Contempt Proceedings: Ecobank Wins Round One Over Honeywell

By Bola Tito

The Federal High Court in Lagos last Friday struck out a contempt charge filed against Ecobank Nigeria Limited by Honeywell Flour Mills Plc.

Justice Mohammed Idris held that the Form 48 and Form 49 (with which contempt proceedings are initiated) were not properly served on the alleged contemnors.

The charge had been filed by Honeywell Group, which urged the court to jail the Ecobank MD for allegedly violating an August 10, 2015 court order, which barred Ecobank from publishing the name of Honeywell Group among chronic debtors last year.

The company, through its counsel, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), alleged that Ecobank, through its lawyer, Mr. Kunle Ogunba (SAN), had taken steps contrary to the court’s order by filing other suits in a bid to recover the alleged debt from Honeywell.

In his ruling, however, the presiding judge, Justice Mohammed Idris, held that a party seeking to jail another for disobeying a court order was duty bound to ensure that processes in contempt proceedings were duly served.

Breach of such proper service, he said, “will wrought consequences on the proceedings.”

Declining jurisdiction, Justice Idris said: “What I can see from a close examination of form 48 is that the form is stamped; the wordings are however illegible. I can see that the stamp has the date of 19th November 2015. The same applies to Form 49.

“A valid proof of service of the same forms must have endorsed therein the following, as stated by the Court of Appeal: (1) particulars of the person serving; (2) date of service; (3) time and place of service and (4) the person that accepted the service.

“I’m afraid that it appears that the Form 48 and 49 were not properly endorsed with the particulars of service. In effect, there is no reliable or authentic information before the court as to the service of the Form 48 and 49 on the defendants herein.

“This issue goes to the issue of the jurisdiction of the court. This court must act with caution. I decline jurisdiction. I hold that the jurisdiction of this court has not been properly invoked in respect of the contempt proceedings and same is hereby struck out”.

He further warned parties against taking any action that could incur the court’s wrath.

“Let me warn that orders of court are binding and enforceable until set aside by an order of court of competent jurisdiction. The order of this court that the parties maintain status quo ante bellum remains valid and binding on all the parties until set aside.

“Whenever the disciplinary jurisdiction of this court is properly invoked, this court will descend heavily without any fear on whichever party is found guilty of contempt of this court. This court barks and it bites”.

The Judge then adjourned till February 26 for hearing of Ecobank’s motion for stay of proceedings.

Justice Idris had last August 10 made an order of interim injunction restraining the bank from publishing the plaintiffs’ name as debtors.

The judge also ordered parties to maintain status quo pending hearing of the plaintiffs’ suit against Ecobank.

But while the suit was pending, Ecobank filed other suits before other judges in a bid to recover its debt from Honeywell Group and its chairman, Oba Otudeko.

Honeywell, through its lawyer, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), thereafter filed the Form 48 and Form 49, urging the High Court to hold the bank in contempt.