Demand guarantees: interpretations and paradoxes.

Cases about letters of credit and performance bonds often raise points of intellectual interest in commercial law. Waksman J’s decision in Técnicas Reunidas Saudia Ltd v Korea Development Bank [2020] EWHC 968 (TCC), decided 12 weeks ago but only up on BAILII this week, is a case in point. It raised nice issues of contractual interpretation, and also discussed the old chestnut of what to do about non-documentary conditions. And in both cases it got the answer right: a good thing, given that quite big money (something like £8 million) turned on it.

TRS were a big construction company involved in a mega-project in Saudi Arabia. One of its subcontractors was S. The bank, a Korean corporation, issued TRS with what was effectively an advance payment guarantee, operable on first written demand by TRS, to cover TRS’s cash-flow advances to S. The guarantee, which was subject to URDG758, went on to say: “It is a condition for any claim and payment under this guarantee to be made that the funds paid as advance payments subject to the terms of the subcontract must have been received by the sub-contractor on its account number 042-117994-03 held with HSBC.”

S ceased work in circumstances at best murky. TRS called on the guarantee and provided evidence of advances made to the named account number at SABB, a Saudi associate of HSBC which traded on the connection and indeed used the HSBC logo. Meanwhile a court in Korea was asked to issue an injunction preventing the bank from paying. Caught between a rock and a hard place (it being clear that the English court would ignore any Korean court order, Korea being the place neither of the governing law nor of payment), the bank thrashed around for a reason not to pay. It eventually refused on the basis that, payment to an account at SABB was not payment to HSBC and hence the condition was unsatisfied. Waksman J was unimpressed and gave summary judgment for TRS. This he did for two reasons.

First, he said that the generic reference to “HSBC” had to be interpreted to mean HSBC or its associated banks. Not only was this what a reasonable man present at the time of contracting would have understood; it also avoided the awkwardness that would follow from any other answer, which was that the guarantee would have been waste paper from the beginning because it was subject to a condition that could not be complied with. He also added a reference to a further point, often forgotten by busy lawyers, known as the principle of misnomer. If a document referred to an entity by an incorrect name and the reference was not ambivalent between two separate entities, extrinsic evidence was admissible to show which entity was meant. This was the case here.

More interestingly, his Lordship also took the point that the condition in the guarantee was non-documentary, and said that TRS could invoke Art.7 of the URDG, equivalent to Art.14.h of the UCP600, which provides that “[i]f a credit contains a condition without stipulating the document to indicate compliance with the condition, banks will deem such condition as not stated and will disregard it”. The non-documentary condition, he held, simply fell to be excised; from which it followed that even if TRS had failed to comply with it this was irrelevant.

This has always been a matter of controversy, raising the same sort of paradoxical issue as Odysseus’s order to his crew to tie him to the mast as they sailed past the Sirens and to ignore any subsequent commands he might give (they duly disobeyed a subsequent order to untie him, thus assuring his safe arrival in Ithaca). On one argument, parties inserting a non-documentary condition are to that extent contracting out of Art.7 and so the condition still takes effect; but although accepted in Singapore (see Kumagai-Zenecon v Arab Bank [1997] 3 S.L.R. 770), this solution does have the disadvantage of leaving the provision like Cinderella: all dressed up, but with nowhere to go. In the present case Waksman J emphatically rejected it. Even if the UCP and URDG technically became binding on traders by contractual incorporation and were in no way legislative, they were a special kind of instrument not necessarily subject to the ordinary rules of contractual interpretation. And, whatever the logical problems, a court should interpret them so as to give effect as far as possible to all their provisions.

This may not be the last word, especially on Art.7 and its UCP equivalent. It is nevertheless a very sensible word. We at IISTL hope future courts will take it up, amplify and confirm it.

The murky world of anti-suit injunctions — with a new twist

When it comes to remedies in international litigation, what matters in most cases is not whether the court can give them, but when it will. The point is nicely illustrated in a decision yesterday from Cockerill J about anti-suit injunctions (see Times Trading Corporation v National Bank of Fujairah [2020] EWHC 1078 (Comm)). Essentially the issue was this. A person who sues abroad in blatant breach of an arbitration or jurisdiction agreement will be enjoined almost as of course on the basis of The Angelic Grace [1995] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 87 and Donohue v Armco Inc [2002] 1 All ER 749. But what if this is not so (for instance, where the injunction defendant is an assignee, or where the existence of a direct contract between the two is controverted)? Jurisdiction is not in doubt: but does the ASI run almost as of course as before, or does the person seeking it have to jump the fairly high hurdle of showing oppression? Cockerill J plumped for the former solution.

