VAT, missing traders, and illegality

Any trader’s recurring nightmare is to find that somebody it has bought goods or services from in the UK or the EU has been guilty of VAT hanky-panky. The classic instance is missing trader fraud; the fraudster charges VAT, does not account for it, and vanishes. The difficulty facing the person who paid the VAT is that HMRC, suspicious gentlemen that they are, are apt to disallow the payment unless the trader making it really had no reason to smell a rat. But a little relief came today from Joanne Wicks QC, sitting in the Chancery Division, in the decision in Colt Technology Services v SG Global Group SRL [2020] EWHC 1417 (Ch). The case also gave some useful confirmation on where a debt is payable, which makes it worth a brief note.

Colt Technology, acting through its Italian arm, bought voice trading services (i.e. super-reliable and super-secure real-time voice communication facilities) from Italian company SGG, based in Rome. All went well until Colt’s auditors warned them that there seemed something fishy about SGG, which looked increasingly like a participant in a missing trader ring. Colt, no doubt concerned at its ability to sustain the relevant VAT deductions when faced with a mercenary and sceptical Revenue, suspended payments to SGG totalling, in round figures, $5 million. SGG brought proceedings in Milan for payment, which were still ongoing. But in January 2018 it took the gloves off and served a statutory demand on Colt in England.

Colt defended, and sought to enjoin presentation of a winding-up petition, on the basis that liability was disputed on substantial grounds. These grounds were based on the rules in Ralli Bros v Cia Naviera Sota y Aznar [1920] 2 KB 287 (no enforcement in England of an obligation required to be performed in a jurisdiction where performance was illegal) and Foster v Driscoll [1929] 1 KB 470 (the colourful Prohibition case making it clear that there could be no enforcement here of a contract contemplating acts in a jurisdiction where they were illegal).

They succeeded on the first ground. Arguably payment was illegal under Italian law; furthermore, since SGG were Rome-based, the presumptive rule applied that Colt as debtor had to seek out its creditor and pay it where it was. Importantly, and correctly, the judge also discounted the fact that post-contract SGG had sent invoices asking for payment in California. What mattered was the contract. True, had Colt acted on these the debts would have been discharged; but this did not affect Colt’s underlying duty to pay in Italy and there alone.

Having held for Colt on the Ralli ground, the judge expressed no view on the Foster argument, namely that the contract involved a crime in Italy (duping the Italian fisc). She did, however, observe – again correctly — that on the authorities it did not seem to be engaged, since at the time of the contract Colt had had no idea of any possible plans by anyone to commit illegality.

Colt no doubt heaved a large corporate sigh of relief. But the case shows that traders remain exposed. There is something to be said for some drafting thought here. At least in the case of debtors with decent bargaining power, there comes to mind some kind of protective clause temporarily protecting a party from liability to pay when advised (say) by a lawyer or accountant that there is a possibility of missing trader fraud, unless and until the matter is settled by a suitable court or other tribunal. Over to you, City firms.

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.

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.

Something for the New Year. INCOTERMS 2020 are coming.

INCOTERMS 2010 will be updated to INCOTERMS 2020 which comes into effect on 1 January 2020. The main changes are as follows.

Under FCA if the parties agree, the buyer, at its cost and risk, must instruct the carrier to issue to the seller a transport document (e.g. a bill of lading with an on-board notation) stating that the goods have been loaded, which the seller must then provide to the buyer.

Under CIP sellers will need to obtain cargo insurance cover which complies with Clauses (A) of the Institute Cargo Clauses (LMA / IUA) which, subject to certain exclusions, cover “all risks”, subject to the parties’ right to agree to a higher or lower level of cover.

DAT (Delivered at Terminal) now becomes DPU (Delivered at Place Unloaded).

FCA, DAP, DPU now allow the Seller to use its own transport rather than using a third party carrier.

Security obligations are made more prominent.

No implied term qualifying free standing demurrage provision in sale contract

 In Gunvor SA v CruGas Yemen Ltd [2018] EWHC 2061 (Comm) a term contract of sale was made for the sale of  gasoline by 12 monthly consignments cif Hodeidah. The buyer was named as CruGas Ltd but the claimant argued that the contract was made with CruGas Yemen Ltd, and that it had been unaware that within the relevant group there was a Cayman Islands company named CruGas Ltd. The claimant obtained performing vessels from a separate entity within its group of companies, Clearlake Shipping Pte Ltd (Clearlake), under a long-term contract of affreightment on an amended Asbatankvoy form. It claimed demurrage totalling $18m under the sale contract and claimed against CruGas Yemen Ltd and CruGas Ltd in the alternative. The defendants denied liability for demurrage on three grounds. First, the demurrage claims were time-barred by reason of a demurrage time bar provision in the COA. Second, a term should be implied into the sale contract that the claimant was required to prove the demurrage rates claimed were “in line with the market rate”. Third, the claimant had to prove that it paid the demurrage sums it claimed under the sale contract.

