No strikeout for Bangladeshi ship scrapping claim: but don’t hold your breath

As we mentioned on this blog last August, these days you have to be careful who you sell an old ship to. In Begum v Maran [2021] EWCA Civ 326 MUK, the English managers of a Liberian ship fit only for scrap, helped arrange her sale to a buyer who paid fairly handsomely. That buyer proceeded (entirely foreseeably) to have her scrapped by a thoroughly dodgy outfit called Zuma in a dangerous and environmentally irresponsible way on a Bangladeshi beach. A worker engaged in stripping the hulk fell to his death. Prospects of recovery from Zuma being low, if for no other reason because of a local one-year statute of limitations during the running of which nothing had been done, his widow sued MUK as of right in England because of its domicile here, alleging negligence. Jay J decided that it was arguable that MUK had owed the man a duty of care, and that the local limitations law might be circumvented, and refused a strikeout. MUK appealed.

The Court of Appeal yesterday allowed the case to go ahead, though only very grudgingly and on a more limited basis than Jay J. The Court was particularly sceptical on the limitation point. Under Rome II, applicable to the claim as it predated Brexit (and still applicable to post-Brexit claims in its domesticated form), the law governing the claim – including on the subject of limitation – was Bangladeshi. This immediately defeated the claimant unless she could escape it. The judge had regarded as possibly plausible a contention that Art.7 of Rome II allowed her to invoke English law because her husband’s death had resulted from environmental damage caused by an event here – namely, MTM’s arrangements for sale of the ship. But this was dismissed on appeal as unarguable: rightly so, since this simply wasn’t an environmental case in the first place. But the court did see it as arguable – just – that the limitation period was so short that an English court might disapply it on public policy grounds under Art.26 of Rome II, and ordered a preliminary issue on the point.

On the substantive points, the widow argued either that MUK had owed her husband a duty of care on the principle of Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562, or that MUK’s sale of the vessel when it should have known that it was likely to be dangerously demolished had created an immediate danger to her husband’s life and thus engendered a duty in respect of the bad practices of his employers Zuma.

Giving the lead judgment, Coulson J was very sceptical on the first point. This wasn’t, he said, a case of a disposal of a dangerous thing, but rather the furnishing of an opportunity for a third party to be negligent in respect of a thing not inherently perilous. Whether this could give rise to a duty his Lordship thought very doubtful indeed – but still not quite implausible enough to justify an immediate strikeout. Our view is that the doubts were fully justified. We normally expect employers to look after their employees; to put a duty on third parties to police the behaviour of contractors they engaged in that respect is to say the least drastic. Should I really have to scrutinise or supervise the employment practices of the builder I employ to extend my house in case one of his workers is hurt? It seems doubtful.

On the second point, the difficulty (a considerable one) was the general rule that people were not generally made responsible for the wrongs of others, however foreseeable. But, said Coulson J, there were possible exceptions where the danger in question had been created by a defendant. And while it seemed unlikely that this would apply here, the law was not absolutely clear and the prospect of persuading a sceptical judge to recognise a duty of care wasn’t dismal enough to deny the widow the chance to argue the toss. Her prospects might be slim, but she was entitled to chance her arm.

This case will possibly be hailed in the liberal media as an advance in the campaign to make big business in Britain take responsibility for the activities of its dodgier partners abroad. But commercial lawyers know better than to engage in chicken-counting. Remember, the claimant here only avoided a strikeout by the skin of her teeth. Her chances of recovering much over and above a nuisance value or reputation-saving settlement remain, it seems fair to say, pretty slim.

Oh, and one more thing. The ability to sue a UK-domiciled company here as of right disappeared with Brussels I Recast in a puff of celebratory Brexit firework smoke at 2300 hours on 31 December last. It follows that, barring swift adherence by the UK to the Lugano convention (increasingly unlikely by all the indications), any future claimant basing their complaint on events in a far-off land with no ostensible connection to England will now also face the prospect of a forum non conveniens application. This may well have an appreciable chance of success. There is, after all, no immediately apparent reason why the English courts should act as the policemen of work practices worldwide, hoewever much sympathy we may feel for a claimant personally.

In short, the boardrooms of corporate Britain, and even more those of their liability insurers, may well see some sighs of relief, if not discreet socially-distant celebrations, in the next few days.

