Gradual Erosion Of The Maritime Jurisdiction Of The Federal High Court-Implication Of The Court Of Appeal’s Decision In Ca/Lag/Cv/419/2020-The Vessel Mt Sam Purpose & Anor V. Amarjeet Singh Bains & Ors In Relations On Claims Of Unpaid Crew Wages


By Seyi Ilawole

INTRODUCTION

The recent decision of the Court of Appeal in (CA/LAG/CV/419/2020)- The Vessel MT Sam Purpose (Ex Mt.Tapti) &Anor v. Amarjeet Singh Bains & 6 Ors has caused a major uproar amongst maritime lawyers and legal scholars alike. This Court of Appeal decision, unless overruled, by the Supreme Court has settled the conflict between the Federal High Court and National industrial Court on which Court has jurisdiction to entertain matters relating to unpaid crew member wages on a ship.

For better understanding of this Court of Appeal decision,it is imperative that a proper foundation is laid to explain how this legal quagmire came about.

Section 251(1) (g) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999[1] and Section 1 of Admiralty Jurisdiction Act[2] jointly confer on the Federal High Court, exclusive jurisdiction on Admiralty causes or matters.

Section 2(3) (r) of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act[3] recognizes crew wages as part of maritime Claim as the Act provides that a maritime claim includes: – “a claim by a master, of a ship for- (i) wages or (ii) an amount that a person, as employer, is under an obligation to pay a person as employee whether the obligation arose out of the contract of employment or by operation of law, including by operation of law of a foreign country”

It is therefore, not in doubt that crew wages, salaries are maritime claims capable of being enforced either in rem or personam. It is without a doubt that, a maritime claim can invoke the Admiralty Jurisdiction of the Federal High Court.

However, with the establishment of the National industrial court of Nigeria, Section 254(c) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999[4] conferred on the National Industrial Court, exclusive jurisdiction on any labour related matter. Section 254(C ) (a) & (k) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as Amended) provides thus:

“          Notwithstanding the provisions of section 251, 257, 272 and anything contained in this constitution and In addition to such other jurisdiction as may be conferred upon it by an act of the National Assembly, the National Industrial Court shall have and exercise jurisdiction to the  exclusion of any Court in civil causes and matters- (a) Relating to or connected  with any labour, employment, trade union ,industrial relations and matters arising from workplace, the conditions of service, including health, safety, welfare of labour- (k)- Relating to or connected with disputes arising from payments of salaries, wages, pensions, gratuities , allowances , benefits and any entitlements of any employee”

While the statutes and law confer on the Federal High Court, exclusive Jurisdiction in Admiralty matters, National Industrial Courts are vested with the exclusive power to hear and adjudicate on all labour and labour related matters. The seemingly conflicting provisions of the Constitution and the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act  marked the inception of jurisdictional struggle between the Federal High Court and National Industrial Court, both being courts of coordinate jurisdiction.

The Court of Appeal in the judgment delivered in CA/LAG/CV/419/2020 – THE VESSEL MT SAM PURPOSE & ANOR V AMARJEET SINGH BAINS & ORS[5]held that a claim for crew wages was within the jurisdiction of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN) based on the provisions of Section 254 C of the Third Alteration to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (CFRN).

It is important to point out that a similar position was taken by the Federal High Court, Lagos decision in ASSURANCE FORENINGEN SKULD (GJENSIDIG) Vs. MT CLOVER PRIDE & PALM SPRING GLOBAL LIMITED[6]. The Plaintiff had commenced a maritime action flowing from unpaid wages and seafarers entitlements. In reaction, the Defendant filed an objection challenging the jurisdictionof the Federal High Court to hear and determined the said action based on the provision of Section 254c of the Third Alteration to the Constitution.  In its Ruling, the Court upheld the said objection and held that issues connected to wages, salaries and/or any entitlements flowing from any employment related matter are now within the exclusive jurisdiction of the National Industrial Court. The Court also held that based on the provision of Section 1(3) of the constitution, there is no doubt that section 254C (a) & (k) of the Constitution, supersedes the provisions of Section2 (3)(r) of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act 1991.

Section1 (3) of the CFRN provides as follows:

“          If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this constitution, this constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall to the extent of its inconsistency be void”

The implication of the Court of Appeal decision in Mt Sam purpose & Anor v. Amarjeet Singh Bains & 6 ors is that it will provide unnecessary hardship on crew members who are just trying to recover unpaid fees. One of the critical benefits enjoyed by seafarers and crew members under The Admiralty Jurisdiction Act (AJA) is that their claims are secured with a maritime lien on the vessel which the master and crew served. This Is by virtue of Section 2(3) (r) which lists claims for crew wages and masters’ disbursements as claims within the Admiralty jurisdiction.

This Court of Appeal decision and the Third Alteration to the Constitution has inadvertently transferred the jurisdiction for adjudication on these claims to the National IndustrialCourt, thereby depriving seafarers of the use of the weapon of a maritime lien on the vessel in which they served as security for their wages.The implication being,  unpaid crew member  can no longer bring an application (ex parte)  to the Court for the arrest of the vessel  which they worked on pending when their wages are paid .As the National Industrial Court is devoid of jurisdiction over Admiralty matters, a maritime lien cannot be placed  on the vessel  pending the determination of the suit . It is also interesting to note that, the Labour Act[7] which is the primary legislation on labour law in Nigeria excludes seamen from the definition of workers, does this mean this legislation wasn’t taken into consideration when this decision was made ? This is a question/issue that we earnestly hope that the Supreme Court should be invited to determine as the apex Court of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Seyi Ilawole is an Associate with Pistis Partners LLP

[1] Cap C4, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004.

[2] Cap A5, laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004

[3] Ibid.

[4]Third alteration act (2010)

[5](Unreported) decided by the Court of Appeal, Lagos division on March 5th, 2021

[6](Unreported) FHC/L/CS/1807/17- Per Idris J(as he then was)

[7]Cap L1,Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004

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