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Recovery of Foreign Judgment Debts in Nigeria

Enforcement of foreign judgments has significant relevance in this era of increased international trade and foreign investments. Businesses are more comfortable doing business with foreign partners knowing that if they obtain judgment from a superior court in their home country; it can be enforced against the judgment debtor across borders. Fortunately, Nigerian courts recognise judgments from superior courts of commonwealth countries and countries with reciprocal treatment with Nigeria.

This has increased the confidence of foreigners and foreign companies to do business with Nigerians and Nigerian companies. Nevertheless, the procedure for registration of foreign judgment in Nigeria is not without challenges. Apart from the uncertainty in the statute and rules regulating the enforcement of foreign judgment, the procedure for registration of foreign judgments does not take into cognisance the evolving trends in global economy and international commerce.

The statute regulating the enforcing of foreign judgments in Nigeria is imprecise. Ordinarily the recent Foreign Judgment (Reciprocal Enforcement) Act, CAP 152, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990 (“the 1990 Act”) would have been the legislation regulating enforcement of foreign judgment but the Supreme Court in the case of Macaulay v R.Z.B of Austria (2003) 18 NWLR (Pt. 852) 282 held that the Minister of Justice has not made an order extending the Act to judgments of the United Kingdom and other countries with reciprocal treatment with Nigeria pursuant to Sections 3 (1) and 9 (1) of the Act as such the first part of Act is inapplicable.

Again, in the case of Grosvenor Casinos Ltd v Ghassan Halaoui (2009) 10 NWLR (Pt. 1149) 309, the Supreme Court postulated that both the Act and the Reciprocal Enforcement of Judgments Ordinance, CAP 175, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1958 (“the Ordinance”) (“applicable legislations”) are relevant statutes in the enforcement of foreign judgments in Nigeria.

Judgment creditors now rely on the colonial Reciprocal Enforcement of Judgment Ordinance, 1958 (“the 1958 Ordinance”) which provides for a 12 months period to register and recover a foreign judgment debt in Nigeria. This is why in Suit No. FHC/ABJ/CS/203/2017; Emmanuel Ekpenyong Esq v. Attorney General and Minister of Justice of the Federation, I sought an order of mandamus at the Federal High Court, Abuja Division to compel the Attorney General and Minister of Justice of the Federation to promulgate an Order to bring the 1990 Act into operation.

The Federal High Court in its judgment opined that the Minister has discretionary powers to promulgate the Order. The trial court held that the Minister had unlimited powers to determine when to promulgate the Order. An appeal against the trial court’s judgment is pending before the Court of Appeal, Abuja division. The backlog of appeals at the appellate court has made it difficult to obtain a hearing date for the appeal.

The imprecision on the particular statute regulating foreign judgment enforcement has a devastating effect on the whole process of registering foreign judgment in Nigeria. For instance, the time within which to register a judgment under the 1990 Act is 6 years while the time to register a judgment under the Ordinance is 12 months. Since there is no Foreign Judgment Enforcement Rules for the 1990 Act, the Reciprocal Enforcement of Judgments Rules of the Ordinance (“Rules of the Ordinance”) which was enacted in 1922 regulates the legal conditions for registration of foreign judgment in Nigeria today.

Rules 1 (1) and 5 of the Rules of the Ordinance which provides that the application for enforcement of foreign judgment be made by a motion ex-parte is inconsistent with the modern concept of fair hearing and the current civil procedure rules of Courts that an adverse party must be put on notice. It is without doubt that the Rules of the Ordinance is out of touch with modern realities and the different conditions in the applicable legislations have led to calamity and more uncertainty.

In a Ruling of a Lagos High Court, per Candide-Johnson J, the Court rejected the registration of a Judgment of Justice Michael Burton of the High Court of Justice, Queen’s Bench Division, Commercial London on the ground that since the Lagos Court did not have jurisdiction to hear the subject matter before the original Court, it could not register and execute the Judgment of the original court against the judgment debtor. But registration of foreign judgment under the provisions of the applicable legislations appears to be a subject matter on its own. Little wonder the process of registration of foreign judgment is regulated by its separate and distinct legislations and rules which spell out its conditions and legal requirements.

The applicable legislations provide that Nigerian courts shall accord reciprocal treatment to judgment of ‘superior courts’ from commonwealth countries and other countries with reciprocal treatment with Nigeria. They also provide that a judgment creditor from a foreign country with reciprocal treatment with Nigeria may apply to a ‘superior court’ in Nigeria within the specified time for registration of the judgment. From the ordinary meaning of the wordings of the provisions of the applicable legislations on conditions for registration of foreign judgments, it did not contemplate that the jurisdiction of the Nigerian court to register a foreign judgment will be subject to its jurisdiction to hear and determine the original subject matter of the case.

Since the judgment creditor is not asking the Nigerian court to hear the case based on its subject matter, but to grant leave for registration of the foreign judgment under the applicable legislations only, Nigerian courts have no business making its jurisdiction to hear the subject matter of the case, a condition precedent for registration of the judgment. Unless the appellate courts pronounce on this grey area, it will continue to impede the registration of foreign judgments in Nigeria.

An interesting requirement of the applicable legislations is that the Defendant against whom the foreign judgment is to be enforced must have been a Defendant at the original court. This requirement creates a profound difficulty for Judgment creditors. With the recent economic meltdown, businesses are trying to stay afloat by merging or acquiring other companies. To maintain a local presence, a multinational company may take over the business and goodwill of viable Nigerian Company. Upon such takeover the acquired company is wound up.