Another bad week for Shell. Supreme Court allows Okpabi appeal

Yesterday, the Supreme Court, for whom Lord Hamblen gave judgment, allowed the appeal in the Okpabi Nigerian oil spill case against Shell’s UK parent, Royal Dutch Shell, Okpabi & Ors v Royal Dutch Shell Plc & Anor [2021] UKSC 3 (12 February 2021). This comes shortly after the decision of the Dutch Court of Appeal in parallel proceedings involving oil spills in other parts of Nigeria with claims against Shell’s Dutch parent and its Nigerian subsidiary.

The Supreme Court criticised the approach of both the court at first instance and of the Court of Appeal in allowing what was in effect a mini-trial based on the voluminous evidence before the Court. This was incorrect for interlocutory proceedings. Legally, in the light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Vedanta  which was given after the Court of Appeal’s judgment in Okpabi, various errors of law were apparent in the approach of the majority of the Court of Appeal.

The case made against RDS was that it owed the claimant a common law duty of care because, as pleaded, it exercised significant control over material aspects of SPDC’s operations and/or assumed responsibility for SPDC’s operations, including by the promulgation and imposition of mandatory health, safety and environmental policies, standards and manuals which allegedly failed to protect the appellants against the risk of foreseeable harm arising from SPDC’s operations. The issue of governing law pointed to the application of Nigerian law under the Rome II Regulation and it was agreed that the laws of England and Wales and the law of Nigeria wee materially the same.  The majority of the Court of Appeal (Simon LJ and the Chancellor) held that there was no arguable case that RDS owed the appellants a common law duty of care to protect them against foreseeable harm caused by the operations of SPDC. Sales LJ delivered a dissenting judgment in which he explained why he considered there was a good arguable case that RDS did owe the appellants a duty of care.

The pleaded case and the legal argument in the courts below focused on the then understood threefold test for a duty of care set out in Caparo Industries plc v Dickman [1990] 2 AC 605 and, in particular, whether there was sufficient proximity and whether it would be fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty of care. This was incorrect in the light of this court’s decision in Vedanta, where Lord Briggs had stated [49] “the liability of parent companies in relation to the activities of their subsidiaries is not, of itself, a distinct category of liability in common law negligence”.

The appellants recast their case based on Vedanta with the following four routes:

(1)              RDS taking over the management or joint management of the relevant activity of SPDC;

(2)              RDS providing defective advice and/or promulgating defective group-wide safety/environmental policies which were implemented as of course by SPDC;

(3)              RDS promulgating group-wide safety/environmental policies and taking active steps to ensure their implementation by SPDC, and

(4)              RDS holding out that it exercises a particular degree of supervision and control of SPDC.

Apart from corporate material from the Shell group there was also the evidence of Professor Jordan Siegel who produced an expert report in 2008 in litigation in the United States involving RDS’s immediate predecessors as SPDC’s parent companies. He considered that these documents showed that “The Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies tightly controls its Nigerian subsidiary, SPDC. This control comes in the form of monitoring and approving business plans, allocating investment resources, choosing the management, and overseeing how the subsidiary responds to major public affairs issues.” He summarised various corporate documents that post-dated his 2008 report and explains that, “there has been no material change in the senior management of the Shell Group’s ability to tightly control SPDC” since that report. Hes tated that the role of the RDS ExCo is “fundamentally the same” as the predecessor Committee of Managing Directors.

Apart from the error of conducting a mini-trial, there were two other errors of law alleged by the appellants.

The first alleged error is in the Court of Appeal’s analysis of the principles of a parent company’s liability in its consideration of the factors and circumstances which may give rise to a duty of care. The second alleged error is in the court’s overall analytical framework for determining whether a duty of care exists in cases of this type and its reliance on the Caparo threefold test.

The approach of the Court of Appeal had to be considered in the light of the guidance subsequently provided by this court in Vedanta. To the extent that the Court of Appeal indicated that the promulgation by a parent company of group wide policies or standards can never in itself give rise to a duty of care, that was inconsistent with Vedanta.  At para 52 of Vedanta Lord Briggs said that he did not consider that “there is any such reliable limiting principle”. He pointed out that: “Group guidelines … may be shown to contain systemic errors which, when implemented as of course by a particular subsidiary, then cause harm to third parties.” This is what the appellants have described as Vedanta route (2).

