By Lukman Olabiyi
Justice Chuka Obiozor of the Federal High Court, Lagos, has struck out a suit by the Federal Government seeking to recover $793,200,000.00 (about N249,659,700,000.00) from seven commercial banks allegedly hidden from government.
The banks involved are United Bank for Africa, Diamond Bank, Skye Bank, First Bank, Fidelity Bank, Keystone Bank and Sterling Bank.
The judge had, on July 20, 2017, ordered the seven banks to, in the interim, remit the money to a designated account at the Central Bank of Nigeria.
The order was sequel to the granting of an ex-parte application by the Federal Government and the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami, SAN, who sought an interim order compelling the banks to remit the funds to government’s coffers.
Upon the granting of the application, Justice Obiozor adjourned further hearing in the matter to Tuesday, August 8, 2017.
However, at the resumed hearing of the matter, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Prof. Yemi Akinseye-George, SAN, drew the court’s attention to a notice of discontinuance of the suit, which he said was brought pursuant to Order 50, Rules 2 (1) of the Federal High Court Rules.
The federal government’s lawyer, while asking the court to strike out the suit, said the plaintiffs’ decision to discontinue the suit was in the larger interest of the public.
In their reactions, lawyers representing the banks, with the exception of Skye Bank, urged the court to dismiss the suit instead of striking it out.
After listening to the arguments of the parties, Justice Chuka Obiozor struck out the suit against the banks and also ordered the government to pay N200,000 as costs to them, except Skye Bank, which had no legal representation.
He also barred the government from bringing the same action against the banks without the court’s permission.
Delivering his ruling yesterday, the judge found, among others, 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 therefrom, 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.”
Regarding the costs demanded by the banks, 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.”