A High Court in London, Thursday, blocked an agreement between oil giant, Shell, and a UK law firm, CW Law, in relation to over 7,000 claims of Nigerians, which the Marble Arch-based law firm claimed it represented on a dispute over oil spills in Nigeria.
Justice Akenhead, the President of the Technological and Construction Court, blocked the deal and upheld an injunction against CW Law which prevented them, or anyone representing them, from making contact with the people of Bodo in furtherance of the settlement agreement.
The judge made it clear that Leigh Day, a London-based law firm, was proceeding with the case to trial in the High Court in 2015 and that many thousands of claimants were entitled to damages under the Oil Pipelines Act which could be substantial.
Shell is accused of two leaks from its pipelines between 2008 and 2009, which devastated the environment in Bodo, a community in Rivers State.
Majority of the community people were subsistence fishermen and farmers, until 2008 when the spills occurred.
The spills destroyed the community’s fishing industry, according to Leigh Day.
Over 1,000 hectares of mangrove have been destroyed, with an additional 5,000 hectares impacted since the spill, experts say.
The United Nations, Amnesty International, and the Nigerian government had expressed deep disappointment with Shell’s lack of action in the region. Impoverished local fishermen have been left without a source of income, and have received no compensation.
In Thursday’s verdict, the judge said there may have already been a major breach of an existing interim injunction against CW Law. He said that Leigh Day had strong evidence that representatives of CW Law had breached the order by continuing to seek to sign up claimants whilst the order was in place.
Leigh Day now has three working days to set out to the Court with breaches of the order they would seek contempt proceedings on. CW Law will have 10 working days to respond and provide full evidence of the instructions they have from claimants to represent them.
CW Law was accused by Leigh Day of unlawfully entering into settlement talks with Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) on behalf of many villagers of Bodo who they didn’t represent and who were not clients of the firm.
The settlement agreement between CW Law and Shell, given as evidence in Court on Thursday sought to settle the claims for £150 each with an additional £390 per claimant going into a Trust. The Agreement also included an incentivised costs structure for CW Law which would see them paid more by Shell, the more claimants it signed up to the scheme.
With a population of 14,000 people, the great majority of the villagers are represented by Leigh Day in one of the largest environmental legal cases in history following the two massive oil spills in 2008 from pipelines operated by oil giant Shell.
Leigh Day has spent three years gathering witness statements and verifying its list of clients on the ground, in Nigeria, to fight the case against Shell in the UK Courts.
In August 2014, the law firm learned that SPDC had entered into a settlement with CW Law, the English solicitors who claimed to represent 7,400 of the villagers.
Leigh Day visited Bodo and spoke to the Chairman of the Council of Chiefs & Elders in Bodo, the Chiefs of the Council, and the Village Heads of the 35 villages that make up Bodo and confirmed that they had not heard of CW Law or the Nigerian lawyers, Egbegi & Co, who claimed to be working with CW Law.
Speaking after the judgment, Martyn Day, the Senior Partner of Leigh Day said he was pleased with the Judge’s decision to block the deal between Shell and CW Law “as far as our clients are concerned.”
“This paltry deal may have been lucrative to the lawyers involved but it would have meant peanuts for those of our clients caught by it,” Mr. Day said.
“The Bodo Creek is damaged for decades to come. We will only resolve the claims when Shell is prepared to pay properly for the damage it has caused.”