Secondly, the majority of the Court of Appeal may be said to have focused inappropriately on the issue of control. Simon LJ appears to have regarded proof of the exercise of control by the parent company as being As Lord Briggs pointed out in Vedanta, it all depends on: “the extent to which, and the way in which, the parent availed itself of the opportunity to take over, intervene in, control, supervise or advise the management of the relevant operations … of the subsidiary.[49]” Control was just a starting point for that question. Lord Hamblen stated:

“The issue is the extent to which the parent did take over or share with the subsidiary the management of the relevant activity (here the pipeline operation). That may or may not be demonstrated by the parent controlling the subsidiary. In a sense, all parents control their subsidiaries. That control gives the parent the opportunity to get involved in management. But control of a company and de facto management of part of its activities are two different things. A subsidiary may maintain de jure control of its activities, but nonetheless delegate de facto management of part of them to emissaries of its parent.” [147]

A specific example of a case in which a duty of care may arise regardless of the exercise of control was provided by what the appellants have described as Vedanta route (4), based on what Lord Briggs stated at para 53:

“… the parent may incur the relevant responsibility to third parties if, in published materials, it holds itself out as exercising that degree of supervision and control of its subsidiaries, even if it does not in fact do so. In such circumstances its very omission may constitute the abdication of a responsibility which it has publicly undertaken.”

The Supreme Court then went on to consider whether these errors were material to the decision of the Court of Appeal.

It held that the case set out in the pleadings, fortified by the points made in reliance upon the RDS Control Framework and the RDS HSSE Control Framework, established that there was a real issue to be tried under Vedanta routes (1) and (3).  It was not necessary to make any ruling in relation to Vedanta routes (2) and (4), and the Court preferred not to do so given that the pleading has not been structured around such a case, although it observed that there was currently no pleaded identification of systemic errors in the RDS policies and standards.

Lord Hamblen concluded [154]:

“Whilst I consider that the appellants’ pleaded case and reliance on the RDS Control Framework and the RDS HSSE Control Framework is sufficient to raise a real issue to be tried, that conclusion is further supported by their witness evidence, as summarised when setting out the appellants’ case above, and, for reasons already given, the very real prospect of relevant disclosure being provided. That prospect is specifically borne out by the evidence of Professor Siegel and the identification of some of the most likely documents of relevance in the Dutch proceedings.”

Prefering, generally, the analysis of Sales LJ  to that of the majority of the Court of Appeal he noted observations of Sales LJ at para 155 that it was significant that the Shell group is organised along Business and Functional lines rather than simply according to corporate status. This vertical structure involves significant delegation

The appellants argued that the Shell group’s vertical organisational structure means that it is comparable to Lord Briggs’ example of group businesses which “are, in management terms, carried on as if they were a single commercial undertaking, with boundaries of legal personality and ownership within the group becoming irrelevant” (para 51).  How this organisational structure worked in practice and the extent to which the delegated authority of RDS, the CEO and the RDS ExCo was involved and exercised in relation to decisions made by SPDC were very much in dispute, as apparent from the witness statements. It wa also an issue in relation to which proper disclosure was of obvious importance. It clearly raised triable issues.

Things don’t go well for Shell. Dutch Court of Appeal finds it liable for pipeline spills in Nigeria

The Dutch Court of Appeal has held that Shell Nigeria is liable for two pipeline spills in Oruma and Goi that took place between 2004-05. Shell had argued that the spills were caused by sabotage, so-called ‘bunkering’. Under Nigerian law, which was applied pursuant to the Rome I Regulation, the company would not be liable if the leaks were the result of sabotage. However, the court said that Shell had not been able fully to prove the causes of the spill. Although the parent company Royal Dutch Shell was not found directly responsible, the court ordered it to install a leak detection system on the Oruma pipeline, the source of several spills in the case – a finding of great interest in the ongoing debate about tort and multi-national companies..

Another case involving pipeline spills in Nigeria, Okpabi v Royal Dutch Shell, came before the UK Supreme Court last June. A previous UK case involving spills in the Bodo area was settled in 2015.

Swiss Responsible Business Initiative. Result of Sunday’s referendum

On Sunday the Swiss voted in a referendum on a proposal for extra territorial liability for Swiss companies liable for human rights violations and environmental damage committed by their subsidiaries. The proposal gained 50.7% of popular vote but only gained 8.5 of the required 12 regional majorities across Switzerland’s cantons. A majority of both the popular vote and cantonal vote is needed for an initiative to pass and so the proposal was rejected. The Swiss Parliament will now adopt the Government’s counter-proposal which is limited to reporting and issue-specific due diligence without liability rules.

