Fidelis Oditah

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This was a BLD interview with Debo Nwauzu in August 2008. Read more about Fidelis Oditah in the Directory

Our Lawyer of the Month is Fidelis Oditah, a Queen’s Counsel, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN - the Nigerian equivalent of a Queen’s Counsel) and a Professor of Law at Oxford University. Chambers 2002-2003 edition described him as having a “huge brain” and that “what he doesn’t know is probably not worth knowing”. 

Fidelis practises as a QC at 3/4 South Square, London and at ODITAH, Legal Practitioners & Arbitrators, in Lagos, Nigeria.  His extensive practice area has included Company Law, Capital Markets, Corporate Finance, Asset-based financing, Projects, Financial Services, Banking and Commercial Arbitration. However, in the last two years he has changed the focus of his practice and moved the bulk of it to Nigeria. His UK practice is now primarily on commercial arbitration with some banking and insolvency advisory work and the Nigerian practice is largely on commercial law, high profile public law cases, oil and gas, commercial and investment arbitration and litigation. 

Born in Nigeria on 27 March, 1964, the son of a Head Teacher, Fidelis graduated at the age of 20 from the University of Lagos with a first-class law degree and scooped 12 of the 13 prize awards. The following year he graduated with the highest first-class honours awarded by the Nigerian Law School in 1985. Between 1985 and 1986 he undertook his National Youth Service Scheme at the Nigerian Law School where he engaged as a lecturer until August 1986. In September of he came to study at Magdalen College, Oxford University with the benefit of a Commonwealth Scholarship. At Oxford, Fidelis obtained a Bachelor of Civil Law in 1987 and a Doctor of Philosophy of Law in 1989, completing his thesis in just two years.

He was called to the Bar (Lincoln’s Inn) in July 1992, did pupillage from January to December 1993 and took silk in April 2003, at the age of 39 and after a mere 10 years at the Bar of England and Wales. In 2004 he became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN).

Fidelis was a Fellow and Tutor in Law at Merton College, Oxford and Travers Smith Braithwaite Lecturer in Corporate Finance Law at Oxford from 1989 until 1997.  He resigned in order to practise full-time at the Bar.  However, he remains a visiting professor at the Oxford University Faculty of Law.

He also served as a consultant to the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law from 1995 until 1999 and he is President of the African Users Council of The London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA), a member of court (governing council) of the LCIA, a member of the Board of Trustees of Foundation for International Arbitration Advocacy (FIAA).
He is the author of many books and learned articles in periodical journals, but his best known publication is probably Legal Aspects of Receivables Financing, published in 1991, a leading text in its field, which is an expanded version of his doctoral thesis. He was also the founding editor of Company, Financial and Insolvency Law Review. He is a member of the Editorial Board of Insolvency Lawyer, a member of the Chancery and Commercial Bar Associations and was a member of the Financial Law Panel Working Group on E-Commerce between 1999 and 2002.
In 2006, Fidelis moved a substantial part of his practice to Nigeria because he was engaged in politics and thought that it would be useful to have something doing when he wasn’t politicking. Since moving to Nigeria he has been involved in politics as he believes politics is important as the government has the capacity and tendency to affect all of us, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. This is particularly so for the middle class Nigerian who are apathetic to politics. It is very important for the middle classes to get involved if they want to change the way Nigeria is run, including eliminating corruption, waste and inefficiency in the system. He ran, unsuccessfully, for the Governorship of Delta State in the Mid-Western part of Nigeria and remains concerned about the middle class’ apathetic stance towards politics in Nigeria. According to Fidelis:  “I am still taking stock and have not ruled out anything yet about politics”.
In an article in Nigerian Village Square, published in 2006, author Eugene Uzum looked back to Fidelis’ graduation day at the University of Lagos and described him as a “softly-spoken and unassuming encyclopedia of law, jokingly referred to as Fidelism.”  

Fidelis is married with four children.

Below is our interview with Fidelis:

BLD: Why did you choose a career in law?
FO:  I thought it would be fun and what fun I have had! I really thought it was something I was going to enjoy so much as I was reasonably analytical and enjoyed public speaking, despite being softly-spoken. I did not have great ambitions. I did not even know about lawyers’ rankings as there was no lawyer in my family and I didn’t follow happenings in the legal world at all.

BLD: If you were to choose another role/profession other than law, what would it be and why?
FO: I would be an economist as I gave up economics reluctantly and with some regret. At the point I was going to university, I was very keen on economics, but at the very last minute I changed my mind and decided to study law. However, my specialism in corporate and financial law has, I think, bridged to an extent the gap.

