Intransigent defendants: Prestige 4.0

Most parties who lose English court cases or arbitrations give in (relatively) gracefully. In the long and ongoing Prestige saga, however (already well documented in this blog: see here, here, here, and here), the French and Spanish governments have chosen to fight tooth and nail, something that is always apt to give rise to interesting legal points. Last Friday’s episode before Butcher J (SS Mutual v Spain [2020] EWHC 1920 (Comm)) was no exception, though in the event nothing particularly novel in the way of law emerged.

To recap, nearly twenty years ago the laden tanker Prestige sank off northern Spain, grievously polluting the French and Spanish coasts. Steamship Mutual, the vessel’s P&I Club, accepted that it might be potentially liable to direct suit up to the CLC limit, but pointed out that its cover was governed by English law, contained a “pay to be paid” clause and required arbitration in London. Nothing daunted, the French and Spanish governments came in as parties civiles when the owners and master were prosecuted in Spain, and claimed their full losses. The Club meanwhile protected its position by obtaining declaratory arbitration awards in England against both governments that all claims against it had to be arbitrated here; for good measure it then successfully transmuted these awards into High Court judgments under s.66 of the 1996 Arbitration Act (see The Prestige (No 2) [2013] EWHC 3188 (Comm). These decisions the French and Spanish governments blithely ignored, however; instead they took proceedings in Spain to execute the judgments they had obtained there.

In the present litigation, the Club’s claim (slightly simplified) was against both governments for damages for continuing the Spanish proceedings, based either on breach of the arbitration agreement, or in the alternative on failure to act in accordance with the s.66 judgments. The object, unsurprisingly, was to establish an equal and opposite liability to meet any claim asserted by the governments under their judgments in the Spanish proceedings.

The Club sought service out on the French and Spanish governments: the latter resisted, arguing that they were entitled to state immunity, and that in any case the court had no jurisdiction.

On the state immunity point, the Club succeeded in defeating the governments’ arguments. The proceedings for breach of the arbitration agreement were covered by the exception in s.9 of the State Immunity Act 1978 as actions “related to” an arbitration agreement binding on the governments. Importantly, Butcher J regarded it as unimportant that the proceedings did not relate to the substantive matter agreed to be arbitrated, and that the governments might be bound not by direct agreement but only in equity on the basis that they were third parties asserting rights arising from a contract containing an arbitration clause.

The proceedings on the judgments, by contrast, were not “related to” the arbitration agreement under s.9: understandably so, since they were based on failure to give effect to a judgment, the connection to arbitration being merely a background issue. But no matter: they were covered by another exception, that in s.3(1)(a), on the basis that the breach alleged – suing in the teeth of an English judgment that they had no right to do so – was undoubtedly a “commercial transaction” as defined by that section.

The judge declined to decide on a further argument now moot: namely, whether suing abroad in breach of an English arbitration agreement was a breach of a contractual obligation to be performed in England within the exception contained in s.3(1)(b) of the 1978 Act. But the betting, in the view of this blog, must be that that exception would have been inapplicable: there is a big and entirely logical difference between a duty not to do something other than in England, and an obligation actually to do (or omit to do) something in England, which is what s.3(1)(b) requires.

State immunity disposed of, did the court have jurisdiction over these two governments? Here the holding was yes, but only partly. The claim based on the s.66 judgments was, it was held, subject not only to the Brussels I Recast Regulation but to its very restrictive insurance provisions dealing with claims against injured parties (even, note, where the claims were being brought, as some were in the case of Spain, under rights of subrogation). Since the governments of France and Spain were ex hypothesi not domiciled in England, but in their respective realms, there could be no jurisdiction against them.

On the other hand, the claims based on the obligations stemming from the arbitration award were, it was held, within the arbitration exception to Brussels I, and thus outside it and subject to the national rules in CPR, PD6B. The only serious question, given that the arbitration gateway under PD6B 3.1(10) or the “contract governed by English law” gateway under PD6B 3.1(6)(c) pretty clearly applied, was whether there was a serious issue to be tried as to liability in damages. Here Butcher J had no doubt that there was, even if the governments were not directly party to the agreements and the awards had been technically merely declaratory of the Club’s rights. It followed that service out should be allowed in respect of the award claims.

Further than this his Lordship did not go, for the very good reason that he had no need to. But in our view the better position is that indeed there would in principle be liability under the award claims. If, as is now clear, an injunction is available on equitable grounds to prevent suit in the teeth of an arbitration clause by a third party despite the lack of any direct agreement by the latter, there seems no reason why there should not also be an ability to an award of damages, if only under Lord Cairns’s Act (now the Senior Courts Act 1981, s.50). Further, there seems no reason why there should not be a an implied obligation not to ignore even a declaratory award by suing in circumstances where it has declared suit barred.

For final answers to these questions we shall have to await another decision. Such a decision might even indeed come in the present proceedings, if the intransigence of the French and Spanish governments continues.

One other point to note. The UK may be finally extricating itself from the toils of the EU at the end of this year. But that won’t mark the end of this saga. Nor indeed will it mark the end of the Brussels regime on jurisdiction, since the smart money is on Brussels I being replaced with the Lugano Convention, which is in fairly similar terms. You can’t throw away your EU law notes quite yet.

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