Intransigent defendants: Prestige 4.0

Most parties who lose English court cases or arbitrations give in (relatively) gracefully. In the long and ongoing Prestige saga, however (already well documented in this blog: see here, here, here, and here), the French and Spanish governments have chosen to fight tooth and nail, something that is always apt to give rise to interesting legal points. Last Friday’s episode before Butcher J (SS Mutual v Spain [2020] EWHC 1920 (Comm)) was no exception, though in the event nothing particularly novel in the way of law emerged.

To recap, nearly twenty years ago the laden tanker Prestige sank off northern Spain, grievously polluting the French and Spanish coasts. Steamship Mutual, the vessel’s P&I Club, accepted that it might be potentially liable to direct suit up to the CLC limit, but pointed out that its cover was governed by English law, contained a “pay to be paid” clause and required arbitration in London. Nothing daunted, the French and Spanish governments came in as parties civiles when the owners and master were prosecuted in Spain, and claimed their full losses. The Club meanwhile protected its position by obtaining declaratory arbitration awards in England against both governments that all claims against it had to be arbitrated here; for good measure it then successfully transmuted these awards into High Court judgments under s.66 of the 1996 Arbitration Act (see The Prestige (No 2) [2013] EWHC 3188 (Comm). These decisions the French and Spanish governments blithely ignored, however; instead they took proceedings in Spain to execute the judgments they had obtained there.

In the present litigation, the Club’s claim (slightly simplified) was against both governments for damages for continuing the Spanish proceedings, based either on breach of the arbitration agreement, or in the alternative on failure to act in accordance with the s.66 judgments. The object, unsurprisingly, was to establish an equal and opposite liability to meet any claim asserted by the governments under their judgments in the Spanish proceedings.

The Club sought service out on the French and Spanish governments: the latter resisted, arguing that they were entitled to state immunity, and that in any case the court had no jurisdiction.

On the state immunity point, the Club succeeded in defeating the governments’ arguments. The proceedings for breach of the arbitration agreement were covered by the exception in s.9 of the State Immunity Act 1978 as actions “related to” an arbitration agreement binding on the governments. Importantly, Butcher J regarded it as unimportant that the proceedings did not relate to the substantive matter agreed to be arbitrated, and that the governments might be bound not by direct agreement but only in equity on the basis that they were third parties asserting rights arising from a contract containing an arbitration clause.

The proceedings on the judgments, by contrast, were not “related to” the arbitration agreement under s.9: understandably so, since they were based on failure to give effect to a judgment, the connection to arbitration being merely a background issue. But no matter: they were covered by another exception, that in s.3(1)(a), on the basis that the breach alleged – suing in the teeth of an English judgment that they had no right to do so – was undoubtedly a “commercial transaction” as defined by that section.

The judge declined to decide on a further argument now moot: namely, whether suing abroad in breach of an English arbitration agreement was a breach of a contractual obligation to be performed in England within the exception contained in s.3(1)(b) of the 1978 Act. But the betting, in the view of this blog, must be that that exception would have been inapplicable: there is a big and entirely logical difference between a duty not to do something other than in England, and an obligation actually to do (or omit to do) something in England, which is what s.3(1)(b) requires.

State immunity disposed of, did the court have jurisdiction over these two governments? Here the holding was yes, but only partly. The claim based on the s.66 judgments was, it was held, subject not only to the Brussels I Recast Regulation but to its very restrictive insurance provisions dealing with claims against injured parties (even, note, where the claims were being brought, as some were in the case of Spain, under rights of subrogation). Since the governments of France and Spain were ex hypothesi not domiciled in England, but in their respective realms, there could be no jurisdiction against them.

On the other hand, the claims based on the obligations stemming from the arbitration award were, it was held, within the arbitration exception to Brussels I, and thus outside it and subject to the national rules in CPR, PD6B. The only serious question, given that the arbitration gateway under PD6B 3.1(10) or the “contract governed by English law” gateway under PD6B 3.1(6)(c) pretty clearly applied, was whether there was a serious issue to be tried as to liability in damages. Here Butcher J had no doubt that there was, even if the governments were not directly party to the agreements and the awards had been technically merely declaratory of the Club’s rights. It followed that service out should be allowed in respect of the award claims.

