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Court to tackle law firm’s authority to act in Nigerian oil spill case

O’Farrell: February 2022 hearing

The question of whether listed law firm Rosenblatt has authority to act for 27,380 claimants and 479 communities taking action against Shell over an oil spill off the coast of Nigeria “must be grappled with”, a High Court judge has ruled.

Mrs Justice O’Farrell said the issue “could affect the ability of the court to make judgments that would be binding on the many thousands of individuals and communities affected by the court’s decisions”.

Last year, she recounted, the High Court ordered the claimants to provide evidence of the basis on which Rosenblatt had authority to act.

They produced statements explaining that “under Nigerian native law or traditional law and custom, the king has paramount authority”, and the kings in question – who have authority over the communities involved in the proceedings – have delegated that authority to the Bonga oil spill steering committee.

As a result, the evidence said, it was not necessary under Nigerian law, which recognises traditional law and custom, for individual claimants to give separate authority to their legal representatives.

The claimants said the steering committee had in turn “expressly authorised Rosenblatt to act on behalf of all of the individual claimants and the communities”.

However, the defendants did not accept that this evidence satisfied the “relevant requirements for authority for the purposes of Nigerian law”.

They relied on one witness statement in particular which stated that Nigerian law did not allow leaders to act on behalf of their communities and/or other individual claimants.

Delivering judgment in Jalla and others v Royal Dutch Shell plc and others [2021] EWHC 2121 (TCC) [1], O’Farrell J said that the issue of authority to act “does need to be grappled with by the court”.

In a separate High Court ruling on extension of time, delivered the day before, the judge explained that the dispute arose out of an oil spill which occurred in the Bonga oil field off the coast of Nigeria in December 2011.

“The claimants allege that oil from the Bonga 2011 spill hit the shoreline and migrated inland causing serious and extensive damage to the land, water supplies and to the fishing waters.”

In that ruling, O’Farrell J said the preliminary issues trial for the date of damage was scheduled for four weeks in February 2022. She dismissed an application by the claimants for additional time to serve further particulars or evidence before the trial.

On the question of authority to act, the judge said she was “conscious of the fact that the parties have a huge task ahead of them in order to prepare for the February hearing”.

She said the “sensible course” was to order the issue of authority was dealt with at the February hearing.