What then happens to a judgment creditor who obtained a foreign judgment against the acquired company? Does it mean that the judgment creditor cannot maintain a cause of action against the acquiring company just because the acquiring company was not a Defendant at the original court? Since the acquiring company acquired both the assets and liabilities of the acquired company and the acquired company is no more, the justice of the case demands that the foreign judgment obtained against the acquired company should be enforced against the acquiring company.

Another curious requirement in both the Act and the Ordinance is that foreign judgments in respect of fine, taxes and penalties cannot be enforced in Nigeria. This is against the whole concept of reciprocal treatment of judgment because it may give a safe haven to impenitent tax evaders. With the increase in tax evasion by foreign businesses and multinational companies, inability of states and government bodies to recover judgment debts in respect of fines, taxes and penalties across borders would led to a great loss of revenue. The role of fines, taxes and penalties is invaluable in the economic development of states in the 21st Century. Unlike the 19th Century where most states closed their borders against foreign goods and investment, the 21st century world is a global village.

Though Section 1 (2) of the Foreign Judgments (Reciprocal Enforcement) Act 1933 (“the United Kingdom’s Act”) provides that taxes or other charges of a like nature or in respect of a fine or other penalty cannot be registered and enforced in United Kingdom, the United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron in a letter to Leaders of the British Overseas Territories (BOTs) and Crown Dependencies (CDs) dated 20 May 2013 said “… I very much welcome the commitments you have made to automatic tax information exchange, both on a bilateral and multilateral basis, which will help us to reach our goal of setting a global standard in tax transparency… We also need to ensure information exchange works effectively for all… That is why we strongly support the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Assistance in Tax Matters”.

This highlights the importance of cross border tax collection. Nigeria will gain more if it offers herself and other states the opportunity to recover fine, taxes and penalties against evading offenders by either amending her Foreign Judgment statutes to accord foreign judgments on fine, taxes and penalties the same status with monetary judgments or enter into Multilateral and Bilateral treaties with other states to assist themselves on recovery of cross borders fine, taxes and penalties.

Furthermore, the requirement that once an appeal is filed at the original court, the foreign judgment cannot be registered at the registering court may be prejudicial to the judgment creditor. What happens in a situation where an unscrupulous debtor in an attempt to forever deny the judgment creditor the fruits of his judgment files an appeal at the original jurisdiction and goes to sleep? What happens to the judgment creditor where the judgment debtor dissipates the res before outcome of the appeal at the original court? Is it not justiciable to preserve the res at the registering court pending the outcome of the appeal at the original jurisdiction? This is the reasoning behind the provisions of Section 1 (3) of the United Kingdom’s Act which provides that “a judgment shall be deemed to be final and conclusive notwithstanding that an appeal may be pending against it, or that it may still be subject to appeal, in the courts of the country of the original court”.

In conclusion, there is a need for the lingering crisis on the law regulating enforcement of foreign judgment in Nigeria to be settled. The legal conditions for enforcement of foreign judgment have been interpreted too broadly to adequately protect the interest of foreign judgment creditors. Therefore, the law and rules should be amended to reflect modern realities. The Courts should be proactive in breaking new grounds and developing the jurisprudence on enforcement of foreign judgment in Nigeria in accordance with the essence of reciprocity of judgments. This will improve the prospects of Nigeria as a business destination and enhance the growth of her economy.

Navigating Arbitration and Specialised Courts in IP matters in Nigeria

Enforcement of Intellectual Property (“IP”) in Nigeria is saddled with loop holes, bureaucratic bottlenecks, lack of technical knowledge, skills and lack of public awareness. These have led to the prevalence of piracy, counterfeiting, unauthorised, unlicensed use and infringement of IP rights. Though there have been laudable developments in recent times, there is still a wide gap in the enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights.

Regulatory Framework & Institutions

The principal types of Intellectual Property rights in the Nigeria Legal System are Copyrights, Patents, Trademarks and Industrial Designs. The regulatory frameworks include by the Copy Right Act Cap C28, Trade Marks Act Cap T13, Patent & Design Act P2 and the Merchandise Marks Act Cap M10.

These laws are enforced by the Nigerian Copyright Commission (“NCC”), The Trademark, Design and Patents Registry which is a subdivision of the Ministry of Industry, Trade & Investment, The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration Control (“NAFDAC”), The Nigerian Police (“NPF”) and The Nigerian Custom Service (“NCS”).

Nigeria is also a signatory to numerous international treaties on Intellectual Property. These include the World Intellectual Property Convention (“WIPO”) of 1970, Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (“TRIPS”), Berne Convention and Rome Convention for the Protection of Performers, Producers of Phonograms &Broadcasting Organisation etc.