To over-simplify, a cargo of coal carried in the 57,000 dwt bulker Archangelos Gabriel was delivered without production of the bills of lading, which were held by NBF, a Fujairah bank financing the buyer. It was common ground that the bills incorporated a London arbitration clause. NBF, mindful that the twelve-month Hague-Visby time-bar expired in June 2019, intimated a claim to the vessel’s owners R in December 2018; they issued in rem proceedings in Singapore in January 2019 and served them ten months later. In addition they issued arbitration proceedings in London against R in June, just within the time-bar. Then came a bombshell: after some procedural skirmishing R alleged with considerable plausibility that the vessel had actually been bareboat chartered to T, with which it seemed to have fairly close relations, and that the relevant bills, issued on behalf of the master, were charterers’ bills and not theirs.

Caught on the hop, and with a claim against T now out of time, NBF made it clear that they would add T to the Singapore proceedings and attempt to add them as a respondent to the London arbitration. T, fairly confident that it could resist the latter attempt, sought an ASI to prevent continuation of the Singapore proceedings against it, relying on the arbitration clause.

Had it been admitted that T and NBF were both party to a contract containing the arbitration clause, the case would have been easy: but it was not. However incongruously given its claim against T in Singapore under the bill of lading, in London NBF put in issue the question whether T was party to that document at all. Was this a case where the ASI should normally run as of course? T said it was: NBF that it was not. Having discussed the authorities, Cockerill J fairly unhesitatingly supported T’s position. The claim for the ASI here was “quasi-contractual” in the same way as if the injunction defendant were an assignee of some sort seeking to enforce an obligation without respecting an arbitration clause in it (as in cases like The Yusuf Cepnioglu [2016] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 641); true that here the claim was that T rather than NBF was a technical third party, but that was irrelevant. And in all such cases, she said, the rule in The Angelic Grace [1995] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 87 applied. And rightly so in our view; what should matter in international litigation cases is a clear illegitimate attempt to make an end-run around a clear contractual arbitration or jurisdiction clause, not technical questions of rights to enforce, or duties to perform, a particular contractual obligation.

Not that this mattered in the event. Had push come to shove, her Ladyship would, in a no-nonsense way reminiscent of Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha, have decided T was the carrier under the bill of lading and so applied The Angelic Grace anyway (see at [80]). But that is beside the point for our purposes.

We should add the final twist to the story. In the event T’s victory on this point was for another reason entirely Pyrrhic, the only gainers being the lawyers. NBF had acted fairly reasonably in proceeding against R, and T’s merits were not entirely sparkling. In the circumstances the judge, while clearly willing to injunct NBF, did so only on terms that T would not take any time-bar points in the London arbitration. Ironically these were exactly the terms on which NBF had offered to discontinue the Singapore proceedings in the first place. But at least we now know that their judgment was right; and in addition we have some very useful clarification on the subject of ASIs generally.

Security clauses in charters — by hook or by crook they will be enforced

Behind Teare J’s decision today in Trafigura Maritime Logistics PTE Ltd v Clearlake Shipping PTE Ltd (Rev 1) [2020] EWHC 995 (Comm) lies a fairly standard series of shipping lawyer’s nightmares.

Trafigura time-chartered the Miracle Hope, a big (320,000 dwt) VLCC, from Ocean Light. They voyage-chartered her to Clearlake and Clearlake sub-voyage-chartered to Petrobras, both charters being back-to-back under Shellvoy 6. Petrobras demanded that the cargo be delivered without production of the bill of lading; the demand was passed up the chain and the cargo (worth, before the recent oil debacle, something over $70 million) released.

