Thousands of Nigerians who are suing Shell over oil spills through a London law firm are being “poached” by rival solicitors, a court has been told.
In the run up to what should be a test case of how multinational firms deal with claims of environmental damage, representatives of the Ogoni people have complained to the high court in London that their legal action is effectively being sabotaged.
The extraordinary dispute has degenerated into an exchange of contradictory injunctions, issued in Nigeria and the United Kingdom, at the request of law firms seeking to legitimise their representation of claimants in the Niger delta.
Lawyers for the leading London firm Leigh Day, who represent more than 15,000 claimants in and around the community of Bodo, told the technological and construction court, a division of the high court, on Thursday that paperwork purporting to transfer clients to alternative solicitors were “forgeries”.
The action has been taken against CW Law Solicitors, based in London, who are said to have reached a settlement with Shell on behalf of 7,400 clients, the court heard.
Leigh Day says the supposed CW Law settlement was for £150 per claimant plus a further £390 per person paid into a community trust fund. Leigh Day has previously declined to settle the action for £1,000 per claimant; the full trial is due to go ahead in London next May.
The dispute relates to oil spills in the Niger delta during 2008 which severely damaged local fisheries and mangrove swamps.
Leigh Day maintains that under Nigerian law anyone who suffered damage can claim compensation if they can show Shell was guilty of neglect in failing to “protect, maintain or repair” the pipeline.
Mr Justice Akenhead, president of the technological and construction court, said: “The way Leigh Day are putting it, it’s [their] clients that have been poached.”
Richard Hermer QC, for the Bodo community, replied: “There’s some examples of attempting to poach clients, but also others where [other lawyers] are simply purporting to represent them.”
Last month the high court in London granted a temporary injunction against CW Law preventing its lawyers from signing up new Nigerian claimants with waiver forms that would detach them from Leigh Day’s representation.
Meanwhile Egbegi and co, another law firm working with CW Law, the court was told, has obtained an injunction from the high court in Bayelsa state, Nigeria, preventing Leigh Day from “interfering” with the 7,400 Ogoni clients it now claims to represent.
The technological court was told that lawyers sent out by Leigh Day to meet its own clients, many of whom CW Law now claims to represent, said they had never met CW Law, signed any release papers or instructed them.
Leigh Day began the legal action at the high court in March 2012 after talks with Shell broke down over compensation and a clean-up package for the community. The company has accepted responsibility for a double rupture of the Bodo-Bonny trans-Niger pipeline in 2008 that pumps 120,000 barrels of oil per day though the community.
CW Law has made counter-allegations against Leigh Day, which are disputed. At the end of the hearing on Thursday the London court extended the UK injunction against CW Law and said that it appeared to have been breached.
The court also ordered that the CW Law settlement should have no effect in the courts of England and Wales. CW Law was due to have paid £2m, the court heard, if the deal went through.
After the hearing, Martyn Day, senior partner at Leigh Day, said: “We are very pleased that the judge agreed 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 for those of our clients caught by it peanuts.
“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.”