Evaluation of Evidence: A Prerogative of Trial Courts?

INTRODUCTION

In the hierarchy of Courts as enshrined in Nigeria’s corpus juris, regular Courts are distinguishable by their primary responsibilities, Trial Courts and Appellate Courts, or as Courts with Original Jurisdiction & Courts with Appellate Jurisdictions. Trial Courts include Customary Courts/Area Courts, Magistrate Courts and High Courts. Whilst on the other hand, Appellate Courts range from Sharia Courts of Appeal, Customary Courts of Appeal, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. However, the above does not presuppose that (State) High Courts do not exercise appellate jurisdictions in limited circumstances, whilst the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court also exercise original jurisdiction in their own rights as constitutionally stipulated.[1]

As a caveat and strictly for the purpose of this piece, trial Courts are confined primarily to State and Federal High Courts, whilst Appellate Courts strictly refer to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court only.

EVALUATION OF EVIDENCE AND THE ROLE OF TRIAL COURTS

Evidence includes any specie of proof or probative matter legally presented at the trial of any issue by the parties, and through the medium of witnesses, records, documents, exhibits, concrete objects etc. for the purpose of inducing belief in the mind of the Court (or jury) as to their contentions.[2]

The perception of Cockle in his law of evidence is apt herein, he described Evidence as: the means by which facts are made evident or established to the satisfaction of persons enquiring into them, granted that such facts are credible and sufficient to satisfy or convince prudent minds.[3] Thus, these facts (and the means of establishing same) must be placed openly before a trial Court in a persuasive manner, so that the Court may be inclined to decide in favour of the party presenting the facts/evidence. After placing such salient facts before the Court, the Court’s celestial obligation is then to assess the facts, review and inspect same, in a bid to accord probative value to each strand of the facts/evidence where necessary, and then discountenance those unworthy of probative value. This assessment, review and inspection amount to what is known as “EVALUATION OF EVIDENCE”.

Evaluation of evidence involves reviewing and criticizing the evidence so elicited during trial, with a view to estimating them as any decision arrived at, without proper evaluation cannot stand.[4] Evaluation of evidence also entails a consideration of the totality of the evidence including documents tendered by parties, the assessment of same so as to give value or quality to it. In non-legal parlance, Evaluation of Evidence by a trial Court should necessarily involve a reasoned belief of the evidence of one of the contending parties and disbelief of the other, or a reasoned preference of one version to the other.

It is settled law that Evaluation of Evidence is primarily the duty of trial Courts, having overseen the reception of the evidence in question. For testimonies of witnesses, the trial Court had the sole privilege of watching the witness make their testimonies, it assessed the demeanour/countenance of such witness, and the trial Court must have had the knowledge of the surrounding judicial cum extra-judicial considerations affecting the believability, or otherwise of the testimonies of such witness. Where such witness tenders a document or any other real evidence, the Court/Judge who had the first-hand preview of the tendering is in a more advantageous position to evaluate the document/piece of evidence, as opposed to his learned brother sitting on appeal.

On this trite position of the law, the Court pronounced thus in OWAKAH vs. R.S.H. & P.D.A. (2022) 12 NWLR (pt. 1845) @ 498, paras. B-E as follows:

“The evaluation of evidence and the ascription of probative value to such evidence remains the primary function of the trial court which saw, heard and duly assessed the witnesses. Where a trial court unquestionably evaluates the evidence and justifiably appraises the facts, what the Court of Appeal ought to do is to find out whether there is evidence on record to justify the conclusion reached by the trial court. Once there is sufficient evidence on record from which the trial court arrived at its finding of fact, the appellate court cannot interfere with such findings. (Underlined for emphasis).

HOW THEN IS EVALUATION OF EVIDENCE DONE?

Hear the Supreme Court speak:

There is no set pattern or fixed method of evaluation of evidence by a trial court. All that is required of it is that it must consider the totality of the evidence proffered by either side having regard to the drift of the evidence before it. [5]

In the course of evaluation of evidence, the learned trial judge reserves the right to believe a witness in whole or in part on any point in issue. However, it is incumbent that in the course of delivering his decision, each piece/strand of evidence so evaluated ought to be highlighted, and reasons for the believability or otherwise unequivocally provided.

In the evaluation of evidence, the trial Courts are guided by the following principles, namely:

  1. Whether the evidence is admissible.
  2. Whether the evidence is relevant.
  3. Whether the evidence is credible.
  4. Whether the evidence is conclusive; and
  5. Whether the evidence is more probable than that given by the other party[6]

INTERVENTION OF APPELLATE COURTS:

As stated earlier, an appellate Court ordinarily would not burden itself with the task of evaluation of evidence, evaluation ought to be the prerogative of the trial judge who received the evidence in question. However, this position of law is not without exceptions.

As a matter of fact, Appellate Courts are often hesitant to venture into evaluation of evidence, primarily on the basis that trial Courts are in a vantage position to engage in such expedition. This position is more stringent where the evidence in issue relates to oral testimony and nothing more. The Supreme Court had this to say in APC vs. Marafa [2020]6 NWLR (pt. 1721) 383 @ 429-430, paras. F-G

The principle that an appellate court ought not to interfere with the assessment of evidence and ascription of probative value to the evidence by the trial court generally concerns oral evidence by witnesses whose demeanour the trial court is required to observe and draw conclusions on. Where the evidence is documentary, the appellate court is in a position to look at it and comment freely, since it is entitled to look into its file and make use of its contents. Further, where the trial court improperly evaluates oral evidence before it and reaches a decision that is perverse, an appellate court has absolute jurisdiction to interfere with the performance of the trial court.

