Facts of the case:
The Respondent, a Legal Practitioner based in Warri, while driving his vehicle along Afisere Road, Ughelli, Delta State, was intercepted by Officers of the 3rd Appellant, through a road block; and was asked to produce his Certificate of Road Worthiness.
The Respondent maintained that he had none and that, as a private car owner, whose vehicle was not used for mercantile or commercial purpose, he was not required to apply for roadworthinessre.
This led to serious traffic which prompted the 2nd Appellant to release the Respondent. Upon inspection of his documents, the Respondent discovered that he was actually issued a Certificate of Road Worthiness by Officers of the Appellant.
He therefore initiated an action by way of Originating Summons at the High Court of Delta State, seeking the interpretation of whether a Certificate of Road Worthiness was needed for private owned vehicles.
The trial court found in favour of the Respondent.
The Appellant, aggrieved, lodged an appeal to the Court of Appeal.
Issues for determination:
1.Whether the suit of the Respondent filed against the Appellants on 21 November 2014 is not statute-barred, in view of the provisions of Section 2(a) of the Public Officers Protection Law, Cap. P.23, Vol. IV, Laws of Delta State of Nigeria, 2006.
2.Whether the 3rd Appellant “Senior Vehicle Inspection Officer (Ughelli North Local Government Area of Delta State), is a juristic person that can be sued.
3.Whether by virtue of the provisions of all relevant laws relating to Road Traffic, the Certificate of Road Worthiness has no application to private motor vehicles.
On issue 1 Appellants’ counsel submitted that the suit of the Appellant is statute-barred.
He referred to Section 2(a) of the Public Officers Protection Laws of the Delta State and submitted that the Appellants are Public officers within the intendment of the provision.
He contended that the cause of action arose on 5 August 2014, while the suit was filed on 21 November 2014, which is over the 3 month period prescribed by the Public Officers Protection Law.
He placed reliance on Ibrahim v. Judicial Service Commission, Kaduna State (1998) 64 LRCN 5044, among other cases.
Respondent submitted that the Public Officers Protection Law is not an all-embracing bar against actions brought against public officers, but admits exceptions, which he set out in his Brief of Argument.
He further submitted that the act of the Appellants was ultra vires, and had no semblance or colour of authority, and so cannot be protected under the law.
He referred to Egbe v. Alhaji (1990) 21 NSCC (pt. 1) 306, among other cases.
The Respondent argued further that the illegal retention of the fee for the Road Worthiness Certificate means that there is a continuous wrong or injury to the Respondent.
This, he said, takes the case outside the application of the law.
Judgment of the court and the reason
Their Lordships held that the purpose of the Public Officers Protection Law, is to protect public officers from civil liability for any wrongdoing that occasions damages to any citizen if the action is not instituted within 3 months after the act, default or neglect complained of.
The law is designed to protect only the officer who acts in good faith and does not apply to acts done in abuse of office and without semblance of legal justification.
Their lordships held that there is however one well-established exception to the applicability of the Public Officers Protection Law, namely that it does not apply to acts of a public officer which are outside the scope of the authority or which is in abuse of his office or without semblance of legal justification.
Their Lordships relied on Nwankere v. Adewunmi(1966) 1 All NLR 129.
On whether the 3rd Appellant “Senior Vehicle Inspection Officer (Ughelli North Local Government Area of Delta State), is a juristic person that can be sued.
Their Lordships held that the 3rd Appellant, “Senior Vehicle Inspection Officer (Ughelli North Local Government Area of Delta State)”, is not a natural person.