A United Kingdom Court will on June 20 deliver judgment on preliminary issues raised in the legal action brought by about 15,000 members of Bodo community in Gokana Local Government Area of Rivers State against Shell.
The 15,000 fishermen are seeking compensation for damages caused by two oil spills in 2008 and the judgment will form the basis of potentially the largest ever environmental legal trial expected to take place at the High Court in London in May 2015.
The ‘preliminary issues hearing’, which took place last April, was the first time Shell had to face a formal court proceedings in the UK for its environmental record in the Niger Delta, following two massive oil spills in 2008 and 2009.
The hearing before the President of the Technological and Construction Court, Justice Akenhead, considered a range of arguments put forward by a London-based law firm, Leigh Day, which is representing the 15,000 fishermen.
The preliminary judgment will resolve a range of contentious issues ahead of a full trial that will commence next year.
One of the most crucial arguments is whether Shell can be held accountable for the illegal bunkering of its pipelines.
Hearing on the compensation claim began last April after Leigh Day instituted the legal action at the High Court in March 2012, following the breakdown of talks over compensation and a clean- up package for the community.
The two sides also failed to reach a compensation deal in 2013, with Leigh Day calling Shell's initial offer "insulting."
The British-Dutch company was said to have proposed a settlement of N7.5 billion ($46 million, 35 million euros).
But lawyers for the villagers said the local environment was devastated by the two spills, depriving thousands of subsistence farmers and fishermen of their means of livelihoods.
The Senior Partner at Leigh Day, Martyn Day, in April said each individual would end up with around N275,000 (1,300 euros, $1,700) after subtracting a lump sum to be paid to the community.
Martyn Day said the case was a highly significant one in that it would be the first time Shell would be held to account in Britain for its environmental record in Nigeria by a local community.
“It will also have broad implications as the issues which will determine the degree to which Shell is liable in general for the mass pollution of the region in which is has pumped and spilled oil at least the last 20 years,” he said.
He claimed that most of the fishermen affected by the spills earn $5,000 to $8,400 a year.
“Our clients know how much their claims are worth and will not be bought off cheaply," Day said in a statement.
According to him, experts estimate the spills in the cluster of fishing communities in the state to be between 500,000 and 600,000 barrels.
Shell acknowledged liability for the spills and formally agreed this with Day in 2011, but it disputes the amount of oil involved and the extent of the damage.
Over the years, Shell had blamed the “bunkerers” for the great majority of the oil spills in the Niger Delta.
Day argued that under Nigerian law, anyone who suffered damage can claim compensation if they can show that Shell was guilty of neglect in failing to ‘protect, maintain or repair’ the pipeline.
The law firm also argued that Shell should retain this duty of care when it comes to illegal acts against the pipeline, and that it should do a lot more to protect their pipelines from third party theft and should act more rapidly to prevent the spillage of oil when their pipelines are drilled into.
The Bodo community claims that the pipeline, which caused the devastating leaks, is over 55 years old and should have been replaced many years ago.