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An Appraisal of Challenges in Recovery of Foreign Judgment Debts in Nigeria
Enforcement of foreign judgments has significant relevance in this era of increased international trade and foreign investments.
Businesses are more comfortable doing business with foreign partners knowing that if they obtain judgment from a superior court in their home country; it can be enforced against the judgment debtor across borders. Fortunately, Nigerian courts recognize judgments from superior courts of commonwealth countries and countries with reciprocal treatment with Nigeria.
This has increased the confidence of foreigners and foreign companies to do business with Nigerians and Nigerian companies. Nevertheless, the procedure for registration of foreign judgment in Nigeria is not without challenges. Apart from the uncertainty in the statute and rules regulating the enforcement of foreign judgment, the procedure for registration of foreign judgments does not take into cognizance the evolving trends in global economy and international commerce.
The statute regulating the enforcing of foreign judgments in Nigeria is imprecise. Ordinarily the recent Foreign Judgment (Reciprocal Enforcement) Act, CAP 152, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990 ("the 1990 Act") would have been the legislation regulating enforcement of foreign judgment but the Supreme Court in the case of Macaulay v R.Z.B of Austria(2003) 18 NWLR (Pt. 852) 282 held that the Minister of Justice has not made an order extending the Act to judgments of the United Kingdom and other countries with reciprocal treatment with Nigeria pursuant to Sections 3 (1) and 9 (1) of the Act as such the first part of Act is inapplicable.
Again, in the case of Grosvenor Casinos Ltd v Ghassan Halaoui(2009) 10 NWLR (Pt. 1149) 309, the Supreme Court postulated that both the Act and the Reciprocal Enforcement of Judgments Ordinance, CAP 175, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1958 ("the Ordinance) ("applicable legislations") are relevant statutes in the enforcement of foreign judgments in Nigeria.
Judgment creditors now rely on the colonial Reciprocal Enforcement of Judgment Ordinance, 1958 (“the 1958 Ordinance”) which provides for a 12 months period to register and recover a foreign judgment debt in Nigeria. This is why in Suit No. FHC/ABJ/CS/203/2017; Emmanuel Ekpenyong Esq v. Attorney General and Minister of Justice of the Federation, I sought an order of mandamus at the Federal High Court, Abuja Division to compel the Attorney General and Minister of Justice of the Federation to promulgate an Order to bring the 1990 Act into operation.
The Federal High Court in its judgment opined that the Minister has discretionary powers to promulgate the Order. The trial court held that the Minister had unlimited powers to determine when to promulgate the Order. An appeal against the trial court’s judgment is pending before the Court of Appeal, Abuja division. The backlog of appeals at the appellate court has made it difficult to obtain a hearing date for the appeal.
The imprecision on the particular statute regulating foreign judgment enforcement has a devastating effect on the whole process of registering foreign judgment in Nigeria. For instance, the time within which to register a judgment under the 1990 Act is 6 years while the time to register a judgment under the Ordinance is 12 months. Since there is no Foreign Judgment Enforcement Rules for the 1990 Act, the Reciprocal Enforcement of Judgments Rules of the Ordinance ("Rules of the Ordinance") which was enacted in 1922 regulates the legal conditions for registration of foreign judgment in Nigeria today.
Rules 1 (1) and 5 of the Rules of the Ordinance which provides that the application for enforcement of foreign judgment be made by a motionex-parteis inconsistent with the modern concept of fair hearing and the current civil procedure rules of Courts that an adverse party must be put on notice. It is without doubt that the Rules of the Ordinance is out of touch with modern realities and the different conditions in the applicable legislations have led to calamity and more uncertainty.
In a Ruling of a Lagos High Court, per Candide-Johnson J, the Court rejected the registration of a Judgment of Justice Michael Burton of the High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division, Commercial London on the ground that since the Lagos Court did not have jurisdiction to hear the subject matter before the original Court, it could not register and execute the Judgment of the original court against the judgment debtor. But registration of foreign judgment under the provisions of the applicable legislations appears to be a subject matter on its own. Little wonder the process of registration of foreign judgment is regulated by its separate and distinct legislations and rules which spell out its conditions and legal requirements.
The applicable legislations provide that Nigerian courts shall accord reciprocal treatment to judgment of 'superior courts' from commonwealth countries and other countries with reciprocal treatment with Nigeria. They also provide that a judgment creditor from a foreign country with reciprocal treatment with Nigeria may apply to a 'superior court' in Nigeria within the specified time for registration of the judgment. From the ordinary meaning of the wordings of the provisions of the applicable legislations on conditions for registration of foreign judgments, it did not contemplate that the jurisdiction of the Nigerian court to register a foreign judgment will be subject to its jurisdiction to hear and determine the original subject matter of the case.
