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The New Company Law and the Constitutional Rights of Nigerians

The Companies and Allied Matters Act, 2019 (“the new CAMA”) recently signed into law by the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is a welcome development to Nigerian businesses. It has addressed the bottlenecks in formation of business entities and improved Nigerian corporate governance. It has also given leverage to small companies to thrive and incorporated technological innovations to the processes of the Corporate Affairs Commission (“Companies’ Registry”) to facilitate the ease of doing business in Nigeria.

However, the legislature in extending the powers of the Companies’ Registry to effectively regulate the activities of Churches, Islamic Religious Organisations, Charity and Non-Government Organisation which are registered as Incorporated Trustees (“associations”) has introduced some new provisions in the new CAMA which are capable of usurping the fundamental rights of citizens to their freedom of thoughts, conscience and religion, freedom of peaceful assembly and association and constitutional rights of access to Courts.

It is upon this premise that the Plaintiff, a Nigerian Citizen and Legal Practitioner, commenced Suit No. FHC/ABJ/CS/1076/ 2020; Emmanuel Ekpenyong Esq. v. National Assembly, Corporate Affairs Commission and Attorney General and Minister of Justice of the Federation at the Federal High Court, Abuja Division, challenging the constitutionality of some provisions of the new CAMA.

The Plaintiff contends that Section 839 of the new CAMA which gives power to the Companies’ Registry to remove trustees and appoint an interim manager to take over an association where it reasonably believes that there is misconduct, mismanagement, fraudulent practices, for protection of the property of the association and public interest; Section 842, Section 843, Section 844 of the new CAMA which gives the Companies’ Registry the powers to control the proceeds of a dormant account of an association and dissolve an association on account of its dormant account; Section 845, Section 846, Section 847 and Section 848 of the new CAMA which directs associations to keep and submit their statement of affairs and accounting records to the Companies’ Registry, infringes the Plaintiff’s freedom of thoughts, conscience and religion enshrined in Section 38 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) (“the Constitution”).

The Plaintiff opines that Churches, Islamic religious organisations, Charity and Non-Governmental Organisations give hope to the Plaintiff and the Nigerian people. The activities of associations augment the efforts of government. They act as watchdogs for the people and put the government in check. It is unfortunate for the provisions of the new CAMA to put the activities of associations under the complete whims and caprices of the Companies’ Registry which is an agency of the Federal Government.

The law provides for every association to have a Constitution which regulates the affairs of the association and protect them against misconduct, mismanagement, fraudulent or other activities which are contrary to the objects of the association. Hence, the Companies’ Registry has no business whatsoever in suspending trustees and appointing interim managers for them. This is a sure recipe for disaster. The activities of associations are not against public interest to warrant such draconian provisions.

The funds of associations are not public funds. They are contributions, offerings and freewill donations of members to carrying out their objectives. There is no legal justification for the Companies’ Registry to be interested in the dormant account of associations. Associations are non-profit making organisations. They are not business ventures as such the Companies’ Registry cannot be ingrained in the affairs of associations by expecting them to submit statement of affairs or accounting records to the Registry.

The Plaintiff has a freedom to his thought, conscience and religion alone or in community with others. The Plaintiff has a right to propagate his religion, worship, teaching, practice and observance in public or private and does not even need to register same with the Companies’ Registry to propagate same. Therefore, giving powers to the Companies’ Registry who is an outsider and complete stranger to determine the affairs of a place where the Plaintiff professes his thoughts, conscience and religion is an aberration which is in contravention of Section 38 of the Constitution.

Furthermore, the Plaintiff contends that Section 839, Section 843, Section 844, Section 845, Section 846, Section 847 and Section 848 of the new CAMA infringe his freedom to peaceful assembly and association. This is because the Companies’ Registry has a wide discretion to appoint interim managers to replace suspended trustees. The interim managers to be appointed by the Companies’ Registry may have nothing in common with the members of the association and the members will not have a right to challenge such appointment.

