⦿ CASE SUMMARY OF:
J.I. Okolo v. Midwest Newspaper Corporation & ORS. (1977) – SC
by NSA PaulPipAr
⦿ AREA OF LAW
1. J.I. Okolo
1. Midwest Newspaper Corporation;
2.The Nigerian Observer;
3. J. Ifidon Ola, (Ag. Administrator);
4. Pius Agun Editor.
(1977) 1 S.C. 20;
⦿ LEAD JUDGEMENT DELIVERED BY:
A. O. Obaseki, J.S.C.
* FOR THE APPELLANT
– Kehinde Sofola.
* FOR THE RESPONDENT
– P. Onakughotor.
⦿ FACT (as relating to the issues)
This appeal is against the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claim for 50,000 pounds damages for libel by Kassim J. in his judgement in suit No. LD/602/71 delivered on the 1st day of February, 1974 in the High Court at Lagos.
More particularly, the claim endorsed on the Writ of Summons reads:
1. The Defendants are the proprietors, Administrators and Editors of the Nigerian Observer, a Newspaper which has a larger circulation throughout Nigeria, especially in Lagos, Midwest, Northern Nigerian States and the East Central State.
2. In the issue of Saturday, July 31, 1971, the Defendants falsely and maliciously printed and published of and concerning the plaintiff the words following, that is to say in the 1st column page 4 of that issue, to wit: “Lagos High Court has adjourned hearing till September 13 in the 2,000.00pounds embezzlement suit against a Lagos Building Contractor, Mr. J.I. Okolo”.
3. The above published words impute a criminal charge or offence against the plaintiff which is false and malicious.
4. By the publication of the said words, the plaintiff has been much injured in his credit and reputation and has suffered damages”.
The learned trial judge gave a considered judgement wherein he held that “In my capacity as a judge, I am of the opinion that, the said words complained of, stated as they are out of context, are capable of conveying defamatory meaning: but in my position as a jury, I take into consideration the letters, figures and words, all very bold, which form the heading of the publication to wit ‘$2,000 suit Adjourned’ and the paragraphs which follow the words in question and I doubt if they in fact convey a defamatory meaning” … I dismiss plaintiff’s claim and proceed to assess cost.
1. Whether the learned trial judge was right in dismissing the plaintiff’s suit?
⦿ HOLDING & RATIO DECIDENDI
[APPEAL: DISMISSED AT N175.00]
1. ISSUE 1 WAS RESOLVED AGAINST THE APPELLANT BUT IN FAVOUR OF THE RESPONDENT.
i. The interpretation of the words used and the ruling by the learned trial judgement that the words are capable of the defamatory meaning ascribed does not relieve the jury of the function of determining whether in fact the words did convey the defamatory meaning.
ii. The publication of the words were admitted but defamatory meaning set out in paragraphs 8 and 11 were denied by the respondents. The questions that naturally arose for decision were (1) Did the published words impute a criminal charge or offence against the plaintiff? (2) Did the words allege dishonesty against the plaintiff in his trade and business. (He pleaded that he was a businessman and general contractor whose business includes building, engineering and various types of contracts). 2,000.00pounds suit is a civil action; it is not a criminal action. Embezzlement in the circumstances in which it was used imputes no crime. It could not be construed as a suit imputing in the appellant the offence of embezzlement in view of the particulars given, which clearly indicates that the claim was for return of money furnished, or “advance” given, for the execution of a contract.
iii. Embezzlement taken in isolation, may convey an imputation of a criminal offence but 2000pounds Embezzlement Suit followed by the explanation that the amount claimed was an advance cannot and do not impute any criminal offence in the plaintiff/appellant.
iv. Parties are bound by their pleadings and since no crime or offence was pleaded none can be given in evidence. From our reading of the publication, we are unable to agree with Counsel for the appellant that the publication Exhibit 1 tendered in evidence on the face of it disclosed any criminal offence.
⦿ SOME PROVISION(S)
⦿ RELEVANT CASE(S)
Capital and Counties Bank Ltd. v. Henty & Sons, In that case, Lord Selborne L.C. said: “The test according to the authorities, is, whether under the circumstances in which the writing was published reasonable to whom the publication was made would be likely to understand it in a libelous sense… What the ordinary man not avid for scandal would into the words complained of must be a matter of impression. I can only say that I do not think that he would infer guilt of fraud merely because an inquiry is on foot. And if that is so, then, it is the duty of the trial judge to direct the jury that it is for them to determine the meaning of the paragraph but that they must not hold it to impute guilt of fraud because as a matter or law the paragraph is not capable of having the meaning”.
⦿ CASE(S) RELATED
⦿ NOTABLE DICTA
The fact that words alleged to be defamatory are published in permanent form does not terminate the duty of a judge to ascertain whether as a matter of law the words are capable of the defamatory meaning ascribed to them. – Obaseki, JSC. Okolo v. Midwest (1977)