High Court Examines Service of Process on Foreign State and State Immunity in Williams v Federal Government of Nigeria Case

Citation: [2023] EWHC 3282 (Comm)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of Louis Emovbira Williams v Federal Government of Nigeria & Anor, the High Court of Justice offers a thorough examination of various legal principles under English law, particularly concerning procedural issues related to service of process on a foreign state and the application of the State Immunity Act 1978. This article analyzes the key topics discussed and the legal principles applied in this case, elucidating their application to the case’s facts.

Key Facts

Dr. Louis Emovbira Williams, a Nigerian national residing in the UK, claimed that he was the victim of a fraudulent breach of trust by the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) in 1986. After a complex series of events that included imprisonment and a presidential pardon, Dr. Williams sought redress through the UK court system. The FGN challenged a default judgment made in his favor, leading to the case at hand. Central to the discussion is the propriety of service of the claim form, as well as the applicability of state immunity to the FGN’s involvement in the commercial transaction at issue.

Service of Process on a Foreign State

The court examined section 12(1) and (6) of the State Immunity Act 1978, which governs the service of process on a foreign state. The FGN contended that it was not properly served in accordance with section 12(1). Dr. Williams, however, relied on an alleged agreement within the meaning of section 12(6) that permitted service by delivering the claim form to the Nigerian High Commission in London. The court’s acceptance of Dr. Williams’s arguments hinged on his consistent and unchallenged evidence that an agreement had been made by the Solicitor-General of Nigeria for the acceptance of service at the High Commission.

State Immunity

The court affirmed that the FGN did not enjoy state immunity from jurisdiction under section 1 of the State Immunity Act 1978, as the case was related to a “commercial transaction” under section 3(1)(a) and potentially under section 3(1)(b) as well. In light of Moulder J’s earlier judgment, the FGN’s actions in 1986 were seen as falling within the statutory exception to state immunity applying to commercial transactions.

Default Judgment

Moulder J’s default judgment was scrutinized in the face of the FGN’s assertion that there was a procedural flaw due to improper service. The court upheld the judgment and found that the procedural requirements had been met, including the agreement to accept service and substantiation of service effected as agreed.

Outcomes

The court dismissed the FGN’s application to set aside the 2018 default judgment, finding that the claim form had been properly served according to an agreement under section 12(6) of the State Immunity Act 1978, and that the FGN was not entitled to state immunity due to the commercial nature of the transaction. Additionally, Mr. Justice Bright addressed issues of potential conflict of interest concerning Mr. Ogunbiyi’s previous brief representation of the Defendants and concluded that it did not have a direct bearing on the issues at hand.

Dr. Williams’s cross-application was also dismissed, as while the delay in hearing the Defendants’ application was notable and unexplained, it did not substantively affect the legal findings.

Conclusion

The case demonstrates the court’s intricate analysis of service of process on foreign states and the interplay with the State Immunity Act 1978 within the context of commercial transactions. By delineating the legal principles underpinning service and state immunity, and by assessing the factual matrix in detail, Mr. Justice Bright’s judgment clarifies the requirements and exceptions relevant to these areas of law, reinforcing that even a foreign government’s act can fall within the purview of UK courts if it pertains to commercial dealings.

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