Thereupon Natixis, a Dutch bank which had financed Petrobras’s buyers, emerged brandishing a bill of lading apparently issued by Ocean Light, demanded the value of the cargo, and arrested the ship in Singapore. Ocean Light immediately demanded an indemnity from Trafigura: Trafigura, relying on a duty in the charterer in such cases to “provide an LOI as per Owners’ P&I Club wording”, demanded an LOI from Clearlake and Clearlake did the same from Petrobras. Following clear practice (e.g. The Laemthong Glory [2004] EWHC 2738 (Comm); [2005] 1 Lloyd’s Rep. 632), Henshaw J granted mandatory orders down the line requiring the charterers to provide such bail or other security required to secure the release of the vessel.

Unfortunately at this point problems arose. Clearlake and Petrobras negotiated with Natixis; the result was deadlock. Furthermore, owing to the worldwide contagion the Singapore courts could not break the deadlock for some weeks. And, of course, all the time the Miracle Hope was mewed up in Singapore: something which, with tanker hire rates now sky-high, would not do.

In other words, Henshaw J’s order was unworkable. As a result the matter came back to the Commercial Court. To order the provision of a guarantee satisfactory to Natixis would be unsatisfactory: furthermore, since the matter was likely eventually to reach the Singapore courts, it risked prejudging the issue in that forum.

The solution reached was workmanlike. The court had to do something. Security to obtain the release of a vessel could take the form of a payment into court; and, faute de mieux, Teare J ordered just that. Clearlake and Petrobras were ordered to arrange for payment into the Singapore court of $76 million within 8 days, no doubt with Petrobras bound to indemnify Clearlake, who in the circumstances were little more than piggy-in-the-middle. If this was necessary to secure the release of the vessel, this would be what was ordered.

And rightly so, in our view. As the title of this blogpost implies, an obligation to secure the release of a vessel has to be given effect. As with Coronavirus, so with the release of a ship: it is a case of doing all that it takes. Even if that takes a slightly unorthodox form.

A Brussels I glitch for underwriters, but perhaps no great harm

The sequel to the Atlantik Confidence debacle hit the Supreme Court this week. That court determined that UK courts won’t be doing any more deciding on the affair.

To recap, the Atlantik Confidence, a medium bulk carrier, was scuttled by her owners just over seven years ago in an insurance scam. Her hull underwriters, who had paid out some $22 million in all innocence to Credit Europe, the bank assignee of the policy, understandably asked for their money back. Unfortunately the bank was Dutch, and stood on its right to be sued in the Netherlands under Art.4 of Brussels I Recast, and also under Art.14, which says that insurers can only sue a policyholder or beneficiary in his own jurisdiction. Teare J held (as we noted here) that in so far as the underwriters could prove misrepresentation by the bank (which they had a chance of doing) they could sue in tort in England, since the effects of the misrepresentation had been felt here. Art.14 was no bar, since although this was a matter relating to insurance that provision was predicated on the person sued by the insurer being a weaker party (see Recital 18 to the Regulation), and no sensible person could think Credit Europe needed to be protected from the foul machinations of overbearing insurers. The Court of Appeal agreed (see Aspen Underwriting Ltd & Ors v Credit Europe Bank NV [2018] EWCA Civ 2590), citing the Advogate-general’s view in Kabeg v Mutuelles Du Mans Assurances (Case C-340/16) [2017] I.L. Pr. 31 that Art.14 could be disapplied to a subrogee “regularly involved in the commercial or otherwise professional settlement of insurance-related claims who voluntarily assumed the realisation of the claim as party of its commercial or otherwise professional activity”.

The Supreme Court was having none of it: see Aspen Underwriting Ltd & Ors v Credit Europe Bank NV [2020] UKSC 11. It was brief and to the point. This was a matter related to insurance; there was no agreement binding on the bank to submit to English jurisdiction; and Art.14, as so often in the case of Euro-law, should be interpreted as seeking bureaucratic certainty rather than nuanced determination. Any reference to relative weakness was merely background, there to explain why the EU has a bright line rule that insurers can’t ever be allowed to sue except in the defendant’s domicile.

Where from here? On present indications our final Brexit disentanglement from the EU will be no escape, since the present intention is for the UK to jump sideways from Brussels I to Lugano, which also has identical provisions about insurers (for Art.14 read Art.12).

