JURISDICTION OF THE FEDERAL HIGH COURT: ACCESS BANK MAKES “ABSURD” ARGUMENT AT THE COURT OF APPEAL

Access Bank Plc v. Okpu [2021] 6 NWLR (Pt. 1773) 563 at 588 per Ogakwu, JCA

It is, most respectfully, ludicrous, preposterous and specious for the Appellant (Access Bank Plc) to contend that the loan facility it granted its customer in the course of carrying on banking business is a simple contract which does not arise from a banker/customer relationship. That cannot be the law and I vehemently refuse to learn such disingenuous legal sophistry. The relationship between the parties from the averments in the statement of claim is a banker-customer relationship. There is nothing in the statement of claim to show a matter relating to a simple contract. The lower court consequently had the requisite jurisdiction to entertain the action.

Notes

Access Bank Plc (The Appellant) granted loan facilities to its customer, Ray Okpu (The Respondent) for the purpose of financing the purchase of shares of some blue chip companies. Dispute arose regarding the transaction and the Respondent commenced an action against the Bank at the Federal High Court seeking some declaratory reliefs to the effect that he was no longer indebted to the Bank.

The Bank entered appearance in protest, and filed a preliminary objection challenging the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court on the ground that the transaction was a simple contract and that it never emanated from a banker-customer relationship.

The idea here is that both the Federal High Court and the High Courts of States have concurrent jurisdiction to hear matters bordering on banker-customer relationship by virtue of Section 251(1)(d) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). Meanwhile, only State High Courts have the jurisdiction to hear cases of contract (the so called simple contracts).

Thus, in order to deny the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court, the Bank argued that the loan transaction was purely a contract and that the dispute emanating from the contract had nothing to do with a banker-customer relationship.

The Federal High Court overruled the objection and held that it had the requisite jurisdiction to entertain the case.

The Bank appealed to the Court of Appeal which had no difficulty in dismissing the appeal for lacking in merit. (This was on 20th June 2020). In expressing the opinion of the Court of Appeal, Ogakwu, JCA found the Bank’s arguments as put forward by its Counsel as absolutely absurd. See quote above.

His Lordship relied on the Supreme Court’s position in the case of Bank of the North v. YAU [2001] 10 NWLR (Pt. 721) 408 where it was held that in the course of carrying on the business of banking, a bank enters into several contractual relationships and performs various roles. One of them is the relationship of creditor and debtor that arises when the bank advances loans to its customer. His Lordship rightly concluded (at page 587) thus:

I have ruminated and mulled over the Appellant’s contention, but I am not enthused by the same as it cannot represent the correct legal position.

As a matter of fact, the banker-customer relationship itself is purely contractual. The absurdity in the Bank’s argument can be further gleaned when one considers that it is unimaginable that a bank will advance a loan to any person not being a customer of the bank, maintaining an account with the bank.

Abubakar, JCA was also of the view that the Appellant laboured to put the law upside down. According to his Lordship:

I need to just emphasize that it is completely needless embarking on worthless exercise battling to take Appellant’s case out of banker-customer relationship. The Appellant must know that from the facts, the entire circumstances of the transaction, and in particular the averments of the parties in their pleadings, the transaction is pure banker-customer transaction. For the Appellant to insist on the relationship being founded on simple contract is putting the law upside down. I do not also agree. The Appellant is dwelling under gross misconception of the law, and has nothing useful to urge this Court. The appeal is barren and therefore deserves to be dismissed, I also dismiss it… 

This is one case where delay tactics appeared to have been deployed as a stumbling block to the timely determination of a suit. Otherwise, how do one explain that such an unintelligent argument would be advanced in the first place up to the Court of Appeal. Possibly, an appeal to the Supreme Court might even be pending.

 



Stephen Azubuike
Author: Stephen Azubuike
Stephen is a lawyer with expertise in Commercial Dispute Resolution and Technology Law practice. He is a Partner at Infusion Lawyers. He has successfully argued cases from the High Courts of various jurisdictions to the Appellate Courts on behalf of financial institutions, other corporate bodies and multinationals. He has worked with a number of startup tech companies. He tweets @siazubuike.

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