Unjust enrichment under Rome II. The High Court in Banque Cantonale de Genève.

RPC and Sarah Shaul it seems, like me, are hoovering up database backlog – once again thank you to their excellent blog for alerting me to Banque Cantonale de Genève v Polevent. Other than the direct impact for the interpretation of Rome II‘s Article 10, and its relation with Article 4’s general rule, an important lesson from the case to me seems to be, yet again, the relevance of the articulation of claims, for the determination of jurisdiction.

Facts are as follows (at 2 ff). Claimant (“BCGE”) is a bank in Geneva. On 24 March 2104 a man calling himself Mr. Dumas telephoned BCGE and asked to speak to Yvan Nicolet of the accounting department. He was not in the office and so the call was taken by Jacqueline Konrad-Bertherin. Mr. Dumas asked her to send a confidential message to what he said was the private mail address of Eric Bourgeaux, the deputy CEO of BCGE. She did so and received a reply from someone claiming to be Mr. Bourgeaux instructing her to pay Euro 6,870,058 from BCGE to the Natwest Bank in London in favour of Polevent Limited. She did so. She believed she had been instructed to do so by Mr. Bourgeaux; but she had not been. The fraud was discovered and repayment was requested later that day.

Shortly before the fraud Natwest had been advised of a freezing order against Polevent in favour of an Italian company Enoi SpA (“Enoi”). The funds were therefore frozen in Polevent’s account with Natwest. BCGE has claimed damages from Polevent for deceit. BCGE accepts that that claim is governed by the law of Geneva. It has also advanced a claim against Polevent in restitution on the basis that the sum was paid by mistake. It claims that since Polevent must have realised that the sum was paid by mistake the conscience of Polevent was affected such that a constructive trust arises thereby providing BCGE with a proprietary claim in respect of the frozen funds. BCGE says that this proprietary claim is governed by English law.

Enoi is another creditor of Polevent. Enoi maintains that BCGE’s claim for restitution, in common with the claim is in deceit, is governed by the law of Geneva which does not recognise a proprietary claim. The resulting dispute is therefore between two creditors of Polevent. That company is in liquidation and has taken no part in this dispute.

 

The only preliminary issue which the High Court was asked to adjudicate on is worth repeating in full:

“On the basis of the facts as pleaded in the Amended Particulars of Claim and on the basis that the claim set out at paragraph 13 of the Amended particulars of Claim is governed by the law of Geneva, are the claims set out at paragraph 15 of the Amended particulars of Claim governed by English law or by the law of Geneva ? ”

One can appreciate why two different claims were formulated here.

For the claim in damages for deceit, BCGE accept Geneva law applies. The claim for restitution on the basis of unjust enrichment, however, is covered in its view by Article 10(3) Rome II: the law of the place in which the unjust enrichment took place, this being England, hence allowing for the existence of a constructive trust and priority in the pecking order following Polevent’s insolvency.

Enoi argue that the claim in restitution, like the claim in damages, is covered by the law of Geneva: at 9:

The submission of counsel for Enoi is that the law governing the claim in restitution is the law of Geneva by reason of Article 4(1) of Rome II. The claim arises out of the tort/delict of fraud and so the governing law is that of the place in which the damage occurred, namely, Geneva. Alternatively, the governing law is the law of Geneva pursuant to Article 10(1) on the grounds that the unjust enrichment concerns a relationship arising out of a tort/delict such that the governing law is that which governs that relationship, namely, the law of Geneva. In the further alternative the governing law is the law of Geneva pursuant to Article 10(4) on the grounds that the obligation arising out of the unjust enrichment is manifestly more closely connected with Geneva.

Both parties of course reverse engineer their governing law arguments: being aware of the attraction of one State’s laws over the other, counsel brief is to convince the court that the matter is characterised so that it leads to the warranted applicable law.

Enoi suggest that BCGE in reality have one claim only: one in fraud, a tort, it argues, from which the claim in unjust enrichment follows in a dependent fashion. Teare J disagrees (at 13). A claim in restitution need not be fault-based. It is a separate claim, to which Article 10’s regime applies (in the end leading to a finding of English law).

The judgment is in fact quite short. Its crucial implication to me would seem to be that BCGE has won the day by formulating two separate heads of action. Teare J acknowledges that his view may be an ‘unduly English law’ view, in other words, that he read the formulation of two claims at face value, as being two separate claims, because English law recognises non-fault based unjust enrichment. Regardless of the fact that other States, including European States, do so too, the obvious question is whether the EU’s qualification would be the same. The concept of unjust enrichment, like the concept of tort, necessarily needs to be an ‘autonomous’ one. Yet without much guidance in the preparatory works of Rome II on this concept, who can blame national law for filling in the blanks?

Geert.

(Handbook EU Private International Law, 2nd ed 2016, Chapter 4, Heading 4.7).

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