The UKSC in MOD v Iraqi Civilians: Immunity of coalition forces is procedural. Civilians’ claim in tort is time-barred.

Ministry of Defence [MOD] v Iraqi civilians highlights a classic in private international law (statutes of limitation), with an interesting link to State immunity. Procedural issues are considered to be part of the lex fori. Meaning, a court always applies its own procedural rules. For the discussions in the Rome II context, see an earlier posting. However what is less settled is whether statutes of limitation fall under procedure or substantial law. If the former, then they follow the lex fori. If the latter, then they follow lex causae: the law applicable to the substantive matter at issue.

Limitation, which deprives the litigant of a forensic remedy but does not extinguish his right, was traditionally classified by the English courts as procedural. The result was that until the position was altered by statute in 1984, the English courts disregarded foreign limitation law and applied the English statutes of limitation irrespective of the lex causae. This was widely regarded as unsatisfactory, mainly because of the rather technical character of the distinction on which it was based between barring the remedy and extinguishing the right.

The Foreign Limitation Periods Act 1984 changed the position and provided for the English courts, with limited exceptions, to apply the limitation rules of the lex causae. 

Now, in MOD v Iraqi Civilians, on appeal from [2015] EWCA Civ 1241, the civilians claim to have suffered unlawful detention and/or physical maltreatment at the hands of British armed forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, for which the MOD is liable in tort. It is agreed between the parties that any liability of the Ministry in tort is governed by Iraqi law. Under article 232 of the Civil Code of Iraq, the standard limitation period applicable to claims of this kind in Iraqi law is three years from the day on which the claimant became aware of the injury and of the person who caused it. The action sub judice was begun more than three years after most of the claimants must have been aware of these matters.

However, Coalition Provisional Authority Order 17, which had and still has the force of law in Iraq, made it impossible for claimants to sue the British government in Iraq. Section 2(1) of the Order provides that coalition forces in Iraq (including British forces) are “immune from Iraqi legal process.” Claimants argue that Order 17 needs to be seen as an ‘impediment’ within the meaning of article 435 of the Iraqi Civil Code, which is one of a number of provisions suspending the running of time in particular cases. It provides:

Article 435 – (1) The time limit barring the hearing of the case is suspended by a lawful excuse such as where the plaintiff is a minor or interdicted and has no guardian or is absent in a remote foreign country, or where the case is between spouses or ascendants and descendants, or if there is another impediment rendering it impossible for the plaintiff to claim his right.

(2) The period which lapses while the excuse still exists (lasts) shall not be taken into account (for the running of the time limitation).”

Lord Sumption leading, held (at 11) that Order 17 is not a rule of limitation, but a particular form of state immunity, which serves as a limitation on the jurisdiction of the courts. It is therefore necessarily procedural and local in nature. It is not legally relevant, given the claimants have brought proceedings in England, what impediments might have prevented similar proceedings in Iraq [at 13]. Claimants could have always and did eventually sue in the UK. Claimants’ submission, if accepted, would mean that there was no limitation period at all affecting the present proceedings in England, by reason of a consideration (CPA Order 17) which had no relevance to English proceedings because it has no application outside Iraq and has never impeded resort to the English court (at 16).

The Appeal was dismissed. In the wider context of immunity, it is important precedent. Claimants faced with immunity obstacles to litigation in a jurisdiction, must not hesitate to start proceedings elsewhere, where no such obstacles exist. In proceedings before the English courts, any delay in doing so is subject to the ordinary limitation periods of the lex causae.

Geert.

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