The Current Situation

Enforcement of IP rights in Nigeria have been slow, largely ineffective and ladled with obstacles and loopholes. We shall consider the causative factors:-

  • Obsolete and Weak Laws: The principal laws in force were adopted from the Laws of England and date back as far as the 19th Century with no review since enactments. Intellectual Property is a steadily evolving concept and these laws do not also take into consideration, these dynamic changes in IP including the advancements in Technology. These Laws are also weak and cannot effectively control issues like piracy and counterfeiting.
  • Non Implementation of International Treaties: Section 12 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended (“CFRN”) provides that before an International Treaty can be implemented in Nigeria, it must be ratified and enacted by the Legislative. Though Nigeria is a signatory to numerous International Treaties on IP, which can be a supplement to our laws, these cannot be implemented because they haven’t been ratified and enacted according to the CRFN.
  • Lack of Awareness and Inadequate Finance & Staffs of the Regulatory Agencies: Regulatory Agencies charged with enforcing IP rights in Nigeria are greatly understaffed; lack the necessary equipment, training and knowledge to effectively carry out their duties. . These culminate in a slow and inefficient enforcement of IP rights.
  • Lack of Uniformity and Cooperation amongst enforcement Agencies: Intellectual Property is a broad and technical area. Its enforcement cannot be carried out by one regulatory agency alone; the agencies need to work together. However in Nigeria, there is no such cooperation, they also lack a uniform public domain between the agencies to access the data of each agency in enforcing Intellectual property rights.
  • Judicial Enforcement: The Nigerian Judicial System is slow and t cases take an inordinate amount of time before coming to a conclusion. This coupled with the technical nature of Intellectual Property Rights, the lack of such technical knowledge by the Judges and the non-observance of judicial orders has further inhibited the effective enforcements of IP rights by the Judiciary. Furthermore the Federal High Court is vested with exclusive jurisdiction over IP disputes. This is a bar to parties exploring Alternative Dispute Resolution (“ADR”).

The Way Forward

Due to the loopholes in enforcing IP rights and resolving IP disputes in Nigeria, it has become necessary that new and alterative procedures need to be considered. These include Arbitrations and Special Courts.

Why Arbitration

Arbitration according to the Black’s Law Dictionary is a dispute resolution process in which the disputing parties choose one or more neutral third parties to make a final and binding decision resolving the dispute. WIPO has advocated for the use of Arbitration for resolving IP disputes and has gone further to establish an Arbitration & Mediation Centre for resolving IP disputes. It also has in place its Arbitration rules. Discussed here are the advantages of Arbitration over Litigation and why IP disputes should be resolved using Arbitration in Nigeria.

  • Technicality involved in Intellectual Property: Intellectual Property is a technical subject matter. Therefore it is a better to use an Arbitrator who has specialised knowledge of Intellectual Property. This is even more so when technical issues like computer programs, Industrial designs, patents etc. are being contested. When parties can choose their adjudicator they have the opportunity of picking one who possesses the necessary technical knowledge.
  • Expert determination: Disputing parties can also refer the matter to an expert in the area of dispute for expert opinion, appraisal, valuation or determination to settle a dispute. This expert can act as Arbitrator and the resulting decision is binding on the parties.
  • International Nature of Intellectual Property Disputes: IP is by its nature intangible and global unlike other forms of property. It can be exploited and transmitted globally instantaneously. This makes its rights infringeable internationally and disputes are cross borders. Therefore IP disputes are best resolved by Arbitration which is most suitable for International disputes.
  • Flexibility of Arbitration: Arbitration by its nature is flexible. The parties can choose the Arbitrator, time, conduct of the proceedings and venue of the proceedings. Also they can choose the applicable law to govern the proceedings. This is important having regards to the International nature of Intellectual Property disputes. Parties do not have to be bound by the local laws of a disputing party.
  • The Time Involved and Finality: Arbitral proceedings are fastidious. Parties do not have to go the tedious and formal procedure involved in litigation. Arbitration is expeditious, quick and efficient. This is an advantage for Intellectual Property disputes which are of a technical and economical nature and need to be resolved timeously. Furthermore, contracting parties can resolve that there will be no appeal to the arbitral award. This ensures the dispute will be brought to an end quickly unlike litigation where parties by contract cannot bar an appeal.
  • Confidentiality: Arbitration ensures confidentiality between parties. IP disputes may involve trade secrets and commercial benefits. These are better kept confidential in order to avoid being exploited by the public. Arbitration also ensures that parties’ trade reputation is protected and this is a commercial benefit.

Establishing Special IP Courts

A special IP Court is an independent public judicial body that can operate at national or regional levels to adjudicate IP disputes, enforcement of IP rights and incidental disputes. There has been a global trend toward the establishment of specialised IP courts especially in developed Countries. Establishing a specialised Court improves the quality of justice available to litigants. This is because the Judiciary will have vast experience and knowledge in IP. This is unlike non specialised Court where the judiciary may or may not have vast knowledge of IP. Specialised Courts are better equipped to keep pace with and adapt to dynamic developments in Law. Another advantage of specialised Courts is that they allow for timely and cost-effective handling of proceedings and can improve consistency in case Law. Establishing a specialised IP Court or Tribunal in Nigeria will further enhance the effective enforcement and protection of IP rights in Nigeria and it is important considering the fact that some IP disputes are of a criminal nature and thus not arbitrable.

Conclusion

Intellectual Property plays a key role in the economy and development of a Country. Where these rights are adequately protected, enforced and implemented, it has a lot of benefits to the economy and the society at large. Lessons have been learnt form developed countries who have given IP the paramount stage that it deserves. A crucial method of ensuring these rights and enforced and disputes are efficiently resolved is to resort to Arbitration and establish specialised IP Courts. Our Laws should be amended to meet up with dynamic trends in IP, to provide resort to ADR especially Arbitration and Special Courts and Tribunals should be established to ensure speedy and effective trial of IP disputes.

Is Customary Arbitration the Solution to Congestion of Cases in Courts?

