Don’t say it too loudly, especially when there’s a European listening, but yesterday’s CJEU decision in The Alexandros T (C-590/21)  EUECJ C-590/21 might make some English lawyers a bit more relieved that Brexit happened. Put simply, the EU court has held that just as under EU law you can’t get an anti-suit injunction in an EU court preventing suit elsewhere in Europe, you equally can’t sue a litigant for damages for bringing suit there in breach of contract. But this will not affect any ost-2021 proceedings here.
The Alexandros T, a Capesize bulker of 172,000 dwt, will be familiar to most readers. She sank off South Africa in 2006, taking with her 26 crew and a large cargo of Brazilian iron ore destined for China. Her hull insurers were initially not entirely convinced about the resultant claim against them, but around Christmas 2007 paid a sum in settlement under an agreement governed by English law. That agreement provided for a release of the underwriters and everyone associated with them and contained a London jurisdiction clause in respect of any dispute.
Little did the underwriters know that this was not the end, but – this being well before Brexit – rather the beginning of a massive game of juridical Euro-ping-pong.
Four years after the settlement, Alexandros T’s owners Starlight brought proceedings in Greece against the underwriters and also Charles Taylor, a marine insurance consultancy that had acted for them. They claimed big money on the basis that the underwriters and others had indulged in skulduggery in defending the claim, and had acted tortiously in blackening Starlight’s name and causing it serious losses.
Unable to get an anti-suit injunction because of settled EU law based on the full faith and credit principle, the underwriters countered by suing Starlight in England for damages for breach of the settlement agreement (i.e. the costs of defending, and anything they were forced to pay under, the Greek suit). Starlight attempted to invoke the Greek proceedings to stop these latter proceedings in their tracks under the lis alibi pendens provisions of what was then Art.27 of Brussels I (now Art.29 of Brussels I Recast). However they failed, it being held by the Supreme Court that the claims were merely related and did not involve the same subject-matter, and that the new claims should be allowed to go forward. (See The Alexandros T  UKSC 70;  1 Lloyd’s Rep. 223.) The underwriters duly proceeded, and Burton J’s judgment giving damages against Starlight was upheld by the Court of Appeal in July 2014 in Starlight Shipping Co v Allianz Marine & Aviation Versicherungs AG  EWCA Civ 1010;  2 Lloyd’s Rep. 544.
Having got this judgment, the underwriters took the battle to the enemy and sought to have it recognised in Greece. The Piraeus Court of Appeal refused recognition, holding in 2019 that it would be manifestly contrary to public policy under Art.34 of Brussels I (Recast Art.45). The Areios Pagos, the Greek Supreme Court, sought the opinion of the CJEU.
Yesterday that court, in a short (by EU standards) judgment, went against the underwriters. It said, first, that a claim for damages for suing in another EU court, being dissuasive of the maintenance of EU proceedings and aimed at impeding them, was no more permissible under the Brussels I scheme than a claim for an anti-suit injunction (see ). It then went on to say that this factor provided ample justification for a court in the EU to say that to enforce or recognise a judgment arising out of such a claim was manifestly contrary to EU (and hence national) public policy. It therefore gave a green light to the Greek courts to refuse recognition of the 2014 judgment, something which will no doubt formally take place in the not too distant future.
Fairly predictable was the holding that claims for damages for suing in an EU court were prohibited by Brussels I, contrary to English decisions the other way – notably West Tankers Inc v Allianz SpA  EWHC 854 (Comm);  2 Lloyd’s Rep. 103. A combination of post-Brexit Schadenfreude, the court’s highly sensitive political antennae, and its ingrained instinct for centralisation of power Brussels-ward whenever possible, saw to that. But in respect of post-Brexit proceedings it is not now very important: such actions for damages continue available in England whatever Brussels says, and the betting must now be that the UK will never again sign up to any jurisdictional framework in the Brussels-Lugano mould.
That leaves the holding that judgments obtained here for damages are not portable to Europe by way of recognition. This raises two issues.
First, it will make the enforcement of judgments like that in The Alexandros T slightly harder – though perhaps this difficulty should not be exaggerated, since most of those involved in international trade will at some time want to deposit monies in London which can then be the subject of execution proceedings.
Secondly, there is a nice issue whether the EU position would survive a UK ratification of the 2019 Hague Judgments Convention, which by Art.7(1)(c) contains a similar public policy let-out. You might think it did: but matters aren’t as simple as that. Unlike Brussels I, the Hague Convention is not an EU instrument and it is therefore not automatically subject to overriding EU public policy considerations to the same extent. It is certainly possible that the EU would be in breach of Hague if the CJEU decided that judgments given in non-EU courts for damages for suing in EU courts were automatically excluded from its ambit as they are from Brussels I. We’ll just have to wait and see.