The Supreme Court considers ‘sharp practice’ vs torpedoes in The Alexandros

In the case of the Alexandros T, the UK Supreme Court had to consider the impact on UK proceedings, opened in response to proceedings in Greece, in a dispute in which the insurers of the ship were under the impression that things had been settled following earlier proceedings in England.

On 3 May 2006 the vessel Alexandros T sank and became a total loss 300 miles south of Port Elizabeth, with considerable loss of life. Her owners were Starlight Shipping Company (“Starlight”). They made a claim against their insurers, who denied liability on the basis that the vessel was unseaworthy with the privity of the assured, namely Starlight. The insurers also said that Starlight had failed properly to report and repair damage to the vessel. Suits and countersuits followed, in England, on the basis of an exclusive jurisdictional clause in the insurance agreements. On 13 December 2007, the 2006 proceedings had been settled between Starlight and the LMI (as well as various underwriters) for 100% of the claim, but without interest and costs, in full and final satisfaction of the claim.

In April 2011, nine sets of Greek proceedings, in materially identical form, were issued by Starlight and by a range of other interested parties, against the LMI and the underwriters. The claims are for compensation for loss of hire and loss of opportunity by Starlight and for pecuniary compensation due to moral damage. All the claims rely upon breaches of the Greek Civil and Criminal Code, not, as before, on the contractual arrangements. Since the issue of the Greek proceedings, the insurers have taken further steps and brought further proceedings in England. The insurers sought to enforce the settlement agreements. Starlight at al subsequently  sought a stay of the English proceedings under Article 27 or 28 of the Brussels I Regulation. The High Court refused. The Court of Appeal granted. The Supreme Court had to untie the knot.

The Brussels I Regulation (the Jurisdiction Regulation or ‘JR’) is quite strict on lis alibi pendens, as has been repeatedly emphasised on this blog. The ECJ, too, insists on a guillotine approach of lis alibi pendens, provided of course the conditions for its application are met. The lis alibi pendens rule of Article 27 JR obliges a Court to stay proceedings if another Member State court has already been seized in the same matter, and to trust the proper application by the latter of the jurisdictional grounds of the Regulation. Article 27 JR has given malevolent parties a means to obstruct proceedings, by seizing a court in a Member State with no or desperate grounds for jurisdiction, banking on the tardiness of its judicial proceedings to gain time and ‘torpedo’ the case of the bona fide party.

Article 27

1. Where proceedings involving the same cause of action and between the same parties are brought in the courts of different Member States, any court other than the court first seized shall of its own motion stay its proceedings until such time as the jurisdiction of the court first seized is established.

2. Where the jurisdiction of the court first seized is established, any court other than the court first seized shall decline jurisdiction in favour of that court.

Article 28

1. Where related actions are pending in the courts of different Member States, any court other than the court first seized may stay its proceedings.

2. Where these actions are pending at first instance, any court other than the court first seized may also, on the application of one of the parties, decline jurisdiction if the court first seized has jurisdiction over the actions in question and its law permits the consolidation thereof.

3. For the purposes of this Article, actions are deemed to be related where they are so closely connected that it is expedient to hear and determine them together to avoid the risk of irreconcilable judgments resulting from separate proceedings.

The rule is (fairly) simple and clear: where the same action, between the same parties is brought before the courts of two Member States, Article 27 obliges the court seized second, to at least freeze its jurisdiction. The conditions for Article 27 to apply are that the case involves the same action, between the same parties. The ECJ has clarified in Gubish Machinenfabrik and in The Tatry what was already clearer in other language versions namely that Article 27 requires three identities: identify of parties; identify of object or ‘subject-matter’; and identity of cause. The English version and the German version mention ‘same parties’ and ‘same cause of action’ only: they do not expressly distinguish between the concepts of “object” and “cause” of action. The ECJ held in Gubish that ‘(T)he “cause of action” comprises the facts and the rule of law relied on as the basis of the action.’ , and added in Gantner Electronic that  in this respect account should be taken only of the claims of the respective applicants, to the exclusion of the defence submissions raised by a defendant.

Article 28, then, applies to actions which do not conform to the Article 27 conditions, e.g. for actions between different parties, however where the actions are so related that separate proceedings would risk irreconcilable judgments. The purpose of that provision is to avoid the risk of conflicting judgments and thus to facilitate the proper administration of justice in the Union – it gives much more flexibility to the courts of the Member States as to whether to apply the provision or not.

In the case of the Alexandros, the application of these two Articles led to extensive to and fro by counsel with Lord Clarke (at 51 ff) stating that the principles of Article 27 JR ‘require a comparison of the claims made in each jurisdiction and, in particular, consideration of whether the different claims have le même objet et la même cause without regard to the defences being advanced (…)  As I see it, Article 27 involves a comparison between the causes of action in the different sets of proceedings, not (as in Article 28) the proceedings themselves. (…) the analysis cannot involve a broad comparison between what each party ultimately hopes to achieve. The analysis simply involves a comparison between the claims in order to see whether they have the same cause and the same object.‘ He then suggested that Article 27 has no impact on the proceedings at issue – the English proceedings should not be stayed and in Lord Clarke’s view the matter is acte claire: no reference to the ECJ needed.

Lord Mance disagreed with this approach, essentially suggesting that both actions seek a declaration of non-liability and are therefore at least for some of them, the same action within the meaning of Article 27. Lest parties drop those claims (they have been given two weeks to do so), this question will be referred to the ECJ.

As for the application of Article 28, Lord Clarke suggest that the English Court should not exercise the possibility of a stay, inter alia in light of the exclusive choice of court clause previously agreed between the parties: ‘ I can see no reason why, in exercising that discretion under Article 28, the court second seised should not take into account the fact that the parties had previously agreed (or arguably agreed) an exclusive jurisdiction clause in favour of that court. On the contrary, depending upon the circumstances of the particular case, that seems to me to be likely to be a powerful factor in support of refusal of a stay.’ (at 95) On this, Lord Mance did not disagree, neither did he suggest referral to the ECJ.

The interpretation of Article 27 is therefore quite likely to end up at the ECJ: it is difficult to conceive that parties will drop those claims rather than retain the possibility of the ECJ siding with them.

The judgment to my knowledge is the first to examine Articles 27 and 28 JR at quite such length and with quite such expert counsel.

Geert.

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