It is no longer news that determination of disputes especially commercial disputes before Nigerian courts is not time efficient. The courts are usually congested and cases are subjected to too many adjournments. A litigant cannot reasonably predict the term of a case in court. Presently, the courts are not sitting because judiciary workers are on strike to demand financial autonomy for the judiciary. It is clear that the delay in resolving disputes in court makes the English model court system to be ineffective in meeting the demands for justice in Nigeria in the 21st century.

Customary arbitration was used to reach peaceful resolution of disputes in pre-colonial Nigerian societies. This made it easier for business and social relationships to be maintained in that era. The reason for this is that customary arbitration encouraged amicable settlement of disputes and the need to restore cordiality amongst members of the society. The rights and liabilities of the parties were not interpreted in isolation like in the current English system of litigation. The rights and liabilities of the parties were interpreted in accordance with the general social good of the society.

Interestingly, recently in Umeadi v Chibunze (2020) 10 NWLR (Pt. 1733) 405, the Supreme Court found that where parties who believe in the efficacy of juju, resort to oath-taking to settle a dispute, they are bound by the result and so the common law principles in respect of proof of title to land no longer applies since the proof of ownership of title to land will be based on the rules set out by the traditional arbitration resulting in oath-taking. The Court further stated that where customary arbitration is pleaded and proved, it is binding on the parties and capable of constituting estoppels.

The main difference between customary and modern arbitration is that while the former cannot be enforced as a judgment of court, the later can be enforced as a judgment with leave of court. However, if a customary arbitration award is pleaded and proved before a court of law, the parties cannot resile from it as it will be binding on them and create estoppel.

Customary arbitration is indigenous to Nigerian societies and has been part of our dispute resolution mechanism since time immemorial. It is more effective than the acrimonious and technical English model of litigation. Hence, the Bill before the National Assembly to amend the Arbitration and Conciliation Act should take cognisance of the benefits of customary arbitration and make provisions for it to coexist with domestic and international commercial arbitration.

In order to ensure its efficacy, a customary arbitration award should not be subjected to the principles of English law by the court testing whether the decision of the customary tribunal meets English law standards. This is because the history and composition of the English system of adjudication is different from customary arbitration in Nigeria.

It is settled law that parties are bound by the terms of their agreement. Litigants do not need to go to conventional courts to resolve all their disputes. If parties to a dispute subject themselves to customary arbitration before a religious or traditional leader, clan or village head or other persons they trust, they should naturally be bound by the decision of the person who they choose to resolve their dispute. This will in no small way decongest the courts, promptly resolve disputes and give Nigerians a sense of fulfilment in the justice delivery system in the country.

Indeed, the Supreme Court decision in Umeadi v Chibunze (supra) is a breath of fresh air and a welcome development. It is also a clarion call for Nigeria to go back to its roots and develop its own customary arbitration and indigenous dispute resolution mechanisms, culture and principles which will better serve the demands of Nigerians for a justice system which will serve them promptly and efficiently.

Effect of COVID-19 Pandemic on Nigeria’s Dispute Resolution Practices

What areas of law have you been predominantly working on over the past 12 months?

During this period, we advised various clients on the effect of force majeure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown (“the lockdown”) on existing commercial obligations. We also advised our foreign clients on the legal framework of business opportunities which the COVID-19 pandemic (“the pandemic”) has sprang up in Nigeria.

Our clients benefit from our experience on ways to renegotiate terms of their contracts which have insulated them from litigation risks and prevent them from running at a loss as a result of the shutdown of their businesses during the lockdown period that inhibited them from carrying on business and fulfilling their obligations under such contracts.

Litigants are now more willing to settle out of court. We have negotiated with counsels of adverse parties who commenced various litigations against our clients and reached amicable settlement with them. The terms of settlement were adopted by the parties and entered as consent judgment.

Ailing businesses are looking for ways to inject fresh capital. This has led to a growth of our debt collection portfolio. International clients retain our services to collect business, hospital and school debts against Nigerians and Nigerian businesses. We have also collaborated with our foreign partners to recover outstanding debts for Nigerians and Nigerian businesses against foreign debtors abroad.

Inevitably, the pandemic has led to many foreign businesses rebuilding by seeking new markets abroad, including the huge Nigerian market. We advised firms – especially in Europe and Asia – on the most suitable business entities to form and the permits and certifications they require in order to carry on business in Nigeria. We have registered more trademarks, patents, designs and franchise within this period.

How do you determine which method of litigation or dispute resolution is most suitable on a case by case basis?

Business disputes are inevitable. Dispute may arise from the interpretation of the provisions of a contract, ascertaining the obligations of the parties, failure to fulfil obligations under the contract, or even breach of the contract itself. In order for the parties to settle their dispute and possibly continue their business relationship, it is important to ascertain when to litigate a matter at conventional courts or employ other disputes resolution mechanisms such as negotiation, mediation and arbitration or a blend of the mechanisms.

In recent times, both legal practitioners and judicial officers have come to appreciate the role which mediation play in the dispute resolution process. For instance, in franchise law, mediation is increasingly becoming popular. Parties agree to settle their franchise disputes by mediation by including mediation provisions in their contracts. Mediation offers both parties the opportunity to resolve their conflict in a non-adversarial way so as to maintain their relationship in future.

As a result of the acrimony and the delay in resolving commercial disputes by litigation, it is better for disputes in sectors such as construction, maritime, telecommunications, manufacturing, oil and gas, finance, where time is of essence to be resolved by arbitration.

What strategies, techniques or conflict management tools can be employed in order to achieve consistent results?

