Front-loading is the upfront filing of all documents to be issued at the trial so as to ensure that only serious and committed litigants with prima facie good cases and witnesses to back up their claims would find their way into court, thereby reducing lame-duck claims.

Frontloading could not be used technically to shut out genuine claimants from exercising their constitutional right to access to justice and fair hearing. However, the failure to frontload, is an irregularity that should not vitiate the suit so filed.

Legal Tips witnessed a case just the other day, at the High Court of Federal Capital Territory, Garki Judicial Division. The Claimant Counsel did not attach or serve on the Defendants, the exhibits the Claimant intended to rely on to prove his case but wanted to proceed to hearing.

The Defendant Counsel raised objections relying on case laws and Order 2 (2) (2) of the High Court Federal Capital Territory, Abuja (Civil Procedure) Rules 2018. The Court affirmed the objections and ordered the Claimants Counsel to serve on the Defendants copies of every document to be relied on at trial.

It should be noted that the innovation of front-loading of documents in a suit ensures that there is no trial by ambush and it also expedites the hearing. It is to enable the parties know not only the case they are to meet at the trial but also the oral and documentary evidence by which the case is to be proved.

Proofs of evidence in criminal proceedings are what pleadings and front-loading of evidence are in civil trials. The essence of both is to enable the parties to adequately prepare to counter the oral and documentary evidence. They ensure that there is no trial by ambush.

Trial by ambush is what the framers of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) detested and provided against when they provided in Section 36(6) that every person who is charged with a criminal offence shall be entitled to be given “adequate time and facilities” for the preparation of his defence. This is a basic fundamental right that every person who is charged with a criminal offence is entitled to. That is, every person charged with a criminal offence is entitled to be given adequate facilities for the preparation of his defence. See, Shema v. F.R.N (2018) 9 NWLR (Pt. 1624) 337 at 395-396, paras. F-A.

The Supreme Court in I.N.E.C v. Yusuf (2020) 4 NWLR (Pt. 1714) 374 at 402, paras. E, per Aka’ahs held;
“I endorse the view that the purpose of front-loading of documents is to acquaint the other side in advance with the evidence of the parties so as to enable them put their case or defend their position appropriately”.

Thus, the failure to frontload, as in the instant case does not affect the jurisdiction of the court but is a mere irregularity capable of being cured by extension and leave of court. For the avoidance of doubt, Order 2 (2) (2) of the High Court Federal Capital Territory, Abuja (Civil Procedure) Rules 2018 states;
“All Civil proceedings commenced by writ of summons shall be accompanied by:
(a) Statement of claim.
(b) List of witness(es) to be called at the trial,
(c) Written statements on oath of the witnesses, except a subpoenaed witness,
(d) Copies of every document to be relied on the trial and
(e) Certificate of pre-action counselling; as in Form 6”.

The philosophy behind this frontloading procedure is to quicken the dispensation of justice and Judges of the High Court. There is no gain saying that documentary evidence makes oral testimony more compelling. Thus, where documentary evidence supports oral testimony, the latter becomes more credible. This is premised on the position of the law that documentary evidence serves as a hanger from which to assess oral evidence. See, BAC Electrical Co. Ltd v. Adesina (2020) 14 NWLR (Pt. 1745) 548 at 566 para G.

The general intention of the law is to encourage and enforce “front loading” as a principle of civil procedure system so that a defendant would have full knowledge and adequate notice of the cause of the other party so as to avoid delay in trials and fulfil the objective of speedy administration of justice.

LEGAL TIPS is anchored by Ms CIA Ofoegbunam, an Abuja-based lawyer who is passionate about legal practice. LEGAL TIPS offers quick hints on substantive law, as well as rules of practice and procedure, and serves as a handy reference guide to lawyers, especially in court. Published on a weekly basis, the LEGAL TIPS Series is CIA’s modest contribution to legal development in Nigeria.

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