The Court of Appeal in London wednesday ruled that two Nigerian communities cannot pursue Royal Dutch Shell in English courts over oil spills in Nigeria’s Delta region.
Two Nigerian communities had brought separate legal actions against Royal Dutch Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary in 2016.
The first claim was brought on behalf of 2,335 people from the Bille Kingdom, a fishing community whose environment had been devastated by oil spills over the past five years.
The second claim was on behalf of the Ogale Community in Ogoniland, which consists of around 40,000 people.
Shell had disputed the jurisdiction of the UK court, and argued that the case concerned Nigerian plaintiffs and a Nigerian company.
In his ruling, the judge struck out the claims against Royal Dutch Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary, the UK high court ruled that the two Niger Delta communities devastated by oil spills cannot pursue their case against Shell in the United Kingdom for oil spills that occurred in Nigeria.
However, the judge gave the communities permission to file an appeal.
The split decision upheld a High Court ruling was said to be a setback to attempts to hold British multinationals liable at home for their subsidiaries’ actions abroad.
Reuters reported that the Appeal Court yesterday rejected the appeal from law firm Leigh Day on behalf of Nigeria’s Bille and Ogale communities, and upheld a ruling that English courts do not have jurisdiction over claims against Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC).
SPDC is jointly operated with the Nigerian government
Shell said the court “rightly upheld” the earlier ruling, and said Nigeria’s “well-developed justice system” was the correct place for the claims. Its subsidiary SPDC has also denied responsibility for the spills, which it says were due to sabotage and illegal refining.
One of the three senior High Court judges, the Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Sales, disagreed with the majority ruling, writing that the communities have “a good arguable claim that (Shell) assumed a material degree of responsibility in relation to the management of the pipeline and facilities” operated by SPDC.
Leigh Day said the two Nigerian communities intended to bring the case to Britain’s Supreme Court.
“We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will grant permission to appeal and will come to a different view,” Leigh Day partner Daniel Leader said.
King Okpabi, the ruler of the Ogale community, said the English courts were the only hope, and that they “cannot get justice” in Nigeria.
The case is significant in determining whether multinational companies can face legal action in England over their subsidiaries’ actions abroad.
The Amnesty International had criticised the last year’s ruling by the UK high court, saying it could rob the communities of justice and allow UK multinationals to commit abuses overseas with impunity.
“This ruling could mean that the communities will never receive meaningful compensation, and that the oil spills will not be properly cleaned up,” said Campaigner on Business and Human Rights at Amnesty International, Joe Westby.
Westby stated that the ruling set an especially dangerous precedent, adding that if it stands, then the UK courts have given free rein to multinational companies based in the UK to abuse human rights overseas.