Introduction
Has Constitution demoted crew wage claims from admiralty rank?
Section 254C
Comment



Introduction

In its 2018 decision in MT "Clover Pride", the Federal High Court held that it lacked the jurisdiction to entertain claims for wages of a ship's crew (for further details please see "Claims for unpaid crew wages unenforceable in Federal High Court"). In that case, Justice Idris opined that even though Section 2(3)(r) of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act provides that claims for the wages of a ship's crew fall under general maritime claims, Sections 254C(a) and 254C(k) of the Constitution (as amended) gave the National Industrial Court exclusive jurisdiction over employee wages and other labour-related matters. Idris therefore held that the plaintiff's claims for recovery of crew wages and repatriation costs fell outside the court's jurisdictional competence. Sections 254C(a) and 254C(k) of the Constitution are prefixed with the phrase ''notwithstanding the provisions of section 251, 257, 272 and anything contained in this constitution''.

Has Constitution demoted crew wage claims from admiralty rank?

It was argued at the time that the court should have adopted a more liberal interpretation of the above constitutional provisions in light of the fact that Section 251(1)(g) of the Constitution grants the Federal High Court exclusive jurisdiction in admiralty matters (for further details please see "Liberal approach to enforcement of crew wage claims"). Section 254C of the Constitution does not provide that claims for wages of a ship's crew or claims for other amounts which the employers of a ship's crew must pay them are no longer actionable as admiralty matters. It therefore appeared absurd to hold a position which extinguishes the right of seafarers to avail themselves of the special in rem procedure unique to admiralty jurisdiction.

Section 254C

The need for a binding pronouncement fronatm the appellate courts on Section 254C is heightened by recent decisions of the National Industrial Court and the Federal High Court.

In its 24 February 2020 ruling in Akuroma Dawarikubu Stephen v Seateam Offshore Limited (NICN/PHC/124/2017), the National Industrial Court held, as Idris did in MT "Clover Pride", that Section 254C(1)(a) clearly vests it with the exclusive jurisdiction to hear and determine civil causes and matters relating to or connected with labour, employment, trade unions or industrial relations and matters arising from the workplace.

The claim was for N500 million in compensation for the defendant's failure to observe safety standards and procedures during a fumigation exercise conducted on board the M V Dijama, where said claimant was employed as an able seaman. The claimant alleged that the negligent fumigation resulted in his deteriorating health to the extent that he was unable to work. The defendant filed a preliminary objection contending that under Sections 2(3)(c) and 2(3)(r) of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act and Section 251(1)(g) of the Constitution, the National Industrial Court (NIC) lacked jurisdiction to entertain the matter because the claimant's case related to maritime claims which only the Federal High Court can entertain.

Rejecting this contention outright, the NIC held that the argument would have been correct and credible had it been canvassed prior to the third alteration of the Constitution coming into effect. With Section 254C coming into effect, the court held that the argument was misplaced and unimportant. The court even went as far as holding that Sections 2(3)(c), 2(3)(d) and 2(3)(r) of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act contravene Section 254C of the Constitution, as amended, and thus declared them void.

For its part, the Federal High Court in Amarjeet Singh and Others v The MT Sam Purpose (MT Tapti) (FHC/L/CS/1365/2017) was called on to adopt the reasoning of Idris in MT "Clover Pride" and decline jurisdiction in the matter because the plaintiffs' claims related to their appointment, employment and remuneration for services rendered on board the first defendant's vessel. By a preliminary objection, the defendants contended that the case was within the exclusive jurisdiction of the NIC, pursuant to Section 254C of the Constitution.

Honourable Justice AO Faji refused to follow the persuasive decision of Idris in MT "Clover Pride", holding rather ingeniously that Section 254C(1)(b) of the Constitution incorporates the Labour Act and thus said act must be read along with the Constitution when construing Section 254C. Faji held that the NIC's wide jurisdiction in labour matters made the claim a labour case, as it concerned the appointment, employment and remuneration of the plaintiffs.

Noting that part of the NIC's jurisdiction applies to the Labour Act, the court applied Section 91 thereof which defines a 'worker' as any person who has entered into or works under a contract with an employer "but does not include any person employed in a vessel or aircraft to which the laws regulating merchant shipping or civil aviation apply".

The court further noted that as Section 254C of the Constitution incorporates aspects of the Labour Act, the latter is part and parcel of said section and must be considered. The court therefore held that the Labour Act has defined the extent of the NIC's jurisdiction by excluding crew members covered under the Merchant Shipping Act and that the subject matter of the claim was outside the court's jurisdiction. The court held that the matter fell under the Federal High Court's jurisdiction.

Comment

Notably, Faji applied the Labour Act in limiting (and not elaborating on) the extent of jurisdiction that the Constitution confers on the NIC. This position is likely to be contested on appeal. However, it highlights the need for freedom in interpreting Section 254C of the Constitution. To put it more plainly, matters arising from the Labour Act – which under Section 254C fall within the exclusive competence of the NIC – expressly exclude claims for crew member's wages. However, nothing in Section 254C expressly states that such clams have lost their admiralty component. In fact, Section 67(a) of the Merchant Shipping Act elevates such claims to the status of maritime liens – the most potent type of maritime claim which attach to a ship irrespective of its ownership. Based on the above, it seems likely that the court of appeal will decide that:

  • Akuroma Dawarikubu Stephen was rightly commenced at the NIC since the claimant had neither joined the ship in rem nor sought its arrest; and
  • Amarjeet Singh was also rightly commenced at the Federal High Court since the claim gave rise to a maritime lien and the ship itself sued to enforce said lien.

For further information on this topic please contact Victor Onyegbado at Akabogu & Associates by telephone (+234 1460 5550) or email ([email protected]). The Akabogu & Associates website can be accessed at www.akabogulaw.com.