In a recent ruling, a Federal High Court judge held that there is no limitation period for claims brought within the admiralty jurisdiction that are enforceable in rem. Taken literally, this decision could have significant practical consequences, as proceedings could effectively be brought at any time. In the case at hand, the proceedings stemmed from events that had occurred 10 years earlier.
Section 8 of the Limitation Law, which is applicable in various Nigerian states, provides a six-year limitation period within which relevant proceedings can be brought. In the present case, the judge relied on the exception in Section 8(3), which provides that "save as provided in subsection (2) of this section, this section will not apply to any cause of action within the Admiralty Jurisdiction which is enforceable in rem".
The provision suggests that the general six-year limitation period set out in Section 8(2) is not applicable to causes of action in the admiralty jurisdiction that are enforceable in rem. However, the applicability of this provision is called into question by Section 18 of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, which provides as follows:
"(1) A proceeding may be brought under this Act on a maritime claim or on a claim on a maritime lien or other charge, at any time before the end of –
(a) The limitation period that would have been applicable to the claim if a proceeding on the claim had been brought otherwise than under the Act; or
(b) If no proceeding on the claim could have been so brought, a period of three years after the cause of action arose.
(2) The provisions of subsection (1) of this section shall not apply if a limitation period is fixed in relation to the claim by any enactment or law."
It is evident from this provision that the period within which a proceeding can validly be brought in an admiralty matter is three years, unless otherwise agreed by the parties. However, where a limitation period is fixed by another law, the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act does not apply.
In the present case, the judge may have deemed the provisions of the Limitation Law to be "fixed in relation to the claim by any enactment or law" for the purpose of avoiding the application of Section 18(1) of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act. If that is the case, the question at hand is whether the Limitation Law applies to admiralty proceedings and, if so, whether they can be interpreted to avoid the application of Section 18(1) of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act.
Although not expressly mentioned, the judge seems to have relied on the decision in Rhein Mass Und See v Rivway Lines Limited, in which the Supreme Court:
- applied Section 7(3) of the Limitation Act 1966 to the admiralty jurisdiction; and
- held that, although the action was brought more than eight years after the accrual of the claim, it was not statute barred.
However, the Rhein Mass decision can be rationalised, as the claim was brought in 1986 when there was no Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, which – on its enactment in 1991 – had no retroactive effect. Thus, when the proceedings were initiated, there was no specific provision setting out a limitation period for admiralty penalties. However, due to the existence of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, which covers maritime claims extensively, when the present claim was brought, the decision in Rhein Mass is clearly distinguishable.
Even if it is held that the Limitation Act applies to admiralty proceedings, it arguably does not provide for or imply that "there is no limitation period in any cause of action within the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act that is enforceable in rem", as suggested by the judge. It only exempts such causes of action from the specific provisions of Section 7(1) of the Limitation Act and cannot be interpreted to exempt them from the application of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, which would be illogical. Arguably, the court's decision was made per incuriam (ie, through lack of care) and cannot be binding. Luckily, it is a first-instance decision and may not necessarily bind other courts of coordinate jurisdiction.
For further information on this topic please contact Emeka Akabogu at Akabogu & Associates by telephone (+234 1460 55550) or email ([email protected]). The Akabogu & Associates website can be accessed at www.akabogulaw.com.