Phillips J first found that the contract had been made with CruGas Yemen Ltd, and then proceeded to reject all three of the buyer’s arguments. First, it was established in OK Petroleum AB v Vitol Energy SA [1995] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 160 that words of general incorporation in a sales contract concerning demurrage provisions in a separate charter did not bring in terms ancillary to the accrual of demurrage, such as time bars relating to the presentation of demurrage claims. Second, there was no justification for the implication of the term contended for, which was neither necessary for the business efficacy of the sale contract, nor would give effect to the obvious but unexpressed intentions of the parties at the time they contracted. In any event, expert evidence from a chartering expert, was that the demurrage rates were all consistent with the market, insofar as such a thing could be said. Third, the demurrage provision under the sale contract was free-standing and not an indemnity.

 

Remedies for delivery without production of the bill of lading

A case in the CA of some interest today. Imagine carriers or forwarding agents have delivered goods to a buyer without getting payment for them. No point in suing the buyer in 99% of such cases: and often carriers and forwarding agents will be men of straw too (remember in addition that P&I clubs won’t sub up for this sort of thing). But had you thought of suing the rich man behind the buyer who sweet-talked the forwarding agent or carrier into letting the goods go without payment? You hadn’t? It’s actually a classic case, in most situations, of inducing breach of contract: a point confirmed by the Court of Appeal in Michael Fielding Wolff v Trinity Logistics [2018] EWCA Civ 2765, upholding Sara Cockerill QC at first instance. Happy hunting.

Rotterdam Rules in Cameroon’s hat-trick of international trade conventions.

 

Just over a year ago on 11 October 2017 Cameroon ratified or acceded to three UNCITRAL Conventions.

  1. Cameroon ratified the Rotterdam Rules. There are now four states that have ratified. Sixteen more to go before the Convention comes into force. At the current rate we’ll be there in 2058.
  2. Cameroon acceded to the he United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods (1980) (CISG) which comes into force for Cameroon on 1 November 2018.
  3. Cameron acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Use of Electronic Communications in International Contracts (2005) which came into force for Cameroon on 1 May 2018.

Carriers and bills of lading: an unexpected duty to arbitrate.

An important point for bill of lading holders arose a couple of days ago in the Commercial Court. Everyone knows that you have to watch your back when becoming the holder of a bill of lading, in case you end up with not only the right to sue the carrier but also the duty to foot the bill for an insolvent shipper’s liabilities.

Traditionally the teaching has been: you are safe unless you take or demand delivery of the goods or make a claim against the carrier. It follows that if you are pretty sure you never did any of those things but nevertheless receive a demand from the carrier, you can smugly respond “Nothing doing. Sue me if you dare.” So far so good. But what if you receive a demand for arbitration pursuant to an arbitration clause contained in the bill? Can you still say “See you in court”, or are you now bound to arbitrate the claim, with the risk of losing by default if you do nothing? This was the point that arose in Sea Master Shipping Inc v Arab Bank (Switzerland) Ltd [2018] EWHC 1902 (Comm), where Popplewell J preferred the latter answer.

A bank financed A, a seller of Argentine extracted toasted soya meal, who voyage-chartered a vessel to deliver it to Moroccan buyers. The transaction was a disaster for A, with the deal and a series of replacements falling through and the vessel sailing round North Africa and the Mediterranean, rather like Captain Hendrick’s Flying Dutchman, in search of someone somewhere to love the cargo. Big demurrage liabilities built up. The bank meanwhile acquiesced in the issue of a switch bill with a LMAA arbitration clause incorporated, naming it as consignee. A being (one assumes) insolvent, the owners claimed against the bank and claimed arbitration, alleging the bank was liable either as an original party to the switch bill, or as a transferee of it.