Further than this his Lordship did not go, for the very good reason that he had no need to. But in our view the better position is that indeed there would in principle be liability under the award claims. If, as is now clear, an injunction is available on equitable grounds to prevent suit in the teeth of an arbitration clause by a third party despite the lack of any direct agreement by the latter, there seems no reason why there should not also be an ability to an award of damages, if only under Lord Cairns’s Act (now the Senior Courts Act 1981, s.50). Further, there seems no reason why there should not be a an implied obligation not to ignore even a declaratory award by suing in circumstances where it has declared suit barred.

For final answers to these questions we shall have to await another decision. Such a decision might even indeed come in the present proceedings, if the intransigence of the French and Spanish governments continues.

One other point to note. The UK may be finally extricating itself from the toils of the EU at the end of this year. But that won’t mark the end of this saga. Nor indeed will it mark the end of the Brussels regime on jurisdiction, since the smart money is on Brussels I being replaced with the Lugano Convention, which is in fairly similar terms. You can’t throw away your EU law notes quite yet.

An odd decision over contribution, but no need to worry.

As they used to say as often as they could in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Don’t panic!”

What rules govern contribution proceedings between tortfeasors? In Roberts v SSAFA [2020] EWCA Civ 926 a little boy, presumably a service child, was injured in hospital in Germany owing to SSAFA’s negligence. SSAFA claimed contribution from the MoD, alleging they were concurrently liable. The MoD said, correctly, that German law applied to the contribution proceedings and under German law they were out of time. SSAFA said yes, but then struck a remarkably nationalistic note. The English Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978, it argued, ought to apply to all proceedings in the English court even if the liability would otherwise be governed by foreign law: and since that said the claim against the MoD wasn’t statute-barred that was an end of it.

One decision directly in point, Arab Monetary Fund v Hashim [1994] CLY 3555, supported SSAFA; the law professors, by contrast, broadly supported the MoD. The Court of Appeal, after a lengthy analysis of the 1978 Act, came down on the side of SSAFA: on a proper interpretation the Act it, and its scheme of liability, were meant to apply to any proceedings brought here, full stop.

To put things neutrally, this blog would have been with the law professors. The decision will hardly do much for comity; nor does the result make much sense as part of a sensible scheme of private international law, since where it applies it is an open invitation to come and do some socially-distanced forum-shopping in England.

But, as we said at the beginning, don’t panic. The parties’ names in this case might well have been not Roberts and SSAFA but Jarndyce and Jarndyce: the events took place as long ago as 2000 (!). Since 2009 we have had a more sensible rule about contribution in Art.10 of Rome II, which essentially subjects contribution claims to the law governing the main tort. In just about every case you come across these days, barring outliers like this one, it will apply. Whatever else you may think of the EU, Rome I and Rome II are much better provisions than the common law rules they replaced; and even better than that, it seems a racing certainty they will they will continue serenely on post-Brexit. So litigation lawyers can pour that large gin and tonic with a clear conscience this evening.

Prestige 3.0 — the saga continues

The Spanish government and SS Mutual are clearly digging in for the long haul over the Prestige pollution debacle eighteen years ago. To recap, the vessel at the time of the casualty was entered with the club under a contract containing a pay to be paid provision and a London arbitration clause. Spain prosecuted the master and owners and, ignoring the arbitration provision, came in as partie civile and recovered a cool $1 bn directly from the club in the Spanish courts. The club meanwhile obtained an arbitration award in London saying that the claim against it had to be arbitrated not litigated, which it enforced under s.66 of the AA 1996 and then used in an attempt to stymie Spain’s bid to register and enforce its court judgment here under Brussels I (a bid now the subject of proceedings timed for this coming December).

In the present proceedings, London Steam-Ship Owners’ Mutual Insurance Association Ltd v Spain (M/T PRESTIGE) [2020] EWHC 1582 (Comm) the club sought essentially to reconvene the arbitration to obtain from the tribunal an ASI against Spain and/or damages for breach of the duty to arbitrate and/or abide by the previous award, covering such things as its costs in the previous s.66 proceedings. By way of machinery it sought to serve out under s 18 of the 1996 Act. Spain claimed sovereign immunity and said these further claims were not arbitrable.

