By Oyetola Muyiwa Atoyebi, SAN FCIArb. (U.K)

INTRODUCTION

The Nigerian Maritime Sector, no doubt, contributes significantly to the nation’s economy. Recognising the importance of the sector, the Federal government in 2023 established the Ministry of Marine and Blue Economy.[1] The importance of the sector also underscores the need for a detailed examination of admiralty jurisdiction and in which court it is vested as well as some intricacies surrounding same in the nation’s legal framework. Admiralty jurisdiction generally refers to the judicial power vested in a court to adjudicate over admiralty matters as specified in enabling statutes and subsidiary legislation. This article will thus examine the history of admiralty jurisdiction in Nigeria as well as the extant legal framework governing the exercise of judicial powers in the nation.

A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE HISTORY OF ADMIRALTY JURISDICTION IN NIGERIA

There is no gainsaying the fact that Nigeria is a product of colonialism, certain aspects of its institutions and systems have their roots in colonial ideals. With the establishment of the formal Court systems between 1843 and 1890,[2] admiralty jurisdiction can be traced to the laws and ordinances of their establishment. While the Supreme Court Act of 1976 excluded the Supreme Court from exercising jurisdiction relating to admiralty,[3] the Court of Admiralty Act of 1890 by Section 3 extended admiralty jurisdiction to the Supreme Court. Moreover, in 1928, the Nigerian Protectorate Admiralty Jurisdiction Order was made pursuant to the powers granted to the Queen-in-Council under Section 12 of the 1890 Act.[4] By the Order, the Supreme Court of the Colony of Lagos[5] was vested with jurisdiction over admiralty causes and by 1933 the jurisdiction had extended throughout the protectorate.

The adoption of federalism in 1954, saw a new structure of court systems emerge and by 1956 original admiralty jurisdiction was vested in the Federal Supreme Court. However, in 1963, three years after the nation gained independence, original admiralty jurisdiction, which had hitherto been vested in the Federal Supreme Court was repealed and vested in the regional courts pursuant to provisions of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act of 1962. Furthermore, upon the creation of the Federal High Court in 1973 (which at that time, was known as the Federal Revenue Court) admiralty jurisdiction was vested in it. The amendment of the Federal High Court Act and the Constitution by the Federal High Court (Amendment) Act No. 60 of 1991 and the Constitution (Suspension and Modification ) Act No. 107 of 1993 saw the exclusive jurisdiction over admiralty matters vested in the Federal High Court[6] and this was further affirmed by the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act.[7] Moreover, Section 251(1)(g) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended confers an express exclusive original jurisdiction on the Federal High Court.[8]

LEGAL FRAMEWORK ON ADMIRALTY JURISDICTION IN NIGERIA

It is a trite principle of law, that jurisdiction is conferred by statute, and a court only expounds rather than expands its jurisdiction.[9] This invariable means that a court of law is confined within the statutory powers given to it.[10] Thus, a discussion on admiralty jurisdiction hinges principally on the legal framework for the exercise of the jurisdiction by the Court on which it is conferred. To this end, the Nigerian legal framework on admiralty jurisdiction will be examined anon.

THE CONSTITUTION OF THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA, 1999 AS AMENDED

The Constitution is the fundamental, foundational, principal and supreme legislation of Nigeria.[11] It has, several times, been described as the fons et origo,[12] of all laws in the Federal Republic of Nigeria.[13] Thus, the validity of all laws in the Republic is tested against the background of the provisions of the Constitution.[14]

Section 251 (1) of the Constitution vests exclusive original jurisdiction in the Federal High Court over causes and matters relating to

(g) any admiralty jurisdiction, including shipping and navigation on the River Niger or River Benue and their affluents and on such other inland waterway as may be designated by any enactment to be an international waterway, all Federal ports, (including the constitution and powers of the ports authorities for Federal ports) and carriage by sea;[15]

THE FEDERAL HIGH COURT ACT CAP F12 LFN 2004

The Act establishes the Federal High Court, prescribing its composition, powers and jurisdiction. It contains a similar provision to Section 251 (1) (g) in relation to its admiralty jurisdiction[16]

Furthermore, reiterating the exclusivity of the Court’s jurisdiction on admiralty matters, Section 8 (1) of the Act provides as follows:

“In so far as jurisdiction is conferred upon the Court in respect of the causes or matters mentioned in the foregoing provisions of this part of the Act, the High Court or any other court of a state or of the federal capital territory Abuja, shall to the extent that jurisdiction is so conferred upon the Court, cease to have jurisdiction in relation to such causes or matters.”

