Demand guarantees: interpretations and paradoxes.

Cases about letters of credit and performance bonds often raise points of intellectual interest in commercial law. Waksman J’s decision in Técnicas Reunidas Saudia Ltd v Korea Development Bank [2020] EWHC 968 (TCC), decided 12 weeks ago but only up on BAILII this week, is a case in point. It raised nice issues of contractual interpretation, and also discussed the old chestnut of what to do about non-documentary conditions. And in both cases it got the answer right: a good thing, given that quite big money (something like £8 million) turned on it.

TRS were a big construction company involved in a mega-project in Saudi Arabia. One of its subcontractors was S. The bank, a Korean corporation, issued TRS with what was effectively an advance payment guarantee, operable on first written demand by TRS, to cover TRS’s cash-flow advances to S. The guarantee, which was subject to URDG758, went on to say: “It is a condition for any claim and payment under this guarantee to be made that the funds paid as advance payments subject to the terms of the subcontract must have been received by the sub-contractor on its account number 042-117994-03 held with HSBC.”

S ceased work in circumstances at best murky. TRS called on the guarantee and provided evidence of advances made to the named account number at SABB, a Saudi associate of HSBC which traded on the connection and indeed used the HSBC logo. Meanwhile a court in Korea was asked to issue an injunction preventing the bank from paying. Caught between a rock and a hard place (it being clear that the English court would ignore any Korean court order, Korea being the place neither of the governing law nor of payment), the bank thrashed around for a reason not to pay. It eventually refused on the basis that, payment to an account at SABB was not payment to HSBC and hence the condition was unsatisfied. Waksman J was unimpressed and gave summary judgment for TRS. This he did for two reasons.

First, he said that the generic reference to “HSBC” had to be interpreted to mean HSBC or its associated banks. Not only was this what a reasonable man present at the time of contracting would have understood; it also avoided the awkwardness that would follow from any other answer, which was that the guarantee would have been waste paper from the beginning because it was subject to a condition that could not be complied with. He also added a reference to a further point, often forgotten by busy lawyers, known as the principle of misnomer. If a document referred to an entity by an incorrect name and the reference was not ambivalent between two separate entities, extrinsic evidence was admissible to show which entity was meant. This was the case here.

More interestingly, his Lordship also took the point that the condition in the guarantee was non-documentary, and said that TRS could invoke Art.7 of the URDG, equivalent to Art.14.h of the UCP600, which provides that “[i]f a credit contains a condition without stipulating the document to indicate compliance with the condition, banks will deem such condition as not stated and will disregard it”. The non-documentary condition, he held, simply fell to be excised; from which it followed that even if TRS had failed to comply with it this was irrelevant.

This has always been a matter of controversy, raising the same sort of paradoxical issue as Odysseus’s order to his crew to tie him to the mast as they sailed past the Sirens and to ignore any subsequent commands he might give (they duly disobeyed a subsequent order to untie him, thus assuring his safe arrival in Ithaca). On one argument, parties inserting a non-documentary condition are to that extent contracting out of Art.7 and so the condition still takes effect; but although accepted in Singapore (see Kumagai-Zenecon v Arab Bank [1997] 3 S.L.R. 770), this solution does have the disadvantage of leaving the provision like Cinderella: all dressed up, but with nowhere to go. In the present case Waksman J emphatically rejected it. Even if the UCP and URDG technically became binding on traders by contractual incorporation and were in no way legislative, they were a special kind of instrument not necessarily subject to the ordinary rules of contractual interpretation. And, whatever the logical problems, a court should interpret them so as to give effect as far as possible to all their provisions.

This may not be the last word, especially on Art.7 and its UCP equivalent. It is nevertheless a very sensible word. We at IISTL hope future courts will take it up, amplify and confirm it.

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