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Legal jurisprudence
continues to develop and there is always an ever-growing need to fine tune the
process of dispensation of justice. The aim, more often than not, is to ensure
that the dispensation of justice is not sacrificed in the temple of justice as
a result of technicality. It is on this basis that it becomes imperative for
the substratum for maritime labour claims – jurisdiction – be discussed. The
debate herein lies in whether the Federal High Court has exclusive jurisdiction
or if the National Industrial Court has exclusive jurisdiction. There is also
the issue of what forum will best serve the objectives of the relevant party
instituting the action.


Pursuant to Section 251(G)
of the Constitution, the Federal High Court has exclusive Jurisdiction over
admiralty actions-

“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

Section 2(3) (r) of the
Admiralty Jurisdiction Act 1991 expressly includes maritime labour claims as
part of general maritime claims. This simply means that where a crew or master
of a ship has a claim related to wages or any amount that a person is entitled
to under a contract of employment, such persons will be able to bring an action
at the Federal High Court, Nigeria. Section 5(3)(b) of the Admiralty
Jurisdiction Act 1991 empowers the master or crew member of a ship to bring an
action in rem against the ship in cases of unpaid wages. In rem proceedings
remain under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal High Court.

However, pursuant to the Constitution
of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Third Alteration) 1999 (the “Constitution”)
jurisdiction over labour related matters has now been vested in the National
Industrial Court (NIC). It is however, important to note that the jurisdiction
vested on the NIC appears to be exclusive. Section 254(c) (1) of the
Constitution states that:

“Notwithstanding the
provisions of sections 251(FHC), 257 (High Court FCT), 272 (State
High Court)
 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 other court in civil causes and matters
(a) relating to or connected with any labour, employment ….” (emphasis
mine
)

From the foregoing, it is
clear that the Federal High and the NIC seem to have jurisdiction over labour
related matters in relation to maritime labour claims. This begs the question –
do the Federal High Court and NIC both have jurisdiction over maritime labour
related claims or does one have jurisdiction to the exclusion of the other.

It is trite law that the
Constitution is fons et origo; that is the provenance from which
all sub-constitutional norms derive their source and sustenance. In the event
of any conflict, it operates proprio vigore to invalidate them
as stated in Section 1(3) of the Constitution. See the case of Gov,
Ekiti State v Olubunmo pt 1551 [2017] 3 NWLR
.

It is also settled law
that the language of the Constitution, where clear and unambiguous must be
given its plain and evident meaning. See PDP v Saror Court of Appeal
2012
. The constitution in this case has clearly states in Section 254(c)
(1) that: Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 251(FHC),
257 (High Court FCT), 272 (State High Court …”

A careful reading and
examination of the provision of Section 254(c) of the Constitution shows that
the amendment to vest jurisdiction over labour related matters is to operate as
to exclude all courts to exercise jurisdiction in civil courses and matters to
labour related matters, and by implication maritime labour related claims.

In view of the foregoing,
and by virtue of the constitutional provision of Sections 254C(1)(a) to (m)) of
the Constitution, the provisions of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act are null and
void to the extent that they are inconsistent with the provisions of the
Constitution by vesting jurisdiction over any labour-related issues in the
Federal High Court. It is pertinent to note that judicial pronouncement is yet
to be made in this regard. However, until a decision is made on this, legal
practitioners will continue to test the law and maybe forum shop for the best
option which will best serve the interest of their clients.

Damilola Osinuga is an
Associate in the Shipping and Oil Services practice group of Bloomfield
Law Practice
, Nigeria

Ed’s Note – This article
was first published here