When will a court say “Don’t draw down that bond …” ?

How easy should it be to stop a beneficiary claiming on a performance bond or standby letter of credit? Two cases reported this week (though one was actually decided about ten weeks ago) lead to slightly divergent results.

The first case, decided on Thursday under the name ETC Export Trading v AplasImporter [2020] EWHC 3229 (QB), revolved around what one might diplomatically call a somewhat rum demand under a performance bond. Under a contract containing an English law and London arbitration clause, Swiss sellers agreed to sell $21 million-odd worth of wheat to Aplas, an Ethiopian importer, to be paid for by letter of credit, with (as usual) no duty in the seller to perform unless and until the credit had been opened. In addition the seller was required to open a 10% performance bond in favour of Aplas, Aplas expressly agreeing not to invoke or claim under the bond unless the seller was in breach.

The seller duly instructed its bank, BNP, to open the performance bond. For reasons unexplained, this was done rather indirectly: an outfit called Berhan opened the actual bond, receiving a counterguarantee from Commerzbank, which in turn received another counterguarantee from BNP.

As it happened the deal went off because Aplas never opened the necessary credit. Shortly later, however, Berhan made a demand on Commerzbank, alleging a demand against it by Aplas, though Aplas was to say the least evasive when asked whether it had actually made any such request. ETC was obviously concerned that it would lose something over $2 million, with little hope of recovery, if the demand was paid by Commerzbank and passed back to BNP. It sought an injunction against Aplas on the basis that Aplas would be in breach of contract were the bond to be called. The relevant order sought was an order to Aplas not itself to call in the bond, and to prevail upon Berhan not to take any steps to claim in its name against Commerzbank. ETC also sought an order against Berhan preventing it from making a claim.

ETC succeeded. Having rightly bulldozered away a rather tentative argument that the arbitration clause prevented the court intervening, Pepperall J decided that even if there was not a clear demonstration of fraud, there was a good arguable claim that Aplas would be in breach its obligation were a call to be made. In addition he injuncted Berhan from calling on Commerzbank, since in his view there was a good arguable case that there was no entitlement to payment under the original bond.

His Lordship was clearly right to accept that intervention was possible even where there was no clear case of fraud. Although generally speaking it is not a breach of contract to call on a bond where nothing is in fact owing, provided you do so in good faith (see eg Costain International v Davy McKee (London) Ltd, unrep., CA, 26.11.1990), an express obligation only to call it in when entitled to payment is on a different footing: see Sirius International Insurance v FAI General Insurance [2003] 1 WLR 2214 and more recently Simon Carves v Ensus UK [2011] EWHC 657 (TCC); [2011] B.L.R. 340. Slightly more interesting is the basis of the claim against Berhan, which was not in contractual privity with ETC. Although it is clearly a good idea for the court to be able to injunct unjustified calls on bonds right down the line of promises and counterguarantees, it is not entirely clear what the foundation of this right could be. Perhaps one should draw a discreet veil over that aspect of the case, but remind lawyers that there remains room for serious argument here.

More problematic, however, and certainly more significant, was Pepperall J’s use of words like “good arguable claim” as the standard for court intervention. This is problematical, in that the traditional standard for injuncting the beneficiary, as much as the provider, of a bond is the test sometimes called the “enhanced merits” test. Under that test, the claimant must proffer clear evidence plus strong corroboration. Otherwise, the reasoning goes, we lose the benefit of regarding the bond as effectively a cash substitute in the hands of the beneficiary.

Admittedly on the facts of ETC itself the distinction between the two tests probably didn’t matter, since it is difficuIt to avoid concluding that the drawdown was indeed clearly prohibited under the contract. But the point is an important one, and a different answer is suggested by Foxton J in the second case, decided last September, Salam Air v Latam Airlines [2020] EWHC 2414 (Comm).

Salam involved a claim on a standby letter of credit, similar in many ways to a performance bond, given to back rental payments under a dry aircraft lease. The lessee was an Omani airline in dire straits following COVID, that was desperate to escape the contract. (It even went so far as a quixotic, if hopeless, plea that the whole arrangement was frustrated by the effective closure of Omani skies to virtually all but cargo planes). The claim by the lessee was made against the lessor to prevent it operating the standby credit.

Foxton J was having none of it, and dismissed the application. This was unsurprising. On the facts the rentals remained owing, and even if they did not there was no express promise not to invoke the credit. It followed that the doctrine of autonomy applied as of course.

His Lordship did go on to say, however, that in his view all claims to prevent payment under letter- of-credit-type instruments, be they letters of credit proper, bonds or standby credits, were on principle subject to the “enhanced merits” test. Furthermore, this applied whether they were brought against the credit institution giving the bond or the beneficiary wishing to claim on it, and whether the basis of the claim was fraud or breach of an express undertaking not to claim under the instrument. (Although unable entirely to escape the Court of Appeal outlier in Themehelp v West [1996] QB 84 which might suggest the contrary, he essentially said it ought to be limited to almost identical facts). In other words, the beneficiary’s right to have the instrument treated as cash in his hands trumped any arguments based on breach of contract.

Which leaves us with the question: where there is an alleged express undertaking not to draw on an instrument, should we be talking “good arguable claim” or “enhanced merits”? The view of this blog is the latter. Absent a clear demonstration of a reason for unenforceability, such bonds should remain as good as cash in the bank, and subject to the doctrine of “pay now, argue later”. If businessmen don’t like that, then they shouldn’t agree to give bonds, or if they do they should provide for them to be operable only against some document that independently verifies the counterparty’s claim.

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