But remember that in the case of marine insurance Art.14 can be ousted; and the sting of this decision might well be able to be drawn by some nifty drafting. Obviously every policy must have a provision under which the policyholder submits expressly to the jurisdiction of the English courts. There needs to be added to this a provision that no assignee can enforce payment except against the giving of an express undertaking to submit to English jurisdiction in the event of any dispute; and a cast-iron practice of never making payment to any assignee except against receipt of such an undertaking by the underwriter.

Of course we don’t know what the ECJ would say about this (though it’s difficult to see how it could object). But that may not matter. By the time the issue comes to be tested, we are likely to be outside the clutches of that court anyway.

Of ships and sea ROVers.

For most Admiralty lawyers most of the time, the question “what is a ship?” does not feature large on the radar. In the vast majority of cases there is no difficulty; the detailed working out of the question thus tends to be something left to law professors with time on their hands. Not always, however. An important recent battleground is ROVs. Although almost invariably controlled from ships, these can be pretty valuable pieces of kit in their own right, such that a right to arrest them and thus obtain security over them becomes worth having for a maritime claimant.

Yesterday the Australian Federal Court faced the issue in Guardian Offshore v Saab Seaeye 1702 [2020] FCA 273. The definition of a “ship” in the Admiralty Act 1988 (Cth) is very similar to that in s.313 of our own Merchant Shipping Act 1995: namely, a vessel of any kind used or constructed for use in navigation by water (though a few specifics are expressly incorporated). Colvin J had to deal with a purported arrest in Western Australia of a Saab Leopard, an electric underwater survey contraption looking a bit like an overgrown air-conditioning unit which could be made buoyant but only by the inflation through an umbilical cord of flotation bags attached to it.

His Honour, having gone through the English and Australian authorities going back to The Gas Float Whitton [1897] AC 337, decided it was not used for navigation and hence not a ship. It was very small, lived a lot of time on the sea bed, had very little power of directed motion, and had little in common with any other kind of vehicle used in navigation. He therefore vacated the arrest.

One suspects strongly that the result would be similar in England. But note three things.

  1. This case does not hold that a ROV is not a ship: merely that this ROV isn’t. A miniature submarine with substantial power of directional travel and natural neutral buoyancy we suspect would be likely to be potentially classed as a vessel used in navigation, and hence liable to arrest. There’s nothing odd in saying some ROVs are and some are not ships, just as (probably) some jetskis are and some aren’t: compare Steedman v Scofield [1992] 2 Lloyd’s Rep. 163 (simple jet-ski not a vessel with R v Goodwin [2005] EWCA Crim 3184; [2006] 1 W.L.R. 546 at [17] (more substantial jetski might be a vessel).
  2. An interesting issue remains unexplored. If the mother ship had been arrested, would a ROV operable only from and in connection with that vessel be regarded as part and parcel of it? (Compare Morlines Maritime Agency Ltd v The Skulptor Vuchetich [1996] FCA 41; (1996) 136 A.L.R. 206). What if one person arrests the ship and someone else the ROV?
  3. A ROV can be not only a ship but something supplied to a ship under s.20(2) of the SCA 1981: The Sarah [2010] CSOH 161, [2011] 1 Lloyd’s Rep. 546. This looks odd, but seems logically possible: compare the case of, say, a motor lifeboat.

One thing seems certain. We haven’t heard the last of this.

Unseaworthy ship, or just a careless crew?

If you were mown down by a car, you would presumably think it a tad surreal if the driver got out, looked you over, and walked away, saying “I don’t have to pay you a penny. There was nothing wrong with my car. I merely drove it very badly.” Unless, of course, you were a lawyer dealing with carriage of goods by sea. In that case you would understand perfectly; after all, this merely reflects the distinction you will have imbibed with your mother’s milk between Article III r 1 and Article IV r 2(a) of the Hague-Visby Rules. The one says that anyone’s failure to show due diligence to make your vessel seaworthy makes you liable even when it’s not your fault; the other, that negligence in navigation excuses you from liability even where it was your fault.

