Avoidance of Insurance Policy under the New Law 

The new proportionate approach to remedies for breach of “the duty of fair presentation” introduced by the Insurance Act (IA) 2015 has recently been to put test in Berkshire Assets (West London) Ltd v. AXA Insurance UK Plc [2021] EWHC 2789 (Comm).   

The facts are relatively straightforward. The assured, a joint venture vehicle used to purchase and develop an existing office block into residential apartments, bought from the insurer a Construction All Risks and Business Interruption Policy. On 1 January 2020, the insured development suffered damage as a result of flooding and the assured sought to claim for the property damage under the policy. During the investigation stage of the claim it transpired that when the policy was procured in November 2019, the assured failed to disclose the fact that criminal charges were filed against one of its directors in Malaysia in August 2019 by the Malaysian public prosecutor in relation to an alleged scheme to defraud the Malaysian government and other purchasers of bonds. The insurer avoided the policy on the premise that the relevant non-disclosure was material and if it had been adequately disclosed, the insurer would not have agreed to insure the assured at all. The judgment was given in favour of the insurer on both grounds. 

The finding on materiality is not surprising at all. The IA 2015, introduces no change in the materiality test, which originates from s. 18(2) of the Marine Insurance Act (MIA) 1906 and, accordingly, stipulates that a circumstance’s materiality will need to be judged with reference to the influence it would have on “the judgment of a prudent insurer in determining whether to take the risk and, if so, on what terms.”  The fact that the test remains unaltered means that the case law as it stood prior to the introduction of the IA 2015 is still relevant. And on numerous occasions, the courts repeatedly acknowledged that the charge of a criminal offence would often constitute a material circumstance (see, for example, March Cabaret Club v. London Assurance [1975] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 169). And it did not matter that the Malaysian criminal charges had been subsequently dismissed. There is authority indicating that materiality must be judged at the date of placement and not with the benefit of hindsight. This was put very cogently by Phillips J (as he then was) in The Dora [1989] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 69, at 93: “when accepting a risk underwriters were properly influenced not merely by the facts which, with hindsight, can be shown to have actually affected the risk but with the facts that raised doubts about the risk.” (a point endorsed by Mance, LJ (as he then was) in Brotherton & Ors v. Aseguradora Colseguros (No 2) [2003] EWCA Civ 705). Further, Colman, J, held (which was approved by the Court of Appeal) in North Star Shipping Ltd v. Sphere Drake Insurance Plc [2005] EWHC 665; [2005] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 76 that a failure to disclose pending criminal charges were material facts, even though the assured was acquitted and the charges set aside.            

Proving materiality and inducement would have been adequate to avoid the policy under the old regime but the changes introduced by the IA 2015 on the remedies available now requires the insurer to prove either that the assured acted fraudulently or recklessly in failing to present the risk fairly or the insurer would not have taken the risk at all had (s)he been aware of the criminal charges brought against one of its directors in Malaysia (s. 8 of the IA 2015). In this case, the insurer was able to prove the latter by relying on an internal practice note on “disclosure of previous insurance, financial or criminal matters” which provided that if an assured client disclosed maters that fell within a particular “negative criteria”, the risk was not acceptable to the insurer and should be declined. The Court was satisfied that the insurer had no authority to write the risk under the practice note and if the criminal charges had been appropriately disclosed the insurer would have declined the risk.  

The case is a timely reminder that failing to disclose criminal charges or convictions could trigger moral hazard concerns in relation to the assured and in most instances would be held to be material even if they are not directly related to the assured’s involvement with the insured property. But more significantly, one should not disregard the role the insurer’s internal practice note played in achieving the desired result from the insurer’s perspective. Given that under the IA 2015, it is vital for the insurer to demonstrate what s(he) would have done had the risk been fairly presented to him/her, one perhaps would expect insurance companies to produce more detailed internal underwriting guidance going forward ready to be deployed in litigation.  

The changes introduced by the IA 2015 have been systematically analysed in a book edited by Professors Clarke and Soyer, The Insurance Act 2015: A New Regime for Commercial and Marine Insurance Law, published by Informa Law in 2016.

              

Several excellent contributors (Sir Bernard Rix, Professor Tettenborn, Associate Professor Leloudas, Simon Rainey QC and Peter Macdonald-Eggers QC, also commented on various parts of the law reform in this book.

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