The immunity claim nearly succeeded, but fell at the last fence. There was, Henshaw J said, no agreement to arbitrate under s.9 of the State Immunity Act 1978, which would have sidelined immunity: Spain might be bound not to raise the claim except in arbitration under the principle in The Yusuf Cepnioglu [2016] EWCA Civ 386, but this did not amount to an agreement to arbitrate. Nor was there, on the facts, any submission within s.2. However, he then decided that s.3, the provision about taking part in commercial activities, was applicable and allowed Spain to be proceeded against.

Having disposed of the sovereign immunity point, it remained to see whether the orders sought against Spain — an ASI or damages — were available in the arbitration. Henshaw J thought it well arguable that they were. Although Spain could not be sued for breach of contract, since it had never in so many words promised not to sue the club, it was arguable that neither Brussels I nor s.13 of the 1978 Act barred the ASI claim in the arbitration, and that if an ASI might be able to be had, then there must be at least a possibility of damages in equity under Lord Cairns’s Act.

No doubt there will be an appeal. But this decision gives new hope to P&I and other interests faced with opponents who choose, even within the EU, to treat London arbitration agreements as inconsequential pieces of paper to be ignored with comparative immunity.

Classification societies are commercial — OK?

There is an easy side, and also a more wide-ranging and difficult one, to the CJEU’s decision last week in RINA SpA, Case 614/18, ECLI:EU:C:2020:349 on a point concerning the Brussels I Regulation.

Something over 14 years ago, a Red Sea ro-ro ferry, the Al Salam Boccaccio 98, sank with horrendous loss of life on a voyage between Duba in Saudi Arabia and Safaga in Egypt. She was registered in Panama and classed with Italian classification society RINA SpA.

A number of passengers sued RINA in its home state, Italy, for negligently certifying the vessel fit to sail, relying on what is now Art.4 of Brussels I Recast (the case actually concerned the previous 2001 jurisdiction regulation). RINA however had a trick up its sleeve. It pleaded sovereign immunity, on the basis that although it had been chosen and paid by the owners of the vessel, it had been acting on behalf of the Panamanian government. For that reason it argued that the Italian court had no jurisdiction over it in this respect, and that the Brussels Regulation was beside the point since this was not a civil or commercial matter. The Tribunale di Genova, faced with interesting issues of EU and public international law, understandably made a reference to the CJEU on the matter; was the claim covered by the Regulation?

The court, following the Advocate-General, had no doubt that RINA’s plea was misconceived. Even if the society had been acting for the Panamanian authorities in certifying the vessel so that those authorities in turn could, as the organs of the state of registration, give her the necessary clean bill of health, this was a matter governed by private law principles. According to the generally accepted rules of public international law, there was no way this could be construed as an act iure imperii; it was therefore covered by the Regulation.

It follows that in so far as it is sought to make a classification society liable for damage, loss or injury (a matter on which European and other legal systems differ considerably, and which we have no intention of going into here), lawyers can at least sleep easy on this point: as regards jurisdiction, it is simply a matter of looking up the relevant provisions of Brussels I Recast. It is a fair inference that the same also goes for other certification bodies (something likely to be relevant for international product liability cases) and probably state licensing bodies such as the CAA in so far as they are sued under private law provisions.

So much for the easy bit. Now for the harder one. Does this mean that state immunity law has now been quietly Europeanised as a matter of principle? This issue is not dealt with as such, and was explicitly left open by the Advocate-General in Para [106] of his opinion. The original Jurisdiction Regulation said nothing about it either; and although the Recast version adds a further few words to Art.1.1 saying explicitly that it does not apply to acts done iure imperii, this takes us little further.

The answer seems to be that we do have de facto Europeanisation, but only partly. RINA, read closely, says merely that in so far as Brussels I applies to an EU-based defendant, it is not open to a member state to apply a more generous home-grown version of state immunity and decline jurisdiction. It does not state the converse; namely, that if EU law regards a matter as covered by state immunity then an EU domestic court must not take jurisdiction at all. Why the case ended up in the CJEU in the first place is apparent only from a careful look at the facts: Italy indeed does as a matter of domestic law apply a very generous doctrine of state immunity, and it was this that the claimant sought, successfully, to sideline.

So for the moment – and, assuming Lugano or something similar to Brussels I applies after the transition period – English lawyers can breathe easy on this point too. There’s life yet in their well-thumbed copies of the State Immunity Act 1978.

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.

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.