The arbitrators declined jurisdiction, on the basis that there was no evidence the bank had become liable on the bill under s.3 of COGSA 1992 and thus that the bank was not bound by the arbitration clause. However, on a s.67 application Popplewell J disagreed. The arbitration agreement was, he said, separate from the rights and liabilities under the bill itself: as soon as the bank fell to be treated as a party to the bill under s.2 of the Act, it was bound fully by any arbitration provision in it. It followed that the case had to be remitted to the arbitrators with a direction to continue with their hearing of the claim.

A result which, one suspects, will please neither banks nor traders, since it deprives both of the advantage of inertia: but there you are. At least carriers will be happy.

Of sales, bills of exchange and arbitration

Picken J today revisited an old chestnut in arbitration law. Suppose you sell goods or services and draw on the buyer for the price (yes, some people still do this), and have a standard arbitration clause referring to “all disputes arising out of or in connection with this Contract”. Does the arbitration clause cover a claim on the bill of exchange, as against one on the underlying contract of sale? Just this happened in Uttam Galva Steels Ltd v Gunvor Singapore Pte Ltd [2018] EWHC 1098 (Comm), where the buyer made a s.67 application challenging an LME arbitration tribunal that had said yes and had then given judgment against it on the bill. In fact the buyer had introduced the point out of time, so the point was a non-starter.  But even without that it would, said Picken J, have failed. On the basis of modern arbitration practice as evidenced in Fiona Trust v Privalov [2007] UKHL 40; [2007] 4 All E.R. 951 parties should not lightly be taken to have agreed to bifurcated dispute resolution according to whether the action was being brought on the bill or on the contract. Dicta in Nova (Jersey) Knit Ltd v Kammgarn Spinnerei GmbH [1977] 1 WLR 713, 731 and the Singapore decision in Rals International Pte Ltd v Cassa di Risparmio di Parma e Piacenza SpA [2016] SGCA 53 failed to convince him otherwise.

On balance it is suggested that his Lordship was right. It is true (as he admitted) that the result is that those who sell under bills of exchange may inadvertently give up the right they would otherwise have to summary judgment on the bill with few if any questions asked under the ‘pay now, sue later’ principle. But summary judgment is equally available under the underlying contract, and the fact that this may be precluded by an arbitration clause never seems to have unduly worried anyone.

If the claim is brought on the bill by an indorsee who is a holder in due course, then presumably the result will be different: the holder here can hardly be bound by any arbitration clause — as indeed was held in Rals International Pte Ltd v Cassa di Risparmio di Parma e Piacenza SpA [2016] SGCA 53, where the claimant was the indorsee of a promissory note. But this need not detain us.

Meanwhile, the sensible reaction for a commercial lawyer is a simple one: say what you want. Where payment is or may be made by a bill of exchange, it is hardly rocket science to draft the arbitration clause to as to embrace “all disputes arising out of or in connection with this Contract, including cases where the claim is brought under a bill of exchange or promissory note”, or (if you prefer) “all disputes arising out of or in connection with this Contract, save for cases where the claim is brought under a bill of exchange, promissory note or similar instrument”. You may do students of commercial law out of a bit of technical learning, but you sure will save your clients a good deal of heartache and very possibly money.

Opening a letter of credit on time. Condition or innominate term?

Is the buyer’s obligation to open a letter of credit by a specified time a condition or an innominate term? The tribunal in London Arbitration 12/18 found that it was an innominate term. The sale contract of 6 September had stipulated that a letter of credit be opened within two banking days from the dated of the contract. On 8 September no letter of credit had been opened and the sellers on 9 September terminated the contract and made arrangements to return the deposit. They claimed that the buyers had repudiated the contract by failing to open a letter of credit on time.

The tribunal held that a contractual requirement for the provision of a letter of credit did not always have to be read as a condition. Although the provision of a letter of credit would frequently be a condition precedent to performing obligations under a contract, for example to load a ship (Kronos Worldwide Ltd v Sempra Oil Trading SARL [2004] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 260), that was not to be equated with a condition of a contract. A term was only to be categorised as a condition if any assumed breach of it would deprive the innocent party of substantially the whole benefit of the contract.

In the present case, where the obligation to provide a letter of credit was related to the contract date and where the first shipment date was three or more weeks later, the tribunal was not able to conclude that the obligation should be treated as a condition rather than as an innominate term.

The breach by the buyers of the innominate term could not be regarded as depriving the sellers of substantially the whole benefit of the contract. Until a letter of credit would have been issued a few days later, it deprived them of security, but the substantial benefit of the contract was the sale and the profit the sellers anticipated making.

Accordingly, it was the sellers who had been in breach by terminating the contract on 9 September.