Fern v Intergraph: High Court takes a narrow view of mandatory requirements on choice of law and court viz Commercial Agents Directive

In Fern v Integraph, Mann J was asked whether a clear Texas governing law and Texas jurisdiction clause should be set aside, jurisdiction upheld by the English courts and applicable law to be held to be English law, on the basis of an alleged infringement of the UK implementation of the Commercial Agents Directive. (The procedural context is one of permission to ‘serve out of the jurisdiction’).

Fern was the agent of Intergraph in the EU. Fern claims compensation for breach of the Commercial Agents Regulations (UK), which implement the Commercial Agents Directive.  Some core EU law considerations pass before the High Court, including Marleasing, Faccini Dori, von Colson and Inter-Environnement. The High Court’s main pre-occupation would seem to have been with the rescue of choice of court and of governing law as much as possible, even within the constraints of the ECJ’s decision in Ingmar.  In that judgment (which was confined to choice of law; the jurisdiction of the English courts was not sub judice), the ECJ held

It must therefore be held that it is essential for the Community legal order that a principal established in a non-member country, whose commercial agent carries on his activity within the Community, cannot evade those provisions by the simple expedient of a choice-of-law clause. The purpose served by the provisions in question requires that they be applied where the situation is closely connected with the Community, in particular where the commercial agent carries on his activity in the territory of a Member State, irrespective of the law by which the parties intended the contract to be governed.’ (in the case at issue, a choice of law clause had been inserted which made the contract applicable to the laws of California).

However, the operative part of the ECJ’s decision in Ingmar focussed on the compensation element only: ‘Articles 17 and 18 of Council Directive 86/653/EEC of 18 December 1986 on the coordination of the laws of the Member States relating to self-employed commercial agents, which guarantee certain rights to commercial agents after termination of agency contracts, must be applied where the commercial agent carried on his activity in a Member State although the principal is established in a non-member country and a clause of the contract stipulates that the contract is to be governed by the law of that country.’

In the case at issue, the High Court seems to have leapt at the more narrow operative part in Ingmar (and  its non-consideration of choice of court) in an effort to uphold the choice of court and governing law agreement: the right to compensation derives from statutory law, not from contractual obligations. Whence it does not affect aforementioned clauses. In reaching that conclusion, however, Mann J effectively refused to consider effet utile of the Commercial Agents Directive when interpreting English rules of civil procedure for serving out of jurisdiction. Effet utile does resurface, however, for parties have been given time to submit their views on whether the right to compensation as a statutory right, infringement of which would amount to a tort, would fall outside the scope of the relevant contractual clauses and would lead to jurisdiction in the English courts.

Even if this will be the eventual decision of the high court after re-submission of arguments, it is likely that the confines of that jurisdiction in England will be narrowly defined. (Viz the right to compensation only). This is a striking difference with e.g. the German courts. (I have previously posted on the view of the Bundesgerichtshof: a much swifter and absolute rejection of choice of court and governing law ex-EU in the context of the commercial agents Directive).

A rather complex and as yet unfinalised ruling.

Geert.

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