• Thursday, June 13, 2024
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COVID-19 and its effects on commercial litigation

COVID-19 and its effects on commercial litigation

INTRODUCTION

It is no longer news that Nigeria is among the countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the country has been taking measures to curb the spread of the disease and ensure the treatment of those already infected. In a bid to achieve this, several directives had been issued by the Federal Government and its Agencies.  The directive of the National Judicial Council and the Chief Justice of Nigeria mandating Heads of Courts to suspend court proceedings, except for matters that are urgent, essential, or statutorily time-bound, for an initial period of two weeks at the first instance, effective from March 24, 2020. In addition to the above directive, the President of Nigeria, His Excellency Muhammadu Buhari, had in a press statement issued a directive for the lockdown in major cities which include; Lagos State, Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, and Ogun State. The above circumstances have an endearing impact on commercial litigation practice which needs to be analyzed.

LIMITATION OF ACTIONS

The effect of an action commenced outside the statutory timeline is that a plaintiff had a cause of action loses the right to enforce the same . The action would have become statute-barred as per the provisions of the various limitation laws as was upheld by the Court of Appeal in Enugu State Civil Service Commission & Ors v Geofrey (2006) LPELR-7638(CA).

In light of the above situation, it is believed that time should not run against a Party within a period on which he cannot by any possibility take legal steps to have a wrong remedied due to an act of God, pandemic, or Government’s policy or directive relying. This lends credence to the maxim of equity “lex non-cogit ad impossibilia” which means that the law does not compel a man to do that which he cannot possibly perform. The writers, therefore, recommend that concerning limitation period for filing an action, a Party who feels that the action has been caught up by statute of limitation should be allowed to apply to Court to show cause why the action should be filled outside the Statute of Limitation.

Read also: Expect spike in Covid-19 cases in August, says Lagos health commissioner

FILING OF PROCESSES

What is the fate of a Party who could not file his court processes (memorandum of appearance) timely, due to safety measures implemented by the Government to curtail the spread of the Coronavirus? In I.T.N.A.G.P.P.E. v. P.C.N. (2012) 2 NWLR (Pt. 1284) 262 CA, the Court of Appeal held that where a statute provides a specific time for filing of a process, and it is not filed within the period specified, the reason for the delay in not complying must be reasonable. The Party in default must seek an extension of time.

It is opined that in the present circumstance, the requirement of payment of default fees should not apply for actions affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The applicant needs to prove to the Court, that the delay in filing the processes was occasioned by the outbreak of the pandemic and not the indolence of the Party or counsel.

APPEAL ACTIONS

The Court of Appeal Act in Section 25(2)(a) provides for the procedure for filing an appeal. Section 25 provides that a Party seeking to appeal shall file a notice of appeal or application for leave to appeal within fourteen days(This time limit applies to an appeal in a civil cause or matter,  where the appeal is against an interlocutory decision ) or three months (This time limit applies to an appeal in a civil cause or matter,  where the appeal is against a final decision) respectively

In the present dispensation, a person whom judgment was given against before the COVID-19 pandemic runs the risk of inability to appeal within the statutory timeline. However, this does not pose much threat as the Party will be allowed to file an application for extension of time to Appeal showing cause that the inability to appeal within time was for circumstances beyond its control. This is so as the Act provides in section  25(4) that the Court of Appeal may extend the periods prescribed in subsections (2) and (3) of the section. The Courts are, however, urged to pay attention to the peculiarities of each case and treat each application for extension of time differently according to its peculiar facts and circumstances avoid indolent Parties taking advantage of the situation.

INJUNCTIONS

The Supreme Court in Ohakim v Agbaso & Ors (2010) 19 NWLR (Pt.1226) 172  defined injunction as a judicial process or mandate operating inparsonam by which, upon certain established principles of equity, a Party is required to do or refrain from doing a particular thing. An injunction can either be interim or interlocutory. An interim injunction is a temporal order granted pursuant to a motion exparte pending the hearing of the Motion on Notice. While an Interlocutory Injunction is granted pending the hearing of the substantive suit. In any case, a Party retains the right to appeal the interlocutory injunction. Where an injunction is granted and the Respondent cannot take steps to have the order set aside due to the prevailing restrictive polices,  made in response to the COVID 19 pandemic,  what would be the Respondent’s remedy where the Applicant keeps exploiting the order of the Court?

The only remedy for a Respondent whom an injunction order runs against within this period is for the Party to apply to the Court under the urgent and important proceedings as stated in the Directives. However, the parameter for a matter to qualify as urgent is blurred and not clearly defined… It is recommended that there should be a definition of what amounts to “urgent” in the Directives instructing Courts to hear urgent matters so that the Parties caught under this circumstance would know the appropriate action to take.

FINAL WRITTEN ADDRESSES AND DELIVERY OF JUDGEMENT

Section 294 (1) of the Constitution provides that every Court shall deliver its decision in writing not later than ninety days after the conclusion of the evidence and final addresses. Where the Court delivers its judgment after the period of ninety days from the adoption of final addresses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the judgment will remain valid unless it is established that the delay occasioned a miscarriage of justice to any of the Parties.  However, a proactive Court can in light of the lockdown, issue notices to the Parties for the date of delivery of judgment and afterward email the judgment to the Parties. Another option is for the Court, were equipped with the necessary technology, to deliver the Judgement in Court while the Parties join via videoconferencing platforms. This approach will also be applicable for the filling and adoption of Final Addresses.

CONCLUSION

The COVID-19 Pandemic presents a challenge to litigation and normal Court practice which underscores the need for a virtual court. Magistrate Courts in the United Kingdom have been able to conduct hearings of criminal cases using live video links between the court and police stations since 2009. This means defendants can appear in Court without being physically present. Fredric I. Lederer extensively discussed the concept of a virtual courtroom in, his book “The Road to the Virtual Courtroom? A Consideration of Today’s — and Tomorrow’s — High Technology Courtrooms. Nigerian Courts should take measures to ensure that facilities are put in place for the adoption of virtual courtrooms, which would enable the Courts to function for up to 80% of their capacity in light of the lockdown.  When the Courts are well equipped with technological gadgets, nothing would impede the Court from hearing the matters via teleconference and thus implement the remote hearing approach.

This article was written by Onyemauche Ibezim and Johnchryso Eze; Associates at Kenna Partners. They can be contacted via [email protected] and [email protected] respectively.