Conflicts can either arise as a result of scarce resources, personal and cultural differences, underperformance, unrealistic expectations, stress, ambiguous work roles, poor communication amongst other human factors.

Conflicts must be timeously managed so as not to impact negatively on an organisation and result in poor results. The management of any organisation should employ the following good conflict resolution techniques:

Proper communication: Every organisation should encourage proper communication across different cadres of its set-up. There should be increased dialogue among groups and sharing of information. This will help the group know more about each other, eliminate suspicion and encourage teamwork.

Prompt resolution of conflicts: Management must endeavour to immediately address conflicts because postponing conflict resolution would escalate the issue and affect performance. However, the issues resulting in the conflict should not be addressed too quickly without careful consideration as management’s decisions will directly affect the demeanour and performance of staff.

Emphasis organisational goals: Management should emphasise organisation goals and objectives which should prevent conflicts. If larger goals are emphasised, employees are more likely to see the big picture and work together to achieve corporate goals.

Impartiality: Management must be impartial and be seen to be impartial. Situations should be accessed from all sides for the purpose of arriving at a fair and reasonable solution.

What measures can a company enact to help minimise the cost, damage and disruption of litigation to their business?

The main aim of any business is for profits and not to engage in endless litigations. This is because litigation is time consuming, distracting, expensive and sometimes may be costlier than the amount in dispute. Time spent preparing staff as witnesses takes away business time. The company pays its counsel from its scarce resources to represent the company in court. Disputes can also dampen staff morale and ruin the company’s business reputation. This is why a company should observe the following measures to avoid and minimise the risk and cost of litigation:

Retain the services of a company secretary: In the 21st century, a company secretary is no longer a mere clerical officer but an important member of the board who advises the company on modern due diligence matters, corporate and governance issues and ensures that the company’s practices are in line with extant legislations and international best practices. This will reduce the company’s exposure to litigation.

Proper documentation: A company should engage the services of a solicitor to ensure that all its agreements with other companies, its staff, suppliers, business partners, etc., are properly documented and franked. Variations to the original agreement should be properly documented, approved and executed. Having an agreement which clearly sets out rights, obligations and dispute resolution clause of partnership or business relationship when it breaks down can minimise the cost of resolving disputes.

Proper communication: In order to avoid conflicts which may result in litigation, a company should ensure its clients, customers or associates are well informed about their activities and send timely updates. This could be by informing them about increase in cost, budgets and scheduling. Respecting its customers and keeping them well informed can go a long way to make a company avoid litigation.

Effective customer care service: A company should maintain an effective customer care service which will pacify and attempt to resolve disputes between the company and its customers or business partners. If actions are taken promptly to deal with conflicts as they arise, a company would be able to prevent such conflicts from developing into a major problem. It is not advisable to ignore a problem or complaint hoping that it will go away by itself.

Study profile of potential partners: A company should do proper study and search on their potential clients, customers, employees and suppliers. The company should ensure that they know the individuals or companies which they want to do business with. Some individuals and organisations have a tendency to attract trouble. Businesses should avoid companies or individuals with such profiles.

Being objective: Persons in management positions should think and act objectively for both the short and long time gain of the company. They should, put themselves in the shoes of others and identify the motivation for litigation against the company and negotiate towards an amicable settlement. They should be able to determine if it is simply animosity or the other party has a genuine reason for commencing litigation against the company.

How has COVID-19 impacted the litigation & dispute resolution landscape?

Courts across the globe have rapidly adapted to COVID-19 protocols. The have found new ways to hear cases before them. As restrictions are relaxed in Nigeria, litigants are now faced with a significantly altered dispute resolution landscape. In order to decongest the courts and maintain social distancing, access to courtrooms in most States of the Federation is restricted to one counsel per litigant. The counsels must maintain social distancing in their sitting arrangement.

Many courts now conduct fully virtual hearings, in which the Judge and some parties are present in the courtroom while others attend virtually. The courts provide parties, the public and the media with login details for virtual hearings. This is a drastic change from the requirement that parties and counsels must be physically present at court proceedings.

Electronic processes have been widely adopted and used as a means of filing and serving processes of court. Before now only the National Industrial Act and its rules make provision for this technology. However, the High Courts of some states started test running electronic filing system in their jurisdiction, but the COVID-19 restriction has sped up the process. Electronic filing and service is now an integral part of the justice delivery system in many jurisdictions in Nigeria.

There has been an increased awareness in settling commercial disputes amicably. Financial pressure caused by the pandemic has made many litigants to be more willing to settle disputes to avoid long and expensive court proceedings. Settlements are currently being achieved through virtual meetings, mediation and informal discussions between counsels and the litigants.

Nevertheless, in spite of the increased use of technology in court proceedings, in many jurisdictions, courts are yet to embrace this innovation. This has increased the backlog of cases in those jurisdictions and made litigants to believe more in ADR mechanisms, especially, mediation and arbitration to promptly resolve their disputes.

What new challenges have emerged as a result of COVID-19 and what steps should companies take to remediate these risks?

The pandemic has tested the resilience of most businesses and challenged their financial, operational and commercial framework. In order to survive the rough tides, companies should be ready to adapt to the current strains and market conditions caused by the pandemic. As the situation evolves, companies should expect to see a shift in focus and a reprioritisation of operational and conduct risks as they come to terms with the harsh reality of managing their dispersed workforces. In order to grapple with these challenges, companies must be ready to engage in the following:

Conduct readiness assessments: A readiness assessment is a good place to start when companies don’t know what their business continuity programme should be. Industry and role readiness templates as well as pandemic-specific templates allow a company to evaluate their business continuity programme against a best practice standard and identify where gaps may exist. These readiness libraries break down standards and best practices into actionable pieces so that companies can track progress and adherence.

