Oil giant Shell has succeeded in a High Court battle to block claims brought against it by more than 40,000 Nigerians from being heard by the English courts, lawyers say.
The company announced that a judge in London has ruled that the court does not have jurisdiction to try actions by two Nigerian communities over oil spills in the Niger Delta.
Royal Dutch Shell (RDS) and the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) argued that the cases should be heard by the courts in Nigeria.
But the communities believe they will only get “justice” in the English courts.
UK law firm Leigh Day, which is representing the two communities, says the claims are over “extensive environmental damage caused by oil pollution”.
The law firm announced it is planning to appeal against the ruling.
Igo Weli, general manager for external relations at Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC), said: “The court rightly decided these claims should be dealt with by the Nigerian courts and confirmed longstanding principles of corporate law, which are critically important for multinational companies headquartered in the UK.
“Both Bille and Ogale are areas heavily impacted by crude oil theft, pipeline sabotage and illegal refining, which remain the main sources of pollution across the Niger Delta.
“The judge correctly decided that the holding company, Royal Dutch Shell, had no legal responsibility for harm to the communities in the Niger Delta caused by criminal interference in Nigeria with the operations of a joint venture in which the Nigerian government owns a majority interest.
“We hope the strong message sent by the English court today ensures that any future claims by Nigerian communities concerning operations conducted in Nigeria will be heard in the proper local courts.
“Nigeria is a core part of the Shell Group’s upstream business. We see considerable potential for growth in Nigeria and are determined to help Nigeria unlock its energy potential over the long term.
“Litigation in courts unfamiliar with the law and realities on the ground ultimately does nothing to address the real problem in the Niger Delta: widespread pipeline sabotage, crude oil theft and illegal refining. SPDC continues to play an active role in the search for solutions to these complex issues.
“Examples of recent initiatives include a 2016 campaign against crude oil theft which highlighted the dangers of crude oil theft and sabotage of pipelines to more than 40 communities in Ogoniland and a programme which ran with the objective of providing alternative means of livelihood for young people in Ogoniland in 2014.”
Daniel Leader, a partner in the international group claims team at law firm Leigh Day, said: “The Ogale and Bille communities are surprised by this judgment and have instructed us to lodge an appeal.
“It is our view that the judgment failed to consider critical evidence which shows the decisive direction and control Royal Dutch Shell exercises over its Nigerian subsidiary. It is also inconsistent with recent judgments of the European Court of Justice and the Dutch Court of Appeal.”
King Okpabi, paramount ruler of the Ogale community, said: “Our community is disappointed but not discouraged by this judgment and we are confident that, as in the Netherlands, the Court of Appeal will see things differently.
Royal Dutch Shell makes billions of dollars of profit each year from Nigerian oil but our communities which host its infrastructure have been left environmentally devastated.
“This decision has to be appealed, not just for Ogale but for many other people in the Niger Delta who will be shut out if this decision is allowed to stand.
“Shell is simply being asked to clean up its oil and to compensate the communities it has devastated. That is not an unreasonable request but Shell will not even meet with us.
“Shell underestimate us if they think this judgment will affect our resolve. There is no hope of justice in the Nigerian courts. We still very much believe in the British justice system and so we are going to appeal this decision.”
Chief Temebo, spokesman for the Bille Council of Chiefs, said: “We are disappointed by the news of the judgment, but we will continue to fight with all our might. The Bille people have been pushed against the wall by Shell for too long. We will appeal the judge’s decision.
“If the claim does not continue in the English courts, we have no hope that the environment will ever be cleaned up and the fish will ever return to our waters. Shell will do nothing unless they are ordered to by the English courts.”