Over 40,000 Nigerian villagers have suffered a setback in their efforts to claim compensation from oil giant Shell, for polluting rivers in the Niger Delta – thus depriving them of their livelihoods.
A High Court in London recently ruled that Royal Dutch Shell was not legally responsible for the systematic pollution of two communities by its Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC).
Mr Justice Fraser, sitting in the Technology & Construction Court, part of the High Court, said that the claim against Royal Dutch Shell, based in London, had no prospect of success and, therefore, the action could not go ahead.
However, lawyers for the Ogale and Bille communities say they will appeal against the ruling and that they were confident the Court of Appeal would overturn the decision.
The lawyers from Leigh Day, a law firm, argued that Mr Justice Fraser made the judgment at an early stage in the litigation, before any documents were disclosed and without hearing oral evidence from witnesses about the relationship between Royal Dutch Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary.
The two Niger Delta communities accused Shell of systematically polluting their region for years as a result of the oil company’s operations.
Shell did not dispute that both communities had been severely polluted by its oil, or that it had yet to clean up the oil but the company sought to block the claim in November last year.
Shell argued that the claimants should take up the matter in the Nigerian courts.
Daniel Leader, a partner in the international group claims team at Leigh Day, said: “The Ogale and Bille communities are surprised by this judgment and have instructed us to lodge an appeal.
“It is our view that the judgment failed to consider critical evidence which shows the decisive direction and control Royal Dutch Shell exercises over its Nigerian subsidiary.
“It is also inconsistent with recent judgments of the European Court of Justice and the Dutch Court of Appeal.”
King Okpabi, Paramount Ruler of the Ogale Community, said: “Our community is disappointed but not discouraged by this judgment and we are confident that, as in the Netherlands, the Court of Appeal will see things differently.
“Royal Dutch Shell makes billions of dollars of profit each year from Nigerian oil but our communities which host its infrastructure have been left environmentally devastated.”
Chief Temebo, spokesman for the Bille Council of Chiefs, said: “We are disappointed by the news of the judgment, but we will continue to fight with all our might.
“The Bille people have been pushed against the wall by Shell for too long.”
He said that if the English courts failed to hear the claim, there would be no chance of a clean-up of the environmental damage caused by Shell’s operations.
“Shell will do nothing unless they are ordered to by the English courts,” he added.
Reacting to the decision, Igo Weli, SPDC’s General Manager for External Relations, said: “The court rightly decided the claims should be dealt with by the Nigerian courts and confirmed longstanding principles of corporate law, which are critically important for multinational companies headquartered in the UK.”
He claimed that “crude oil theft, pipeline sabotage and illegal refining” in both the Ogale and Bille communities “remain the main sources of pollution across the Niger Delta”.
“We hope the strong message sent by the English court…ensures that any future claims by Nigerian communities concerning operations conducted in Nigeria will be heard in the proper local courts,” Mr Weli added.