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Court to rule on Multichoice jurisdictional objection on May 21


Managing Director of MultiChoice Nigeria, John Ugbe

Managing Director of MultiChoice Nigeria, John Ugbe

JUSTICE Chukwujekwu Aneke of the Federal High Court, Lagos Tuesday said he would on May 21, 2015 rule on the application filed by Multichoice Nigeria Limited challenging the jurisdiction of the court to hear a suit filed against its increment in subscription fees.

The Digital Satellite pay television giant is arguing that the court cannot hear the matter because there is no cause of action and that the motion on notice was served to National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) (2nd defendants) in Abuja without the leave of the court, which according to it, is out of jurisdiction of the Lagos court.

Two Lagos-based legal practitioners, Messrs Osasuyi Adebayo and Oluyinka Oyeniji, had filed the class action on behalf of themselves and all other DStv subscribers across the country.

The applicants are praying for an order of the court restraining MultiChoice from implementing the 20 per cent increment on DStv subscription rate across its platforms, which began on April 1, 2015.

They also want the court to compel the NBC to regulate the activities of MultiChoice so as to prevent what they described as arbitrary increment in subscription rates.

In addition to the prayers, the applicants want the court to order the firm to migrate to pay-per-view scheme in Nigeria, whereby subscribers would only pay for programmes they watched, as is being done in other parts of the world where MultiChoice operates.

But counsel to MultiChoice, Mr. Moyosore Onigbanjo (SAN), filed a preliminary objection, urging the court to decline jurisdiction and discountenance the reliefs being sought by the applicants.

Arguing on his application, Onigbanjo insisted that the applicants had no cause of action, adding that a court did not have the power to regulate the price of services that a business was offering to its customers.

He pointed the attention of the court to MultiChoice’s conditions or terms of agreement, especially clauses 40 and 41 stating that “Multichoice Nigeria may, from time to time, change the fees payable to Multichoice Nigeria for the Multichoice Service by way of general amendment.”

“My Lord, the country, Nigeria operates a free market economy; neither the government nor the court can regulate prices. How do you now say, for instance, that one bread is more expensive than the other and then ask the court to order the baker of the more expensive bread to go out of the market?” Onigbanjo queried.

He argued further that there was no existing law in Nigeria empowering the NBC to regulate the prices of services that satellite television operators in the country were offering to their customers. According to him, it is practically impossible to regulate fees in a capitalist economy. He likened it to asking lawyers to charge the same fees, if they were to register companies for their clients.

His words: “The NBC Act does not say that any satellite television operators in the country cannot increase their prices. I, therefore, humbly ask that the plaintiffs’ suit be struck out for being grossly unmeritorious. We will not be asking for cost because they are our subscribers.”

But the applicants counsel, Yemi Salma maintained that the court has jurisdiction to entertain the matter. He also argued that the first respondent is not in a position to speak for the 2nd respondent who had not challenged the service of the motion on notice to it in Abuja. Salma wondered what other cause of action would be required of his clients who are subscribers to Dstv and were affected by the increment in tariff.

After listening to arguments, Justice Aneke adjourned till May 21 to rule on the objection.
Earlier Salma had reminded the court that there was a pending application for committal filed against the Managing Director and the Public Relations Officer of Multichoice, Mr. John Ugbe and Caroline Oghuma respectively.

Salma said the committal application is asking the court to jail Ugbe and Oghuma for allegedly disobeying an order of the court and should be taken first before any other thing.

The same court had on April 2, 2015 made an interim order restraining MultiChoice from implementing the 20 per cent increment in subscription rate on DStv, pending the determination of the suit. The applicants alleged that the order was disobeyed and sought to commit the alleged offenders to prison for contempt.

Salma said: “My lord, the application for contempt must be taken first. My lord, this position has been severally adopted by the court, even by the Court of Appeal.”

Onigbanjo in opposition said the jurisdiction of the court had been challenged and that that had to be settled first before the court could even make any order. He reminded the court that the matter was specifically adjourned for the hearing of his client’s preliminary objection, arguing that the court did not have the power to overrule itself.

“My Lord, a court without jurisdiction that goes on to act, does whatever it does in futility. If a court does not have jurisdiction, where does the power for committal come from?” he asked.

As a result, Justice Aneke upheld Onigbanjo’s submission and therefore heard MultiChoice’s preliminary objection ahead of the application for committal.

Efforts by human rights activist, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa to be part of the suit were vehemently opposed by Onigbanjo, who urged the court to discountenance his application.

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