BLD: What was the best career advice you were given?
FO: I don’t remember anyone giving me any career advice. Also, in Nigeria the professions are fused so I did not have to worry about whether I wanted to be a solicitor or a barrister. 

BLD: What career advice would you give to other lawyers and budding lawyers?
FO:   Just have fun! If in the UK, study what you enjoy most as it does not have to be law. The profession is now highly competitive and it’s best to get the best degree doing what you love and ensure you have the aptitude to be a lawyer. Your degree does not always or necessarily prepare you for your career, so enjoy it!
BLD: Who is the person you most admire (dead or alive) and why?
FO:  Very difficult – there are many people I admire. I’ve never tried to rank them and I think it would be invidious and unhelpful to specify any particular person or persons.

BLD: What are you most passionate/happiest about?
FO:  I am passionate about the law, in particular, the common law because it encourages what I call the search for principle. I am more interested in common law, not so much statutory law. Common law is fun, as you see the development of principles and I, therefore, find things like contract and trust law very enjoyable. The common law of obligation is most enjoyable and I also like personal property, especially the common law of personal property with minimum statutory intervention.

BLD: What are your dislikes?
FO: I find many things irritating, in particular, hypocrisy.

BLD: What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
FO: There were quite a few, actually. However, I will give you a couple – in one case a shareholder seized the asset of a company and I was instructed by the majority shareholders to get the property back. I went before Justice Lindsay of the Chancery Division made what I thought was a pretty straightforward application, but the judge refused to make the order. By the time we returned back to court some three to four weeks later, the shareholder had disposed of the asset, collected the cash which we were not able to claw back and had become bankrupt. In another case, back in 2002, a top city law firm instructed me and I was representing a director who had raised money to acquire a group of companies. He could not, however, pay the money back to the bank and did not want the bank to  enforce its security. The bank appointed receivers and I was instructed to remove the receivers. The application was really going well until the legal representatives for both sides realised that the director had, in fact, retired by rotation and had no standing at all to issue the proceedings in the name of the company!  Having issued proceedings without authority, my instructing solicitors had to pay the receivers’ costs and needless to say I did not get paid either! 

BLD: Tell us your professional high point(s).
FO: I have had so many great cases. One case I did in the House of Lords a few years ago, On Demand Information Plc v Michael Gerson was on the question of whether the court could grant relief against the forfeiture of some equipment which had been obtained on finance leases where the primary period had expired. The complication arose from the fact that the High Court had ordered the sale of the equipment as an interim preservatory measure but at the trial the lessor argued that the equipment having been sold there was nothing in respect of which the court could grant relief against forfeiture and, in particular, that the court could not grant relief in relation to the proceeds of sale of the equipment which was all that was left after the sale. The argument was successful at the High Court and in the Court of Appeal. Much to my relief and that of my client, the lessee, our appeal to the House of Lords was successful. The House of Lords unanimously overruled the Court of Appeal and held that the sale did not defeat relief from forfeiture. My argument was that the proceeds of sale (cash) were a clean substitute for the equipment and that the power to grant relief extended to the proceeds, and that relief against forfeiture should be granted by giving the lessee the proceeds in accordance with its rights under the finance leases. 
BLD: What was the most famous/interesting case(s) you have handled to date?
FO: Again, I have had many cases. I had spent about 10 years working on the series of the landmark BCCI case, on behalf the liquidators. The case I enjoyed the most, however, was a tiny case, where a firm of solicitors registered a charge in favour of a bank, but the company’s name whilst correct,  the company’s registration number was incorrect so that if the particulars at the Companies Registry were searched the charge would not be revealed having been entered against the company whose registration number was erroneously entered on the Form 395. The question was whether it mattered. My argument was that the number, whilst unique, for the purpose of registration of the charge, the name was the critical aspect and the number was just a “detail” and not a “particular” of the charge requiring registration. Therefore the fact that a “detail” which was not a prescribed “particular” was wrong with disastrous consequences did not invalidate the registration.The court accepted this argument.

BLD: Any professional regrets?
FO: No, no regrets at all.

BLD: If you could rule the world for a day what would you change/do?
FO: I would try to eliminate the poverty trap by expanding on the opportunities available to people who get caught in “moneylessness” as it is a blight on our society. I would ensure the best education and the best health care system were available to all so that the accident of birth should not deprive or disable anyone permanently.