Bodo Vs Shell: Over 14,000 Beneficiaries Accuse British Lawyer of Underhand Dealings in £55m Oil Spill Compensation

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•Allege £30m unaccounted for

•I have presented my defence before the courts, says solicitor

•We have no case against him in court, insists community

Emmanuel Addeh

Bodo community in Rivers State has accused its British Solicitor and Senior Partner, Leigh Day & Co, Mr. Martyn Day, of short-changing over 14,000 beneficiaries in the £55 million compensation paid by Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) in 2015.

The community in over a dozen correspondences between its representatives and the lawyer, copies of which were obtained by THISDAY, noted that as much as £30 million paid to the lawyer for further disbursement to the impacted residents remains unaccounted for.

Furthermore, the oil-producing Ogoni community noted that all efforts to ensure that Leigh Day makes available the documents, including the bank instruction as well as receipts used in making the payments hit a brick wall.

Members of the Bodo community had in 2012, filed a lawsuit against Shell in a London High Court, seeking compensation for two oil spills and losses suffered to their health, livelihoods, and land. In addition, they requested the clean-up of the oil pollution.

The over 14,000 plaintiffs maintained that the relevant pipelines caused spills because they were over 50 years old and poorly maintained, adding that Shell reacted too slowly after being alerted to the situation.

But in January 2015, Shell accepted its responsibility and agreed to a £55 million settlement after which the funds were routed through its British Lawyer, Leigh Day, who a representative of the community, Mr Timothy Sapira, alleged was holding back at least £30 million of the total money.

Efforts to get the lawyer to explain the circumstances surrounding the disbursement of the £55 million, the community said, had since 2015 proved fruitless, as the solicitor declined to respond to all their enquiries until recently.

In one of the official communication from the Bodo Council of Chiefs and Elders, signed by the Chairman, Chief John Vilola and Vice President, Chief Bernard Kiate, among others, the community leaders expressed frustration over the turn of events.

The Ogoni leaders pointed out that as individual claimants and as Bodo Council of Chiefs, the group that was recognised as party to the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), it was concerned about the incomplete and inaccurate payment of the settlement sums arising from the claim.

“Rather than deal with substantive issue of the allegations against your firm, you have sought to hide behind spurious legal arguments.

“It is our understanding that you have been properly and fully remunerated for the services you provided to the Bodo community in this case. Therefore, these are documents that any fair-minded person would agree that we are entitled to as clients.

“These documents will help us establish that you have effected the payments of the settlements sums ‘reasonably and in good faith’ in line with the requirements of the MSA.

“…So we write to you under the same authority now to provide the above information to us through our legal representatives, Samuel & Co. Solicitors in the same UK.

“If Leigh Day & Co has nothing to hide, it would swiftly provide the above information without any quibble or further delay. Equally, refusing to do so would further heighten our suspicion that Leigh Day & Co. may not have acted reasonably and in good faith in the payment of the settlement sums to individuals/Bodo community,” they noted.

The community leaders threatened that failure to provide the information, would leave them with no option other than to seek redress from any regulatory body that can assist them in the matter.

This, they hoped, would, “stop the firm from acting with such impunity and total disregard for legal standards/practices in dealing with their most disadvantaged clients.”

In another correspondence, the community listed the documents being demanded from the British law firm as: a copy of the statement of account, a requirement of the MSA that was provided by the firm to SPDC for the distribution of the £55 million and a copy of the firm’s designated bank accounts forwarded to SPDC/escrow agent for payment of £55 million, that is, £35 and £20 million separately.

They further requested copies of credit advices from SPDC/escrow agent’s bank for payment totalling £55 million to the designated bank accounts, instructions confirming payment as well as debit advices from the bank confirming payment in full.

Among others, Bodo also demanded copies of debit instructions to their bank for the total sum refunded to SPDC for non-settling claimants, copies of debit advice, evidence of total payment (both interim and final sum) made by SPDC to the firm as legal cost, list of claimants paid as well as claimants not paid.

“Our clients are keen to resolve these matters swiftly. As soon they have ascertained that they have received their full entitlement in relation to the Bodo oil spillage case. They want closure and wish to move on with their lives.

“They take the view that since Leigh Day has been fully compensated for the work undertaken in this case, they are entitled to the requested documents under UK laws and regulations.

“Therefore, if LD are unable to produce or share any of the requested documents above, they should make clear in each instance of refusal reasons for either not wanting or being able to do so,” another letter written by the new lawyers to the community, Samuel & Co Solicitors, noted.

In a separate communication, a representative of the community, Sapira notified the lawyer of the intention of Bodo to drag him before the UK authorities since he had resorted to “spurious legal manoeuvres rather than address concerns.” Day had said there was a discrepancy between the initial 15,576 beneficiaries and the 14,134 in one of the letters.

“You will leave the individual claimants and the Bodo community no option other than to take this matter further and as previously notified we will be lodging a complaint with not only Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) and other legal institutions in the same UK, but also any other bodies corporate available elsewhere in the world at some time in the next two weeks,” it stated.

Sapira told THISDAY that after the monies were virtually “butchered”, none of the beneficiaries received anything substantial.

But when THISDAY contacted the London law firm, it responded that the case was already in court, adding that it could not make any comments, a statement that was disputed by the community representative.

A response to the enquiry signed by the firm’s Head of Media Relations, Caroline Ivison, stated that Leigh Day was not disposed to putting up a defence outside the courts.

“Your email below was passed onto me (Ivison). While the case is being litigated, it would not be appropriate to comment. But we are able to say that a full defence to all the allegations had been served.

“The defence is on the court file which I believe you can request from the court if you wish,” the firm stated.

But the lawyer’s position was disputed by the community representative, who insisted that at no time had Bodo dragged Day before any court.

“We are not in court. We are yet to take Leigh Day to court. Leigh Day & Co. is just playing games to stall accountability from his services to the Bodo community claimants,” Sapira maintained.