Seven Nigerian banks breathed a sigh of relief today when a court in Lagos struck out a Federal Government’s case against them.
Justice Chuka Obiozor of the Federal High Court, in Lagos, struck out the suit seeking to recover $793,200, 000, about N249,659,700, 000, from the banks, which it claimed were hidden by ‘unknown’ government officials.
The banks are: United Bank for Africa Plc, Diamond Bank Plc, Skye Bank Plc, First Bank Ltd, Fidelity Bank Plc, Keystone Bank Ltd and Sterling Bank Plc.
Justice Obiozor also ordered the FGN to pay the sum of N200,000, as costs to all of the banks except Skye Bank that was not represented by any lawyer.
The Court struck out the suit following a notice of discontinuance dated August 7, 2017, but argued before it on Tuesday, by the lawyer to the Attorney-General of the Federation – Professor Yemi Akinseye-George (SAN).
Akinseye-George had on Tuesday, told Justice Obiozor that the FGN had decided to explore an ‘out of court settlement’ with the named banks in the public interest.
Last July 20, the FGN accused the banks of hiding $793m in contravention of the Treasury Single Account (TSA) policy.
It sought and obtained an interim order directing the banks to remit the sum to a designated account at the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
But on Tuesday the Federal Government applied to discontinue the suit on the instruction of the Attorney-General.
Akinseye-George, relying on Order 50 Rule 2 Subsection 1, Federal High Court Civil Procedure Rules of 2009, moved the Court to strike out the suit.
The application was challenged by the six banks which urged the Court to rather dismiss the suit with substantial cost instead of granting the strike out request of the plaintiffs.
The banks’ lawyers included: Dr. Ajibola Muraina for UBA, Mr.Seyi Sowemimo (SAN) for Fidelity Bank; Mrs. Abimbola Akeredolu (SAN) for Sterling Bank, N. A. Oragwu for Diamond Bank, E.A. Okorie, for First Bank, and Babatunde Ogungbamila for Keystone Bank.
Apart from asking for the dismissal of the FGN’s Notice of Discontinuance, the lawyers also asked for costs of between N10million and N20million for each bank as compensation or damages that their clients have suffered due to the Ex-parte Order obtained by the FGN.
However, in response to the Banks’ applications, Professor Akinseye-George argued that the banks were not entitled to any cost because, among others, they did not file any affidavit to particularise the nature of the damage they claimed to have suffered.
Justice Obiozor however, in his ruling on Wednesday, stated that since the suit did not proceed to trial, the justice of the case was in favour of an order to strike it out, rather than a dismissal.
He said: “I have also considered the reason given for the discontinuance, the demand, as it were, of public interest. I have also considered the fact that when a notice of discontinuance is duly and validly filed, it cannot be recalled, as the suit ceases to exist the moment it is effectively discontinued, subject to the payment of costs.
“I find that as I have not adjudicated on claims in the action before me for a pronouncement on the merits of the issues arising there from, the proper order to make, with respect to this matter, is one striking out this suit and not of dismissal and I so hold.
“In the instant case before me, the matter is yet to proceed to trial. I do not find that the justice of this case demands that this matter should be dismissed.”
On request for cost by the banks against the FGN, the judge said: “Nevertheless, I shall not turn a blind eye to the effect of the interim order on the defendants. This case cannot now go on. I find no reason not to compensate the defendants with costs at least to those of them who have appeared in this matter.”
He however declined to grant the amount demanded as costs, saying “I find the request for N10million or N20million as costs to the defendant not to be founded on, with respect, established principles.”
The judge added: “The defendants deserve compensation which I assess and put at N200, 000 against the favour of and to be paid to each of the first, second, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh defendants.
“In the final analysis, the suit is hereby struck out and the plaintiff shall not re-list this suit without obtaining leave of court. The interim order of this court made on the 20th of July 2017 are hereby set aside, truncated and discharged.”