By Safi Jimba
False imprisonment (and slander) XXVI
Continued from last Week
M. Ezeani v. C. Ekwealu and F. O. C. Olikagu
(1961) 1 All N.L.R. 428
High Ct. (East) – Palmer J.
The plaintiff was the unsuccessful party in an appeal heard by the Onitsha County Court, which was established under the Customary Courts Law, 1956, and of which the second defendant is the president. The court had issued an injunction against the plaintiff and a report was received that he had disobeyed it. A warrant was therefore issued for his arrest and he was alleged to have resisted arrest by an officer of the court. The court then issued a second warrant on a charge of resisting arrest, and the plaintiff was brought before the court and charged under section 14(2), Customary Courts Law. The trial was adjourned and the plaintiff released on bail pending the trial. On August 24, 1959, the hearing commenced, and the plaintiff produced a letter to the court, written by a solicitor, informing them that the decision in the original appeal had been set aside, and asking the court to acquit the plaintiff. The court refused to consider this letter, but allowed the plaintiff’s request for an adjournment before entering on his defence, though they refused to continue his ball and remanded him in custody in the Onitsha prison until September 2. On that day, there was a telephone conversation between the defendants (the first of whom was in effective charge of the prison), who expected court messengers to fetch the plaintiff that day. However, they did not arrive until the following day, so that the plaintiff was detained for one day longer than the warrant justified. The plaintiff was taken to court on September 8 and released on bail.
The plaintiff sued for damages for false imprisonment, his counsel arguing that the county court had no jurisdiction to try the case at all and no authority to remand him in custody and that the second defendant, who presided over the court and signed the warrant, was therefore responsible for his unlawful detention in the first place and that the first defendant was responsible for detaining him one day longer than the period shown in the warrant. It was conceded that the warrant was good on the face of it, so that the first defendant could not be held responsible for the detention of the plaintiff up to September 2.
Counsel for the first defendant submitted that it was not the defendant’s fault that the plaintiff was not collected from the prison, because he had every reason to believe that the court messengers would be sent at the correct time. The defendant was in a quandary as, when the messengers did not arrive, it was too late to send the plaintiff to a distant court. He had no authority either to release the plaintiff or keep him in custody.
Counsel for the second defendant contended that the county court had jurisdiction to try the case and to remand the defendant in custody during the trial or, alternatively, that ***believe in good faith that he had such jurisdiction and ***** therefore PROTECTED BY SECTION 16(1) Customary Court Law 1956.
Held: (1) The warrant for the detention of a prisoner remand requires the officer in charge of the prison to **** him to the court on the date fixed. Although, it is a ***** for the police officers or court messengers to collect**** prisoners, the legal responsibility rests on the officer in charge of the prison, and if he detains the prisoner beyond the fixed for his production in court, then the officer is liable for wrong imprisonment.