Since the judgment creditor is not asking the Nigerian court to hear the case based on its subject matter, but to grant leave for registration of the foreign judgment under the applicable legislations only, Nigerian courts have no business making its jurisdiction to hear the subject matter of the case, a condition precedent for registration of the judgment. Unless the appellate courts pronounce on this grey area, it will continue to impede the registration of foreign judgments in Nigeria.
An interesting requirement of the applicable legislations is that the Defendant against whom the foreign judgment is to be enforced must have been a Defendant at the original court. This requirement creates a profound difficulty for Judgment creditors. With the recent economic meltdown, businesses are trying to stay afloat by merging or acquiring other companies. To maintain a local presence, a multinational company may take over the business and goodwill of viable Nigerian Company. Upon such takeover the acquired company is wound up.
What then happens to a judgment creditor who obtained a foreign judgment against the acquired company? Does it mean that the judgment creditor cannot maintain a cause of action against the acquiring company just because the acquiring company was not a Defendant at the original court? Since the acquiring company acquired both the assets and liabilities of the acquired company and the acquired company is no more, the justice of the case demands that the foreign judgment obtained against the acquired company should be enforced against the acquiring company.
Another curious requirement in both the Act and the Ordinance is that foreign judgments in respect of fine, taxes and penalties cannot be enforced in Nigeria. This is against the whole concept of reciprocal treatment of judgment because it may give a safe haven to impenitent tax evaders. With the increase in tax evasion by foreign businesses and multinational companies, inability of states and government bodies to recover judgment debts in respect of fines, taxes and penalties across borders would led to a great loss of revenue. The role of fines, taxes and penalties is invaluable in the economic development of states in the 21stCentury. Unlike the 19th Century where most states closed their borders against foreign goods and investment, the 21stcentury world is a global village.
Though Section 1 (2) of the Foreign Judgments (Reciprocal Enforcement) Act 1933("the United Kingdom's Act") provides that taxes or other charges of a like nature or in respect of a fine or other penalty cannot be registered and enforced in United Kingdom, the United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron in a letter to Leaders of the British Overseas Territories (BOTs) and Crown Dependencies (CDs) dated 20 May 2013 said"...I very much welcome the commitments you have made to automatic tax information exchange, both on a bilateral and multilateral basis, which will help us to reach our goal of setting a global standard in tax transparency... We also need to ensure information exchange works effectively for all... That is why we strongly support the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Assistance in Tax Matters"
This highlights the importance of cross border tax collection. Nigeria will gain more if it offers herself and other states the opportunity to recover fine, taxes and penalties against evading offenders by either amending her Foreign Judgment statutes to accord foreign judgments on fine, taxes and penalties the same status with monetary judgments or enter into Multilateral and Bilateral treaties with other states to assist themselves on recovery of cross borders fine, taxes and penalties.
Furthermore, the requirement that once an appeal is filed at the original court, the foreign judgment cannot be registered at the registering court may be prejudicial to the judgment creditor. What happens in a situation where an unscrupulous debtor in an attempt to forever deny the judgment creditor the fruits of his judgment files an appeal at the original jurisdiction and goes to sleep? What happens to the judgment creditor where the judgment debtor dissipates theresbefore outcome of the appeal at the original court? Is it not justiciable to preserve theresat the registering court pending the outcome of the appeal at the original jurisdiction? This is the reasoning behind the provisions of Section 1 (3) of the United Kingdom's Act which provides that"a judgment shall be deemed to be final and conclusive notwithstanding that an appeal may be pending against it, or that it may still be subject to appeal, in the courts of the country of the original court"
In conclusion, there is a need for the lingering crisis on the law regulating enforcement of foreign judgment in Nigeria to be settled. The legal conditions for enforcement of foreign judgment have been interpreted too broadly to adequately protect the interest of foreign judgment creditors. Therefore, the law and rules should be amended to reflect modern realities. The Courts should be proactive in breaking new grounds and developing the jurisprudence on enforcement of foreign judgment in Nigeria in accordance with the essence of reciprocity of judgments. This will improve the prospects of Nigeria as a business destination and enhance the growth of her economy.
Emmanuel Ekpenyong Esq. FCIArb.
Fred-Young & Evans LP, Abuja, Nigeria