The issue of evaluation of evidence was judicially x-rayed in the case of Lagga v. Sarhuna (2008) 16 NWLR (Pt. 1114) 427, wherein the Court unambiguously set the record straight in the following words:

Evaluation of evidence is a duty which falls almost exclusively within the domain of the trial court which alone has the unique advantage of seeing and hearing the witnesses in the course of their testimonies. Ordinarily, evaluation of evidence is not the business of the appellate court. However, where there is a failure of evaluation or adequate evaluation by the trial court despite its unique opportunities of seeing and hearing the witnesses, the findings would not be supported by the evidence on record and would therefore be perverse. In such a case, the appellate court has a duty to intervene by embarking on its own evaluation of evidence, accord probative value thereto and make its own findings if the evaluation would not entail the determination of the credibility of witnesses. (Underlined for emphasis).

Appellate Courts, where it is confronted with the task of determining whether a trial Court had properly evaluated the evidence placed before it, would typically go on a voyage of discovery to ascertain the following:

  1. What was the evidence before the trial Court?
  2. Did the trial Court accept or reject any evidence upon correct perceptions?
  3. Whether the trial Court approached the assessment of the evidence before it and placed the right probative value on it [7]

Where the trial Court is shown to suffer grave misapprehension, or dwells under severe misconception of the facts, and arrived at a wrong conclusion by reason thereof, an Appellate Court is justified, where it interferes with the findings of the trial Court. In OWAKAH V.R.S.H. & P.D.A. (Supra), the Supreme Court submitted in this regard:

In the instant case, the trial court erred in evaluating the evidence on record and the lower court in its judgment rightly in our view set aside the findings of the trial court. Appellate courts only interfere with findings of fact by trial courts if the facts or the evaluation of evidence by the trial court is found to be perverse or clearly demonstrates misapprehension of the facts thereby leading to failure of justice. (P. 498, paras. B-H) (Underlined for emphasis).

Interestingly, the power of Appellate Courts to re-evaluate or evaluate evidence (as the case may be) is not outright. The point deducible from the above submissions is to the effect that Appellate Courts are only empowered to re-evaluate where evidence was either improperly evaluated by the trial court or in the instance of non-evaluation by the same trial court. Thus, as a matter of law, where evaluation of evidence involves the credibility of a witness, an Appellate is procedurally restricted from re-evaluating in this regard. This Position finds support in the case of Fatai v. State (2013) 10 NWLR (PT. 1361) 21, paras. C-D; F-G) wherein the Supreme Court opined thus:

As a general rule, when the question of evaluation of evidence does not involve the credibility of witnesses but against the non-evaluation or improper evaluation of the evidence, the appellate court is in as good a position as the trial court to do its own evaluation. In the instant case, where the evaluation was based on credibility of the witnesses which rendered the trial court the sole arbiter of the evaluation process, an appellate court, such as the Supreme Court, was by law incapacitated as it could not re-evaluate the said evidence.

To properly capture the restrictions placed on Appellate Courts, hear the Supreme Court speak in a more elaborate fashion:

When evaluation of evidence involves credibility of witnesses, an appellate court is hamstrung because it is the trial court that saw them, heard them and watched their demeanour that is in a position to believe or disbelieve a witness, and this can never be captured by an appellate court that only has cold printed record to contend with. It is only when a question of evaluation of evidence does not involve the credibility of witness but is against non-evaluation or improper evaluation of the evidence that an appellate court is in as good a position as the trial court to do its own evaluation. [8]

Thus, where an Appellate Court is confronted with the conundrum of re-evaluation of evidence on the basis of credibility of witnesses called before the lower trial Court, the only option exercisable by the said appellate Court is to order a re-trial of the Suit[9]. This would, in turn, ensure that the Appellate Court is not completely constrained to remedy the miscarriage of justice, occasioned by the trial Court in her evaluation of evidence in this regard.

CONCLUSION:

Improper evaluation of evidence before a trial Judge inevitably leads to misdirection, or wrongful rejection of evidence, thereby drawing wrong inferences based upon assessment of credibility of witnesses. Thus, a misdirection of this nature would occasion wrong findings of facts and invariably translate to a miscarriage of justice. As a result, trial Judges are expected to be meticulous in their assessment of every strand of evidence placed before them, and if a wrong finding is made by reason of non-evaluation or improper evaluation, an appellate Court is imbued with the authority to re-evaluate and correct the wrongs created by the trial Court.

REFERENCE

  1. Section 232 & 239 the Constitution of Federal of Nigeria 1999 as amended.
  2. S.T. Hon’s, Law of Evidence in Nigeria, Vol. 1, 2nd Edition, 2013, pg 1; Kolo vs Lawan (2011) All FWLR (Pt. 597) 725 C.A.
  3. Cockle on Evidence, 15th Edition, page 1.
  4. Ogunleye. v. Aina (2011) 3 NWLR (Pt. 1235) 479 @ 583, paras. D-E
  5. Onwudinjo v. Dimobi (2006) 1 NWLR (Pt. 961) 318 @ 338, paras. E-F; 339, para. D
  6. See Mogaji v. Odofin (1978) 4 SC 91; Julius Berger (Nig.) Plc v. Ogundehin Dolapo (2013) All FWLR (Pt. 676) 497
  7. See, Al-Mustapha Hamza (Major) vs. The State (2013) 17 NWLR (Pt. 1383) 350
  8. Idagu v. State (2018) 15 NWLR (Pt. 1641) 127
  9. Akoledowo v. Ojubutu (2012) 16 NWLR (Pt. 1325) 1; Nyame v. F.R.N. (2021) 6 NWLR (Pt. 1772) 289

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