There is an obvious downside to the European Court of Justice’s judicial economy. The Court often leaves unanswered many questions asked by national courts without an answer to them being strictly necessary for the case at hand. Evidently quite a few of those resurface in later practice. Owusu is a case in point. Many postings on this blog have entertained the unanswered questions left by the ECJ’s seminal rejection of Forum Non Conveniens. UK courts in particular have leapt on the opportunity to distinguish Owusu, effectively now leading to a fairly narrow context in which Owusu is applied. As recently as Jong v HSBC on which I reported last week, the High Court professed sympathy for vacating a case pending in the UK and having it joined to proceedings in Monaco, on ‘case management’ grounds.
In Plaza v The Law Debenture Trust, Proudman J dealt with a UK fallout of longstanding litigation inter alia in Australia, following the insolvency of the Australian Bell group in the 1990s. Curacao is COMI. Secondary or ancillary proceedings were opened in Australia. A variety of litigation mostly concerning priority of claims and timely (or not) execution of securities, led among others to a 2013 Deed of Settlement between parties to the current litigation. The Law Debenture trust (LDTC) is trustee for a number of bonds issued by Bell, some of which are held by Plaza (these bonds contain a non-exclusive choice of court in favour of England). Others are held inter alia by the Insurance Commission of Western Australia (ICWA).
The 2013 Deed contains an exclusive choice of court clause in favour of Western Australia. Plaza, incorporated in Curacao, sues LDTC, domiciled in the UK, in England, basically questioning its suitability as a trustee for the bonds, citing alleged conflicts of interest (LDTC may or may not be acting under instruction of ICWA).
Proudman J essentially had to decide whether Article 23 (now Article 25) of the Jurisdiction Regulation in its original version (the recast does not apply) ought to be applied reflexively (protecting choice of court in favour of non-EU courts); alternatively, whether Article 28 of the same Regulation (the lis alibi pendens rule) may be so applied; and what the impact of the ECJ’s rejection of forum non conveniens is on this all.
Ferrexpo in particular assisted her in holding that reflexive application of Article 23 (now 25) of the Brussels I Regulation is not barred by Owusu. The main argument for this approach lies in the judicial economy which I cite above: the ECJ was asked but did not entertain the question. Moreover Article 23 is a more dominant rule in the Regulation than Article 2 (now 4)’s rule referring to domicile of the defendant: a mandatory exception to the rule of Article 2 rather than, in the words of Proudman J, a discretionary exception such as forum non conveniens.
Subsidiarily, the High Court also suggests Article 28’s lis alibi pendens rule ought to apply reflexively, although it expressly suggests more discussion of that point is needed and the Article need not be laboured in the case at issue, given its finding on Article 23.
To heap further pressure on the Owusu pile, a further potential for undermining finding in Owusu is suggested in the shape of ‘case management powers’, also suggested in Jong and hinted at as potentially introducing forum non conveniens through the back door.
With Plaza v Debenture, application of Owusu by the English courts now is so distinguished, arguably little is left of the ECJ’s original intentions. One assumes: for as I noted above, judicial economy allowed national courts to be creative in their application of the rule. The issue is bound to end up again at the ECJ at some point.