Have a risk management plan: Companies should complete a risk assessment on their core business processes to identify and prioritise any new risks or gaps in their existing controls for new scenarios like pandemics, recession, and geopolitical conditions risks.

Conduct business impact analysis: Not all risks within processes or functions within a company should be treated the same way. A business impact analysis allows companies to identify which parts of the business are most critical to its operations.

Have a management policy: As the pandemic lingers and new information arises, policies will need to be revisited, updated and communicated. For example, reviewing and revising a work-from-home policy will be effective only if dissemination of that revised policy is made with governance tracking for adoption across the company. Ascertain staff redundancy benefits: As the pandemic lingers and revenue dwindles, some companies may have to terminate the employment of redundant staff. It is therefore important for the company to ascertain the severance package for its redundant staff so that it does not expose itself to the risk of litigation and other labour related issues.

Have there been any recent regulatory changes or interesting developments?

One of the key provisions is the recently passed Bank and Other Financial Institution Act, (“the BOFIA 2020 Act”) which makes bank staff personally liable for contraventions of the terms of a banking license. This will improve compliance and reduce recklessness by forcing bank management to be more vigilant. The new regulation hopes to avoid events like the toxic asset crisis of 2009, which many people believed that Nigerian banks contributed towards.

These changes have far-reaching implications in the areas of monitoring, and enforcement of safer lending practices. For example, the BOFIA 2020 Act provides that loans in excess of three million naira without collateral will require the Central Bank of Nigeria (“the CBN”) approval. Many small and medium businesses that rely heavily on revenue-based financing will now face an extra hurdle which will further slow allocation of credit in Nigeria’s economy. The increased powers given to the CBN potentially mean that the regulatory bank could become more obstructive in coming weeks.

The BOFIA 2020 Act even gives the CBN authority over the opening or shutting down of bank branches. The law gives immunity to the CBN which limits the redress banks can seek if they feel they have a case concerning any action taken by the regulator. On one hand, the new legislation will certainly make the sector more robust, due to the higher penalties for recklessness. However, the range of things requiring CBN approval may stifle growth, and make banks slower to respond to changes in the banking industry and Nigerian economy.

The BOFIA 2020 Act provides opportunities for Fintech investors to support meaningful innovation in financial services that improves the lives of people. Generally, certain aspects of the Act will be advantageous to local Fintechs, partly because a slight barrier was incorporated to ensure foreign Fintechs localise their operations, giving a degree of protection to home-grown players, and also because the CBN’s powers have been broadened, to the extent of having to sanction even some of the most rudimentary moves by banks.

Furthermore, the Companies and Allied Matters Act, 2020 introduces some new provisions for the purpose of entrenching the ease of doing business in Nigeria and to ensure that the practice of business entities meets international standards and modern corporate governance principles. The new provisions will indeed improve the management and productivity of Nigerian businesses in the coming years.

Are you noticing any trends in industry-specific litigation?

As a result of the numerous problems in resolving international commercial disputes through litigation in domestic courts, in the last few years, international arbitration has grown to become the preferred dispute resolution mechanism for disputes arising from international contracts and investments agreements. In particular, international arbitration has been used to resolve an increasing number of technology and IP disputes. In order to keep up with the explosion of technology investments overseas, companies have spent considerable time drafting arbitration clauses to protect the confidentiality and proprietary nature of the technology and IP they share with foreign partners, manufacturers, and distributors.

Financial market pressures are forcing companies to rely more heavily on ADR mechanisms in an attempt to limit litigation exposure while expanding business interests globally. Companies have become more sophisticated in utilising international arbitration, particularly in emerging markets. This additional corporate sophistication has provided a suitable ground for accelerated competition among various arbitration institutions.

This has led to the development of a variety of driving trends in international arbitration, including new expectations of parties to arbitrations and new competition-driven features offered by international arbitration institutions. Companies choose international arbitration over pursuing judgment in domestic courts for a variety of reasons such as the elimination of perceived bias by domestic courts.

However, a primary and perhaps underappreciated advantage is the flexibility offered by international arbitration. Parties can choose the applicable law, the seat of arbitration, the arbitration institution, the arbitrators, the jurisdictional scope, and the general procedure and conduct of the arbitration, all of which can provide efficiency advantages over domestic courts as well as important legal and tactical advantages customized to the subject matter of the dispute.

A majority of parties who have been involved in international arbitration in the past, however, believe that any negative impact of choosing a particular governing law can be limited by carefully drafting either the original contract or a subsequent agreement to enter into arbitrations with this in mind, businesses can draft an arbitration clause that allows for negotiation of the choice of law provision in order to gain contractual advantages elsewhere in a particular agreement. This flexibility, therefore, increases stability and predictability when resolving disputes internationally.

Have there been any noteworthy case studies or examples of new case law precedent in the past year?

Enforcement of money judgment in Nigeria is regulated by the provisions of the Sheriffs and Civil Process Act, CAP S LFN 2004 (“the SCPA”) and the Judgments Enforcement Rules, a subsidiary legislation to the SCPA. The SCPA sets out, amongst other things, the various methods by which successful litigants may enforce money judgments. These are by writ of fieri facias, (“writ of fifa”) garnishee proceedings, a charging order, a writ of sequestration or an order of committal on judgment debtor summons. However, writ of fifa and garnishee proceedings are the most commonly used method.

