Moral: if in doubt, get your own bank account

A straightforward tort case from the Privy Council a week ago, with an equally straightforward message for financial operators, was reported today: Royal Bank of Scotland International Ltd v JP SPC 4 [2022] UKPC 18.

In 2009 Cayman Islands operators JPSPC4 (JP for short) set up an investment fund to make specialised loans to UK lawyers. It employed as “loan originator / manager” a Manx company known as SIOM, owned by two gentlemen called Timothy Schools and David Kennedy. SIOM had a Manx account with the RBS in Douglas. Simplified, the scheme was that loan funds would be fed to SIOM’s account, to be held on trust for JP; SIOM would then disburse them to borrowers and receive repayments on JPSPC4’s behalf. Unfortunately the plan was a disaster. Of something over £110 million transferred to SIOM, the majority allegedly ended up in the hands of Messrs Schools and Kennedy (both of whom are currently on trial for fraud).

JP went into liquidation in 2012. In the present proceedings it sued RBS in Douglas for negligence, alleging that it had known SIOM held the funds on trust, and had missed obvious signs that withdrawals from its account amounted to a breach of that trust. RBS applied for a strike-out. The Manx courts granted it, and JP appealed.

The Privy Council had no hesitation in dismissing the appeal, and rightly so. As it pointed out, the holder of the account at RBS was not JP but SIOM; and while a bank might owe its customer a Quincecare duty (see Barclays Bank plc v Quincecare [1992] 4 All ER 363), there was no respectable indication that any such duty extended to third parties, and certainly not to trust beneficiaries. Furthermore, it made the obvious point that the liability of third parties for assisting in a breach of trust (which was essentially what was alleged against RBS) was under Royal Brunei Airlines Sdn Bhd v Tan [1995] 2 AC 378 based on proof of dishonesty, which was not alleged here; incautious suggestions to the contrary from Peter Gibson J in Baden v Société Générale [1983] 1 WLR 509, 610-611 were specifically said to be heterodox. There being no other plausible reason to accept a liability in tort here, it followed that the claim had been rightly struck out.

Two comments are in order.

First, financial services companies should now be advised to get their own bank accounts rather than operate through the accounts of nominees. Had JP disbursed funds from an account in its name, perhaps having given drawing rights to SIOM, none of these problems would have arisen.

Secondly, JP could have got a remedy in the present case. There is no doubt that SIOM would have had standing to bring a Quincecare claim against the bank (see Singularis Holdings Ltd v Daiwa Capital Markets Europe Ltd [2019] UKSC 50; [2020] AC 1189), and that JP could have claimed against it for breach of trust, put it into liquidation and got the liquidators to pursue RBS. Why it didn’t we don’t know; it may simply be that it viewed such a proceeding as unduly cumbersome and expensive. If so, it seems to have made a pretty costly mistake. Such are the risks of litigation.

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