Drawing the distinction between these has never been easy. The latest episode comes in the Court of Appeal’s decision today in The CGM Libra [2020] EWCA Civ 293. A sizeable container ship sailed from Xiamen in China (a pleasant subtropical spot which older readers may remember as Amoy) in the wee hours and grounded, rather expensively, a shortish distance outside. The reason she grounded was that when preparing the passage plan the owners had indolently failed to transcribe a Notice to Mariners indicating that outside the strict boundaries of the fairway the soundings on local charts were completely unreliable.

In a general average claim by owners against cargo, the issue arose: was this a matter of navigational fault (owners not liable and hence entitled to contribution) or unseaworthiness (owners liable and thus barred)? Teare J held for unseaworthiness. Owners appealed, on the basis that failing to make a note of possible shallows so as to avoid them was a clear navigational error. But the Court of Appeal was having none of it. Even if the failure to prepare an adequate passage plan was a navigational sin, there was no reason why it could not also amount to unseaworthiness in so far as it was due to someone’s negligence before the voyage began.

The holding itself is pretty unexceptionable. If lack of proper charts on board at the start of the voyage is unseaworthiness, it would be odd if the same did not apply to the absence of a proper passage plan, this having been regarded as more or less as essential for a dozen years or so at the time of the events in question.

On the other hand, cases like this do begin to raise the question: have we now reached the point that where there is any negligence before the voyage, there will be a case of unseaworthiness so as to leave the Article IV(2)(a) defence in effect a dead letter? Some incautious words suggest we might have. At [61] Flaux LJ was sceptical whether unseaworthiness had to stem from an attribute of the vessel at all, and Haddon-Cave LJ seems to have suggested that the distinction was simply temporal: negligence before departure is unseaworthiness, for owners’ account, and later negligence for cargo’s account.

But this would look odd, apart from being for obvious reasons unwelcome to P&I interests. Does it make sense to say that a vessel is unseaworthy even though we cannot say what it is about it that makes it unseaworthy? It seems doubtful. One strongly suspects that The CGM Libra will not be the last word, and that we may well see more litigation before too long aimed at clearing up the awkward distinction between bad ships and careless crews.

Asymmetric jurisdiction clauses — financiers can indeed breathe freely

Most people think of an exclusive jurisdiction clause as a clause requiring all disputes to be heard in one forum, whoever raises them. But this is over-simplified. A jurisdiction clause may also be asymmetrically exclusive, allowing one party to sue in any court it can sweet-talk into taking the case but limiting the other to suing in a single jurisdiction. Financiers love these clauses, which protect them from litigation in uncongenial courts while at the same time preserving maximum freedom to pursue the borrower wherever he has assets or the courts have creditor-friendly judges.

There is no doubt that these clauses are enforceable as a matter of English law, but do they count as exclusive jurisdiction clauses? The point matters because of Art.31 of Brussels I Recast. This says that where two courts in the EU are hearing the same dispute, the second seised must give way, unless there is an exclusive jurisdiction clause in its favour (Art.31.2). Will an asymmetric clause do to invoke the exception? A resounding Yes came from Jacobs J yesterday in Etihad Airways PJSC v Flother [2019] EWHC 3107 (Comm).

Etihad had in happier times agreed to prop up the ailing airline Berlinair to the tune of several hundred million dollars, though in the event without success (it collapsed definitively in 2017). The agreement contained an asymmetrical jurisdiction clause requiring Berlinair to sue only in England but allowing Etihad to sue anywhere.

Berlinair’s German liquidator sued Etihad in Germany for allegedly failing to come up with the promised rescue monies. Etihad in turn sued the liquidator in London for what was effectively a declaration of non-liability; the liquidator sought to stay the action on the basis that the German courts were first seised; Etihad retorted that their action was protected by Art.31.2.

Having decided that the liquidator’s proceedings were covered by the exclusive jurisdiction clause and had been brought contrary to it, Jacobs J had no doubt, in common with Cranston J in Commerzbank AG v Liquimar Tankers Management Inc [2017] EWHC 161 (Comm) , that they were indeed protected by Art.31.2. Any other solution, he said, would lead to anomalous results and greatly limit the effect of the reforms to the original Brussels I introduced by the revised Art.31. And, in the view of this blog, he was right to decide the way he did. In any case, it gives the law a useful degree of certainty: from now on, only a decision of the CJEU or a peculiarly contrary one by the Court of Appeal is likely to be able to upset the accepted position.