This will impair the rights of members of associations to actively participate in activities of their associations and determine its direction. The enormous and dictatorial powers given to the Companies’ Registry to intrude and interfere with the operations and management of associations is not legally justifiable. The use of phrases such as “is satisfied”, “reasonably believes”, “deem it necessary”, “public interests” in relation to the powers of the Companies’ Registry over associations are ambiguous phrases that can easily lead to an abuse of power by the Companies’ Registry and contravene the Plaintiff’s freedom to associate peacefully with other persons enshrined in Section 40 of the Constitution.

Again, the Plaintiff contends that the provisions of Section 851 of the new CAMA which gives powers to the Administrative Proceedings Committee to hear cases arising from the provisions of the new CAMA limits the Plaintiff’s constitutional rights of access to Courts. Section 6 (1) and 6 (b) of the Constitution confers judicial powers to the Courts. Section 36 (1) of the Constitution gives citizens the right to access an independent and impartial Court to determine their civil rights and obligations. Section 251 (1) (e) of the Constitution provides for the Federal High Court to hear any matter arising from the provisions of the new CAMA.

Hence, the provision of Section 851 of the new CAMA comes as a very huge surprise. The composition of the Administrative Proceedings Committee is made up mostly of employees of the Companies’ Registry who are involved or aware of the issue which caused the dispute in the first place. It is against the principle of natural justice for a person to be a judge in his own case. In most disputes arising from the provisions of the company law or regulations, the Companies’ Registry is usually a party to the dispute.

The Companies’ Registry cannot independently and impartially determine a dispute which it is also a party. If this is allowed the Companies’ Registry will be a party and judge in its own case. It is without doubt that Section 851 of the new CAMA is contrary to the Plaintiff’s rights of access to Courts enshrined in Section 6 (1) 6 (b), Section 36 and Section 251 (1) (e) of the Constitution.

In conclusion, the Plaintiff contends that his freedom of conscience, thoughts and religion, freedom of peaceful assembly and right to access to Court are so serious and the only way to ensure that the rights are protected in the circumstance, is for the provisions of Section 839, Section 843, Section 844, Section 845, Section 846, Section 847 and Section 848 and Section 851 of the new CAMA to be expunge from the new CAMA. The Plaintiff prays for an order of mandatory injunction of the Court directing the Defendants to expunge the offending provisions of the new CAMA.

Benefits upon Discharge On Grounds of Redundancy in Nigeria

Like in other Countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the survival of many businesses across all the sectors in Nigeria. In other to grapple with the rough tides and remain in business, owners of businesses have deliberately cut down the cost of running their business by reducing overhead costs, declaring some post redundant and reducing their workers by discharging them on grounds of redundancy.

This has created problems for both workers and employers. Whilst workers will lose their means of livelihood, it opens up employers to industrial actions by the discharged workers. It is therefore in the best interest of the employers and workers for employers to discharge workers on grounds of redundancy in line with the provisions of the labour law.

Section 20 of the Labour Act provides that in the event of redundancy, the employer shall inform the trade union or workers’ representative concerned of the reasons and extent of the anticipated redundancy. The employer shall adopt the principle of “last in, first out” in the discharge of the workers affected, subject to all factors of relative merit, including skill, ability and reliability. This means workers who have been in employment longer will be considered for discharge before the latest workers to come into the employment. The employer shall use his best endeavours to negotiate redundancy payments to the discharged workers who are not covered under any regulation.

However, it is settled law that where the employment of workers is wrongfully terminated i.e. terminated against the provisions of the labour law or their contract of employment, the remedy available to the workers is for their benefits which would have accrued to them had their employment been legally terminated, to be paid to them. Apart from employment with statutory flavour (i.e. workers in civil service or other employments protected by statutes), it has been settled by Nigerian courts that the law or Court cannot foist a willing employee on an unwilling employer and vice versa.