THE ADMIRALTY JURISDICTION ACT CAP A5, LFN 2004

The Admiralty Jurisdiction Act was enacted to provide for the extent of the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court in admiralty claims and such other related matters.[17] By Section 1 of the Act, the Court is empowered to hear and determine any question, which relates to a proprietary interest in a ship or aircraft or such other maritime claims provided under Section 2, and any other admiralty jurisdiction, which had hitherto been exercised by any other Court in Nigeria, before the commencement of the Act. Its jurisdiction further extends to:

  1. Any jurisdiction relating to an aircraft or ship, which was vested in any other court in Nigeria before the commencement of the Act.
  2. Any action or application connected with any cause or matter by any ship owner or aircraft operator or such other person under the Merchant Shipping Act or other enactments in relation to a ship or aircraft for the limitation of his liability relating to the shipping or operation of aircraft or other property.
  3. A claim for any liability incurred for damage occasioned by oil pollution,
  4. Any matter which arises from shipping and navigation on inland waters which have been declared as national waterways,
  5. Matters, which arise within a Federal port or national airport and its precincts, and include claims for loss or damage to goods occurring between the off-loading of goods from a ship or an aircraft and delivery at the consignee’s premises, or during storage or transportation before delivery to the consignee;
  6. Transactions, including banking or letter of credit, which involves the importation or exportation of goods to and from Nigeria in a ship or an aircraft, whether such importation was carried out or not and regardless of the fact that the transaction is between a bank and its customer;
  7. Causes or matters which arise from the composition and powers of all port authorities, airport authorities and the National Maritime Authority;
  8. Such criminal causes and matters arising out of or concerned with any of the matters in respect of which jurisdiction is conferred on matters earlier specified.

It is noteworthy that the jurisdiction of the court with respect to carriage and delivery of goods covers the period of loading same on the ship for shipping to the time of delivery to the receiver regardless of whether the goods were carried on land during the process or not.[18] Furthermore, the jurisdiction of the Court also covers any agreement or arrangement of any kind, which is connected with or relates to the carriage of goods by sea.[19] The Act also provides that the jurisdiction of the Court applies to all ships regardless of the domicile or places of residence of the owners as well as all other maritime claims, wherever they may arise.[20]

Furthermore, the Act emphasizes the exclusivity of the Federal High Court’s jurisdiction over admiralty proceedings whether civil or criminal,[21] and parties cannot by agreement oust the jurisdiction of the court provided that:

  1. the place of performance, execution delivery or default of same is Nigeria;
  2. any of the parties resides or has resided in Nigeria;
  3. the payment, under the agreement whether express or implied was made or is to be made in Nigeria;
  4. where the plaintiff, in an admiralty action or maritime lien, submits to the jurisdiction of the Court and makes a declaration to that effect, or the rem (subject matter) is within Nigerian jurisdiction;
  5. where a government either of the federation or state is involved in a matter and the government has submitted to the jurisdiction of the Court;
  6. Where in respect of any action, a financial consideration accrues in, derived from, brought into or received in Nigeria;
  7. By virtue of any convention to which Nigeria is a party, the national court of a state party can assume jurisdiction either mandatorily or discretionarily; or
  8. In the opinion of the Court, the cause of action ought to be adjudicated upon in Nigeria.

With regards to the venue of proceedings, the Act provides that an action may be filed in any judicial division of the Court where the ship or other property may be located.[22]

ADMIRALTY JURISDICTION PROCEDURE RULES 2023.

The Chief Judge of the Federal High Court is empowered to make rules of practice and procedure to give effect to the provisions of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act.[23] Pursuant to this power, the Chief Judge had, over the years prescribed Rules of procedure in admiralty proceedings. Prior to the ‘enactment’ of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Procedure Rules of 2023, the 2011, Rules had governed the institution and conduct of admiralty proceedings in Nigeria. However, the 2023 Rules repealed the 2011 Rules and included salient provisions, which improve on the previous Rules. Some of these include the following:

  1. The establishment of admiralty divisions of the Federal High Court as well as the designation of admiralty judges. This will no doubt improve expertise in ‘admiralty justice.’[24]
  2. The new rules abrogated the need for the plaintiff to specify the relevant defendant in an action in rem for a proprietary claim. Thus, it suffices where the ship or other property is specified as defendants.[25]
  3. The Rules mandate the Chief Judge to make directions for the establishment of an Admiralty Registry in the Admiralty Division of the Court. Also, an Admiralty Marshal or a substitute is to head the registry and the duties as specified by the Act will include removal of a ship, execution of warrants of arrest, service of processes, etc.[26]
  4. Recognising the role of technology and digitalisation, the Rules allow for the service of some Court processes through the use of a defendant’s email.[27] Moreover, an ex parte application for the issuance of a warrant of arrest of a ship or other property may be filed physically and electronically and the hearing of same may be physical or virtual.[28]
  5. Where an action in rem is transferred to another judicial division where the subject matter is located or is expected to arrive, and a warrant of arrest has been issued in the previous Division, the Rules preserve the validity of the warrant of arrest issued and same can be executed where the subject matter is located.[29]

CONCLUSION

Jurisdiction in Nigeria is statutorily conferred. Thus, admiralty jurisdiction as conferred on the Federal High Court refers to the power of the Court to decide claims and matters specified by the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act. Moreover, the enactment of the new Admiralty Jurisdiction Rules 2023 will no doubt enhance the effective exercise of the judicial powers of the Court.

