Is An Unsigned Document Admissible in Evidence? -By Odaste Peter
Well, you may have heard that generally an unsigned document is inadmissible in evidence same being a worthless piece of paper with no evidential value as was held in plethora of cases. See. MTN (Nig.) Communications Ltd. v. Corporate Communications Inv. Ltd.  9 NWLR (Pt. 1678) 427; (2019) LPELR-47042(SC), G.S.&D IND LTD V.NAFDAC (2012)5 NWLR (PT. 1294)511.
However, I made bold to say that an unsigned document is not as worthless as anyone might think. In certain circumstances, an unsigned document is an invaluable document that is admissible in evidence.
It is submitted that plethora circumstances may abound where an unsigned document is a priceless jewel and admissible in evidence. Any objection to it admissibility will be overruled. This position received judicial baptism in the recent case of ALIYU v. NAMADI & ORS
(2022) LPELR-58823(CA). In that case where the court had to consider the issue whether an unsigned document is admissible in evidence, it was held thus:
“First, I find it difficult to agree with the learned trial judge that an unsigned document is always inadmissible in evidence. The cases of Jinadu v. Esurombi-Aro (2009)14 NWLR (PT 949) 142 @ 188, (2009) LPELR-1614 (SC) p. 31-32 (SC); Ashakacem Plc v. Mubashshurun Inv. Ltd (2018) 77 NSCQR 109, (2019) LPELR-4654 (SC) p. 27-29, Ogungbele v. Oladele (2004) 27 WRN 153 @ 163, 1665-166, S.P.D.C. (Nig) Ltd v. Olarewaju (2002) 16 NWLR (PT 792) 38 @ 69 and even Omega Bank (Nig.) Plc v. OBC Ltd (2005) 8 NWLR (PT 928) 547 (Tobi, J.S.C.) all confirm that an unsigned document is admissible in evidence; that the issue of lack of signature only goes to weight to be attached to the document. That seems to me very sound reasoning, for I do not see how it can be seriously asserted, for instance, that if Mr. A publishes in his own handwriting a libelous document against me but smartly decides not to sign it, the libelous document will be rejected in evidence and my suit against him for libel will collapse, may be even in limine, on the ground only that he, Mr. A did not sign it, and that that will be case even if I have witnesses that are familiar with his handwriting to prove, pursuant to Sections 93(1) and 101 of the Evidence 2011, that he actually wrote the libelous statement. Absence of signature in a document, I repeat, goes to weight to be attached to the document by the Court which is a matter of probative value of the same document; it is not an issue that affects admissibility of the document which comes before weight in the hierarchy of our adjectival laws. Once a piece of evidence, including document, is relevant to the proceedings in the sense that it is pleaded or facts that will render it admissible are pleaded and it passes every other Law guiding its admissibility, it becomes admissible in evidence. That point was also made clearly by even Niki Tobi, JSC, himself in his now very famous dicta in Omega Bank (Nig.) Plc v. OBC Ltd (2005) 8 NWLR (PT 928) 547; (2005) LPELR-2636 (SC) when his Lordship said at p. 36-37 (LPELR): “In the hierarchy of our adjectival laws, probative value comes after admissibility. And so a document could be admitted without the Court attaching probative value to it. That is the point I am making. Basically, admissibility and weight to be attached to the document admitted are two different things. See Ayeni v. Dada (1978) 3 S.C. 35…. “I do not think I can reject Exhibit P6. The case law will not allow me to do so. This is because exhibit P6 is relevant in the circumstances of the case. That notwithstanding, the case law allows me not to attach any probative value and that is what I do now.” (Italics mine). Equally instructive is the dictum of Oguntade, J.S.C., in a later decision of the Apex Court, and a leading judgment of that Court for that matter (unlike the dictum of Tobi JSC in Omega Bank Plc supra which was not only made in a concurring judgment but even on an issue not addressed in the lead judgment) in Jinadu v. Esurombi-Aro (2009)14 NWLR (PT 949) 142 @ 188, (2009) LPELR-1614 (SC) p. 31-32 (SC) (2009) LPELR-1614 (SC) p. 31-32 para. G-A that: “I do not consider exhibits R and S inadmissible in evidence but being documents not bearing the signatures of the makers, they should attract little or no weight.” See also the even much more recent decision of the Apex Court in Ashakacem Plc v. Mubashshurun Inv. Ltd (2018) 77 NSCQR 109, (2019) LPELR-4654 (SC) p. 27-29, per Mary Peter-Odili, JSC, and all the other cases earlier cited on it by me here. ?But that is where my disagreement with the trial judge ends, for I am unable to agree with learned Silk for appellant that handwritten and unsigned FAA36/MDA19A was in the entire circumstances of this case not worthless and so deserved some weight to be attached to it by the trial Court. Admissibility of evidence and probative value to be attached to a piece of evidence so admitted as I have shown are two different things.”
Aside the above, the court had held that an unsigned document may be admissible in evidence and given probative value where oral evidence is given clarifying the unsigned document and its authorship, provided that: (A) the immediate parties to the agreement do not deny their agreement or the existence of the contract; Or,
(B) It is the intention of the parties that the document is binding on them.
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There are exceptions to the above exceptions Which are that ;
1. Where a statutory provision renders an unsigned document
Inadmissible in evidence completely;
2. Or it is the agreement of the parties that the signing of the document is the condition for its bindingness on them.
The above received judicial applause in the case of ASHAKACEM PLC v. Mubashshurun Inv. Ltd (2018) 77 NSCQR 109, wherein the Supreme Court held thus:
“The point has to be made that the requirement of signature is made by the law to determine its origin and authenticity with regard to its maker and so where certain situations exist an unsigned document could be admissible as in this instance where oral evidence clarifying the document and its authorship as in the case at hand thereby rendering such an unsigned document admissible. This unusual but allowable exception to the general rule was well explained in this court in the case of Awolaja & Ors v. Seatrade G. B. V. (2002) LPELR – 651 per Ayoola, JSC as follows: “A signed document though valuable as putting its beyond peradventure what terms the parties have agreed to is not essential to the existence of contract of affreightment where the immediate parties to the agreement do not deny their agreement or existence of the contract of affreightment and there is no doubt about their intention that they should be bound, barring statutory provision to the contrary, (and none has been cited by the defendant) the existence of the contract cannot be impugned on the ground that the document embodying the terms they have agreed to was unsigned, unless the parties have made such a condition of their being bound”. Per Mary Peter-Odili at p. 133
Relying on the above therefore, it is humbly submitted that not all UNSIGNED DOCUMENTS are Worthless piece of paper. Certain unsigned document may be admissible in evidence.