Negotiating damages — maritime-style

Guest blogpost from James M Turner QC, Quadrant Chambers

In Priyanka Shipping Ltd v Glory Bulk Carriers Pte Limited (“The Lory”) [2019] EWHC 2804 (Comm), David Edwards QC (sitting as a Judge of the Commercial Court) dismissed a common law claim for negotiating damages for the breach of a memorandum of agreement (MOA) for the sale of a ship.

The decision is one of the first to grapple with the recent Supreme Court decision in One Step (Support) Ltd v Morris-Garner [2018] UKSC 20, [2019] AC 649. In that case Lord Reed’s majority judgment issued a corrective to jurisprudence which, since the House of Lords’ decision in AG v Blake [2001] 1 AC 268, had seen the award of negotiating damages at common law “on a wider and less certain basis” than had been the case before Blake.

What are “negotiating damages”? Negotiating damages “represent such a sum of money as might reasonably have been demanded by [the claimant] from [the defendant] as a quid pro quo for [permitting the continuation of the breach of covenant or other invasion of right]”: see One Step at [4]). They are “assessed by reference to a hypothetical negotiation between the parties, for such amount as might reasonably have been demanded by the claimant for releasing the defendants from their obligations” (One Step at [25]).

Negotiating damages are commonly encountered in two situations: so-called user damages in tort; and damages awarded under Lord Cairns’ Act.

A claim for user damages arises where the defendant has used or invaded the claimant’s property without causing direct financial loss: an example commonly given is riding a horse without permission. The defendant, having taken something for nothing, is required to pay a reasonable fee for the use made of the claimant’s property.

As for Lord Cairns’ Act: historically, the Common Law Courts could only award damages for past breaches, i.e., where the cause of action was complete at the date the writ was issued. For the future, litigants had to look to the Courts of Equity for orders for specific performance and injunction etc. However, the latter had no power to award damages. That inconvenience was remedied by Lord Cairns’ Act 1858, section 2 of which (now s. 50 of the Senior Courts Act 1981) allowed the Courts of Equity to award damages as well as or instead of an injunction.

Damages may be awarded under Lord Cairns’ Act for past breaches, but are assessed on the same basis as damages at common law.

Damages in lieu of an injunction for future breaches, on the other hand, cannot be assessed on the same basis as damages at common law, as by definition such damages cannot be awarded at common law. Instead, negotiating damages may be awarded.

The Issue. As will be seen, the issue in The Lory was whether negotiating damages were available at common law for past breaches of the relevant term of the MOA.

The Facts. The Defendant Seller sold the Claimant Buyer its vessel on terms that included clause 19, by which the Buyer undertook that it would not trade the vessel and would sell it only for demolition. However, the Buyer traded the vessel. By the time of the trial, the vessel was completing discharge under her second fixture and was fixed for a third. The Seller claimed damages for or an injunction to restrain breach of clause 19 of the MOA (or both).

The Outcome. The Judge awarded an injunction restraining future trading of the vessel (expressly including the third fixture). Damages could in principle be claimed for the first and second fixtures, but – because they were now in the past – only at common law.

The Judge noted that, once the vessel had been sold and delivered, the Seller no longer had any proprietary interest in it, “no right or ability to use the Vessel to trade, and no right or ability to profit from the Vessel’s use … ”. Although the Seller was entitled to be placed in the position it would have been if the contract had not been breached, “it is not obvious how any further trading of the Vessel by the Buyer … could cause the Seller any loss.” [163].

It was “no doubt” for this reason that no conventional damages claim had been made, but only a claim for a hypothetical release fee. The “critical question”, so far as that claim was concerned, was whether the Seller could bring itself within [95(10)] of Lord Reed’s judgment in One Step and show that “ … the loss suffered by the claimant is appropriately measured by reference to the economic value of the right which has been breached, considered as an asset.” [189]

Lord Reed had made clear that “that such an approach is not available in the case of a breach of any contractual right, but only where:… the breach of contract results in the loss of a valuable asset created or protected by the right which was infringed.The paragraph implicitly regards the relevant asset not as the contractual right itself but as something else, a valuable asset “created or protected by the right”.” [190]

The “valuable assets” that Lord Reed had in mind were essentially proprietary rights and analogous rights such as intellectual property and rights of confidence [193]. The Judge rejected the Seller’s submission that its right under clause 19 was within the same class [196]. The Judge regarded the right under clause 19 as more closely analogous to the non-compete obligation at issue in One Step, which Lord Reed did not consider fell within “the category of cases where negotiating damages were available as a measure of the Seller’s loss” [199].