KEYWORDS

Admiralty jurisdiction, legal framework for admiralty jurisdiction in Nigeria, admiralty jurisdiction act, admiralty jurisdiction procedure rules 2023, admiralty marshal, admiralty judges.

SNIPPET

The Nigerian Maritime Sector, no doubt, contributes significantly to the nation’s economy. Recognising the significance of the sector, the Federal government in 2023 established the Ministry of Marine and Blue Economy. The importance of the sector also underscores the need for a detailed examination of admiralty jurisdiction and in which court it is vested as well as some intricacies surrounding same in the nation’s legal framework. Admiralty jurisdiction generally refers to the judicial power vested in a court to adjudicate over admiralty matters as specified in enabling statutes and subsidiary legislation.

AUTHOR: Oyetola Muyiwa Atoyebi, SAN FCIArb. (U.K)

Mr. Oyetola Muyiwa Atoyebi, SAN is the Managing Partner of O. M. Atoyebi, S.A.N & Partners (OMAPLEX Law Firm).

Mr. Atoyebi has expertise in and vast knowledge of Maritime Law and Practice and this has seen him advise and represent his vast clientele in a myriad of high-level transactions.  He holds the honour of being the youngest lawyer in Nigeria’s history to be conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

He can be reached at atoyebi@omaplex.com.ng

CONTRIBUTOR: Pwaveno Ditto

Pwaveno is a member of the Dispute Resolution Team at OMAPLEX Law Firm. She also holds commendable legal expertise in Maritime Law.

She can be reached at pwaveno.ditto@omaplex.com.ng

[1] ‘What You Need to Know about Ministry of Marine and Blue Economy’ (Punch Newspapers, 2023) available at https://punchng.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-ministry-of-marine-and-blue-economy/ accessed on the 26th of February, 2023.

[2] See Yusuf Ali, SAN., ‘The Evolution of Ideal Nigerian Judiciary in the New Millennium’ (Yusuf Ali & Co) available at https://yusufali.net/articles/THE_EVOLUTION_OF_IDEAL_NIGERIAN_JUDICIARY_IN_THE_NEW_MILLENNIUM.pdf accessed on the 26th of February, 2024.

[3] Section 11. See Bambale Y. Yahaya, ‘Maritime Law II’ National Open University of Nigeria available at https://nou.edu.ng/coursewarecontent/Law%20532%20Maritime%20law%20II.pdf accessed on the 26th of February, 2024.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Which had the status of a High Court.

[6] See Akanki, E.O. Commercial Law in Nigeria Lagos: University of Lagos Press. 2005.

[7] Cap A5 LFN 2004. Formerly Admiralty Jurisdiction Decree No. 59 of 1991

[8] For a discussion of the controversies, which trailed the exercise of admiralty jurisdiction in the periods spanning 1973 to the early 2000s, see Bambale Y. Yahaya op cit. fn. 2. See also the cases of Bronik Motors Ltd v Wema Bank Ltd (1983) 6 SC 158, American International Insurance Co. v Ceekay Traders limited (2001) FWLR (Part 47) 1163, avannah Bank of Nigeria Limited v Pan Atlantic Shipping & Transport Agencies Limited (1987) 1 NWLR Pt 49, Page 212,

[9] See Bot V Jos Electricity Distribution Company (2021) 15 NWLR Pt. 1798 53, UBA PLC & Ors V. Ademola (2008) LPELR-CA/B/130/2005,

[10] See UKIRI V UBA PLC (2016) 3 NWLR (pt. 1500) pg. 440 at 458

[11] Section 1 of the Constitution.

[12] ‘’the source and origin’

[13] See LP & Ors V. Oyatoro (2016) LPELR-CA/AK/32/2012

[14] Section 3 of the Constitution.

[15] See ONTARIO OIL & GAS NIGERIA LTD v. FRN (2015) LPELR-24651(CA)

[16] Section 7 (1) (g) of the Act.

[17] See the Long title to the Act.

[18] Section 1 (2) of the Act.

[19] Ibid. Ss. 3

[20] Section 3 of the Act.

[21] Section 19 of the Act. See also Section 251 (3) of the Constitution.

[22] Section 22 of the Act.

[23] See Section 21 of the Act.

[24] See Order 2 Rules 1, 2 and 3.

[25] See Order 5 Rules 1 and 2.

[26] See Order 2 Rule 5.

[27] See Order 6.

[28] See Order 7 Rule 1.

[29] Order 2 Rule 10.

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