An odd decision over contribution, but no need to worry.

As they used to say as often as they could in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Don’t panic!”

What rules govern contribution proceedings between tortfeasors? In Roberts v SSAFA [2020] EWCA Civ 926 a little boy, presumably a service child, was injured in hospital in Germany owing to SSAFA’s negligence. SSAFA claimed contribution from the MoD, alleging they were concurrently liable. The MoD said, correctly, that German law applied to the contribution proceedings and under German law they were out of time. SSAFA said yes, but then struck a remarkably nationalistic note. The English Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978, it argued, ought to apply to all proceedings in the English court even if the liability would otherwise be governed by foreign law: and since that said the claim against the MoD wasn’t statute-barred that was an end of it.

One decision directly in point, Arab Monetary Fund v Hashim [1994] CLY 3555, supported SSAFA; the law professors, by contrast, broadly supported the MoD. The Court of Appeal, after a lengthy analysis of the 1978 Act, came down on the side of SSAFA: on a proper interpretation the Act it, and its scheme of liability, were meant to apply to any proceedings brought here, full stop.

To put things neutrally, this blog would have been with the law professors. The decision will hardly do much for comity; nor does the result make much sense as part of a sensible scheme of private international law, since where it applies it is an open invitation to come and do some socially-distanced forum-shopping in England.

But, as we said at the beginning, don’t panic. The parties’ names in this case might well have been not Roberts and SSAFA but Jarndyce and Jarndyce: the events took place as long ago as 2000 (!). Since 2009 we have had a more sensible rule about contribution in Art.10 of Rome II, which essentially subjects contribution claims to the law governing the main tort. In just about every case you come across these days, barring outliers like this one, it will apply. Whatever else you may think of the EU, Rome I and Rome II are much better provisions than the common law rules they replaced; and even better than that, it seems a racing certainty they will they will continue serenely on post-Brexit. So litigation lawyers can pour that large gin and tonic with a clear conscience this evening.

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