In some cases, especially, in cases of land trespass, the owner of a land may not know or be able to discover the true identities of his trespassers. Should the trespass continue, just because the identities of the trespassers have not been discovered? Should practise and procedures of courts be used as an engine of fraud? Since insisting that “Persons Unknown” cannot be sued in trespass will cause injustice to people who may be suffering in the hands of “Persons Unknown”, there is an exception, where “Persons Unknown” may be sued. This exception is necessary to avoid fraud and hardship that may be suffered in the hands of anonymous persons in cases of land trespass.

Most civil law procedural rules of courts (rules guiding courts in receiving and treating non-criminal cases) allow courts to entertain and accept civil cases filed against “Persons Unknown”, in cases of land possession. This is necessary since most Plaintiffs/Claimants (persons suing another person to court) often find it difficult to discover the true identities of their trespassers. From personal experience, most trespassers are known by their mere titles, first names, nicknames, home towns or occupations; like “Pastor”, “Engineer”, “Chief”, “Peter”, “Johnny”, “Ogun-Man” and “Man from Kogi”. These are no real names that can be brought to court.

Conclusion: 

In my early years in legal practice in Nigeria, I had a client that found strange developments on his land, they were said to have been erected by unknown persons. At some point, there was need to sue the unknown persons after the unknown persons resulted to constructing at night and evading arrest for criminal trespass. Also, a civil suit (case) was brought against the unknown persons in order to protect the title and interest of the persons being disturbed by the unknown persons.

Discovering the true identities of unknown persons can be very challenging in Nigeria, even while there is an urgent need to stop a continued trespass. Hence, courts allow cases of land possession (trespass) to be brought against unknown persons and for notices of such cases to be served by substituted means on the disputed property. Where the unknown persons come to court, their names will be inserted to replace “Persons Unknown” and all parties will have equal opportunity to seek justice. Where unknown persons fail and refuse to come to court, judgment will be gotten against them and same will be enforced on any trespasser. Justice must always be done!

My authorities, are:

  1. Sections 1, 2, 3 and 6 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.
  2. Order 60, High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja (Civil Procedure) Rules, 2018
  3. Order 57 of the High Court of Lagos State (Civil Procedure) Rules, 2019
  4. Order 50 of High Court of Kaduna (Civil Procedure) Rules 2007
  5. Order 51 of Edo State (Civil Procedure) Rules 2012 
  6. Order 53, Ogun State High Courts (Civil Procedure) Rules 2009
  7. Judgment of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in the case of Persons, Names Unknown v. SAHRIS Intl Ltd (2019) LPELR-49006(SC)
  8. Judgement of the Court of Appeal in the case of Persons, Names Unknown vs. Sahris Int’l Ltd (2006) 8 NWLR (Pt. 982) Pg 255 
  9. The case of Olumuyiwa Odejayi & Anor. vs. Person Unknown 
  10. Judgment of the Court of Appeal in the case of Emeka Okoli & Ors. Vs. Alhaji Ibrahim Gadan (2014) LPELR-23067 (CA). 
  11. The case of Nnodi vs. Thanks Investment Ltd (2005) 11 NWLR (Pt.935) 29. 
  12. The case of County & City Bricks Development Company Ltd. vs. UACN Property Development Company Ltd.(2008) BLR (Pt.1) p.423.
  13. The case of Bristol Corporation vs. Persons Unknown (1974) 1 WLR 365 
  14. The case of McPhail v. Persons Unknown (1973) 3 All ER 393 at 395-399
  15. The case of Dr. Johnson Agharese Egonmwan V. Persons, Names Unknown (judgment was delivered on 30 January 2017 (Hon. Justice P.A. Akhihiero) <http://edojudiciary.gov.ng/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/SUIT-NO.-B.-131M.-16-DR.-JOHNSON-AGHARESE-EGONMWAN-VS-PERSONS-NAMES-UNKNOWN.pdf > accessed 30 November 2020
  16. Hon. Justice P.A. Akhihiero, “The Jurisprudence Of Instituting An Action Against An Unknown Person” (NigerianLawGuru, August 2016) <http://www.nigerianlawguru.com/articles/jurisprudence/THE%20JURISPRUDENCE%20OF%20INSTITUTING%20AN%20ACTION%20AGAINST%20AN%20UNKNOWN%20PERSON.pdf > accessed 30 November 2020. 
  17. Onyekachi Umah, “What Will Courts Do Where There Are Conflicting Evidence In Land Cases?” (LearnNigerianLaws.com, 28 July 2020) <https://learnnigerianlaws.com/what-will-courts-do-where-there-are-conflicting-evidence-in-land-cases-daily-law-tips-tip-619-by-onyekachi-umah-esq-ll-m-aciarbuk/> accessed 30 November 2020
  18. Onyekachi Umah, “Which Court Can Hear Cases Of Land Disputes In Villages And Rural Communities In Nigeria?” (LearnNigerianLaws.com, 12 December 2018) <https://learnnigerianlaws.com/daily-law-tips-by-onyekachi-umah-esq-tip-247-which-court-can-hear-cases-of-land-disputes-in-villages-and-rural-communities-in-nigeria/> accessed 30 November 2020
  19. Onyekachi Umah, “Tenants & Squatters Can Sue Landlords For Violation of Human Rights.” (LarnNigerianLaws.com, 18 September 2020) <https://learnnigerianlaws.com/tenants-squatters-can-sue-landlords-for-violation-of-human-rights/ > accessed 30 November 2020.

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