Hence, an employer has a duty to furnish the workers with a notice stating the reasons for their discharge on the grounds of redundancy and comply with the “last in, first out” principle in the labour law in discharging the workers. Nevertheless, the employer has the right to consider other factors like the relative merit, skill, ability and reliability of the workers in reaching a decision on which of the workers to be discharged on grounds of redundancy. The employer has a duty to rely on international best practices to reach a redundancy payment to the discharged workers who are not covered by any existing regulation.

Regrettably, where a worker was wrongfully discharged on ground of redundancy, the worker is only entitled to his redundancy benefits as stated in the relevant Employment Contract, Collective Agreement or regulation. The worker does not have a right to reinstatement, loss earnings, emotional or psychological pain. This is because the Court cannot force or foist a willing worker on an unwilling employer.

Setting Aside a Judgment in Nigeria

The essence of civil proceedings is for the judgment creditor to enjoy the fruits of his Judgment. This may be achieved by the judgment creditor executing the Judgment by the attachment and sale of the moveable or immovable property of the judgment debtor, attachment of funds belonging to the judgment debtor in the possession of a third party under the garnishee proceedings or committal of the judgment debtor to prison for refusal to settle the judgment debt under the judgment summons proceedings. However the following are the grounds upon which a Nigerian Court will set aside execution of a Judgment;

(i) If the judgment creditor executed the Judgment against a person other than the judgment debtor;

There are instances where a judgment creditor who is desperate to obtain payment of the judgment debt, attaches the movable property of a third party in the premises of the judgment debtor. Upon the application of the third party with proof that the property belongs to him and not the judgment debtor, the Court would set aside the execution of the Judgment.

(ii) If the person against whom the Judgment was executed, was never a party to the suit.

A judgment creditor cannot legally execute a Judgment against a person who was not a party to the suit upon which he obtained Judgment. This is so even if the person against whom the Judgment was executed is the judgment debtor’s successor-in-title. For instance, if a defendant dies before Judgment is delivered, the judgment creditor ought to bring an application to substitute the defendant’s name with that of his successor-in-title and serve the successor-in-title with all the processes in the suit.

If the judgment creditor fails do so and the Judgment is delivered against the defendant, the judgment creditor cannot sustain an execution against the defendant’s successor in title. This is because the successor-in-title was not a party to the suit. In law, the defendant and his successor-in-title are distinct and different persons.

(iii) Lack of service of the processes on the judgment debtor

If the judgment creditor failed to effect service of the processes in the suit on the judgment debtor in line with the provisions of the relevant statutes on service of processes, the Court would set aside the execution of the Judgment against the judgment debtor. This is because service of processes on the judgment debtor goes to the root of the suit and affects the jurisdiction of the Court to validly enter Judgment against the judgment debtor. Lack of service is a clear breach of the judgment debtor’s fundamental right to fair hearing and makes the proceedings conducted a nullity and of no legal effect whatsoever.

(iv) Lack of jurisdiction of the Court who delivered the Judgment

Jurisdiction of Court is a threshold issue. If the Court who delivered the Judgment which the judgment creditor executed against the judgment debtor had no jurisdiction in the first place over the subject matter of the suit or exceeded its statutory jurisdiction, the judgment debtor may apply to set aside the execution of the Judgment.

(v) Execution of a Judgment outside the stipulated statutory period

Order IV Rules 8 (1) and (2) of the Judgment Enforcement Rules provides that a Judgment shall be executed against the property of a judgment debtor within 6 (six) years and against the person of the judgment debtor within 2 (two) years from the date in which the Judgment was delivered, failing which the judgment creditor must file an exparte application for leave of Court to execute the Judgment outside the stipulated statutory period.

If a judgment creditor, without leave of court, execute a Judgment outside the stipulated statutory period, the judgment debtor may apply to the Court to set aside the execution of the Judgment.