Court declares Customs’ carmarts’ seal illegal, awards N500m damages

—Ubani hails landmark judgment

A Federal High Court sitting in Lagos has declared the 2019 raid and sealing of over 434 car marts in Lagos by the Nigerian Customs Service, NCS, for alleged smuggling and under- assessment during clearance at the ports, as illegal and unlawful.

Some of the affected car dealers whose marts were sealed in the September 29, 2019, under the umbrella of Registered Trustees of Auto-Mobile Dealers Friends Association, had through their lawyer Dr Monday Ubani sued the Customs and sought an order of court to declare the invasion and sealing of their marts as unlawful.

They also prayed for a restraining injunction against the Customs and damages of over N5billion insisting that all vehicles in their marts were duly cleared and duties paid at the ports after due assessment by officials of the Nigerian Customs.

The car dealers also prayed for a declaration that having been duly inspected, cleared and issued the required Customs clearance papers after payment of duly assessed customs duty, officials of the Nigerian Customs have no justification to thereafter invade their business premises, on the ground that same vehicles were smuggled or not properly assessed and cleared by the designated officers.

Delivering judgment in the matter on December 27, 2023, after five years of litigation, Justice A. O. Awogboro held that the sealing up of the car marts of the plaintiff’s members was unlawful and arbitrary, as there was no justification for the unlawful act.

The judge further held that the argument by Customs that some members of the plaintiff had complied by undertaking to make the additional payment as a result of which their car marts were unsealed, is not tenable and does not in any way justify the arbitrary action of raiding and sealing their marts.

Justice Awogboro also discarded the contention of Customs that the plaintiff’s association lacked the competence to institute the matter since it is a Registered Trustees instead of an Incorporated trustee.

Other reliefs granted by the judge, include; an order of mandatory injunction directing the Defendants to, with immediate effect, unseal the business premises of all members of the Plaintiff.

An order of perpetual injunction restraining the Defendants from further invading and sealing the business premises of the members of the Plaintiff on the ground that the vehicles in their car shops which had earlier been inspected, assessed and cleared at the Port by officers of the Defendant were not properly inspected, assessed and cleared.

An order directing the Defendants to pay to the Plaintiff the sum of N500,000,000.00, as general and aggravated damages for the arbitrary and unlawful invasion and sealing off of the Plaintiff’s members business premises since September 30, 2019, and for the huge economic loss and depreciation in business fortunes of members of the plaintiff on account of the unlawful sealing off of their business premises.

The judge also held that interest on the judgment sum must be at the prevailing monetary policy rate (Central Bank of Nigeria Rate) from the date of judgment until judgment sum is fully liquidated.

Reacting to the judgment, Dr Ubani said his clients were full of appreciation for the erudite judgement delivered by the learned judge.

He recommended that such boldness and uprightness to be exhibited by judges of various courts in the land in order to end impunity in the system.

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