Most shareholders hold no shares — official. But it doesn’t matter.

Relief all round in the Square Mile today, courtesy of Hildyard J in SL Claimants v Tesco Plc [2019] EWHC 2858 (Ch).

Something over two years ago Tesco was fined a whopping £129 million for publishing misleading profit figures which bent the market in its shares. A number of institutions, market makers and others who had relied on these figures sued Tesco under s.90A and Sch.10A of FSMA 2000, saying they had bought or retained its shares on the basis of the figures. At this point, however, Tesco raised a classic pettifogger’s point (to be fair, one previously raised by, among others, Profs Gullifer and Benjamin).

To qualify for compensation under FSMA you have by Sch.10A to have bought, disposed of or retained “any interest in securities”. Tesco said two things. First, they argued that where shares were dematerialised and the custody chain included more than one layer of custodianship, no ultimate beneficiary investor ever held an interest in any securities so as to trigger liability under FSMA. If shares were vested (legally) in A who held them on trust for B who held them for investor X, X had an interest in B’s interest in the shares, but no interest in the shares themselves. Secondly, Tesco contended that intermediated securities were fungible; that when they were dealt with the whole transaction was effectuated by a combination of electronic credit and debit book entries and netting arrangements between custodians; and therefore that one could simply not talk in the old-fashioned way about shares being acquired or disposed of by anyone. True, they admitted, their plea would leave the relevant parts of FSMA largely like Cinderella — all dressed up with nowhere to go — and largely emasculate the whole UK scheme of investor protection as regards dematerialised securities (meaning these days almost all securities); but, in effect, that was tough. Fiat justitia ruat coelum, as they might have put it.

Hildyard J was having none of it. He accepted that where there were two or more custodians in a securities daisy-chain the ultimate investor technically had an interest in his immediate custodian’s interest, and not in the actual shares in which the custodian had an interest. But he rejected the idea that juridico-metaphysical niceties of this sort affected FSMA. “Any interest”, he said, could and should be interpreted as including any proprietary interest in shares or interests in shares. True it was, too, that technically a transfer of shares these days involved no transfer of anything at all, but rather a stream of electrons signifying juridical suppression of one equitable claim in X and its co-ordinated supersession by another in Y. But this did not prevent concepts like disposal being given their popular, rather than their technical equity lawyers’, meaning.

So the big claim against Tesco goes ahead. Relief, one suspects, not only in the City but in government. Had the result gone the other way there would have been a need for urgent corrective legislation. And in these fraught times we know just how hard it can be to get that kind of thing through.

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