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  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