Industry look to new approach for quick administration of justice in maritime claims and disputes

Maritime lawyer, Mike Igbokwe(SAN) has called for the application of virtual resources in hearing and determining maritime cases to ensure quick administration of justice.

Igbokwe also advocated that the new virtual approach to hearing cases be made permanent at the Federal High Court and applied in all its proceedings henceforth, that is, beyond the period of the COVID-19 Pandemic lockdown.

He said that his support for the approach, which should be run side-by-side with in-person or physical hearing, was due to its merits seen during this COVID-19 lockdown when the FHC was able to hear a number of cases.

Igbokwe spoke recently at a maritime industry virtual interactive session themed “COVID-19 and The Nigerian Maritime Sector: Lessons and The Way Forward” organised by his firm.

He shared with the meeting that quick administration of justice in maritime cases would encourage Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) as it considers the nature and speed of dispute resolution mechanism in a country.

He said: “With the introduction of e-filing and virtual hearing in the FHC, the time has come for the introduction of teleconferencing in the hearing and determination of urgent maritime applications.

“For instance, an applicant for the ex parte arrest of ship or other property or interim application for mareva injunction, should after e-filing the processes, be able to make from his office or home, an audio or telephone conference with the Judge of the Federal High Court in his office or home, during which the application can be heard and determined one way or the other.”

Earlier in his presentation, Igbokwe noted that key justification for advocating virtual hearings and adjudication in maritime cases included the fact that court proceedings were suspended due to the lockdown occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Considering the social or physical distancing, suspension of international flight and the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for people returning to Nigeria, it got difficult to hear cases.

He said: “Judges of the Federal High Court responsible for hearing and determining maritime claims or disputes could not go to court to hear and determine maritime claims and disputes.

“Ships and other property that ought to have been arrested to get pre-judgement security for the satisfaction of maritime claims or released from arrest, could not be arrested, or released.”

He added that “the continuous judicial detention of ships or cargo that would have been released from arrest but for COVID-19 Pandemic, occasioned increased costs including demurrage losses to, and breaches of contracts by, cargo and ship owners.”

However, in the course of his presentation, Igbokwe pointed out some weaknesses in some provisions of the COVID-19 Pandemic like the ‘quarantining’ for at least five days of the physical document sent along the e-document filed, which results to a loss of the time that would have been saved through e-filing of documents.

Igbokwe also noted a shortcoming that Defendants may decide to waste the time as it is required that both parties in a case agree with the Registrar of the Court on having virtual hearing of their case.

He said: “The drawback in this rule is that a Defendant who does not want the speedy and efficient virtual hearing mode to be applicable to the recovery of the debt he is owing or who want the case against him to be delayed, will refuse the request for virtual hearing made by the Plaintiff.

“The Plaintiff should have been left alone to initiate virtual hearing with the Court’s Registrar and when the Defendant is served with processes showing that it is a case that would be virtually heard and determined, he would not have no other choice than to follow suit.”

He also draw attention to the challenges of poor internet connectivity in some remote areas, stating therefore that access to justice should not be dependent on high quality technology as some remote areas lack strong internet connectivity.

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