One major obstacle often faced by judgment creditors seeking to enforce judgments against governments and their agencies is the requirement under the SCPA that a judgment creditor must obtain consent of the Attorney General of the Federation or Attorney General of a State as the case may be, before such judgments can be enforced by garnishee proceedings.

Interestingly, in CBN v Interstella Communications Ltd (2017) All FWLR (Pt 930) 442, the court provided some clarification on the requirement for the consent of the Attorney General. The court stated that the rationale behind this decision is that seeking the Attorney General’s consent is to avoid any embarrassment to the government that may arise from making attachment orders against public funds in the custody of a public officer which has been appropriated for a purpose without notice to the government.

This means a judgment creditor does not require the consent of the Attorney General to attach and secure private funds in the hand of a public officer. It is the owner of the funds that determines whether the holder of the funds is a public officer and not the status of the person who is in custody of the funds.

Looking beyond COVID-19, how is the current litigation & dispute resolution landscape comprised in your jurisdiction?

The year 2020 was undoubtedly a challenging year for many businesses and individuals. The pandemic made parties to a dispute more interested in employing ADR mechanisms to resolve their disputes.

Mediation involves the appointment of a neutral middleman to facilitate a discussion between the parties and their legal representatives. It offers parties the chance to put their respective positions privately to each other in a confidential and conciliatory manner away from the public, so that the mediator can try to settle the dispute. Often, the mediator has a more specialist background befitting of the technical dispute than a Judge at conventional courts.

Parties are bound by the Civil Procedure Rules (“CPR”) to consider taking part in ADR as a way of resolving a dispute and this obligation continues even after court proceedings have begun. This is why mediation is offered at the Multi-door Court House attached to some courts in Nigeria. The social distance protocol occasioned by the pandemic has led both litigation and ADR mechanism practitioners to consider virtual proceedings as a veritable platform to conduct hearings to meet the end of justice.

Virtual mediation will become the mainstay of resolving disputes even when things return to normal. This is because virtual mediations have led to improved efficiencies and prevents parties from needing to travel long hours to attend proceedings. This reduces stress and anxiety for participants. Whilst there was a general reluctance to engage in anything “virtual” in the pre-COVID era, there will be a marked change in how dispute resolution is dealt with in a post-COVID world.

How do judicial shortages pose a threat to the court system?

Lack of or inadequate infrastructures such as deteriorating and ill-equipped physical facilities in some courts severely undermine fair and speedy administration of justice in Nigeria. Justice can hardly be speedy when Judges lack adequate facilities to enable them to function effectively and efficiently. In most cases, the court facilities are overcrowded, badly equipped, and under-funded.

Some litigants do not understand English, the language of the court in Nigeria. Most courts have few interpreters to interpret court proceedings to the litigants. In some cases the interpreters are poorly trained. Court libraries are inadequate. There are few functional computers, photocopiers, or other modern equipment. Judges may even have to supply their own paper and pen to record proceedings in longhand. If litigants need a transcript of proceedings, they would have to pay for the transcript themselves. This encourages corruption which impugns the justice system in many ways.

Also, records of court proceedings and judgments are not stored in satisfactory conditions. This makes them susceptible to damage or intentional destruction by unscrupulous court staff. Absence of modern facilities provides an enabling environment for corrupt and unethical court staff to tamper with evidence and even court records.

Parties are limited in the kinds of technological and visual aids available throughout litigation. The courtrooms are not equipped to handle audio, slide and other visual presentations that assist fact-finding in understanding a case in order to reach a just decision. Where a litigant is unable to present technical evidence because of inadequate infrastructure, he is significantly disadvantaged and left to suffer his fate.

Also, inadequate facilities, especially erratic power supply, contribute to delays as court proceedings are often interrupted or adjourned due to power outages. All these erode public confidence in the court system. This is why the Chief Judge of the 36 states and the Chief Justice of the Federation have taken various steps and made practice directions to address these anomalies in Nigeria’s judicial system.

Why Construction Liens Should Be Adopted In Nigeria

Construction liens are legal claims for money expended or unpaid compensation filed by a contractor or other professional on a building or design. This is done by filing a public notice on a property stating that the owner of the property owes the contractor a stated sum of money. It can also be filed by a subcontractor or materials supplier for any work done on a building.

The purpose of a construction lien is to serve as an encumbrance on the property upon which a lien is filed. It also gives notice to a bonafide purchaser for value that there is an unpaid sum outstanding to the contractor, subcontractor, materials supplier or other professional. It may prevent interested purchasers from purchasing the property until the unpaid sum is liquidated.

Benefits of a Construction Lien

When a Construction lien has been effectively filed, it acts as an encumbrance on the property and any third party who goes ahead to buy the property obtains title subject to the lien. It prevents the sale or refinance of the property because a prudent purchaser or mortgagor will not want to obtain a property that has a lien on it. The lien helps contractors, sub-contractors, material suppliers and other professional to quickly resolve payment problems.

Constructive lien also gives the holder of the lien an equitable interest in the property because failure of the property owner to clear the outstanding debt can grant the lien holder the right to foreclose the property after a period of time.

Furthermore, when the lien is placed, it hastens the property owner’s decision to clear the unpaid sums. It is an additional remedy granted to contractors in addition to the right to sue for a breach of contract. Nevertheless liens are not absolute; a property owner who is disputing the sum claimed can challenge the lien in Court.

