A Lagos Federal High Court has described United Bank for Africa Plc’s (UBA) action of closing the account of one of its former staff, Ms. Olufunke Bella, without any court order as illegal, unlawful, and a breach of fundamental rights.
The court also ordered UBA Plc and ordered the bank to tender an unreserved apology to Ms. Olufunke Bella.
The court further ordered UBA Plc, to pay Ms. Olufunke the sum of N1 million as aggravated and punitive damages for the unlawful act.
Justice Ayokunle Faji made the above orders while delivering judgment in a fundamental rights enforcement suit filed by the former UBA Plc staff against the bank.
The applicant, Ms. Olufunke Bella, a former Recovery Officer of the bank, had approached the court in a fundamental rights enforcement suit marked FHC/L/CS/1001/2021, under Rules 2010 made by the Chief Justice Of Nigeria under Section 46(3) of the constitution of the Federal Republic Of Nigeria 1999.
The applicant by an originating motion on notice dated August 3, 2021, but filed on August 11, 2021, asked the court for the following reliefs: “a declaration(s) that UBA’s act of freezing her account number 1002525153 with the respondent and also blacklisting her Bank Verification Number (BVN) for an alleged forgery without affording her fair hearing before a court of competent jurisdiction or court order permitting the UBA’s action is illegal, unlawful, a breach of banker and customer relationship and most importantly, a breach of her fundamental rights as guaranteed by Sections 36(1) & (2) and 44(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
“That assuming without conceding, there is any order of a court of competent jurisdiction to freeze her account with UBA and to blacklist her Bank Verification Number, such cannot operate in perpetuity without affording her any opportunity to be heard or defend herself against the alleged crime made against her or the court’s findings that culminated into making such order that affects her.
“An order directing UBA to de-freeze her above-stated account with the respondent forthwith.
“An order directing the respondent to write a letter of apology to the Applicant for its gross misconduct, reckless act, and illegality which has put the Applicant into untold hardship and financial embarrassment.
The sum of N1 million, as aggravated and punitive damages against the respondent in her favour.”
The former UBA Plc staff supported the motion with a seven-paragraph affidavit with exhibits attached and a written address.
The applicant through its counsel, formulated three issues, which were: “Whether the decision of the Supreme Court in Turkur v. Gongola State (1989) 9 SCNJ @ 1 / (1989) 4 NWLR (Pt. 117) @ 518, which is to the effect that fundamental rights action can only be entertained by this Honourable Court provided such cause of action flows from or related to a matter arising from original jurisdiction in Section 251(1) of the 1999 C.F.R.N is still the law, so as decline jurisdiction in respect of this suit?
“Whether the Respondent’s acts freezing the applicant’s account No. 1002525153 with her and blacklisting the Applicant’s BVN for the alleged crime of forgery without affording her a fair hearing before a Court of competent jurisdiction or a court order permitting the Respondent’s Section is legal, lawful and by the regular and standard practice of Banker and customer relationship?
“Whether assuming without conceding there was a Court order of competent jurisdiction enabling the Respondent to freeze the Applicant’s account and blacklist of her Bank Verification Number, can such order be in perpetuity and valid given Sections 36(1) & (2) and 44(1) of C.F.R.N 1999?” 4 On issue one, Counsel submitted that given the TURKUR V. GONGOLA STATE (supra) and other authorities, this Court has unfettered jurisdiction to entertain this suit.”
The counsel urged the court to grant all the reliefs sought by the applicant against UBA if the issues formulated are in favour of the applicant.
But UBA Plc, through its counsel, M. Dio, filed a 16-paragraph Counter Affidavit with an exhibit attached and a Written Address on February 10, 2022, and raised a sole issue for determination.
The issue raised by UBA’s counsel reads: “Whether having regards to the facts and affidavit evidence presented by both parties in this case, the Applicant is entitled to the reliefs sought?”
UBA counsel after citing plethora of authorities urged the court to dismiss the applicant’s suit with a substantial cost for being vexatious and lacking in merit.
Delivering judgment in the suit on March 10, 2023, Justice Faji after reading through all the exhibits tendered by parties, and critically examining issues formulated held that: “It is trite that the Plaintiff’s claim determines the jurisdiction of the Court. In the instant case, the applicant contends that by freezing her account and backlisting her BVN without allowing her to be heard, her right to a fair hearing and to own property were infringed upon by the respondent. That is the main claim herein. The case of Tukur V Govt Of Gongola State (Supra) is instructive on this.
“The respondent in response to the application did not deny freezing the applicant’s account but contended that the account has since been released.
“The applicant alleges that her account was frozen in May 2021. She wrote two letters neither of which was responded to. The respondent did not dispute the freezing of the applicant’s account and blacklisting of the BVN but contends that because the applicant had a closing balance of N474, 35.00 as of 20th October 2021, she had been operating her account. The statement of account exhibited does not however bear this out.
From the said statement, it is clear that between April 1st, 2021, and 9th September 2021 there were no withdrawals from the account. This is consistent with freezing of the account. The closing balance as of 20th October 2021 has nothing to do with the fact that as of the date of filing of this action i.e. 11th August 2021, the applicant could not withdraw money from her account with the Respondent. As of the date of the filing of the suit, therefore, the Applicant’s account was frozen. It is noteworthy that the counter-affidavit was sworn to on 10th February 2022.
“There was thus no plausible explanation for the denial of access to the account of the Applicant between 1st April 2021 and 9th September 2021. She was also not informed or invited to make representations before those steps were taken. There is also nothing to suggest that the actions were based on any law or regulation.
“I, therefore, find that the applicant was denied access to her account without any justification and that in so doing she was also denied a fair hearing in the process leading to the freezing of her account. This claim therefore succeeds.
“I grant the declarations sought in relief 1. It would seem that the account has already been unfrozen. Relief 2(1) is therefore now academic and is hereby struck out.
“I grant relief 2(2) and order the respondent to write a letter of apology to the Applicant through her Counsel within 7 days of this judgment.
“It is not in dispute that the applicant was put out of her funds for the period during which she was denied access to her account. It has not been disputed that the applicant was a former employee of the respondent, who was relieved of her employment and thereafter filed an action which was amicably resolved with the Respondent making a payment to the Applicant.
“It, therefore, seems more than a coincidence that the applicant’s account was frozen by her former employer without any explanation or valid reason.