Asymmetric jurisdiction clauses — financiers can indeed breathe freely

Most people think of an exclusive jurisdiction clause as a clause requiring all disputes to be heard in one forum, whoever raises them. But this is over-simplified. A jurisdiction clause may also be asymmetrically exclusive, allowing one party to sue in any court it can sweet-talk into taking the case but limiting the other to suing in a single jurisdiction. Financiers love these clauses, which protect them from litigation in uncongenial courts while at the same time preserving maximum freedom to pursue the borrower wherever he has assets or the courts have creditor-friendly judges.

There is no doubt that these clauses are enforceable as a matter of English law, but do they count as exclusive jurisdiction clauses? The point matters because of Art.31 of Brussels I Recast. This says that where two courts in the EU are hearing the same dispute, the second seised must give way, unless there is an exclusive jurisdiction clause in its favour (Art.31.2). Will an asymmetric clause do to invoke the exception? A resounding Yes came from Jacobs J yesterday in Etihad Airways PJSC v Flother [2019] EWHC 3107 (Comm).

Etihad had in happier times agreed to prop up the ailing airline Berlinair to the tune of several hundred million dollars, though in the event without success (it collapsed definitively in 2017). The agreement contained an asymmetrical jurisdiction clause requiring Berlinair to sue only in England but allowing Etihad to sue anywhere.

Berlinair’s German liquidator sued Etihad in Germany for allegedly failing to come up with the promised rescue monies. Etihad in turn sued the liquidator in London for what was effectively a declaration of non-liability; the liquidator sought to stay the action on the basis that the German courts were first seised; Etihad retorted that their action was protected by Art.31.2.

Having decided that the liquidator’s proceedings were covered by the exclusive jurisdiction clause and had been brought contrary to it, Jacobs J had no doubt, in common with Cranston J in Commerzbank AG v Liquimar Tankers Management Inc [2017] EWHC 161 (Comm) , that they were indeed protected by Art.31.2. Any other solution, he said, would lead to anomalous results and greatly limit the effect of the reforms to the original Brussels I introduced by the revised Art.31. And, in the view of this blog, he was right to decide the way he did. In any case, it gives the law a useful degree of certainty: from now on, only a decision of the CJEU or a peculiarly contrary one by the Court of Appeal is likely to be able to upset the accepted position.

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