Where does Carriage by Sea and Admiralty Jurisdiction Ends?

ADAOHA UGO-NGADI

V.

FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA

FACTS

The appellant and four (4) other accused persons were arraigned before the High Court of Lagos State by the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) and charged with obtaining properties by false pretences contrary to section 1of the Advance fee fraud and other related offences Act 2006; conspiracy to forge documents, forgery, and altering of false documents, contrary to section 516, 467(3)(c) and 468 respectively of the criminal code, Cap. C17, Vol. 2, Laws of Lagos State of Nigeria, 2003. The appellant and the co-accused persons plead not guilty to the charge.

According to the prosecution, sometimes in 2011, it was observed that the petroleum subsidy being paid by the government to relieve the public of high cost of petroleum product went up astronomically. The Economic and Financial Crime commission (EFCC) carried out an investigation at the request of the Mister of Petroleum Resources into the fuel subsidy funds.

In the course of its investigation, the commission found that Ontario Oil & Gas Nigeria Limited (the 5th accused at the trial court), which was one of the companies licensed by government to import petrol into the country, had falsified its claims. It presented false documents, stating it imported more volume of the products than it actually imported and received excess payment by virtue of the false claims. It was this discovery that gave rise to the arraignment of the appellant, who was a director in the said Ontario Oil & Gas Nigeria Limited and a signatory to its account, and the other accused persons before the trial High Court of Lagos State.

The appellant and other accused person entered a no case submission raising the issue of jurisdiction, they contended that the charge related to admiralty matters among other things, the trial court overruled the no case submission and held that a prima facie case was disclosed against the appellant for which she needed to enter a defence.

The appellant appealed to the Court of Appeal which dismissed the appeal and held that the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, 1991 was not applicable to the case. The appellant then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Judgment:

a)  Section 251(1) of the 1999 constitution deals solely with civil matters in which the Federal High court has exclusive Jurisdiction. That is, notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in the Constitution and in addition to such other jurisdiction as may be conferred on it by an act of the National Assembly, the Federal High Court shall have and exercise jurisdiction to the exclusion of any other court in civil causes and matters.

b)      The word ‘exclusive is clearly absent in section 251(3) of the 1999 Constitution. If the framer of the 1999 Constitution had intended that the Federal High Court should have exclusive jurisdiction in Criminal matters involving the items listed under section 251(1)(a-s), they would have said so, in clear terms. Thus, 1999 Constitution has not conferred exclusive criminal jurisdiction on the Federal High Court on the various items listed in section 251(1) of the Constitution. Until such a provision bestowing exclusivity of jurisdiction to the Federal to the Federal High Court, the State High Court can equally entertain matters either civil or criminal to which jurisdiction has been conferred by the National Assembly.

c) The mere fact that goods at one stage in their movement had a voyage on a ship does not give rise to admiralty jurisdiction. Thus in this case, the High court of Lagos State had jurisdiction to entertain the suit.

d) Once a cargo has been discharged from the vessel, carriage by sea and admiralty jurisdiction ends. In the instant case, the storage facilities in Lagos or any other city in Nigeria where the petroleum product were discharged into was not part of the high sea so as to make any offence arising from it to be admiralty matter.

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