Exploring Alternative Dispute Resolution over Port Charges

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Francis Ugwoke writes on maritime industry’s stakeholders’ views that an out of court settlement remains an option for the resolution of the legal tussle between between the Nigerian Shippers’ Council and ports’ service providers over disputed port charges

For about two years now, the Nigerian Shippers’ Council, NSC and two major groups of service providers in the ports have locked horns in court over dispute in port charges. The two service providers are the Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria, STOAN and the Association Shipping Lines Agencies, ASLA.

As the Ports Economic Regulator, the NSC had moved to exercise some of its powers by reversing the storage charges collected by the terminal operators and equally increased the free storage at the ports from three to seven days. The Council claimed the idea was to position the ports in line with what obtains within the West and African sub-region. The Council had equally descended on the shipping lines and reduced their shipping line agency charges (SLAC) and made them to refund container deposits within a space of 10 days.

But the service providers moved swiftly to stop the regulator by taking the matter to court. The service providers had questioned the powers of the Council to carry out such action. The matter came up in the Federal High Court Ikoyi in 2014 and by December 17 of the same year, the court delivered judgment in favour of the ports regulator.

Justice Ibrahim Buba of the Federal High Court Ikoyi had upheld the appointment of the NSC as the ports economic regulator for the ports industry and equally affirmed its decision on the charges. Not satisfied with the judgment, the two aggrieved parties, STOAN and ASLA had proceeded to the Appeal Court where the case is being decided.

Alternative Dispute Resolution
In the next few weeks, it would be over two years that the matter has been in court. Incidentally, no one knows how long the case may last as the Court will take time to study and treat cases of such economic matters. However, industry stakeholders are of the view that the two aggrieved parties should consider out of court settlement in the case. Those who hold this view said it will be better for the industry to move forward. They argued that at such a critical time of economic recession, settling out of court will save the parties the time and cost of prolonged legal battle in the court.

Besides, they argued that when there is commercial dispute in any industry involving the service providers and the apex regulatory agency, it does not create room for smooth working relationship. They therefore argued that the best option would be for alternative dispute resolution.

Maritime industry stakeholders made up of lawyers, freight forwarders and customs brokers who are affected by the court case believe that there cannot be a better option than alternative resolution. They said out of court settlement in commercial disputes has been recognised globally as the fastest method of settling two parties on any commercial interest.

A maritime expert and former President of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, NAGAFF, Dr. Eugene Nweke, who said alternative dispute resolution or out of court settlement was better for the industry and the national economy opined that it was time for the two parties to work on the option. Nweke who noted that court settlement would have been good as a precedent, he however added that this would take time to achieve as the court would need time to study the case before justice can be expected.

He said the time it takes to achieve settlement is of very importance not just to the parties in the case but also for all stakeholders, explaining that this was as a result of the economic interest not just for the industry stakeholders but for all Nigerians. He called on the NSC as the ports economic regulator, STOAN and ASLA, to consider embracing out of court settlement as a global practice.

Nweke advised that in doing this, the two parties ought to bear in mind that there was the need to reach a compromise as part of the out of court settlement. He said: “Out of court settlement is always desirable in any case more so in the one bordering on international trade as it affects Nigerians. This requires that the parties need to shift positions, make compromises for peace to reign. There cannot be a better time than now considering the fact of the economic recession on the industry.”

Similarly, a maritime lawyer, Mr. Emma Ofomata called on the parties to see alternative dispute resolution as necessary for the interest of the industry and the nation’s economy. Ofomata added that no court frowns at out of court settlement as far as it will serve the interest of the parties in resolving the material issue that made them to proceed to the court in the first place. He said that the court is ever willing to grant such request as it will save its time studying and treating the matter along other numerous cases of national concern.

Ofomata said: “Out of court settlement is encouraged because the court is always willing to address issues between parties, not necessarily to punish a particular person but to achieve amicable resolution of issues. That is the essence of court. In modern day, the court always encourages alternative dispute resolution because the primary objective of the law is for all parties to have their cases resolved”, Ofomata said.

He said that quick resolution of the case will be of immense benefit to the ports industry and the economy.

He added: “The main problem between them is the issue of cost, they can sit down and settle the matter. What I expect the parties to do is to sit down to determine the actual cost of doing business in Nigeria. If the cost is too high, government could be approached to create an enabling environment to reduce it”.

Another customs broker, maritime expert, Alhaji Olu Okesanmi also while appealing for out of court settlement among the parties pointed out that it will bring early and amicable settlement of the issues at stake. Okesanmi said that out of court settlement has always been better than court because the parties would look at issues holistically and agree on areas to compromise in order to allow peace to reign.

– Ugwoke, journalist wrote from Apapa, Lagos