The claim therefore failed. The Judge did, however, grant permission to appeal. We may not, therefore, have heard the last word on this topic.

James M. Turner QC appeared for the Buyers in this case on the instruction of Alex Andrews and Claire Don of Reed Smith.

Most shareholders hold no shares — official. But it doesn’t matter.

Relief all round in the Square Mile today, courtesy of Hildyard J in SL Claimants v Tesco Plc [2019] EWHC 2858 (Ch).

Something over two years ago Tesco was fined a whopping £129 million for publishing misleading profit figures which bent the market in its shares. A number of institutions, market makers and others who had relied on these figures sued Tesco under s.90A and Sch.10A of FSMA 2000, saying they had bought or retained its shares on the basis of the figures. At this point, however, Tesco raised a classic pettifogger’s point (to be fair, one previously raised by, among others, Profs Gullifer and Benjamin).

To qualify for compensation under FSMA you have by Sch.10A to have bought, disposed of or retained “any interest in securities”. Tesco said two things. First, they argued that where shares were dematerialised and the custody chain included more than one layer of custodianship, no ultimate beneficiary investor ever held an interest in any securities so as to trigger liability under FSMA. If shares were vested (legally) in A who held them on trust for B who held them for investor X, X had an interest in B’s interest in the shares, but no interest in the shares themselves. Secondly, Tesco contended that intermediated securities were fungible; that when they were dealt with the whole transaction was effectuated by a combination of electronic credit and debit book entries and netting arrangements between custodians; and therefore that one could simply not talk in the old-fashioned way about shares being acquired or disposed of by anyone. True, they admitted, their plea would leave the relevant parts of FSMA largely like Cinderella — all dressed up with nowhere to go — and largely emasculate the whole UK scheme of investor protection as regards dematerialised securities (meaning these days almost all securities); but, in effect, that was tough. Fiat justitia ruat coelum, as they might have put it.

Hildyard J was having none of it. He accepted that where there were two or more custodians in a securities daisy-chain the ultimate investor technically had an interest in his immediate custodian’s interest, and not in the actual shares in which the custodian had an interest. But he rejected the idea that juridico-metaphysical niceties of this sort affected FSMA. “Any interest”, he said, could and should be interpreted as including any proprietary interest in shares or interests in shares. True it was, too, that technically a transfer of shares these days involved no transfer of anything at all, but rather a stream of electrons signifying juridical suppression of one equitable claim in X and its co-ordinated supersession by another in Y. But this did not prevent concepts like disposal being given their popular, rather than their technical equity lawyers’, meaning.

So the big claim against Tesco goes ahead. Relief, one suspects, not only in the City but in government. Had the result gone the other way there would have been a need for urgent corrective legislation. And in these fraught times we know just how hard it can be to get that kind of thing through.

Watch your email signature

The definition of what counts as a “signature” isn’t of enormous importance to shipping lawyers most of the time: they don’t tend to deal in real estate or declare themselves trustees of land. But in one case it does matter: guarantees, whether of charter obligations, settlements or any other obligation need to be signed under s.4 of the Statute of Frauds 1677. Imagine you send an email on a client’s instructions guaranteeing a debt. If you type in your name like so — “Best wishes, Barry” — no problem. But what if you just type “Agreed” under the terms of the guarantee, and your email program appends at the foot of the email: “From Barry X at ABC Solicitors LLP. This email is confidential etc etc …”? Signed or not? The Chancery Division last week said Yes in Neocleous v Rees [2019] EWHC 2462 (Ch). A settlement of a real estate dispute was held enforceable in these circumstances under the LP(MP) Act 1989; it seems pretty clear that s.4 cases will be decided the same way. Moral: good news for those wishing to uphold guarantees. And if you are thinking of raising the pettifogger’s defence under s.4, look carefully at your email settings. You have been warned.