Other Jurisdictions

Construction lien in its modern form originated in the United States of America after it was introduced by Thomas Jefferson to encourage the construction of Washington. Today, it is applicable in all states in US and a lot of developed countries like England, France and Canada. However, Countries in Latin America and United Arab Emirates specifically prohibit the lien except where the parties voluntarily adopt it as binding on them.

Current Situation

Construction liens are strictly regulated by statutes. Unless there is a law stipulating its procedure it can generally not be applied. In Nigeria, construction liens are generally not applicable due to the absence of a statute enacting it. Given the benefits of the concept of construction liens, one wonders why Nigeria, a country growing at a tremendous rate, where real estate is on the rise has not adopted this concept which seeks to protect the contractor while encouraging economic development.

Furthermore, the Nigerian judicial system is slow and before unpaid contractors can recover their money, a lot of productive time may have been wasted. There is also the issue of the depreciating value of our naira which stalls economic growth and development.

Another consideration is the number of people involved in the construction business who actually need protection and prompt payments; these include bricklayers, architects, quantity surveyors, materials suppliers, engineers etc.

Escaping the Current Situation

There are instances where contractors can take advantage of construction liens. An example is where a right of a contractor to a construction lien is expressly stated in the construction contract. This is advisable because it guarantees the contractor payment for his labour and expenditure.

Another instance is approaching the Court to place a lien or encumbrance on the property. This will usually be done by filing a suit for breach of contract claiming for the unpaid fees. The contractor can ask for an interlocutory or perpetual order of the court, placing a lien on the property to prevent the property owner from disposing it or mortgaging it until the unpaid sums or Judgment sums are liquidated.

Since the Court has discretion on whether or not to grant the remedy of placing a lien on the property, it is advisable that contractors should insist on a construction lien clause being part of the construction contract. This is because it is settled Nigerian law that parties are bound by their agreement.

The Way forward

Construction lien is a creation of statute and to effectively utilise it in Nigeria, our legislators need to promulgate a law recognising and enforcing it or amend our existing real property and construction laws in Nigeria to accommodate it.

The benefits of construction liens are numerous and a developing Country like Nigeria needs to use the concept to its benefits. This will curb the excesses of recalcitrant property owners who wish to take advantage of the loopholes in the Nigerian legal system to deliberately refuse to pay sums owed by them to professionals who constructed the property.

Practical Completion and Defect Liability Period Under Nigerian Law

Though the date of practical completion is of great importance to a building project, it does not have a unanimous definition. Generally, the date of practical completion is not merely the date in which the Client takes over possession of the building. In fact, practical completion may be achieved without the Client taking over physical possession of the building.

Technically and legally, practical completion is the date when the responsibility of insurance, security and maintenance of the building passes from the Contractor to the Client; the Client pays the contract retention sum to the Contractor and the defect liability period begins to run.

A Construction Agreement may provide for practical completion of a building or it may be inferred from the conduct of the parties or deemed upon the happening of an event. The defect liability period is a period for the Contractor to rectify the latent defects it discovers in the building or brought to his attention by the architect or Client’s agent on the building project.

Practically, the date of practical completion of the building is the date in which the works are reasonably ready for its intended use even though there may be outstanding snags or defects. In essence, practical completion is achieved where construction is completed and there are no patent defects in the construction of the building.

It is easier to ascertain the date of practical completion where the Construction Agreement clearly spells out same. Most Construction Agreements usually provide for the architect or the Client’s agent on the project to issue a Certificate confirming practical completion of the works under the Agreement. But what happens where there is no Agreement defining the date or medium to signal practical completion or the architect or Client’s agent on the project refuses to issue a Certificate of practical completion of the construction works in the building even though same has been achieved?

In such an instance, practical completion would be deemed from the intention of the parties which can be inferred from their conducts. For instance, if the Contractor informs the architect or Client’s agent on the project that he has completed the construction works and the architect or Client’s agents submits a list of latent defects on the project to the Contractor, practical completion is deemed to have taken place and the defect liability period shall begin from that date.

Upon completion of the rectification works submitted to the Contractor by the architect or Client’s agent, the defects liability period shall come to an end and the Contractor will ordinarily not be liable to carry out further maintenance works on the building.

However, where there are patent defects on the project, it is the responsibility of the Contractor to rectify the patent defects on the building before practical completion will be deemed and the defect liability period begins. For instance if Mr Tanko Ahmed employ Main Construction Limited to construct a 4 storey building and upon completion of construction, the parties discover that the walls are cracked or the ceilings are licking, Main Construction Limited would have to effectively rectify the cracked walls and licking ceilings before practical completion will be deemed and the defect liability period would begin.

Again where there is no Agreement on the duration of the defect liability period, it may be deemed from the conducts of the parties. For instance, if upon practical completion, the Client informs the Contractor that he will take over possession of the project after the rainy season. The rainy season constitutes the defect liability period. The end of the rainy season signifies the expiration of the defect liability period and the Contractor will no longer be liable to carry out maintenance works on the building.

This is because the Contractor cannot maintain the building project indefinitely. Even the law does not expect that. In such a circumstance, after the rainy season, the Contractor should advise the Client to immediately take possession of the building because practical completion of the building has been achieved and the defect liability period has ended. The Contractor is legally entitled to withdraw from the building and send the keys of the building to the architect or Client’s agent.